A Guide to Tofu Types and What to Do With Them

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Clockwise from top left: Tofu Banh Mi from Hero Shop, LA; Agedashi Tofu from Otowa, Hiroshima; Pecan Crusted Tofu from No. 7, Brooklyn NYC; Eggplant and Tofu from Loving Hut, San Diego. [Photographs: Kelly Bone unless otherwise noted]

Tofu: you either love it, or you haven't had it prepared well. The jiggly soybean product has been around for eons—William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyag's History of Tofu dug up a mention of tofu in a Chinese text dating to 950 AD. Buddhist monks spread the good word about tofu across Japan and Korea, and a few centuries later, the protein made its way to the U.S. (Fun fact: Benjamin Franklin is the earliest known American to write about tofu, in a letter mailed —with soybean samples —from London to Philadelphia in 1770.) Packaged tofu cakes hit American grocery stores in the late 1950s, packed in water-filled, heat-sealed plastic bags. But tofu wasn't exactly an instant hit.

During its introduction to the US, tofu was mildly misunderstood by some to downright reviled by others. With a reputation as bland and boring, most American families shied away from the wobbly blocks. As recently as 1986, tofu was declared America's most loathed food. But the misunderstanding between Americans and tofu has eroded in recent years. In fact, tofu—high in protein, low in cost, and easy to work with—has come to endear itself to our country. Today, it's widely accepted and commonplace at many restaurants and grocers, where shoppers have a vast array of tofus to choose from.

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[Photograph: Daniel Klein]

But what is tofu, anyway? It's soybean milk—not from fuzzy green edamame pods, but from mature white soybeans—boiled, curdled, and pressed, similar to dairy cheese. The soybeans are soaked and ground into a slurry which is warmed with water, then strained to become soy milk. This milk is combined with a coagulant—traditionally nigari, the dried liquid (mostly magnesium chloride) that remains after common table salt has been removed from seawater. Other coagulants, such as magnesium chloride, calcium sulfate, or magnesium sulfate can be used as well. The soymilk and coagulant are simmered until the curds and whey separate, then placed into cloth-lined molds and pressed until the whey drains out. The amount of pressing time is relative to the quantity of curds and the desired firmness; it averages around 15-20 minutes. The longer it's pressed, the more whey is released and the firmer the finished product will become. More of a visual learner? See the process in these videos.

Prep Methods

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Cutting and draining block tofu

Before we get into all of the different kinds of tofu, let's take a minute to review some of the steps you should take to get your tofu ready for action. Because tofu has a high water content, it's wise to remove excess liquid to avoid diluting flavors or causing explosive frying incidents.

Raw: Pretty self-explanatory. Soft and silken tofu are ready to go right out of the package (though technically any tofu can be eaten raw). Drain off the excess water and eat up!

Draining/Blotting: For block tofu, I like to slit the package and drain out the packing water. At a minimum, all tofus (except the silkens—more on them in a minute) should be drained by placing them on an absorbent surface such as layered paper towels or a dish towel. Often 5-10 minutes will suffice; use this time to assemble your other ingredients.

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Top: planks of tofu soaking in salt water. Bottom: firm and extra firm blocks being pressed under tomato cans.

Pressed: This is the most common prep step in most tofu recipes. A block of medium to extra-firm tofu is sandwiched between a dish towel (waffle weave works best!) or paper towels. Place a flat surface on top, such as a dish or baking sheet, and weigh it down with a heavy item (28 ounce tomato cans are extremely well suited to this job).

Salt Soak and Draining: If pressing seems too complicated, you can bypass that step with a 15-minute soak in salt water. I was introduced to this technique through Andrea Nguyen's book Asian Tofu. She promotes it as a way to pre-season the tofu and create a crispier crust and texture. The soaking is followed by draining the tofu on a dish or paper towel.

