March 23, 2013

How To Get Perfectly Browned Tofu

by IsaChandra

Perfectly Browned Tofu

I received this question on Facebook after posting Rice Noodle Salad With Grapefruit-Sriracha Vinaigrette:

“What is the secret to getting nicely browned, crispyish tofu, like what a restaurant would serve? Mine always comes out kinda soft, mushy, etc. I recently tried a firmer tofu – I even pressed out the water. It was better, but still not what I was hoping for. Any tips?

Signed, Soggy Soy In Sacramento”

Dear Soggy Soy,
You are definitely off to a good start by using firmer tofu. I recommend extra-firm tofu, but you can even find super-firm varieties. And yes, pressing tofu is great for soaking up marinade. But the secret to nicely browned tofu isn’t necessarily the tofu itself. The secret is (cue ominous music)….your equipment.

Now, I’m not saying to go out and purchase a $12,000 Viking stove (but if you get one, pick one up for me, too.) The tools I recommend are affordable objects that will take you a long, long way.

1) A cast iron pan. A well-seasoned cast iron pan, to be specific. Even a good quality stainless steel pan won’t do the trick, unless you’re frying it in tons of oil. And even then, your “mush risk” may be high. And those cheapo non-stick pans, well, they may work for a few months, but yuck.

Cast iron will last you a lifetime. And through that lifetime, it’s functions will only improve, because the more you use it, the smoother and more non-stick it becomes.

Because it heats quickly and evenly, it’s ideal for tossing around tofu with minimal oil, without fear or burning or mushing. And another added benefit is that it can go from stovetop to oven, if you ever need to finish something off down below. So get yourself a preseasoned cast iron pan and fall in love. Or better yet, steal a really well-seasoned one from your best friend’s mom, like I did. It’s from the seventies and works like a charm!

And the next most important tool is….

2) A thin, flexible metal spatula. Nothing fancy. Those big ergonomic plastic spatulas may seem friendly, but they’re like clumsy uncles on the dancefloor, tripping everyone else up. You can tell just by looking at them: they are way too thick to flip tofu efficiently. Even if you get your tofu perfectly browned, the spatula can not physically get under the browning to keep it intact. Instead, it tears the “skin” off, leaving the beautifully cooked layer stuck to the pan, and a sad mushy piece of tofu floating around willy nilly.

Before you ask: Wooden spatula? No, pretty much the same problem. Save that for soups. Thin plastic spatula? Uh-uh. Not strong and not precise enough. Some other kind of metal spatula? Not those stiff stainless steel ones. Your spatula needs flexibility. It’s all about sneaking it’s way between the browned surface and the pan.

The good/bad part is that they don’t make spatulas like they used to. The best ones that I’ve found come from thrift stores, and cost under a dollar. Fancy-ass kitchen supply stores tend to only carry the tofu-hating kinds of spatulas. So if you’re buying new, look for those super cheap ones in your supermarket or at a dollar store.

Allow these Instagrams to demonstrate:

Now that we’ve got the equipment covered, let me give you a little advice on actually sauteeing your tofu.

Preheat the cast-iron pan to medium. Don’t add tofu to a cold or luke-warm pan. It needs to hit heat so that it can sear. If you don’t hear a sizzle immediately, your heat is too low. Don’t be shy, turn it up.

Always lightly oil the pan before adding the tofu. A little spray of oil should do it. In fact, I think the less oil you use, the better. You can add a little more as needed during cooking.

Once tofu is in the pan, sprinkle with a little salt, for flavor and for drawing out the moisture.

Let it cook for a few minutes before flipping. The beginning stages of cooking, when the water is being drawn out, aren’t ideal for flipping. The skin may be adhering to the surface of the pan too much. But in a few minutes, when it’s lightly browned, it will release, and become easy to sneak your spatula underneath to flip.

And, that is pretty much it. Flip tofu to brown on all sides, but don’t fuss over getting it perfectly uniform. It really shouldn’t need more than 10 minutes. Then your tofu is ready to be smothered in sauces, stuffed into sandwiches and sacrificed in stir-fries. If you use this method, you don’t even need to press the tofu beforehand, a cursory squeeze over the sink should suffice, just to get a bit of the water out.

So, I hope this wasn’t so long as to be intimidating. Really, it’s nothing. You flip some tofu around in a hot pan. End of story. End of mush. Now let’s get some tofu browning!

Browning tofu

And if you want to read more about cast iron and seasoning, here are a few great links:
A very thorough investigation of cast-iron seasoning and upkeep

How to season a cast-iron skillet. But read the entire series on the Ktchn.

  • March 23, 2013 at 5:36 pm: Dru

    Our electric griddle works like a charm as well! No oil.

  • March 23, 2013 at 5:40 pm: Lauren

    It also helps to bake it before you put it in the pan…I cut it into cubes, bake at 350 for ten minutes, flip, and back for another ten. THEN hit up the cast iron with a metal spatula, and you’ve got perfect tofu :)

  • March 23, 2013 at 5:42 pm: ok

    or you can just bake it in an oven, and you don’t even have to press it or worry about burning it! preheat oven to 400 degrees. toss cubed tofu with oil and some soy sauce, put on baking pan, bake for 15 minutes. take out oven, turn tofu with a spatula, bake for 10 more minutes.

    voila! perfect, delicious tofu!

  • March 23, 2013 at 5:55 pm: Nancy

    agree, I just cut into cubes, spray with olive oil and bake the shit out (30 min) of it, it’s browned, and crisp

  • March 23, 2013 at 6:06 pm: Anna

    We finally replaced the almond electric stove with broken burners with a new gas stove that has a “griddle in the middle.” The griddle is cast iron and works perfectly for tofu.

