Like many people growing up in Iowa in the 1980’s, my diet did not involve a lot of tofu.
To my 9-year-old eyes, tofu was that weird square-shaped water balloon in the grocery store, with liquid bulging against its plastic sides.
It wasn’t anything that we kept in our house. And even if it had been in the top drawer of the refrigerator, I would have had no idea what to do with it.
I probably ate it at the mall food court in the soup that was served with every chow mein order. But it would be years and years and years until I’d make it myself. Make that 30 years.
I didn’t even attempt preparing tofu until I was 30 and had gone vegetarian. It seemed like one of those veg rights of passage…
Must buy a vegetarian-themed t-shirt, must go to a veg festival, and must attempt tofu.
Admittedly, my beginning trials were not great. I wondered if it was best left to the professionals – like cutting your bangs, doing your taxes, and sword swallowing.
In restaurants I didn’t mind tofu swimming in soup or fried in chunks on a curry, but at home, I was underwhelmed.
Many scrambles and stir-fries later, not only did I learn how to cook tofu, I also fell in love with it.
It could soak up any flavor that it encountered. It could be a filling breakfast in scramble-form, an easy tofu salad at lunch, and baked in slices at dinner.
It wasn’t only a chameleon in flavor. It was a shape shifter in texture too.
Soft and creamy, fried and crisp, or dense and chewy. Depending on preparation, tofu was a bean-of-all-trades.
There was just one problem. With the exception of dishes like tofu scrambles and breakfast burritos, tofu took planning and forethought.
Those water-packed packages had to be drained. Then the tofu needed to press.
Tofu is like a sponge, and the water inside of it needed to be squeezed out to make room for a marinade and to attain a dense, toothsome texture.
I had a hardcover copy of Veganomicon that got double duty as a tofu press. First a plate, then a layer of towels, then the tofu cut in slices, then another towel, then the book, and finally, a kettlebell.
And then I waited…
I remember so many nights as a newbie vegetarian, hungry and sitting on the couch, waiting an hour for tofu to press, an hour for it to marinate, and finally 40 minutes for it to bake. It’s a wonder my relationship with tofu got off the ground at all. Eventually I picked up two tofu presses, and that took away the precarious Jenga-aspect of tofu. (Plus, it saved me from being asked incredulously, “Why do you have a hardcover book in the refrigerator?”)
But ultimately, my tofu game got streamlined in just two easy steps:
1. I stopped pressing it.
I discovered super firm tofu in vacuum packages. Instead of being packed in water, these aseptic packages hold a very dry block of tofu in just a thin layer of water. After pouring that tiny amount out of the package, the tofu doesn’t have to be pressed before using. It can be sliced or diced and go directly into a skillet to be fried with a little oil and pinch of salt, tamari, and/or squeeze of lime. Or it’s ready to go into a marinade or be baked.
The two brands that I buy are Wildwood SprouTofu and Trader Joe’s Super Firm. The texture is a little drier and more dense than the tofu that comes packaged in cups water. It took a little getting used to, but now I prefer it that way. I use it for almost everything. I buy the large 20-ounce blocks and simply slice down what I need throughout the week.
2. I stopped marinating it.
Okay, I make some exceptions occasionally. But for the most part, I “bake in” the marinade instead. Basically, I bake out any additional liquid inside of the tofu for the first half of the cooking time and then bake in the marinade for the second half.
Here’s how it works: I bake the tofu slices with little oil and tamari for 20 minutes. Then I add a marinade and bake it for another 20 minutes, in which it can soak up all of those flavors.
I learned about that method from the Latin Baked Tofu recipe in Viva Vegan. Then I used the same method on my favorite baked tofu recipe, Lemon Rosemary Tofu. What used to be an hour and forty minute process is now just 40 minutes. (You can find the original version here, a grilled version, and finally the press-free version. For the press-free version, just add a teaspoon of dried rosemary at the same time as the lemon juice.)
For more mouthwatering tofu recipes that don’t involve pressing or marinating, check out these favorites: