Tofu

Crispy, Custardy Baked Tofu That Just Happens to Be the Easiest

April 30, 2018

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.

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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.

Make your next Tuesday a Tofu Taco Tuesday. Photo by Julia Gartland

GET READY

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.

GET SET

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.

  • Want to make it crispy? Add a tablespoon of cornstarch to the marinade.
  • For a hearty, almost-one-pan meal (just add a cooked grain!), add broccoli or cauliflower florets, small cubes of sweet potato or squash, cherry tomatoes, whole scallions, sliced onions, or sliced mushrooms (when you add the tofu); or asparagus, snow or sugar snap peas, kale, spinach, or other greens (in the last 7-ish minutes of roasting). Toss with a little salt, pepper, and oil or some of the same tofu marinade before adding to the sheet pan.

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

Further Encouragement

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.)

GO!

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.

6 Comments

Ttrockwood June 26, 2018
I cook and eat a LOT of tofu! I’m also in a rental apt with a totally crummy oven, so i avoid it. I like different tofu textures for different dishes- for tacos i use just firm tofu and crumble it into a hot pan with a little oil and usually just add a half packet of “taco seasoning” for that serious retro flavor. <br />My other favorite is extra firm tofu cut in rectangles and seared brushed with some soy sauce and sesame oil. <br />Although when i get the really delicious delicate fresh soft tofu from the korean market i will just eat it chilled as is with a garnish of soy sauce, sesame seeds, and furikake.
 
Stephanie B. April 30, 2018
My preferred way to cook tofu is from a laksa recipe somewhere on food52 which has you soak the tofu in boiling salted water for about 15min(?) and then fry it. I now do this soaking step almost every time I make firm tofu, both with and without marinades, for baking or frying. I don't know exactly what's going on with the soak but I really like the texture of the tofu with this method. I never disliked tofu though.
 
txchick57 May 1, 2018
I tried that too. It does work. I love tofu and eat it by the block. I probably eat more tofu in a year than any Chinese or Japanese. Like every day. 365 days a year.
 
jennyuj April 30, 2018
Respectfully, no Japanese person would look at tofu and see an absence of cultural context.
 
Author Comment
Caroline L. May 1, 2018
Hi jennyuj—I completely agree! It might not be totally clear in the piece above; what I mean is that tofu might lack the visual representation outside Japan (and other Southeast and East Asian countries and cuisines) that it has within it. I hope that makes sense; I certainly wouldn't want to suggest an absence of cultural context in general. There's lots of it! Thanks for commenting.
 
Andreeea April 30, 2018
Buy good quality firm tofu, slice thinly (a bit more thick than a £1 coin), fry on medium high until crispy gold crust forms. Serve with sauce on the side (peanut / satay is very good) to prevent sogginess / sauce spitting nightmare.