If tofu is a blank canvas, that means you are the artist.
Plant-based meat alternatives have been one of the buzziest food trends of the past 10 years, with grocery stores and fast food chains selling Beyond Meat and Impossible Burgers that have a texture so similar to meat that some people can’t tell the difference.
But for more than 2,000 years, tofu has been a plant-based meat alternative that isn’t trying to taste like or mimic meat in any way.
Tofu is simply soy milk that has been curdled and coagulated with a mineral, such as gypsum, an acid or an enzyme and then usually pressed into a block. Chinese cooks have been making it for longer than the written record can really determine, and at some point, it spread to Japan and then the rest of Asia.
In 1770, Ben Franklin traveled to London, where he was introduced to a bean-based "cheese," a discovery so exciting that he mentioned it twice in back-to-back letters to a friend back home.
Although tofu is made in a similar manner as cheese, it doesn’t melt like cheese, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t versatile. Tofu is sold in several different textures, from extra soft to extra firm, and with the exception of mapo tofu and miso soup, it’s rare to see them used interchangeably.
Silken and soft tofu are good for a vegan breakfast scramble or as a substitute in other places you might use eggs, as in baking or making mayonnaise or protein-rich shakes, dressings or a frozen dessert. Firm or extra-firm tofu, which can be fried, sauteed, grilled or broiled, is an excellent meat substitute, and once you get the hang of how to season and cook it, you can use it in place of chicken, pork and shrimp in many kinds of recipes, from banh mi sandwiches and curries to griddled skewers and deep-fried tofu bites.
You can freeze firm tofu, which draws out the water and transforms the texture to an even more meatlike crumble. Freezing and then thawing also allows the tofu to soak up a marinade. Contrary to popular culinary methodology, tofu doesn’t soak up much of a marinade otherwise. The seasoning might permeate the outermost layer, but it’s a good idea to add a dry seasoning on the outside of the tofu or serve it with a sauce or a dip.
Another near-universal tip for cooking tofu is pressing or at least patting the water off of the surface. Tofu is sold in water-soaked blocks, so you can place the brick between two plates with paper towels or hand towels on the top and the bottom. If you cook a lot of tofu or would like to, you might consider getting a tofu press. One of the bestselling and highest-rated models is the Super Tofu Press by TofuPresser, which costs about $30 and works in about 15 minutes.
So what happens after you press out the water and slice the tofu into the size of cubes you want to use? That’s where this set of recipes will come in handy.
Each dish showcases a different way to prepare tofu, from a simple agedashi tofu, where you’ll toss the tofu cubes in cornstarch and then fry in oil, to a knock-off Indian saag "paneer," where the blocks of cheese are replaced with firm tofu.
Isa Chandra Moskowitz teaches us that we can remove some of the water from the tofu by microwaving it before cooking in a 350-degree oven, and Julie Morris and Hyegyoung K. Ford give us two ways to pan-fry tofu, one that is served with kale and another with a Korean chile-spike oil.
If you’re looking for a spicy baked tofu to go with a curry or noodle dish, try the spiced, baked version from "Leon Happy Curries." Using this method, you could season the tofu with anything from your spice cabinet, garden or pantry, from cumin and za'atar to garlic salt and New Mexico chili powder or tamari and sesame oil.
One last piece of advice: Because the tofu bakes for half an hour at 400 degrees, hold off on tossing the cubes in barbecue sauce or any other sugary dressing or sauce so it doesn’t burn while the tofu is cooking. Otherwise, the canvas is yours. Happy painting.
My boyfriend makes a lot of delicious food, but I was most impressed with one of the simplest things he makes: agedashi dofu (or tofu), a Japanese staple of tofu tossed in a starch, like cornstarch, and fried, then topped with bonito flakes, made from dried, fermented and smoked tuna. (Furikake, the Japanese mixture of dried seaweed, sesame seeds and other spices, is also an option.) Frank serves this fried tofu alongside sushi, and often with miso soup, dumplings or kimchi.
You can season the fried tofu cubes much more aggressively by tossing with a pinch of ground Sichuan peppercorns and scallions sizzled in red chile oil, but it’s also nice to enjoy them with a salty-sweet dip that you might otherwise use for gyoza or another kind of dumpling.
— Addie Broyles
2 cups neutral oil, such as grapeseed or canola
1 (14-ounce) package medium or firm tofu, pressed and cut into 1-inch-by-1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 cups cornstarch
Salt and pepper, to taste
Bonito flakes or furikake, for serving
Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.
Make sure the tofu is pressed dry with paper or hand towels to eliminate water from its surface.
Toss the tofu with the cornstarch in a large bowl or on a large plate. Sprinkle with a heavy pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper.
