Back to Basics: How to Cook with Tofu

back to basics -- how to cook with tofu; how to use tofu

The very first time I cooked tofu was, to put it mildly, an unpleasant experience. I’d been a vegetarian for nearly five years at that point and really should’ve known better, but alas: I made the classic error of purchasing silken tofu instead of regular tofu. (Not sure why that’s such a big no-no? This post is for you — read on!)

There I was, a college senior excited to be mostly off the meal plan and to cook for myself at the townhouse I shared with two of my best friends. My college was in walking distance of a lovely co-op, and I’d purchased the tofu with stars in my eyes, ready for a meat-free meal I’d share with my friends to wow them. As I basted the slices of tofu with barbecue sauce, their squishy jiggliness should’ve been a dead giveaway that something was amiss. “Maybe they’ll firm up in the oven,” I thought.

Of course, there was no magic firming action, and my baked tofu slices came out just as jiggly as their unbaked selves… except they now had a very thin, chewy crust of barbecue sauce on them. Not exactly the gourmet dinner I’d been envisioning.

Needless to say, this was not a meal I shared with my friends.

Seven years later, I’ve come a long, long way in my tofu knowledge. It’s now a staple in my kitchen, and I use it every which way, in all its forms, for savory and sweet recipes alike.

So today, let’s get back to basics and talk all about tofu! Read on for tips on how to cook with tofu, which type to use, and how best to take advantage of everything this beautifully neutral protein has to offer.

Green beans and tofu in a spicy sauce -- how to cook with tofu.

A much better use of tofu.

What is tofu?

Simply put, it’s bean curd. Less simply put, it’s “a food made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks.” (Thanks, Wikipedia.) It’s been used for thousands of years in various East Asian cuisines, and happily made its way to the western world in the late 19th century. That’s good news for us western vegans, because tofu is high in protein (with about 40 grams in a 14 ounce block) and often calcium (because it’s frequently treated with calcium sulfate, a coagulant).

Tofu comes in a few varieties, which can be hard to keep straight at first.

  • Silken tofu. This is very soft and almost gelatinous in texture. It’s quite delicate; silken tofu falls apart easily and easily blends into something like a cream. (And it’s what I mistakenly used in place of regular firm tofu!) Within the category of silken tofus are different levels of firmness. For example, you can find soft silken tofu and firm silken tofu, but remember that any kind of silken tofu will be softer and more delicate than regular firm tofu. Silken tofu is available in both shelf-stable and refrigerated varieties. I personally use them interchangeably.
    • Shelf-stable silken tofu comes in small boxes and doesn’t need to be refrigerated. You can keep it in your pantry for quite a while.
    • Refrigerated silken tofu needs to be, well, refrigerated. The block of tofu is packed in water in a sealed plastic container.
  • Regular (firm) tofu. This is much hardier than silken tofu and almost grittier. It’s always refrigerated, packed in water in a sealed plastic container. The most common varieties are firm and extra-firm, although you might see super-firm. You can also find sprouted tofu, which is made from soybeans that were allowed to sprout first.

Where can I buy tofu?

Good news — most grocery stores sell tofu. Even big-box chains usually have at least one variety. Fresh tofu needs to be refrigerated, so it’s typically shelved by the dairy or veggie section. (If the store sells faux meats, they’ll usually be here too.) Shelf-stable silken tofu is typically housed with the Asian foods. (Mori-Nu is the most common brand.)

At health food stores, co-ops, and other specialty stores, you might want to check the faux-meat/non-dairy section to find refrigerated tofu. Just ask if you can’t find it! Shelf-stable tofu will likely still be alongside Asian ingredients.

At Asian markets and some health food stores, you might get lucky enough to find fresh tofu. You can get it in the refrigerated section, usually stored in a big bucket filled with so-called tofu water. In this case, the store will usually have plastic bags available for you to transport the tofu. (You could also bring your own container.)

Finally, recall that not all silken tofu is shelf-stable — in other words, you might find silken tofu in the refrigerated section, right alongside the firmer tofu. Always double-check the label, or you might end up making a mistake similar to my college-era error! ;)

What kind of tofu should I use?

To avoid mishaps, follow these general tips:

  • If using a recipe, heed the author’s advice! Any quality recipe will tell you what kind of tofu to use. It’ll usually be written like “extra-firm tofu” (meaning the extra-firm variety of the regular kind) or “soft silken tofu” (meaning the soft variety of the silken (usually shelf-stable) kind). So you need to know the kind (regular vs. silken) and the level of firmness (e.g., soft, firm, extra-firm).
  • If a recipe calls for extra-firm regular tofu but you can only find firm, don’t sweat it. You can usually substitute a softer tofu by being a little gentler with it and making sure to press it. (More on that below.)
  • In general, savory recipes use regular tofu (because the tofu is a specific component of the meal, designed to stand on its own) whereas sweet recipes use silken (because it’s going to be blended up to create a creamy texture, like in a pudding or cream pie). This is not a hard and fast rule, of course, so always read the recipe and ask the author if you have questions.
Eggless tofu sandwich -- how to cook with tofu.

