The Best Ways to Cook Tofu, From Air Frying to Baking and Braising

Cookbook author Maggie Zhu shares her favorite methods.

Fried Black Rice with Ginger Tofu and Spinach
Photo: Johnny Miller

If there's one ingredient you should keep stocked in your fridge, it's tofu. The versatile, typically inexpensive, and often-overlooked plant-protein is essential in so many Asian recipes and can be used across a variety of cuisines as a meat substitute or to add extra protein and flavor.

Made from soybean curd, tofu is a daily food across Asia. If you're not using tofu regularly, you're missing out—and we're here to change that. "In general, it's a very easy ingredient to use. You can just take it out of the fridge at any time to make a very simple recipe," says Maggie Zhu, author of Chinese Homestyle: Everyday Plant-Based Recipes for Takeout, Dim Sum, Noodles, and More. "You can season it however you want, and it can be very, very flavorful, and have a great texture—crispy, tender, and chewy."

Here's everything you need to know about cooking with tofu, thanks to Zhu's expertise.

Before You Cook

Here's what to keep in mind when food shopping—and how to prep tofu before it hits the heat.

Buying Tofu

In the United States, tofu is typically sold in blocks of varying texture—silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra firm. Certain types are preferable for different recipes. "I rotate my type of tofu," Zhu says. "In the U.S., the firm and extra firm tofus are the most popular, but medium and soft have a very nice texture."

She prefers silken tofu, which is like a curd, for soups, braises, and cold dishes, and says firm and extra firm work well for stir-fries and rice dishes.


Tofu presses have become a popular commodity on the home cooking internet, but pressing tofu isn't essential to cooking this protein. "I rarely press my tofu," Zhu says. "A lot of chefs recommend pressing tofu because it will make the texture firm up and make it less watery."

If you're marinating tofu, Zhu recommends a brief press to allow the tofu to absorb more juice. If you're using soft or medium tofu, don't press it—you'll ruin the delicate texture.

How to Press Tofu

Start by patting the tofu dry with paper towels. Then squeeze out the water over the sink—that's all Zhu does. You can also let paper towel-wrapped tofu rest on a cutting board with a heavy object on top, such as a skillet or a cookbook. Just don't over-do it. "[Over-pressing] can destroy the texture and [cause the tofu to] become tough," Zhu says.


Tofu can be used straight out of the package, but marinating it adds extra oomph. "When I marinate tofu, I add my seasoning and cornstarch. It won't get super watery," Zhu says. "Usually the easiest way is to use salt, paper, shaoxing wine [a Chinese cooking wine], and cornstarch."

Another easy marinade she loves is 2 parts soy sauce to 1 part maple syrup.

How to Marinate Tofu

  1. Add cut or torn pieces of tofu to a resealable freezer bag holding the marinade. Let it sit for 15 to 20 minutes.
  2. Drain and coat the tofu with cornstarch for extra crunch before cooking.

Zhu recommends using a sealable freezer bag for marinating, since it helps the tofu stay in contact with the marinade better than it would in a dish. This technique can work with any flavors or brines you love. Lemon pepper tofu? Italian dressing tofu? Barbecue tofu with liquid smoke? Go for it.

crumbled tofu tacos
Nico Schinco

The Best Ways to Cook Tofu

Now, your tofu is ready for cooking. Here are Zhu's six favorite methods.

Stir Frying

Stir-frying is Zhu's go-to method for cooking tofu—it's efficient, delicious, and versatile. "I make a lot of tofu and broccoli, General Tso's tofu, and Kung Pao tofu. Pan-fried tofu gets a nice crisp texture outside, but stays soft inside," she says.

How to Stir-Fry Tofu

  1. Gently press the tofu, marinate, and coat in cornstarch (see above).
  2. Add to a wok or pan preheated with cooking oil and let fry for one to two minutes so it crisps on the bottom.
  3. Flip and let cook for another one to two minutes. Gently stir and serve.


Baked tofu is a hands-off way to make a protein-packed entrée that you can use in place of any roasted protein. "Tofu soaks up the flavor while it [bakes]," Zhu says.

How to Bake Tofu

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Cut tofu into triangles or planks. Brush with soy sauce, chili pepper, toasted sesame oil, and any other seasoning.
  2. Bake tofu for 15 to 20 minutes, flipping once midway through.

Air Frying

Your air fryer and tofu are about to become best friends. "I like to use the air fryer for an oil-free deep-fried tofu recipe," Zhu says. "Just cut it up and throw it in the air fryer for little protein bites that crisp up naturally. They're so golden and chewy."

How to Air-Fry Tofu

  1. Preheat the air fryer to 390°F.
  2. Cube the tofu. Toss it in soy sauce and cornstarch. Add a little sesame oil, if desired.
  3. Add the tofu to the air fryer and cook for five minutes.

You can also replicate this process at 400°F in a convection oven.


Braising is a great way to let the tofu absorb a multitude of flavors and also tenderizes it. The technique is used in mapo tofu, one of Zhu's favorite dishes—and one of the recipes she cooks most frequently at home. "You don't need to do much," she says.

How to Braise Tofu

  1. Dice soft tofu and cook for eight to 10 minutes over medium heat in a good broth, so the "tofu absorbs tons of flavor," says Zhu.
  2. To add texture to braised tofu, try cutting the tofu into larger rectangles or triangles, lightly fry them (similar to browning meat before a braise), and then braise.


Steaming is another one of Zhu's go-to methods. She likes to use it when cooking silken tofu, which "can have a very soybean-forward taste when it's raw," she says. "But if you want to serve something [that is] really light, steamed tofu drains off the water and cooks off the raw taste."

How to Steam Tofu

  1. Slice silken or soft tofu into squares or blanks, and arrange it in a steamer over boiling water. Steam for three to five minutes.
  2. While the tofu is cooking, make a sauce (combining soy sauce with chili crisp is an easy option).
  3. Remove the tofu from the heat and drizzle with sauce.

Tofu Crumbles

If you're skipping ground meat or reducing how much meat you eat, homemade tofu crumbles are the way to go. "I like to use these in noodles or in a lettuce wrap. They have a ground meat texture," Zhu says. She'll also use them as a topping for Dan Dan Noodles.

How to Make Tofu Crumbles

  1. Place half a block of tofu and an equal amount of walnuts in a food processor. Pulse to blend. Mixture should retain some texture (not super fine; some texture should remain).
  2. Sauté with soy sauce. The mixture should be gooey, not crispy, and distribute nicely, so that it grabs onto the noodles and adds texture to the dish.

If you don't eat nuts, Zhu recommends dicing tofu into ¼-inch to ½-inch squares, frying the square in oil, and being patient while they brown. They'll become super crispy bites, like ground meat, to use in lettuce wraps or as a topping.

Other Tofu Products to Try

Think beyond the block—there are other tofu products to try, Zhu says. She recommends shopping at an Asian grocery store to find them. She loves the fried tofu, or tofu pups; it's airy and fluffy and can be chopped up and added to stir fries or soups for more protein or flavor. Zhu is also a fan of yuba sheets—which can be used like spring roll wrappers—and smoked tofu, which can be sliced into thin, thread-like noodles and won't break apart.

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