No vegan food is as versatile as tofu.

Cooking Tofu: A Guide to Purchasing & Preparation

By Erik Marcus

Tofu doesn’t get nearly the respect it deserves. No matter your diet, this versatile soy-based food has much to offer. You can incorporate tofu into your cooking in an endless variety of healthy and delicious ways.

Tofu and canned beans are comparably nutritious foods that are much quicker and easier to cook than preparing dried beans. But tofu’s a first-rate choice while canned beans can’t compare to beans made from scratch.

What is Tofu?

Tofu is a traditional Asian food, made from coagulated unsweetened soy-milk pressed into blocks. Tofu has numerous virtues: it’s inexpensive, easy to prepare, nutrient-rich, and incredibly versatile. Even a pressure cooker requires nearly an hour to cook most bean varieties. But tofu provides comparable nutrition to cooked beans and is ready right now. Its convenience, versatility, and healthfulness make tofu the perfect food for vegans and people wanting to eat more vegetarian foods.

Although it was first probably invented in China, today every Asian country prominently features tofu in its cuisine. It’s especially popular in parts of Asia where Buddhism has a strong presence, since many Buddhists are vegetarian and rely on tofu as a primary protein source. Across Asia, many people treat tofu the same way the French treat bread—as a food purchased fresh every morning to be eaten the same day.

If you have trouble digesting beans, you really must give tofu a shot. It’ll give you all the protein and nutrition as any other bean product, but it’s much easier to digest.

Where to Buy Tofu

Any supermarket should stock tofu in its refrigerated section. You’ll do even better at a good natural foods store, since they’ll offer more varieties.

But the best way to buy it is from Asian grocery stores that sell it fresh. This tofu doesn’t come packaged; you’ll use tongs to grab a block out of a shallow tub filled with water.

If you’re visiting Asia, tofu is ridiculously cheap. Even in Japan, which is among the most expensive countries in Asia, you can buy high-quality tofu for less than one-fourth the price as in Western countries. I’m guessing that since tofu is so popular there, Japanese groceries sell it as a loss-leader to get customers in the store.

Soybeans are one of the most common genetically modified foods, but it’s easy to find organic tofu. Organic certification bars the use of GMO crops, so if your tofu is made with organic soybeans it’ll be GMO-free. Nearly every brand sold at natural food stores features organic soybeans as its main ingredient.

Firm, Soft, and Medium Varieties

Most brands of tofu come in both soft and firm varieties. Some brands are also available medium and extra-firm varieties.

Try them all and see which texture you prefer—any type works fine in most recipes. But if you’re going to cube your tofu for stir-fries, go with a firm or extra-firm variety since soft tofu falls apart if stirred frequently during cooking.

Silken Tofu

Silken tofu is a special variety of tofu that has a custard-like texture. It gets its same because, when blended, the result is silky smooth rather than lumpy like regular tofu. You can use silken tofu in just about any tofu-based recipe. It’s a fantastic variation that will enable you to keep your favorite tofu dishes from becoming monotonous.

Silken tofu is ideally suited for certain baked recipes, and it also makes a wonderful dessert pudding. Plus, you can add a little silken tofu to smoothies for a nice protein boost.

Unlike regular tofu, you generally won’t find silken tofu in your grocery’s refrigerated section. It’s usually a shelf-stable product packaged in aseptic “juice box” style cartons. Every good natural food store carries it, and because it’s imperishable you can also purchase it from and other online retailers.

Although you can readily buy fresh silken tofu in Japan, in Western countries you can probably only find it at artisan tofu shops.

Artisan Tofu

If you’re lucky, you’ll have an artisan soy-foods shop in your city. These shops produce a number of tofu varieties that are nothing like the standard white blocks sold elsewhere. These businesses are often inspired by Japan’s traditional tofu shops that make special varieties of tofu in small batches. The varieties of artisan tofu you buy will each have their own recommended method of preparation, so be sure to inquire when making your purchase.

One variety of Japanese tofu you must try is, “tofu no miso zuke.” This fermented soy food—which is basically a cross between tofu and miso—is delicious when spread on crackers. It’s also sensational when mixed into some marinara sauce, spiced up with hot peppers, and served over pasta with some nutritional yeast.

The Japanese also make a variety of tofu called yuba, which is a dehydrated skin-like product made from curdled soy-milk. Western supermarkets don’t typically carry it, but you can find yuba at just about any Asian grocery or you can order it online. Yuba comes in brittle dried sheets, and in addition to appearing in many Japanese recipes it’s also a key ingredient of Chinese “hot and sour” soup.

Baked Tofu

Many salad bars offer regular tofu cut into cubes. I can’t think of a less appetizing way to serve tofu. But take heart, since there is a tofu variation called “baked tofu” that’s ideal for salads. Most natural food stores sell baked tofu in their refrigerated section. Unlike regular tofu, which is packed in water-filled tubs, baked tofu comes laminated in plastic sheets. The stuff is denser and chewier than most tofu, and is marinated in either tamari or teriyaki sauce prior to baking. Slice it thinly and add it to your salads. Served over salads, it provides a nice dose of protein and increases satiety. Thinly-sliced baked tofu is also outstanding in sandwiches and wraps.

Baked tofu might be one of the easiest things you can cook at home, and doing so will save you a lot of money over buying it pre-made. Measured by weight, baked tofu usually costs at least triple the price of regular tofu. That’s a lot of extra money for something you can easily prepare yourself. Here’s how to make your own baked tofu:

  1. Slice your tofu into strips.
  2. Marinate it for a few hours in your favorite sauce.
  3. Bake on an oiled baking sheet for 30 to 40 minutes at medium heat, turning once.

