Tofu for Beginners
A guide to our favorite varieties and how to use them
I was born and raised in Chinese province of Sichuan and tofu has been a part of my diet since I can remember whether in spicy mapo tofu twirling on a lazy susan or as a soft tofu pudding (called douhua or doufuhua) sold from street vendors. I even remember packing jerky-like tofu snacks in my backpack for school outings. Tofu was so prevalent where I grew up that personal stone mills for grinding soy beans could be seen on the street or in people’s yards.
When I first moved to Berlin, it was a bit unexpected to see the popularity of tofu in the West, but I’m not surprised in the least. While it seems to be limited to vegetarian and Asian restaurants, most people have heard of it or at least tried it—once. But for most home cooks, it’s still a rather unfamiliar ingredient that can spark some debate. For more on this, read our story exposing the common myths around tofu.
In this story, we will guide you through different types of tofu and show you how to cook with them. Plus, we’ll share tips and tricks when it comes to preparing these tasty bean curd blocks.
Why we love tofu
Tofu, also known as bean curd, is the result of the coagulation of soy milk. Here’s a quick summation of the production process or, as a popular Chinese documentary calls it, “The Magical Transition” soak the dried soy beans in water, grind , boil, coagulate the milk with mineral salt or acid coagulants, then form into blocks. This process has a history of more than 2000 years!
Needless to say, tofu is something you can never skip when you talk about East and Southeast Asian cuisines. It’s well-known and loved by vegetarians and vegans as a source of protein, but for an omnivore like me, versatility is the key. Tofu is extremely easy to cook with once you get familiar with it. It can pair with tons of ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, snap peas, and soy sprouts. It shine as the star or be relegated to supporting character in stir-fries, soups, stews, and even barbecues. And, for those who crave creativity in cooking, its mild taste makes it the ideal canvas.
Not only is tofu versatile in the kitchen, it’s also relatively budget friendly and packs a nutritional punch. An ideal high-protein and low-fat ingredient 3 ½ oz (100 g) tofu has about 8 grams of protein and only 4 grams of fat. Plus, it’s a great source of calcium, iron, and zinc. It’s even believed that soy can protect against cancer and lower cholesterol.
Tofu is like a bridge that brings vegetarian and omnivorous eaters together, especially at intimate gatherings—like casual dinner parties. Yet, I would prefer to think it is an incredible ingredient that’s so much more than a meat alternative. To have a block of tofu in my fridge means that I’m covered when I need to throw together a quick weeknight dinner.
Different types of tofu and what to use them for
I understand the confusion you might feel standing in front of the refrigerator section in your local supermarket—shopping for tofu. The same dazed feeling washes over me when I shop for cheese. But believe me, between the two, selecting tofu is not nearly as difficult!
Normally, tofu products are packaged in something transparent. So, the simplest way to choose your tofu, is to judge the texture with your eyes. Usually, there will be information on the package about firmness and even suggested cooking methods. Beyond that, we will show you the most common types of tofu and how to use them.
Fresh tofu blocks
You can find fresh tofu blocks in the refrigerated section of grocery stores and Asian supermarkets. They are packaged in plastic boxes or tubes, usually with some liquid. Soft and firm tofu are categorized according to their water content. Sometimes the standard of what makes one medium-firm and another extra-firm can differ between brands—so keep that in mind when shopping and once you find your perfect match, remember it!
Soft and silken tofu blocks
Soft tofu has the highest water content, giving it a smooth sort of squishy texture. It can be used in both sweet or savory dishes. Silken tofu is an extra soft tofu that has become quite popular in recent years. Silken tofu is best suited for sweet dishes, and makes a great replacement of yogurt in smoothies and shakes, where it offers both a boost of protein and an even creamier consistency.