Tofu for lunch.

How do I prepare tofu?

  • Press it. If you’re using firm or extra-firm regular tofu, the recipe might call for it to be pressed. Why would you do this? Well, pressing the tofu squeezes out the excess liquid, improving the texture and getting the tofu ready to soak up more delicious marinade or seasonings. Is it necessary? Strictly speaking, no. But it does tend to improve the overall consistency and mouthfeel, especially when it’s a main component of your meal. How do you do it? There are a few methods:
    • The old-fashioned way. Wrap a block of tofu (the regular, refrigerated kind, remember?) or individual slices of the tofu in either a regular towel or paper towels. Put it on a shallow plate and put something heavy on top of the wrapped tofu. People often use books for this. The goal is to squeeze and drain all the water you can. The longer you press your tofu, the better, but if you don’t have 24 hours to spare, any time at all will help.
    • The new-fangled way. Get yourself a fancy-schmancy tofu press! There are a few designs on the market, but I use a Tofu Xpress Gourmet Tofu Press. It served me well for years, although recently the plastic spring housing broke and I’ve yet to replace it. There are some simpler, less expensive options available (like this EZ Tofu Press), but I can’t vouch for them personally.
  • Freeze it. When you freeze tofu, the texture magically changes into something a little more toothsome. Simply take regular tofu out of the package, drain it, press it (or not), and freeze it in a freezer-safe container. When you’re ready to use it, thaw it in the fridge for about 8 hours ahead of time. (You can also try to thaw it in the microwave if you’re short on time, but I don’t recommend this.)
  • Marinate it. People like to describe tofu as a sponge because it’s always ready to soak up delicious flavors. I personally find that description a little off-putting, but it’s also spot-on. You can use any marinade or flavor combo you’d like (see below for suggestions). Here are some tips for infusing your tofu with as much flavor as possible.
    • Slice or cube the tofu to increase surface area. Marinating a whole block won’t be as efficacious as marinating individual pieces.
    • Use a fork to poke tiny, not too deep holes so the marinade has more of a chance to permeate.
    • Start marinating as early as possible, but don’t sweat it if you only have 15 minutes. It’s better than nothing, and it’ll still help!

How do I cook tofu?

Pshhh, don’t cook it at all — eat it raw! Just me? Okay then. If you’re set on cooking your tofu, here are some basic methods.

  • Bake it. You can’t go wrong with baked tofu. I like to bake marinated cubed or sliced tofu at 400˚F for 20-30 minutes, flipping once on each side. To get nice crispy edges, be sure to use a shallow pan (better yet, one without rims) and use a little oil or aluminum foil underneath the tofu.
  • Dry-fry it. If you’re avoiding oil or just want a super-simple way of preparing tofu, this is the method for you. At the end, you’ll have chewy, golden-brown tofu. Keep in mind, though, that this is for plain tofu, not flavored, so it’s best in a recipe with lots of other flavors going on. This is the method I use.
  • Pan-fry it. Unlike the previous method, this one uses a little oil and works great with marinated tofu. It couldn’t be simpler: Heat 1-2 tablespoons of your favorite oil (vegetable, olive, or coconut all work, although coconut will add a little flavor) in a nonstick or cast-iron pan, then add the tofu and cook for 7-10 minutes, flipping every so often, over medium. Every pan and every stove is different, so keep a watchful eye on your tofu as it cooks. You don’t want it to burn, but you do want it to start crisping up. Once you get the hang of how your setup works, you can adjust the amount of oil and heat level.
  • Scramble it. Vegans freaking love scrambled tofu. It’s a protein-packed stand-in for eggs that can be prepared so many ways and with so many different flavor profiles. I’ll include some recipes below, but at its core, scrambled tofu is just what it sounds like: crumbled tofu mixed with seasoning and often additional liquid, cooked like you’d cook scrambled eggs.
  • Grill it. Got a grill? You’re in luck — tofu stands up well to heat! Marinated tofu is great on the grill, but make sure to keep the slabs nice and thick so they don’t fall apart. You can also use it in kebabs with lots of veggies! For tofu cooked directly on the grill, make sure the grill is well-oiled and opt for lower heat and a longer cooking time (~20 minutes should do it). Remember to flip occasionally, especially if you want sweet cross-hatch action.
Marinated Tofu Sandwich -- how to cook with tofu

A tasty way to enjoy marinated, pan-fried tofu.

