Plant-based eaters are no strangers to the wonders of tofu, but outside of plant-based, health-conscious, and Asian cuisine circles, this versatile soybean product can be more than a little divisive. Often the butt of jokes about bland, flavorless, and otherwise terrible food, tofu gets an undeserved bad rep, and we’re here to set the record straight.
Demystifying This Little Block of Soy: What IS Tofu Anyway?
A little background on this mysterious white block of “food?”—tofu is made up of soybeans, water, and a curdling agent that helps shape the soy into a solid mass. At under 100 calories per serving and weighing in at only five grams of fat, tofu is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and iron.
Common varieties of tofu include regular, firm, and extra-firm, which are great for marinating, pan-frying, baking, and other types of cooking. Restaurants that offer tofu as a “meat” option use some form of regular or firm tofu. Silken tofu is soft, creamy, and has a similar consistency to ricotta or burrata. This variety of tofu is most often used in smoothies, desserts, or soups like Japanese miso. (Our pro-tofu argument pertains to regular and firm tofu only.)
Tofu has been a staple in Asian, vegetarian, and low-carb cuisine for millennia. The first recorded mention of making tofu dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty roughly 2,000 years ago. Today, the market for tofu is valued at over two billion USD. Such a long-lasting food staple can’t be as bad as the critics suggest, right?
Getting Tofu to Actually Taste Good: The Secret’s in the Squeeze
Tofu gets its less-than-stellar reputation mainly from its flavor and consistency. The soybean product has an admittedly neutral taste (though we’ll explain later why that’s actually a good thing) and a soft, chewy texture straight from the package. While you might think you don’t like tofu, we think you just haven’t had tofu prepared the right way.
The secret to getting great-tasting tofu is all in the early prep work. Tofu is stored in water to prevent the soy curd from drying out and changing textures en route from the manufacturer to your fridge, and the block itself is saturated when first removed from its container. The water in the tofu block must be drained as thoroughly as possible to ensure your tofu is easy to cook, firm, and full of flavor.
Enter: The Tofu Press Cue Choir of Angels
To properly drain a block of tofu, water needs to be pressed out of the tofu with a delicate balance of firm but gentle pressure. A too-limp squeeze won’t get enough water out of the block, but too hard of a squeeze can compromise the tofu block’s structural integrity. As more water is drained from the block, more pressure will need to be added.
Homemade methods of pressing tofu normally involve wasting ridiculous amounts of paper towels and precarious towers of assorted heavy kitchen items (our pre-press go-to was a cast-iron skillet piled with canned goods). To reduce waste and save time, the tofu press was invented. Tofu presses can vary in complexity depending on the brand, but the general concept is the same across the board. Tofu is placed between two flat surfaces drawn together through screws, clamps, or weights.
Our favorite tofu press pick is The Original Super Tofu Press by TofuPresser. The design is easy-to-use and doesn’t have any extra bells or whistles that jack up the price tag. In only 15 minutes, tofu pressed in this plate-style design transforms from bloated and watery to deliciously firm and marinade-ready.
Negative reviews of this product mention having to manually turn the screws throughout the draining process, but we haven’t noticed that problem as we’re normally in the kitchen preparing other parts of the meal anyway. A few quick turns of the knobs is a small price to pay for great-tasting tofu!
For Busy Beans: A Box-Style Tofu Press
Of course, not every kitchen is the same, and some tofu-lovers need their hands free for other things. We get it. Luckily, so did Tofuture. Tofuture’s Tofu Press is an all-in-one gadget perfect for fuss-free tofu prep. Sized for a standard rectangular block of tofu, Tofuture’s box-style press features a perforated platform for draining the extra water and a reservoir to keep counters dry and mess-free.
After fitting the tofu in between the draining platform and the lid, Tofuture’s press does the rest of the work for you. Though it does take a bit longer than TofuPresser’s plate-style counterpart, Tofuture allows you to completely focus on prepping the rest of your meal, finishing up the last little bit of your work-from-home shift, or catching the last few minutes of your current Netflix binge.
You’ve Pressed and You’ve Squeezed, Now What?
The tofu preparation doesn’t stop at the pressing stage, and it could be argued that this next step is the best part of the whole process (besides eating it, of course). We spend all that time squeezing water out of the tofu so we can fill it right back up with delicious marinades. Remember when we said tofu’s neutral flavor is a good thing, not a bad thing? This is what we meant.
Pressed tofu condenses down to around half of its original size. But drop that bad boy into a baggie of marinade and let it sit for a half-hour or so, and the tofu “magically” returns to normal. That’s because tofu soaks up savory marinades like a sponge, replacing the bland water with bold, spicy, and umami flavors.
Finding the Right Marinade for Your Meal
Depending on the type of meal you’re preparing, you can adjust your tofu marinade to match the popular spices and flavor profiles of common cuisines like Italian, Asian, Jamaican, and American BBQ. Not sure which spices go with which parts of the world? Check out this handy spice guide for some herbal inspiration.
Ultimately though, a tofu marinade is strictly a matter of personal taste (or, if we’re being 100% honest, what’s already in the refrigerator and cupboard). For the best culinary experience, we recommend sticking with stuff you know you already like. Popular bases for tofu marinades include but are not limited to soy sauce, liquid amino acids, rice vinegar, oyster sauce, chicken or beef broth, or vegetable stock.
Add your marinade to a leak-proof plastic baggie, add your tofu, and set in the fridge to marinate for at least thirty minutes. Chopping the tofu block into smaller pieces and flipping the bag over halfway through marinating helps better distribute the flavor. The more surface area is exposed to the marinade, the more pronounced the flavor will be after cooking.
The Final Step: Frying, Baking, and More
Once you’ve pressed and marinated to your heart’s content, you’re ready to start cooking. Our personal favorite method of cooking firm tofu is pan-frying in a cast-iron skillet with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil until golden brown on both sides. Tofu can also be mixed into a stir-fry, roasted, baked, or air-fried.
Most packs of tofu cost less than three dollars, making it an incredibly affordable option for those looking to eat healthy on a budget. And with the fantastic array of flavor and cooking possibilities, no two tofu dishes ever have to be the same. Before you turn your nose up at tofu for good, try the press-and-marinate method at least once. We guarantee you’ll never call tofu a “boring” food again.