The Secrets of Tofu

How to Cook Edible Tofu

Once it achieves this golden color, it can be used as a reasonable substitute for meat.

Once it achieves this golden color, it can be used as a reasonable substitute for meat.

Living in California, we’re surrounded by Asian restaurants, so I’ve eaten plenty of tofu. The problem is that when I’ve tried to cook it at home, it tastes less “meaty” (for lack of a better explanation) than what the restaurants serve, and more like the unappealing squish of a custard. Frustrated, I asked a vegetarian colleague to explain the difference.

“The restaurants fry it,” he said, complete with a look and tone that led me to believe that the sentence was punctuated with a silent-but-implied “dumbass.”

Fried! Oh, hey, I can fry things!

In hindsight, I realized too late that he meant “fried” as in “cooked in a deep fryer” as opposed to “pan fried in oil.” Let me tell you, there’s a huge difference between the two. With tofu being a tiny little sponge, a pan-fry in oil leads to… limp, oily tofu.


Using the trial and error method, I figured out that the first, most critical step was to buy Extra Firm tofu. Basically, you want this brick of bean curd to be as solid and substantial as possible. But this alone is not enough.

The second step is to remove the tofu from the package, and immediately wrap in paper towels to drain of every last bit of excess moisture. This takes at least 30 minutes. In a hurry? Lay a heavy plate over the tofu brick to squeeze out as much liquid as you can in a short period of time. This method takes about 10 minutes.

Now that your extra firm tofu is as dry as you can possibly make it, slice it into strips. A standard tofu brick can be cut into roughly eight equal rectangular strips.

Next, heat a nonstick pan to medium-high. When it’s good and hot, add the plain tofu strips and dry-fry, flipping occasionally, until they form a golden brown crust and no longer feel squishy to the touch. (This step is not unlike cooking meat; you can feel the difference between a piece that’s simply seared on the outside and a piece that’s cooked through.)

Remove the tofu from the heat and cut into bite-sized pieces that work with whatever you’re serving. Toss with the marinade or sauce you’re cooking with to give it some flavor. Whipping up a stir fry? Toss the tofu with soy sauce. Making a curry or tikka masala? Toss it into the sauce to simmer. You want to give the otherwise flavorless tofu at least 10 minutes to absorb the flavor before serving.


The Assistant operates on a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

The Assistant operates on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

When done properly, no one notices that it’s not chicken. No, really. I’ve done this roughly a dozen times and I’ve been “caught” by the Tiny Kitchen Assistant… once. And let me tell you, this is a kid who knows his meat.

I’ve clued The Husband in to the tofu experiment and he’s cool with it. Like me, he has no issues with it as long as it’s properly and edibly prepared.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m going to bookmark this. When it’s prepared right, tofu is a “positive texture food” for me (meaning I that the texture makes me like it even more than I otherwise would, like pears and Thai noodles) but I’ve been too intimidated to try making it myself. This looks totally doable.

  2. Alisa says:

    It really makes a huge difference. Good tofu is perfectly fine. Bad tofu is enough to make me never want to eat tofu again. As long as it’s dry and firm, it will absorb its sauce and flavor like a little sponge.

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