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Frozen tofu

Frozen: You can also just freeze a whole block of tofu, but it's convenient to cut it into the sizes you want beforehand. Almost all the moisture is pulled out, compacting the curds and extracting the whey, leaving behind a spongy product that greedily absorbs sauces. Frozen tofu can be defrosted in the fridge, microwave, or tossed into boiling water. Boiling may sound counter-productive, but after freezing, the curds are so compact and water pockets so enlarged that liquid drains freely from the tofu with a gentle squeeze. I find it's best to drain and/or press the tofu first, or else you'll end up with a huge icy block.

Marinade: One the biggest myths about tofu is that it soaks up the ingredients around it. This is only true with the hyper-porous frozen tofu. Unless you have six hours to sous vide the tofu and completely transfuse the internal moisture content, don't expect a lot of flavor from a marinade. This myth was publicly busted in Deborah Madison's book This Can't Be Tofu, in which she champions the glazing method to infuse tofu with flavor. When glazing, tofu is pan fried—with or without oil— until golden. Then a marinade can be added, the fried exterior soaking up the flavors, and heat of the pan reducing the sauce to a clingy syrup.

Now, onto the tofu types!

Block Tofu

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The varying height and textures of block tofu

Block tofu is what you'll find most often at grocery stores and restaurants. Made using the curds and whey method explained above, it is sometime referred to as "cotton tofu" due to the fluffy texture of the curds. You'll find block tofu sold packed in water in plastic trays—a commercial-friendly storage method developed in 1966 by Shoan Yamauchi in Los Angeles.

Soft Block Tofu

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Soft tofu is pressed for the least amount of time of all the block tofus, allowing the curds to blend seamlessly into the remaining whey. This smooth block still has texture when broken up, as it often does with mild handling. It has a delicate body, similar to Jell-O, and a mild, milky flavor. Its similarity to soft desserts makes soft tofu a great neutral base for a sweet element; it works equally well in savory dishes. Because it has a high water content, soft tofu is not recommended for shallow frying—the sputtering and spit-back can be dangerous. But battering and deep frying—a method that fully envelops the cubes—produces wonderfully tender nuggets of soybean bliss.

How To Prep: Pressing soft tofu is not recommended as you will end up squishing it. It is best drained/blotted and raw.
Best Uses: Raw, pureed, boiled, or battered/deep fried.
Soft Block Tofu Recipes:

Medium Block Tofu

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Medium-firm tofu has a rougher texture than soft—curds are visible—but will still crack with handling. It can have a droopy appearance due to its moderate moisture content, and it's a good choice for dishes that don't require much manipulation, like braising or boiling. Because there is more whey in medium-firm tofu, it may break up during vigorous stir-frying, and pan-frying can lead to sad, deflated tofu planks.

How To Prep: Pressed, drained, salt soak, or frozen.
Best Uses: Battered, stir fried, baked, and fermented
Medium Block Tofu Recipes:

Firm Block Tofu

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This is the workhorse of the tofu family. If you're not sure which tofu to buy, a firm block will get you through most savory recipes. The curds in a firm block are tight and visible; it should feel solid with little give. Its firm body takes on a slight rubbery texture during cooking, which means you can handle this each block with [relatively] little fear. Firm tofu holds up quite well to frying and stuffing.

How To Prep: Pressed, drained, salt soak, or frozen.
Best Uses: Battered/crusted, baked, boiled, pan fried, stir fried, deep fried, glazed. Like I said —it's versatile.
Firm Block Tofu Recipes:

Extra Firm Block Tofu

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This is the most compact of the block tofus. The curds are tight and the block is noticeably squatter than all others. Its texture has the most chew, making this the tofu best suited to heartier dishes. It makes an ideal dairy-free substitution for paneer in Indian recipes, and it's our tofu of choice when you want to make crispy tofu worth eating.

How To Prep: Pressed, drained, salt soak, or frozen.
Best Uses: Battered/crusted, baked, boiled, pan-fried, stir-fried, deep-fried, glazed.
Extra Firm Block Tofu Recipes:

Silken Tofu

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Silken tofu is the next most common tofu style. It's made in a similar process to block tofu, except that the soymilk is coagulated without curdling the milk. It's also left unpressed, so every cake retains all of its moisture while cooling. Because curds never form, the tofu—be it soft, firm or extra firm—has a smooth and "silky" appearance. More delicate than a block tofu, silken tofus require delicate handling, lest they fall apart.

Soft Silken Tofu

Delicate and heavy, soft silken tofu falls through your fingers under its own water weight. It requires the careful handling of a poached egg, and will break like one if manipulated too much. It is particularly suited to saucy recipes such as dressings, smoothies, and egg or yogurt substitutions.

How To Prep: Raw, drained—do not press or freeze
Best Uses: Blended, room temperature, battered, sauce
Soft Silken Tofu Recipes:

Firm Silken Tofu

Firm silken tofu should never be confused or substituted for a firm block tofu. It also shouldn't be confused with soft silken tofu—firm silken is made from a denser soymilk, meaning less water was added during production of the milk. Firm silken tofu has a richer body that holds up better to handling. It's ideal for dishes where the silken tofu will be cut into and/or suspended in sauces while retaining its shape.

How To Prep: Raw, room temperature—do not press or freeze
Best Uses: Boiled, battered, lightly fried, fermented
Firm or Extra Firm Silken Tofu Recipes:

Extra Firm Silken Tofu

For most intents and purposes, extra firm silken tofu is exactly the same as firm silken. But if you like the machoness of an 'extra firm,' go for it.

Advanced Studies

Fresh Silken/Custard Tofu

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Fresh silken/custard tofu is best for the most delicate dishes. Because custard tofus are consumed with minimal preparation, your best bet is purchasing them fresh from a local manufacturer. Even the most prettily packaged mass produced ones taste flat and bitter. But if you can find a reliable local source, the light, slightly sweet and milky texture of a fresh silken/custard tofu is out of this world. Purchase fresh silken/custard tofu right before you need it, as this tofu turns quickly. When you see a pink/orange hue glaze the surface—sometimes as quickly as the next day—toss it. It's so delicate that the quality shouldn't be overshadowed by a complex preparation—use a soft silken or block tofu for that.

How To Prep:: Raw
Best Uses: Spoon into a bowl. Ladle over some miso/dashi broth and sprinkle with finely sliced scallions for a light savory dish, or drizzle with agave for a sweet treat.

Dry/Gan/Five Spice Tofu

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This is my personal favorite tofu style. The ultra-dense block is stained a deep purple/brown with seasoning (usually Chinese five spice powder), and it's baked and compacted into tight cubes. It closes the circle of tofu preparation, as a dry tofu—like soft silken— requires little to no cooking. On it's own, dry tofu has a flappy/rubbery feel, but its chewy texture plays well with anything soft. Chop it up, toss it into a noodle or brothy curry dish, and enjoy.

How To Prep:: No prep needed, simply remove package and go
Best Uses: Any dish where you want a chewy texture
Dry/Gan/Five Spice Tofu Recipes:

Smoked Tofu

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This extra-firm tofu is most often smoked in tea leaves, giving it a light hue and smokey flavor. Dry and dense, you can barely see the curds. It's very similar to dry tofu, but with a lighter upfront flavor. This tofu is tough—you could play a game of catch without it breaking.

How To Prep: No prep needed, simply remove package and go
Best Uses: Any dish where you're looking for a smokey and chewy texture
Smoked Tofu Recipes:

Inari

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One last option, for extra credit: these sweet and salty prepared fried tofu pockets, called inari. This Japanese snack is made of deep fried tofu that's been puffed up and hollowed out, like a pita bread, then simmered in a sugar and soy sauce. Inari comes pressed flat, and when cut in half, forms pockets that can be stuffed with rice. This is a simple sushi style with relatively uncomplicated execution. I personally prefer to just buy inari, as the at-home recipes I've tried never turn out to my liking, though some may find commercial inari too sweet. Inari is also an excellent addition to udon or soba soups.

How To Prep: No prep needed, simply remove package and go
Best Uses: Stuffed with sushi rice or added to brothy soups
Inari Recipes:

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