For savory purposes, soft tofu works best in salads and soups, where its original mild taste and silky texture are best preserved. Tofu salad is one of the tastiest, more minimalist ways to prepare fresh, soft tofu. To make it, blanch the tofu in boiling water for approx. 3 min.—you could also steam it and, if you manage to get ready-to-eat fresh tofu, you can skip this step altogether. After that, simply dress it in the Chinese or Japanese style (Hiyayakko). The Chinese style uses soy sauce, sesame oil, and chives, whereas the Japanese style would take soy sauce, chives, ginger, and Katsuobushi—dried, fermented, and smoked skipjack tuna that could be replaced with bonito flakes, if desired. Tofu salad with century egg (yes, something even more controversial!) is a classic starter on Chinese dining tables and one of my personal favorites if you can manage to find the ingredients to make it.
Soft tofu is also a standard ingredient in miso soup, kimchi stews, and of course, mapo tofu. You have to treat soft and silken tofu quite carefully when cutting it as it will very easily break apart. But with extra patience and a soft touch, you’ll see that the silkiness is worth it.
Firm tofu is most widely used in Chinese cuisines. It has less water content and is therefore denser in texture when compared with soft or silken tofu, but you can still easily use your fingers to crumble it. As I said before, soft tofu is great but when it’s not available or you’re still not sure about it, it won’t hurt too much use firm tofu instead. In my opinion, firm and soft tofu can be used interchangeably in savory dishes. Firm tofu works perfectly with almost every cooking technique from stir-frying to steaming, frying to braising, even baking and grilling. It also goes well in soups and stews, making it truly one of the most versatile types of tofu.
Stir-frying and frying tofu are two of the simplest ways to prepare firm tofu, since it imparts a more solid texture and lets it absorbs more flavor. Not only easy, but these methods just so happen to be some of my favorites, as it gives the tofu a somewhat crispy outside and tender inside. I also love to use firm tofu hotpot, and, of course, Japanese sukiyaki:
Extra-firm tofu has a dense and chewy texture. No stress when slicing these blocks, as they hold their shape well and won’t break apart awkwardly into small crumbs. If you don’t like the moisture and soft texture of tofu or you’re new tofu generally, this is the type you should go to first. Extra firm tofu equals extra safety.
Extra firm tofu can likewise fit into a great variety of dishes. Basically, firm and extra-firm tofu can be used interchangeably in most of the dishes, but for frying, be stir-frying, or deep frying, it’s definitely best to use extra-firm tofu. Smoked tofu (which we’ll cover below) is made of extra-firm tofu so you can also use extra-firm tofu in this stir-fry recipe in lieu of the smoked stuff.
Processed tofu products
If you fancy a meatier taste, processed or flavored tofu products are the answer to your question. An added bonus? They’re even easier to cook with! If you only have 20 minutes to cook your meal, go to any of the processed tofu products below and you won’t be disappointed.
Smoked or five-spice tofu
Believe it or not, these two types of tofu (both made from extra-firm tofu) are my ultimate secret weapons when it comes to lazy cooking because they are so quick and easy to cook with. Smoked tofu is most often smoked with tea leaves, lending it a smoky flavor (of course) but also a light brown color and a magically ham-like, even earthy taste. Five-spice tofu is flavored with Chinese five-spice powder, which is made up of ground cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise. It has a deeper brown color and slightly denser texture than that of smoked tofu. Since it’s already flavored, be light with the seasonings when using it.
Smoked and five-spice tofu can be cut into just about any shape, but cubes and strips are most common. These can then be tossed into salads, stir-fries, fried noodle dishes, and fried rice.
My favorite under 10 minute (!) weeknight dinner is to stir-fry smoked or five-spice tofu cubes with any vegetables I have in the fridge be it celery, bok choy, cabbage, or broccoli. Here are some other recipes you can try with five-spice or smoked tofu:
Tofu skin and pressed tofu sheets
Tofu skin, as known as yuba, fuzhu, or bean curd skin, is a popular tofu by-product. You might have encountered it before in some dim sum dishes. The skin is formed on the surface when the soy milk is boiling, then it’s skimmed off and appears in both its fresh and dried forms.
Dried tofu skin is more common in the West—packaged as plain sheets or pressed sticks and bundles. To use, soak them in cold or lukewarm water before you start cooking. With sticks and bundles, it might take hours or even up to overnight depending on the size and instructions on the package, while sheets usually only need to soak for about 1 hour.
