How to Make Tofu Tantalizing

It’s not surprising that tofu has an image problem, given how categorically unappealing it looks in its raw form. Then there’s the fact that plain, uncooked tofu pretty much tastes like styrofoam.

But from a culinary perspective, tofu’s plain-Jane character actually increases its versatility: It takes on the flavors of whatever seasonings you use, and it can be eaten raw or prepared in virtually unlimited ways including marinated, baked, grilled, stir-fried or sautéed. And anyone who likes tofu will tell you: It’s all about the preparation.

So give tofu a chance — and try the tips below on how to buy and prepare tofu like nobody’s business. You might even convert someone at your table who swears a forkful of tofu will never come within 10 feet of their taste buds.

What exactly is tofu?

Tofu is made by crushing dried soybeans with water to extract the liquid and produce soymilk. The soymilk is then boiled, and a coagulant — either a natural food acid or a salt — is added to produce curds.

For silken tofu, which has the texture of smooth custard and is often served with a spoon and eaten as dessert in China, this curdling process is usually done right in the package in which the tofu will be sold.

For firmer textured tofu, often used as a meat or cheese replacement, the curds are pressed in a box using cheesecloth to remove liquid and produce a more solid mass, which is then cut and packaged for sale.

Tofu is packed with soy protein. While there’s debate on the extent to which eating soy provides health benefits, health experts generally agree that tofu is an excellent replacement for less healthy choices like red meat, and a great alternative for anyone who has trouble digesting meat proteins.

Tips for terrific tofu dishes

I spoke with Aaron Steele, the Prepared Foods Team Leader of Whole Foods Market in Highlands Ranch, Colo., for his expert tips and advice on buying, storing and preparing tofu.

1. Use the right tofu for the dish

Although some cookbooks and recipes imply that firm and extra-firm tofu are interchangeable, Steele believes that extra-firm is preferable for any preparation where you want the tofu to retain its shape. He recommends extra-firm for baking, grilling or pan searing. It’s also a good choice for crumbling into stir fry dishes or salads.

If a recipe doesn’t specify which type to use, it’s probably safe to use extra-firm tofu. Recipes for anything that will be blended or pureed will likely specify silken tofu in the directions. “At Whole Foods we use silken tofu to create sauces, custards or dressings,” adds Steele.

2. Store it sorta like you would a peeled potato

The producers at Denver Tofu, manufacturers of organic tofu, say tofu should be stored in the refrigerator, completely submerged in water. To help keep tofu fresh, they recommend changing the water daily and keeping the tofu covered.

Tofu packages contain an expiration date, but with care taken, the tofu can last up to two weeks. You’ll know when tofu is going bad because it will develop a sour smell and taste and will feel slimy, according to Denver Tofu.

3. Freeze & squeeze for meatier texture

Some people prefer to freeze tofu, thaw it out, and press out any excess water between sheets of paper towels first. This technique yields a tofu that is somewhat meatier in texture, which may in turn absorb more of the marinade flavors.

4. Grill or bake for a tofu makeover

To make bland white tofu look fit for human consumption, Steele’s team at Whole Foods Market often grills it to lend those appetizing grill marks before using it in dishes.

“Grill it over high heat so it won’t stick to the grill,” he advises, noting that he also suggests grilling the tofu without excess sauce on it to avoid smoking.

Steele says he also likes to bake extra-firm tofu to give it a nice golden brown color.

5. Marinate and season to satisfy your every whim

Another way to add both flavor and color to tofu is by marinating it. “Tofu is a dense protein, so it’s best if you can marinate it overnight,” suggests Steele.

Tofu should be covered and kept in the refrigerator while marinating.

Seasoning with herbs and spices can transform tofu’s taste (or rather, lack thereof). Season the tofu like you would meat, before cooking it — and don’t be shy about doctoring your tofu some more with herbs, sauces and salsas as you serve it up.

The same seasoning combinations you enjoy on meats can be used on tofu — lemon, parsley and garlic, Cajun blackening spices, steak seasoning, barbeque sauce, and pesto are all on the table, so to speak. Remember, tofu tastes like whatever you put on it.

Tofu’s versatility makes it a great substitute for almost any other protein.

  • Crumbled tofu stands in for cheese crumbles in a salad or casseroles.
  • Solid tofu replaces meat or poultry in grilled, baked and sautéed dishes.
  • Silken tofu is a natural substitute for cream, mayonnaise, sour cream or yogurt in dips or sauces.

The neutral flavor of tofu allows it to adapt to most any cuisine or flavoring, so experiment with your favorite dishes using tofu in place of beef, chicken or cheese.

Here are three of my favorite tofu recipes to get you started:

Blackened Tofu with Sweet Potato Hash

Serves 4

If you prefer not to heat up your kitchen, sear the tofu for this recipe on a hot grill until heated through and grill marks appear, about 1-2 minutes per side.

2 pounds sweet potatoes and/or yams
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 Pasilla or Anaheim chili pepper, seeded, diced small (reserve 1 tablespoon for garnish)
2 shallots, chopped (about ¼ cup)
1/3 cup barbecue sauce
2 tablespoons milk or cream
1 pound extra-firm tofu
2 teaspoons blackening seasoning mixture (see Note)
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400°F. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper, and then spread in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast until softened and brown around the edges, about 20 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the peppers and shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat, add potatoes, and mash with a potato masher. Add barbecue sauce and milk (or cream) and mix well. Remove from heat, salt and pepper to taste, and cover to keep warm.

Slice tofu into ½-inch-thick slices and sprinkle with blackening seasoning. Cook over medium-high heat in a nonstick skillet for 2 minutes per side. To serve, mound sweet potato hash on top of the blackened tofu. Garnish with remaining chopped peppers.

Note: To make blackening seasoning, combine 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon garlic powder, 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, 1 tablespoon onion powder and 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper. Mix well and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.


Pesto Pasta with Tofu and Tomatoes (pictured at top of article)

Serves 4

Tofu makes an excellent replacement for mozzarella cheese in this Caprese-style pasta.

1 pound spaghetti, cooked according to package directions
1 pound extra-firm tofu, cut into 1-inch cubes
20 cherry tomatoes
1 cup pesto sauce
½ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Heat grill to high. Thread tofu cubes and cherry tomatoes onto 4 skewers and gently coat with some pesto sauce. Grill just until tofu is warmed through and tomatoes begin to split, about 2 minutes total, turning once. Toss remaining pesto with the hot pasta. Serve tofu and tomato skewers on top of pasta and pass Parmigiano-Reggiano at the table for topping.

Silken Tofu Avocado Dressing and Dip

Grilling Tofu for Avacado Dressing

Yields 2 cups

The lemon juice in this dressing adds a nice kick and also keeps the avocado green.

2 garlic cloves
8 ounces silken tofu
Zest of 1 lemon
¼ freshly squeezed lemon juice
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
1 ripe avocado, peeled and seeded

Mince garlic in a blender or food processor. Add tofu, lemon zest and juice, salt and pepper and blend until well combined. Roughly chop avocado and add to mixture; process until smooth. Serve immediately or cover and refrigerate.

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