Tofu is rich in protein, and it's a staple in vegan and vegetarian diets... but it doesn't have the best reputation.
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Tofu can be mushy and unpalatable — it has a soft texture, and on its own, it's flavorless. Still, there's a reason why people around the world enjoy it: When prepared correctly, tofu can be a crispy and flavorful source of important nutrients. Half a cup of firm tofu contains 22 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and 66 percent of your daily requirement for calcium, according to the USDA.
Can't get the hang of cooking tofu? Try these chef-approved tips to make crispy tofu.
1. Use Firm Tofu
When perusing the tofu aisle in most grocery stores, you'll notice many varieties to choose from. Some of the most common types of tofu include firm, super firm and soft. Chefs tend to recommend varieties on the firm side for cooking.
"Using a firm version will help your tofu stay crispy as you cook it," says Leslie Durso, a vegan professional chef.
2. Drain and Press the Tofu
When you open a package of tofu, you may notice it's filled with water. This water keeps the tofu fresh and prevents it from drying out. But the moisture in fresh tofu prevents it from getting crispy in your pan.
"Moisture creates steam, which is what you want very little of when seeking a crisp exterior," explains Olivia Roszkowski, a chef and culinary educator. Drain the water and press the tofu to draw out moisture for 15 to 20 minutes, she says.
You can cover the tofu with paper towels and press evenly with a cutting board to squeeze out the excess moisture, per the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Or, you can use a tofu press ($20, Amazon).
3. Add Cornstarch Before Seasoning
Sure, flour may help with crispiness, but the ingredient chefs want you to reach for is cornstarch. Incorporating cornstarch into your tofu recipe helps reduce its moisture. It also mixes with seasoning nicely, giving your spices something to latch onto.
"Coating tofu in a thin layer of cornstarch will also absorb excess moisture, allowing it to crisp better when fried, stir-fried, baked or air-fried," Roszkowski says.
"Coat the exterior of the tofu in naturally crunchy items such as crushed cornflakes or cornmeal. The smaller the pieces, the easier the adherence. You can dip in a binder such as egg, flax egg or egg alternative before coating."
“For the crispiest tofu, give it a breadcrumb coating at the end,” says Ann Ziata, a chef at the Institute of Culinary Education. “After you’ve cut your tofu, dredge each piece in flour or cornmeal. Then, quickly dip it in soy milk or an egg wash and coat completely in panko or breadcrumbs. Fry and serve seasoned with salt.”
4. Season Tofu With a Dry Rub
The key to crispy tofu is reducing the moisture as much as possible. To do this, chef Susy Massetti recommends choosing dry seasonings to add flavor without the moisture.
"I personally use dry rubs rather than liquid condiments when I need my tofu to be crispy, and I always mix my spices with cornstarch."
5. Cook Tofu Separately
Tofu is a common ingredient in stir fry recipes. These often contain mixed ingredients like a protein source and vegetables. But cooking all the ingredients in one pan could result in mushy tofu.
Or, crowding the tofu — with too many tofu pieces or other ingredients — can prevent the crispy texture you desire.
"Whether you are cooking the tofu on its own or as part of a stir-fry, it's always best to cook the tofu separately from the rest of the ingredients," Ziata says. "Adding everything at once will make the tofu crumble and absorb too much moisture."
6. Fry Tofu in a Pan
If you're new to tofu and not sure how to cook it the right way, pan-frying is a beginner-friendly method. Get a good frying pan and high-quality oil. Heat the oil before adding the tofu pieces and spread them around so they aren't touching.
"Pan-frying is a great way to get your tofu crispy — you just have to make sure to leave the tofu alone," Durso says. "Leave the tofu in the pan until it comes free when you shake the pan around. If you try to flip too early, it could break."
Once the tofu pieces are golden brown on one side, flip them. It's tempting, but don't stir them too often or they won't crisp up or stay intact.
7. Cook Tofu in a Wok With a Quality Oil
Of all the cookware and bakeware to choose from, chefs tend to favor a deep wok or skillet for achieving the crispiest tofu. This shouldn't come as a surprise as it's what you're most likely to see in restaurants.
"Use a wok or a deep, wide cast-iron skillet," recommends Kiele-Jael Stanton, a chef based in Austin, Texas. "Add some good quality oil with a high smoke point, such as avocado oil or grapeseed oil. Make sure the oil gets hot with a temperature of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Use at least 3 cups of oil or enough so it fills the skillet about 2 inches deep."
8. Spread Tofu Pieces Evenly
Durso's top tip for making extra crispy tofu is to give it enough room in the pan.
"Don't crowd your tofu," she says. "Whether you are pan-frying, baking or air-frying, making sure your tofu is not touching is essential to get it nice and crispy."
9. Cook Tofu in an Air Fryer
Using an air fryer is an easy way to get your tofu to crisp up. Air fryers work by circulating hot air, so your food gets crispy on all sides. This method also requires significantly less oil than deep frying, so it's a more nutritious way to make crispy foods.
"Use an air fryer to add crisp to smaller pieces. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size," says Jennifer Welper, an executive chef at the Mayo Clinic Diet.
10. Roast Tofu in a Convection Oven
If you don't want to deep-fry your tofu and you don't have an air fryer, you can still achieve crispy tofu in a convection oven. Roasting tofu takes about 15 minutes at 350 F, according to the Harvard T.H. School of Public Health.
"Use convection mode on your oven for about 15 to 20 minutes and lightly spray nonstick cooking oil on top of the tofu. Once the tofu is cooked, shake it around and cook for about 8 minutes more," Welper says.
11. Cook Tofu at High Temperatures
The temperature you use on your stovetop burner, air fryer or convection can affect the crispiness of your tofu. When in doubt, use higher temperatures.
"Crisping occurs at a high temperature, at a medium to high flame and in a pan that is not overcrowded," Roszkowski says. "If using a metal baking pan to bake, heat it in a hot oven for 10 minutes before arranging and baking the tofu."
Just make sure your oil and cookware can withstand the high cooking temperature.