Okay, sold — I’m ready to cook! What are some great tofu recipes?

Yes! Here’s the fun part. These are some of my favorites.

  • Scrambled tofu. There are two main styles: egg-like and, well, tofu-like.
    • For a classic vegan tofu scramble, start with this recipe (yes, you can use soy sauce instead of the shoyu). Once you get the basic method down (sauté veg, add tofu and spices, scramble till your preferred level of doneness), you can play around with ingredients and flavor palettes. Try this one for a full-bodied scramble packed with veggies, or this red-curry version for something Thai-inspired.
    • For a more scrambled-egg-like tofu (one that doesn’t included added veggies and works great as a side dish for brunch), you just can’t beat the Tofuevos recipe from Vegicano. (Tip: reduce the soy sauce if you’re salt-averse.)
  • Tofu that stands on its own. Ready to show off your mad tofu-cooking skills? Read on!
  • Tofu that shares the spotlight. Tofu is an integral part of these recipes, but it works alongside other ingredients to create a final product that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
  • Tofu that’s masquerading as something else. This versatile protein easily plays many roles.

Where can I learn more?

Books, duh. Here are some you should check out from your library. (I haven’t personally read or used them all, but they seem worth a look!)

  • 101 Things to Do with Tofu by Donna Kelly and Anne Tegtmeier. I owned this book for a while and was impressed by the range of recipes. It’s vegetarian, not vegan, but many of the recipes are easily veganizable.
  • The Great Vegan Protein Book by Celine Steen and Tamasin Noyes. The dynamic duo is at it again with recipes that focus on protein — and unsurprisingly, many of them feature tofu. We own this cookbook and it has quite a few neat ideas.
  • Making Soy Milk and Tofu at Home by Andrea Nyugen. I know, I know — we just covered how to use tofu at all, never mind how to make it from scratch! But this looks like such a neat deep-dive into soy-based foods, and I’d imagine that homemade tofu has a depth of flavor unmatched by its store-bought counterpart.
  • The Tofu Cookbook for Vegans: 50 Vegan-Friendly Tofu Recipes by Veganized. (Yeah, I dunno what’s up with that byline either.) This is a bit of a wild card, but I love the idea of a cookbook dedicated solely to vegan tofu recipes. If you try it out, let me know what you think!
  • Tofu Cookery (25th Anniversary) by Louise Hagler. I’m almost ashamed not to have at least looked through this book — it’s a bit of a legend. Even Isa Chandra herself name-drops it on occasion!

But isn’t soy bad for you?!?

Nope. See here, here, here, and here.

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Okay — what did I miss?! Or do you feel ready to conquer tofu cookery? Let me know!

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beginnersguide_tofu

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Back to Basics: Making the Vegan Transition

You’ve flirted with veganism, but have never been able to fully commit. You want to try it out, but you’re not sure where to start. What if you eat cheese accidentally? What if you have a team lunch at a steakhouse and you don’t want things to get too awkward? What if you can’t achieve vegan perfection?!

basics_transition

Chill out and take a deep breath. I’m here for you. Something I’m passionate about is supporting people who want to become plant-based, and to that end, I’m writing up a series of “back to basics” posts. If you’ve been considering going vegan but aren’t sure where to begin, I’ve got your back. Read on for five tips on how to go vegan, and please email me (girlinthegarden@gmail.com) if you want to chat further. And if you’re one of my fellow long-time vegheads, rock on.

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Today, let’s talk about transitioning to a vegan diet and lifestyle. These five guidelines are not the end-all, be-all, of course, but I think they’ll help just about anyone who wants to go veg. Try them out and let me know what you think.

  1. Come up with a plan that fits you.
  2. Be prepared.
  3. Don’t sweat the small stuff.
  4. Ask for help.
  5. Know why you’re making the change.

Come up with a plan that fits you.

No two people live their lives the exact same way, and no two people will have the same exact motivations and methods when they transition to veganism. If you’re the type of person who makes decisions in a split second and dives straight in, you might do just fine ditching animal products in a single leap and becoming vegan overnight. And that’s awesome. Go you! If you know you’re that kind of person, your transition might involve less planning and more doing.

On the other hand, you might be a diehard planner. If schedules and research and preparation are an essential part of your life, you might transition to vegan slowly. And that’s awesome too. Go you! If you fit somewhere in this category, planning will obviously be a larger part of your transition.

Personally, I need to ease myself into big life changes. I didn’t become vegan overnight; I spent the better part of a year being vegan in practice but not in name. I needed to show myself I could do it before applying the label and making it official. To be honest, I didn’t want to fail or make a mistake (perfectionist much?). If this sounds familiar, here are some ideas for easing into your transition.