Use tongs to place a single layer of tofu in the oil. Fry for 1 to 3 minutes and then turn each piece, repeating until the tofu is evenly fried, about 8 to 10 minutes in all. Remove the tofu and place on a plate lined with a paper towel. Continue with the rest of the tofu. Top with a handful of bonito flakes or furikake and serve. Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from a recipe by Frank Curry
Baked Tofu With Peanut Sauce and Bok Choy
This sheet-pan dinner combines simple tofu with crunchy bok choy in a peanut sauce you might want to double or triple so you can use it on anything and everything. To make this baked tofu, I cut the tofu into thick planks and then bake at a lower temperature than I'm used to, which firms up the texture but maintains some creaminess. The baby bok choy offers a crunchy counterpoint, but for even more crunch, add a handful of chopped peanuts on top as a garnish.
— Joe Yonan
2 (14-ounce) packages extra-firm tofu, drained
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
1 tablespoon low-sodium tamari or soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
3 heads baby bok choy (10 to 12 ounces), stems removed, leaves separated (may substitute large bok choy, torn into large pieces)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup smooth natural peanut butter
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
1/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, plus more for garnish
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each block of tofu in a clean dish towel, place on a large plate and microwave on high for four minutes. The tofu will release much of its liquid. Unwrap and cut each block into 8 planks.
Place the tofu on a large rimmed baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the sesame oil and the tamari, flipping the planks to make sure they're well coated. Sprinkle with black pepper.
Arrange the tofu slices in a single layer. Bake for 30 minutes, until the tofu starts to lightly brown. Flip the planks and bake them for another 20 to 30 minutes, until the tofu is deeply browned on the edges.
While the tofu is baking, add the bok choy to a second large rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with the remaining sesame oil and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bake for 20 minutes, until wilted.
Meanwhile, make the peanut sauce: In a blender or food processor, combine the peanut butter, water, remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt, lime juice, ginger, hoisin and red pepper flakes and puree until smooth. Use additional water to thin the sauce, if necessary.
To assemble, divide the tofu and bok choy among plates. Drizzle with peanut sauce and sprinkle with scallions and red pepper flakes. Serves 4 to 6.
— Adapted from "I Can Cook Vegan" by Isa Chandra Moskowitz (Harry N. Abrams, $29.99)
These little nuggets of tofu work brilliantly on top of vegetarian curries. Mustard oil adds a peppery, earthy note to this, so you could drizzle over a little just before serving.
— Rebecca Seal and John Vincent
14 ounces extra-firm tofu, cut into 1/2- by 1-inch thick slices
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 teaspoon peeled and finely grated ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
A pinch of ground cinnamon
A pinch of chili powder (optional)
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon neutral cooking oil, plus extra for greasing
A pinch of salt and freshly ground black pepper
Line a plate or cutting board with 2 sheets of parchment paper and arrange the tofu in a single layer on top. Cover with more parchment paper and use your hands or another board or plate to gently press out as much liquid as you can — this will result in crisper tofu when cooked.
Mix together the remaining ingredients to form a paste. Spread this on the top and bottom of each slice of tofu. If you have time, leave to marinate for 10 to 30 minutes, but you can cook immediately, if you wish.
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and brush it with a little oil.
Place the tofu on the baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, turning once halfway through, until golden brown. Serve immediately. Serves 4.
— From "Leon Happy Curries" by Rebecca Seal and John Vincent (Conran, $19.99)
Tofu Saag ’Paneer’
We’ve re-created the mildly acidic taste and springy texture of paneer by flavoring tofu with a combination of nutritional yeast, miso and lemon. Spinach is a great addition to a curry, and you can pack in loads, as it wilts down so quickly. Go for whole wheat chapatis on the side.
— Henry Firth and Ian Theasby
For the tofu "paneer":
9 ounces firm tofu
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
1 tablespoon white miso paste
1 teaspoon coconut oil (melted)
For the saag:
2 garlic cloves
2-inch piece fresh ginger (about 1/2 ounce)
16 ounces fresh spinach leaves
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons garam masala
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
2 tablespoons soy cream
Salt and black pepper
2 store-bought whole wheat chapatis or roti (or cooked brown rice)
Heat the oven to 350 degrees; Line a sheet pan with parchment paper.
First, make the "paneer." Press the tofu using a tofu press or place it between two clean tea towels, lay it on a plate and put a weight on top. Leave for at least 30 minutes to drain off any liquid and firm up. Zest, halve and juice the lemon into a mixing bowl. Add the nutritional yeast, miso paste and coconut oil and mix with a fork to combine. Cut the pressed tofu into 1/2-inch cubes. Tip the cubes into the mixing bowl, toss to coat and leave to marinate for 25-30 minutes. Spread the cubes out on the lined sheet pan, put the pan in the oven and bake for 20-30 minutes, until golden, turning them once, halfway through cooking time.
