Not sure how to cook tofu? This step-by-step tutorial will have you cooking restaurant-worthy tofu that’s deliciously crisp on the outside, while moist and tender on the inside.
A few months ago, I received an excited phone call from my mom, informing me that my dad was going to be out for the evening, so she was going to cook up some tofu for herself. (Dad’s not down with tofu.) She didn’t really know how to cook tofu, though, so she wanted some advice.
Now, I love tofu and I sincerely want everyone to love tofu as much as I do, so you’d think I’d be psyched for mom, right? Instead I was nervous, fearing that her first home-cooked tofu experience would suck as much as mine did (bad!), and ruin her tofu cooking potential forever. I gave her a panicky run down of tofu basics and hoped for the best. I guess I scared her, because she ended up not making tofu that night. (Sorry, Mom.)
Anyhow, I found myself wishing I had a good tofu tutorial to refer her to. Well, now I do!
I should mention this: there are lots of ways to cook tofu. Baked, scrambled, and au naturale, among others. Today I’m talking about pan-frying. This is the cooking method you’ll see most often in my recipes, and it’s my favorite. It’s probably the most versatile method, and works great for tofu that gets eaten in stir-fries, curries, or even right off of the plate. If you’ve ever dined at a vegetarian or Asian restaurant and been served tofu that’s perfectly crispy on the outside, while moist and tender on the inside, it was probably pan-fried.
On to the how to!
1. Pick Your Tofu
You want to use extra firm tofu. Or better yet, extra, extra firm. The firmer, the better. Firmer tofu has less water, which makes it easier to achieve that crispy texture. (We’ll talk more about that later.)
I don’t have a brand preference, though I will say a couple of things. First, Trader Joe’s sells a “Super Firm” tofu, which is great for getting a crispy outer crust, but not so much for inner softness. If you’re working on your crust skills, this is a great product for tofu noobs.
Second, if you’ve got an Asian market nearby, there’s a good chance you can buy fresh made tofu from them, and there’s a good chance it will be delicious as heck.
2. Remove Surface Moisture
Squeeeeeeeze the water out. This is crucial. Think about this: your goal is crispy, golden browned tofu. Moisture interferes with the browning process. When you steam or boil something in water, it doesn’t get browned or crispy, whereas it might if you baked or fried it. So it’s important to remove as much surface moisture as you can. There are a couple of ways of doing this.
The most popular way seems to be with a commercial tofu press. These are easy and handy and I know lots of folks who swear by them, though I’ve always opted for one of the methods below.
If you don’t want to invest in a tofu press, you can achieve the same result using a cutting board and some heavy objects. It’s a great way to put those old law school books to use for once.
Remove your tofu from the package and drain. Blot dry and then wrap in a layer of paper towels. Then wrap in a dish towel. Place a flat object on top, like a cutting board, followed by some weight (enter law school books). Let it sit for 15-30 minutes. Unwrap and you’re ready to go! The downside to this method is the topples. Maybe I went a little overboard with three textbooks, but even with less weight, I tend to keep my ears open for tofu pressing spills in the kitchen while this kind of thing is going on.
Another method I’ve been using lately is cutting the tofu first (we’ll talk about cutting in a minute), and placing the pieces between in an even layer between a couple of paper towels with just a little bit of weight, like a single cutting board. Less risk of spillage.
Finally, and this one is great for those days when you forget to start your pressing ahead of time, zap it! Cut the tofu into your desired shape and stick in on a plate. Microwave in 1 minute increments. Each time you do this, you’ll find a little puddle of water surrounding the tofu. Blot it up and stick it back in the microwave. I find that about four minutes total microwave time per pound does the trick.
3. Cut Your Tofu
4. Prep Your Skillet
Use a good nonstick skillet with a flat bottom. I always go with a well seasoned cast iron skillet, and I swear, it gives me the most perfect, evenly cooked crispy tofu on the planet. Regular old nonstick skillets will work too, but if you’re planning on doing some serious tofu pan-frying, think about investing in cast iron.
Coat your skillet with a nice, even layer of oil. I’m using extra virgin olive oil here, but you can use your favorite cooking oil, or whatever has a flavor that works best with your final dish.
Don’t use too much oil! In fact, I probably went a bit overboard for illustrative purposes in this photo (I ended up blotting). A tablespoon per pound of tofu should be plenty.
5. Preheat Your Skillet
Stick it on the burner over medium high heat and let it sit there for a minute, until the oil gets a bit shiny.
6. Cook Your Tofu
Arrange your tofu pieces in an even layer in the skillet and let them rock. Another reason I like cast iron so much is because it cooks evenly, so you don’t have to do much. If you’re using a skillet with a nonstick surface, you might want to move them around a bit, as you’ll find some cook faster than others.
After 4-5 minutes they should be ready to flip. You can probably see some browning going on around the bottom edges, but if not, test flip one. Is it lightly browned and crispy and beautiful? Perfect! Flip ’em all. Mine have a little golden hue from the olive oil. Other oils yield a softer brown.
Side note: do this over the burner. My photo wasn’t taken over the burner because it’s so dark in my kitchen. Another beauty of cast iron is that you can move it to another location for snapping shots, and it’ll continue to sizzle.
Cook another 4-5 minutes after flipping, until they’re equally crisp on the bottoms. If you went with a shape like cubes, don’t worry about cooking all six sides, unless you’re really compulsive. I always go with two or three sides, and that’s plenty of crisp for me.
Now your tofu is done! It should have a fantastic crust on the outside, and be soft and tender on the inside. Season it as you like, or throw it into a stir fry, curry, or your favorite dish that’s in need of some bulk and protein.
Want to learn even more about tofu, including the different varieties and ways to prepare it? Check out my post on everything you need to know about tofu!