  • Try the “vegan before six” option (or something similar) for a while. Show yourself that you can do it while allowing yourself an out in case you get stressed.
  • Eat vegan on your own, but not necessarily with others. If you go out to a restaurant and your salad is topped with cheese, it’s cool. Don’t broadcast your change to the world until you’re comfortable doing so (not that you ever need to “broadcast” it at all!).
  • Host vegan dinner parties (without necessarily drawing attention to the fact that they’re vegan) to show yourself and others that it’s not so bad being vegan in a crowd. Drink some wine, chat with your friends, and show yourself that your life won’t change all that much just because you aren’t serving a (dairy-based) cheese plate anymore.
  • Cut out animal products by category. Ditch the dairy, then eggs, then honey.
A backpack with food spilling out of it: Five Larabars, one Halo candy bar, one apple, a bag of coconut-covered date rolls, and a container of homemade trail mix. There's also a reusable cloth hand towel with a flower and the word "SUSTAIN" printed on it. All items are labeled in the photograph.

Always be snackin’.

Be prepared.

Even if you’re the dive-right-in sort of person, do some research as you go. Read up on vegan nutrition. Browse your favorite recipe site for plant-based options. Subscribe to blogs that have lots of recipes that look appealing and doable.

Jumping into vegan cooking doesn’t have to be overwhelming, especially if you put a little forethought into the transition. Think about how you like to cook now, and then research how to make it vegan. If you’re the type of person who gets tired after work and wants no-fuss dinner options, make yourself a Google doc or a few Pinterest boards or a bookmark folder (or even a hard-copy binder!) with meals you know you could handle. If you have non-vegan standard meals or staples you feel totally comfortable cooking, look up vegan versions of them (e.g. bean burritos instead of beef burritos, pizza without cheese, spaghetti and non-meatballs). The way you cook doesn’t have to undergo a huge shift once you’re vegan — only the ingredients need change.

Preparation is also key when you can’t plan in advance. Road trips, days out with friends, work lunches with suspect catering… lots of opportunities might leave you wondering when (and what!) you’re going to eat next. And if you, like me, tend to find yourself suddenly hungry and suddenly very, very irritable, you’ll want to keep yourself stocked with travel-friendly vegan snacks. Clif bars, Lara bars, trail mix, and any purse- or glove box-friendly snack will do the trick.

Traveling can also set new vegans into a panic, but with a little prep work you’ll be able to keep yourself nourished anywhere on the globe. I have some tips for travel snacks, along with eating guides for a few airports. And if you haven’t checked out HappyCow, hie thee hence without delay! HappyCow is the best resource for finding vegan-friendly eateries all around the world.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

Despite that perfectionism I mentioned, I am a big believer in personal forgiveness (theoretically, at least — in practice, it can be difficult to apply!). If you accidentally slip up, it’s okay. It happens to everyone. Just because you accidentally ate bread made with margarine that contains a tiny amount of casein or whey doesn’t mean the rest of your commitment is worthless or somehow negated. Nope. That’s not how it works. Even if you consciously eat something you know is suspect, you don’t have to beat yourself up. Live, learn, and move the heck on. Mistakes happen.

Ask for help.

Yes, the vegan community sometimes gets a bad rap. But in my anecdotal experience, nearly every vegan I know is warm, caring, empathetic (duh?), and willing to help. If you’re struggling during your transition or you just have questions, reach out! The Post Punk Kitchen forums are a great place to start. I also love the Reddit Vegans Facebook page; it’s one of the most inclusive, welcoming groups I’ve seen.

Pig at Poplar Spring animal sanctuary

A sweet piggie at Poplar Spring animal sanctuary.

Know why you’re making the change.

Obviously you should know why you’re choosing to go vegan before you commit to it. But I’d argue that it’s just as important — if not more important — to continually remind yourself why you’re doing it and to stay up to date with what’s going on the vegan world. Once you see that first slaughterhouse video, you might be tempted to avoid so much as scrolling past a similar video in the future. But if your resolve starts to flag or you’re getting frustrated that you can’t eat the pancakes at your favorite brunch spot, you might need a kick in the pants to remind you why you made the choice to stop eating animals.

Even if your commitment never wanes, it’s still instructive to keep yourself educated. Follow some of your favorite vegan or animal welfare organizations on Facebook, or scour your library for books about the ethics and practice of veganism. You will get into conversations about your choice to eschew animal products, and it can be useful to have a wealth of arguments and knowledge ready for those discussions.

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So — what do you think? Are these tips helpful? Are you ready to go vegan? Let me know, and remember that you can always ask for help or reassurance if you need it. My email address is in the second paragraph, and I’m always happy to talk.

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