Now, make the saag. Peel and finely dice the onion. Peel and grate the garlic. Peel the ginger by scraping off the skin with a spoon, then grate it. Dice the tomatoes. Roughly chop the spinach.
Heat the oil in the large skillet over medium heat. Add the cumin seeds and stir for 30 seconds. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring, for 5 to 7 minutes. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for 1 minute. Add the garam masala, turmeric and chile flakes and stir for 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes and stir for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the spinach and stir for 2 minutes. Finally, add the soy cream and stir for 2 minutes, until the saag has a creamy consistency. Taste the saag and season to perfection with salt and pepper.
Transfer the saag to a serving bowl. Take the tofu out of the oven. Place the tofu cubes on the saag and serve immediately with brown rice, whole wheat chapatis or roti. Serves 2.
— From "Bosh! Healthy Vegan" by Henry Firth and Ian Theasby (William Morrow, $24.99)
Seared Tofu With Kale and Whole-Grain Mustard
In this recipe we use both Dijon and whole-grain mustard for an extra bold flavor that enhances every bite of succulent kale and tender tofu. To add another layer to this dish, sprinkle a handful of roasted nuts on top.
— Julie Morris
1 (14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, pressed
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon maple syrup
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 bunch lacinato kale or another variety of kale, stemmed and coarsely chopped
1 small sprig rosemary
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon whole-grain mustard
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
Press the tofu between several layers of paper towels to extract as much moisture as possible. Halve the tofu widthwise, and then cut the pieces into 1-inch cubes.
To make the marinade: Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the garlic, Dijon mustard, maple syrup, vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Mix very well, and then add the tofu. Gently toss the tofu cubes by hand, making sure they’re well-coated with the marinade.
In a large nonstick skillet over medium heat, place the tofu in a single layer, reserving any excess marinade in the bowl. Cook the tofu cubes, turning them every few minutes, until they’re deeply golden on each side. Transfer the tofu to a large serving bowl, along with any tofu "skin" left in the pan. Season the tofu with a small pinch of salt and cover to keep warm.
Toss the kale and 1/4 teaspoon salt in the bowl with the reserved marinade, using your hands to thoroughly massage the leaves with the mixture.
Give the skillet you just used a quick clean and return it to the stove over medium heat. Warm the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in the skillet, and add the rosemary sprig and red pepper flakes. Let the mixture sizzle for about 30 seconds, until it is fragrant. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, until the onion has softened. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the kale and any remaining marinade. Cook until the kale is well wilted, stirring often for about 3 to 5 minutes or until tender.
Remove the skillet from the heat and stir in the whole-grain mustard. Transfer the vegetables to the bowl with the tofu, lightly toss the ingredients together, and sprinkle with fresh parsley. (You can use the rosemary sprig for garnish as well.) Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.
— From "Smart Plants: Power Foods & Natural Nootropics for Optimized Thinking, Focus & Memory" by Julie Morris (Sterling Epicure, $29.99)
Pan-fried Tofu With Soy Chile Sauce
With a crisp texture on the outside and a soft chewy inside, pan-fried tofu with Korean chile sauce makes an appetizing side dish. In fact, it can even become a light meal served with a bowl of rice. Make sure to use firm tofu, not extra-firm. Mixing two different oils when frying adds more fragrance to the bland tofu. This is a quick, simple and super delicious way of enjoying tofu the Korean way. For perfect tofu, use a nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet (I used my carbon steel skillet). The trick is to not flip the tofu too often. Flipping once is enough so that the surface of the tofu slices caramelizes.
— Hyegyoung K. Ford
1 (14 or 16-ounce) package firm tofu
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 teaspoon wild sesame or sesame oil
1 fresh red chile, chopped (optional)
For the soy chile sauce:
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon Korean chile flakes
2 teaspoons sesame oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 green onion, chopped, plus more for serving
2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
Cut the tofu into 7 to 8 slices, about 1/2-inch thick. Lay the tofu slices on a cutting board and lightly sprinkle them with pinches of salt.
In a nonstick skillet, heat the cooking and wild sesame oils over medium heat. Press each tofu slice firmly between two paper towels to remove moisture from the surface, replacing the paper towels as they become saturated.
Place the tofu slices on the heated skillet. Sear them on one side until they’re golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the tofu slices to the other side and continue to sear for another 3 minutes. If you prefer a crispier texture on the outside, cook them longer. Adjust the heat so that it doesn’t burn the tofu.
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. In a small bowl, combine all the sauce ingredients and mix well. Arrange the tofu slices on a serving dish and drizzle with the sauce. Garnish with chopped fresh chile (if using) and green onion. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 2 to 4.
— From "Korean Cooking Favorites: Kimchi, BBQ, Bibimbap and So Much More" by Hyegyoung K. Ford (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)