Another similar tofu product is pressed tofu sheets, which are formed from pressing firm tofu into super thin sheets. Both tofu skin and pressed tofu sheets have a chewy texture and generally do a better job than fresh tofu blocks in soaking up flavors. Slice them in thin strips for salads, stir-fries, and soups for an added layer of texture.
There are different variations of deep-fried tofu, some come in blocks with crusty coat but are similar to extra-firm tofu on the inside; others some in cubes or fluffy puffs that make them even more absorbent. I always pick these up if I’m going to a hotpot dinner party because the best, most satisfying moment of the meal is when the tofu puffs are soft and soaked in the essence of the hot soup.
Store-bought fried tofu is a short cut for many Asian dishes like summer rolls, salads, and fried noodles. Try it out in this jarred noodle soup.
There’re a lot more tofu products that we haven’t covered here. For example, the bravest and most adventurous eaters out there should definitely take up the chance to try stinky tofu should it be presented!
Tips and tricks for preparing tofu
Preparing fresh tofu
To prepare fresh tofu blocks, open the lid carefully with a knife or scissors. Drain the liquid and rinse it under cold water. Use a sharp knife, preferably one with a wider blade, to cut soft or silken tofu. With medium firm and firm tofu, you can easily crumble it with your fingers. Cubing or to slicing into slabs or strips are the most typical ways to prep fresh tofu blocks.
Four ways to marinate tofu—plus, one way not to
Since tofu, especially fresh tofu blocks, are “infamous” for not absorbing flavors from sauces, there comes a common question: Can and should I marinate tofu? My answer is this: It’s personal. But, should you have the urge to pack in the flavor through marination, here are four common ways to do it!
Press the tofu: Put paper towels underneath and on top of the tofu blocks (firm tofu is best here) and put weights (e.g. heavy pans or cans) on top, and let them sit for anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes, according to how dense you want it to be. This method will help tofu hold in its shape while cooking, and gets rid of excess water so the tofu can better absorb other flavors.
Simple marination: Put tofu cubes or slices in an airtight container with the marinade of your choice and let sit for up to an hour before cooking.
Salt the tofu: You can either soak tofu in cold salted water for 15 minutes or blanch it in boiling salted water for about 30 seconds. This will lighten the beany flavor of fresh tofu and make it more solid, plus give it a bit more flavor on it’s own.
Freeze the tofu: The process of freezing and defrosting tofu will create tiny holes that make tofu chewier and more willing to absorb flavor.
If you want to save all the fuss, the most straightforward method is to fry the tofu and toss in a thick sauce. The crispy coat will absorb all the flavor from the sauce.
How to pan-fry tofu
A nonstick frying pan is always a good choice when it comes to pan- or shallow frying. For deep frying, a wok will do the best job. As stated earlier, firm and extra-firm tofus are better suited for frying than silken and soft tofus. Make sure to pat away the excess moisture with paper towers from the surface of the tofu to avoid hot oil from splattering all over your kitchen.
Pan-frying tofu can be tricky, as sometimes the tofu blocks break apart or stick to the pan. The hack? Reduce the heat to medium once the oil is at temperature. Then let the bottom of the tofu fry until golden and crisp before flipping. Don’t hurry the process or use the spatula to move the tofu prematurely.
How should you store tofu?
Fresh tofu blocks normally have a “best before” date printed on the package so you can store unopened packages at least this long in the fridge. Once the package is opened, you can store leftover tofu in an airtight container with filtered water for up to a week in the fridge, just remember to change the water daily.
To store it longer than a week, you should cut the tofu into cubes and freeze it in a resealable freezer bag. If you prefer the smooth texture and freshness, I would always recommend cooking it while it’s fresh.
More tofu recipes
Learning about tofu is an important lesson required to dive into Asian cuisines, and of course to master a wonderful source of protein if you’re vegetarian or vegan. I hope you feel more confident that, the next time you’re standing in front of your supermarket’s tofu section, you’ll be able to pick without fear when trying more tofu recipes from Kitchen Stories!
What’s your favorite type of tofu? Share with us in the comments, or if you have a tasty tofu recipe, simply upload it to our app to share it with our global community.
Published on February 23, 2019