In high school, I was a hurdler—I ran the 150-meter and 300-meter races, and I skinned up my knees a lot, and found the whole thing totally thrilling. After three springtimes of six-days-a-week hurdles, I know a hurdle pretty well. Well enough to know that tofu has them, in spades.
Poor tofu. Outside of the cuisines—primarily East and Southeast Asian—where it's beloved, it’s weathered too many back-to-the-lander/treehugger/Tofurkey punchlines, borne the pressure of having to “be” meat instead of itself, and been relegated to hard-to-find corners of the grocery store as a result.
And looking at a block of tofu may not give one many cues as to how to go about cooking it—I think that might be the hardest thing tofu has going for it. Chicken and steak and fish are easy: Season with salt and pepper, smear with butter or oil, roast or sear, and you’re golden. Tofu, without much visual or cultural context, offers no such clues. It admittedly requires a little more effort. We can turn to tofu-loving cultures for inspiration on flavor avenues to mosey down, techniques to prepare it, and how to serve it. Once you get the ball rolling, it will practically roll right out from under you. Tofu takes well to zillions of flavors, and it is very easy to love.
Tofu on its own is inexpensive and filling; that would be reason enough to eat it on the regular (and some do like it straight-up). But tofu, especially marinated and baked, is a valuable player on the weekday meal roster. It’s happy and happy-making in everything from a cabbage salad or a grain bowl to a taco or a bowl of soba noodles. Here’s a basic formula for making baked tofu, briefly marinated and then cooked hot and fast, my favorite way—and here’s to leaping the tofu hurdle.
Start by heating the oven to 400° F. Chop one block of firm or extra-firm tofu (usually 12 to 16 ounces) for every 3 people into 1-inch cubes; no need to press the tofu first. Alternately, slice the tofu into 4 planks: Stand the tofu on its thinner edge and slice down so you’re left with two squares, then slice each square in half—you can do rectangles or, if you’re feeling fancy, triangles or diamonds.
Set aside while you stir together all your marinade ingredients, whatever they may be, in a medium bowl. Then toss the cubed tofu with the marinade and let everything get to know each other (i.e., marinate) for at least 10 minutes or up to 45 before baking.
Hold up—what was that about a marinade?
This is the time to raid your fridge and pantry—there’s more than you think in there. This can be as simple as curry powder, salt, and oil; or as complex and funky as you want it to be. You’ll need about 3 tablespoons of oil per block of tofu; the rest is totally variable and to taste. Here are some ideas.
Spices: chile flakes, ground chiles, curry powder, smoked or sweet paprika, smashed seeds (like fennel, mustard, cumin, or coriander), garam masala, turmeric
Liquid sweeteners: honey, maple, agave, molasses, pomegranate molasses
Liquidish stuff: mustard (any kind, including grainy!), gochujang, Sriracha, miso, fruit juice (grapefruit, lime, lemon, pineapple, orange), canned chiles (like chipotles en adobo), soy sauce, peanut butter or other nut butters, mayonnaise, liquid aminos, harissa, the liquid from a jar of kimchi, curry paste
Minced or grated flavor-builders: ginger, scallions, garlic, onion, lemongrass, cilantro, mint, fresh chiles
Oils: olive, coconut, sesame, neutral
Seeds: sesame, poppy, flax
For sweet-salty teriyaki: 3 tablespoons honey + 3 tablespoons soy sauce + 1 tablespoon sesame oil + 2 tablespoons neutral oil + sesame seeds (Stir together the honey and soy sauce and simmer until slightly thickened, about 3 minutes, before pouring over tofu.)
For scratching your spicy-peanut butter itch: 2 tablespoons peanut butter (any kind) + 1 tablespoon Sriracha + 2 cloves minced garlic + 1 tablespoon sesame oil + 2 tablespoons neutral oil + chopped roasted and salted peanuts to serve
For the perfect tofu tacos: 3 cloves garlic, minced + 2 chipotles from a can of chipotles en adobo, minced + 2 spoonfuls of the adobo sauce from the can + salt + 3 tablespoons olive oil
For your lunchtime grain bowl: juice of 1 grapefruit + 1 inch of ginger, peeled and minced + salt + poppy seeds + chile flakes + 3 tablespoons melted coconut oil (Stir together the grapefruit juice and ginger and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5 minutes, before pouring over tofu.)
Pour the tofu and its marinade onto a baking sheet and bake about 20 to 25 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally (or, if you’re working with planks, flipping them halfway). The tofu should be golden and crisp at the edges. Taste a cube—and see if you go back for another.
Are you a baked tofu fan? Let us know your favorite ways to prepare it below.