Tofu: How to Avoid 5 Common Cooking Mistakes

Tofu is delicious. No, really, I mean it. Tofu is one of my favorite foods, but it wasn’t always like that. Before I was vegan, I couldn’t stand tofu. Whenever I would get a Chinese food dish that included bean curd, I would ask them…beg them to leave it out. When I became vegan, I knew that tofu and I needed a fresh start to our relationship. The problem was that I didn’t know what to do with it or how to cook it. I didn’t even know how to buy it because there were so many kinds: silken, soft, firm, extra-firm. And why was it swimming in water? I was lost. At a vegan picnic, I tasted some store-bought, prepared baked tofu and thought it was tasty. Then at a restaurant, I ate my first tofu scramble and was pleasantly surprised at how good it tasted. I knew I had to learn how to cook tofu myself. It took me over a year to learn to love tofu and in that time, I made plenty of mistakes with it. In fact, I think I made every mistake one could possibly make with it. Now, I like to think of myself as somewhat of a tofu aficionado and try to help other people learn from my mistakes. Here are five common mistakes made with tofu and how to avoid them.

1. Not Using the Right Tofu for the Recipe

The first possible mistake with tofu happens while you are still in the store. Firstly, always buy tofu made from organic/non-GMO soybeans. Not that we have that part cleared up, there are still several kinds of organic tofu you can buy: silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra-firm. Which one do you buy? It depends on what you want to make. You don’t want to try slicing soft tofu and then have it break apart in your hands. Silken tofu is best used for sauces, creams, batters and in baking. It’s perfect for tofu omelets and mousses. Soft tofu is great for tofu scrambles. Personally, unless I am making a sauce, I buy the extra-firm type for most of my recipes. It holds up to whatever I’m trying to do, whether I’m cutting it into cubes for Chinese dishes, slices for cutlets, or dredging it and frying it for Crispy Tofu Nuggets.

2. Not Pressing the Water Out of the Tofu

For me, this is the step that I most want to avoid but if I do, I’m not going to have the best tofu dish. Tofu is packed with water, and then it is packed in water. We need to get that water out and replace it with flavor. Not pressing the water out of the tofu is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Open the package and drain the water. Then you have to press the tofu. The only time I get lazy about this is when I make tofu scrambles and even then, I squeeze the tofu in my hands to get out some excess water.

Here’s how to press tofu: Take a plate and line it with paper towels. Place the tofu block on the paper towels and put another layer of on top of the tofu. Put another plate or a cutting board on top of the paper towels and then weigh it down with heavy books or cans. Every half-hour or so, drain the water that has been pressed out of the tofu. If you don’t want to use paper towels, you can just use the plates but drain the pressed water more often. Or you can buy a tofu press and save lots of trouble. Whichever way, you will end up with a smaller, firmer block of tofu. If you are planning to cut the tofu into slices, you can do that first and then press the slices.

If you want the tofu to have an even denser, firmer and chewier texture, try freezing it first. Just remove the tofu from its package, put it in a food storage bag or wrap it in plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer for a few hours. When you want to use it, thaw it out in the refrigerator and then press it. This is an especially good technique to use if you need the tofu to be really firm and allow you to handle it without it breaking. I freeze tofu when I make my Buffalo Tofu Friesso I can work with them and not worry about them breaking apart.

3. Not Cutting the Tofu Correctly

I once went to a restaurant that served a tofu club sandwich where the tofu was a giant block stuck between the slices of bread. Even worse, I had taken a friend there to show him how delicious vegan food is and this was his introduction to tofu. Honestly, it looked like they had just taken the tofu out of the package and stuck it straight into his sandwich. If you want your tofu to have maximum flavor and texture, it is best cut into smaller pieces.

Thin slices are good for making cutlet-type dishes or for sandwiches. Simply cut the block of tofu in half width-wise, and then cut each half into 3 or 4 rectangles for a total of 6-8 thin slices. Those slices can further be cut into squares or triangles depending on the presentation you want for your dish. I use slices like these for my Moroccan Tofu in Lemon-Olive Sauce and they are the perfect shape for sandwiches like this Bad Ass Vegan Fish Sandwich.

Cut the tofu into cubes for stir-fries and salads. Just cut the tofu into 5 even slices width-wise and then 4 slices horizontally. Those 20 pieces can be further cut in half to make smaller cubes if desired. Cut cubes for this Thai Basil Stir-Fry with Tofu and Eggplant and my Pineapple Island Tofu Kabobs. For kids, use cookie cutters to cut tofu into nuggets shaped like hearts or other fun shapes.

4.   Not Seasoning the Tofu

This has become a repeated joke between my husband and me. Every time I read a tofu recipe in a mainstream cooking magazine, they instruct the reader to drain the tofu, cut it into cubes or slices and cook it. That’s it – no marinating, no seasoning, just cook it as is. That’s ridiculous. In those same magazines, I would never find a recipe telling readers to cook chicken or steak without first seasoning it and yet they don’t show tofu the same love. Not seasoning the tofu is one of the biggest mistakes you can make with it. Delicious tofu is all about texture and flavor. Without seasoning, it will be bland and tasteless. No one wants that.

After the tofu has all the water pressed out of it, fill it back up with flavor by marinating it and/or seasoning it. A marinade can be as simple as tamari mixed with water. Most people come up with a recipe for a basic marinade that they use in the majority of their tofu dishes. Usually, it’s a combination of tamari, broth or water, oil and a few herbs and spices such as garlic, oregano or paprika. In ethnic recipeslike Tandoori Tofu, the marinade is essential to the flavor of the dish. Be sure to pat the tofu dry before cooking it to ensure crispness.

Whether you marinate the tofu or not, a dry rub of seasoning will help add flavor and a crusty texture when you cook it. Choose a few of your favorite herbs and spices, mix them together in a small bowl and rub them over the surface of the tofu. When you pan-fry the tofu, that rub will become a delicious crust. For extra creativity, dredge the tofu in something besides just spices like in this Ayurvedic Lentil-Crusted Tofu.

5.   Not Cooking the Tofu Properly

After all the effort of draining, pressing, cutting, marinating and seasoning, be sure to cook the tofu well. Whether you are baking it, frying it, breading it, or battering it, be patient and cook it until it’s as browned or crispy as you want it. It could take as long as 5 minutes per side depending on the size of the pieces. If you are making Chinese food, toss the tofu cubes in some seasoned arrowroot powder or cornstarch before frying it. This will make it super-crispy especially if you are going to cover it with a hot sauce which can make the tofu soggy. I do this with my General Tso’s Tofu and it’s perfectly crispy every time.

I promise you, if you avoid these common mistakes, your tofu dishes will come out amazing every time…unless you drop it on the floor or burn it. I can’t help you then. But short of that, use these tips and try some of the incredible tofu recipes here on One Green Planet.

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