Nothing’s easier you’ll cut costs by more than half over buying a pre-made product.

Storing Tofu

Some packaged tofu is processed at high temperatures and has an expiration date about two months after packaging. But whenever possible, I like to follow the Asian practice of buying freshly-made tofu and eating it the same day.

If you’ve opened a pack of regular or silken tofu and you can’t use the full contents immediately, here’s how you need to store it. Keep the unused portion submerged in fresh water in a covered container, and put in the refrigerator. Change the water twice or twice a day and try to finish the tofu within a few days.

Is Tofu Nutritious?

Not all tofu is equally nutritious, at least where calcium is concerned.

Soy-milk is solidified into tofu through one of two coagulants: magnesium sulfate, or calcium sulfate. Sometimes, rather than either of these substances, the label will instead list “nigari,” which is the Japanese term for minerals rich in magnesium sulfate.

If you’re looking to add a substantial source of calcium to your diet, opt for tofu made with calcium sulfate. This variety of tofu is remarkably rich in calcium. It’s an especially good choice if you have sworn off dairy products, since it’ll enable you to get a big dose of calcium with every serving.

tofu scramble with refried beans
Mexican-spiced scrambled tofu accompanied by black refried beans, served at Fresh & Co. Vegan Restaurant in Mexico City.

How to Get Cooking with Tofu

Tofu can add tremendous variety to your diet. You can cook it in dozens of satisfying ways. Tofu is so versatile largely because it can take on a variety of textures—everything from extra firm and chewy to silken smooth. One little-known preparation technique you should try is to slice firm tofu into thin strips and then freeze it overnight. Upon cooking, this tofu will gain a chewy, meaty texture that’s perfect for dishes like a spicy Mexican chili.

Many recipes call for pressing some of the liquid out of the tofu prior to cooking. To accomplish this, put the tofu between two dinner plates and place a medium-sized book on top for a few minutes. If you cook with tofu daily you may wish to invest in a tofu press.

Cooking Your First Tofu Meal

Given the thousands of recipes that feature tofu, what’s the best recipe for newbies? For your first time, consider either adding tofu to a stir-fry, or making scrambled tofu.

Stir fries

Tofu is practically a must-add ingredient for stir-fries. It brings a big dose of added protein. Plus, it’ll make the meal much more satisfying. A stir-fry made with nothing but veggies is likely to leave you feeling hungry thirty minutes later. Adding in some cubed tofu gives your stir-fry a lot more substance.

When cooking a stir-fry, do your tofu before you stir-fry your vegetables. Start by pressing your tofu and cutting it into cubes. Make sure you’re using either firm or extra-firm tofu, since softer varieties fall apart when stir-fried. Use an oil with a high scorching point, since you’ll want to be frying your tofu cubes on medium-high heat. Keep the cubes turning and moving during cooking, but be gentle so they stay intact. Sauté until they begin to develop a golden color. Next, set aside your cooked tofu in a separate bowl and cook the remainder of your stir-fry. You can add the tofu back at the end, just before adding any sauces and seasonings.

Stir-fries are so versatile, healthy, and delicious that they’re something every cook ought to learn how to make. Check out extensive instructions to making a fantastic stir-fry.

Scrambled Tofu

This is one of the world’s best vegan brunch entrees, and it’s so easy to make that it’s ideal for your first attempt cooking tofu. There are countless online recipes and cooking videos for scrambled tofu. This recipe is so easy and forgiving that it’ll probably turn out perfectly no matter what recipe you choose. But whichever recipe you try, you can’t go wrong by following these three rules:

  1. Use plenty of vegetables, especially onion and garlic.
  2. Whenever possible, mix in a few thinly-sliced canned chipotles at the end of cooking.
  3. Always mix in plenty of nutritional yeast just before serving!

More Tofu Cooking Variations

Despite its Asian origin, nothing goes better with Mexican cooking than tofu. For any savory Mexican food—like burritos, enchiladas, or tamales—sliced sautéed tofu invariably adds an extra dimension to your meal. The subtle flavor of tofu blends perfectly with classic Mexican sauces and spices.

As with Mexican food, tofu also lends itself perfectly to American soul food, and Caribbean island meals. Vegan cookbooks devoted to these cuisines invariably feature tofu in a wide assortment of dishes.

Other popular dishes featuring tofu include:

Deep-Fried Tofu

The least healthful cooking method for tofu is nevertheless delicious. Cut it into cubes two or three centimeters on a side and immerse in hot oil for a few minutes until golden.

Deep frying doesn’t add much flavor but it’ll render your tofu chewy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside.  Serve it in stir-fries, or impale with toothpicks and accompany with a flavorful dipping sauce.

Related High-Protein Foods

Tofu might be the greatest thing to ever happen to vegetarians, but you should also give its cousins—tempeh and seitan—a try.

Like tofu, tempeh is a soy product, but it’s a less processed food since the beans remain intact. You can use tempeh in place of tofu in many recipes, especially stir-fries.

Seitan has a wonderfully chewy consistency that’s far meatier than tofu. Not a soy product, seitan is instead made from wheat. People with gluten sensitivity should steer clear, though, since seitan doesn’t just contain gluten, it is gluten! And since gluten is a type of protein, that in turns means that seitan is essentially 100 percent protein. A little seitan therefore goes a long way, and no vegan food is more filling than a seitan-based dish.

Further reading: vegan cookingtempeh, seitan, beans.

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