  • March 23, 2013 at 6:27 pm: Nancy K

    A light dusting of corn starch (toss tofu that has been patted dry and cubed up in a ziplock baggie with a couple of spoonfuls of corn starch) before frying will crisp things up wonderfully too!

  • March 23, 2013 at 6:40 pm: Emma

    All my spatulas are in the no picture! I guess I’m going shopping!
    I do have a cast-iron though so at least I’m more than half way there…
    Thanks for being a super-star as usual Isa :)

  • March 23, 2013 at 6:52 pm: Amanda

    I live in Sac Town just like Soggy Soy and have found All my cast iron pans at the thrift stores around here. Bonus-They are usually already seasoned to perfection!

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:03 pm: melissa

    i have two ways to brown my tofu:
    broiling works great! i cube it, toss it with sesame oil, crushed garlic, grated ginger, s/p and throw it under the broiler for about 5-7 min, take it out and toss around, then back under the broiler again for about the same amount of time
    i also do something i like to call ‘dry fry’ where i slice up the tofu and just throw it into a non-stick pan (i’m getting a new stove and am going to invest in some cast iron) on high heat (no oil) and let it brown on one side, then flip, then brown on the other side. then, sometimes i’ll throw in a marinade that at a high heat, turns into a glaze. heaven!
    thanks for the tips Issa!

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:34 pm: Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar

    This looks absolutely lovely! Nothing like a cast iron skillet to make tofu perfect. Yum!

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm: Scott

    Really though, “if you ever need to finish something off down below”…

    • March 23, 2013 at 8:20 pm: IsaChandra

      Should I rephrase?

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:44 pm: Scott

    I’ve learned that freezing tofu and thawing it before frying (I’m in the cast-iron camp) gives it an entirely different texture and makes it easier to press– when you squeeze the block over the sink it holds up much better than when fresh, so you can get even more moisture out.

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:49 pm: Daniel Green

    Thank you for this. Just got a cast iron skillet and now I know what I’ll use it for. If anyone is looking for really good, really firm tofu, check out SoyBoy:

  • March 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm: Leeree

    Okay. I’m going in to the kitchen right now & frying me up some tofu. This place makes me so hungry! Not complaining though.

  • March 23, 2013 at 8:35 pm: wendy (healthy girls kitchen)

    I have to agree with the other commenters-oven roasting tofu (you can press and marinate it first or just sprinkle a little low sodium soy sauce on it) is DA BOMB! The consistency of the finished product is perfect every time.

  • March 23, 2013 at 10:45 pm: JennO

    Thank you so…so…much! I, like your Facebook friend, am always frustrated with how my tofu ends up soggy and marvel when the tofu at restaurants is perfect…crispy out/ moist in. Now I know their secret! Thanks for sharing this tip.

  • March 24, 2013 at 1:49 am: Sarah C

    I agree completely – this is the only way. My husband figured this method out a few years ago and it’s been all tofu bliss since then! As for the spatula – I have a recommendation. Sounds strange (and not exactly cheap, but worth it and since a cast iron pan is never more than $20 it all balances out), but you must get a fish spatula. I got one from Williams Sonoma, and it’s the best thing ever for tofu (and lots of stuff): it’s super thin and long, so you can get up under the beautiful crisp skin and flip even bigger pieces of tofu with no breakage.

  • March 24, 2013 at 11:16 am: Daniel

    I love this blog more and more. Every post is brilliant. Thanks so much.

  • March 24, 2013 at 1:14 pm: AshYTim

    Loved this post! You are such a great writer:]

  • March 24, 2013 at 5:55 pm: Gina

    I really appreciate this post; good question, SS in S. And good to have your response, PPK. I, too, am in the cast iron camp. I have lived around the world–including the region where tofu first emerged–and have used all sorts of pans and spatulas in attempts to achieve the browned tofu cubes you describe. Unfortunately, one cannot really pack a cast iron skillet in ones already bulging, overweight suitcases/gigantic duffel bags, when prioritizing what to take to live in a remote overseas location for a year or two. But what one CAN do is order this highly transportable item from Amazon and take it along to whichever country. This so-called “cookie spatula” is my number one spatula when not able to use a cast iron skillet (most of the last 15 years). Highly recommended.

  • March 24, 2013 at 10:55 pm: Hannah @ TalesFromTheLastFrontier

    This is a great tutorial! There are so many ways to do tofu (oven, stovetop, etc) but there are also soooo many ways to end up with a mushy pile of yuck. And, nobody wants mushy tofu!

  • March 25, 2013 at 4:09 pm: Wendy

    I used this recipe yesterday and my tofu came out great. I used potato starch and nutritional yeast and a little sesame oil.

  • March 25, 2013 at 6:14 pm: m

    Kind of a funny question, but do you have a recommendation between firm and extra firm tofu? My mom is a big fan of extra firm (and thus so am I), but I am beginning to be curious.

    Also. I just discovered this site. I’m super excited about it and so, thank you. :) I’ll be trying many a recipe ASAP.

    • March 25, 2013 at 7:33 pm: IsaChandra

      I use extra firm.

  • March 26, 2013 at 2:48 am: Dan

    Super firm Nasoysa is great. It presses really well and cooks great. I prefer using a ceramic non stick pan / wok.

  • March 26, 2013 at 5:11 am: j-dub

    For those looking for a spatula, I just found a perfect thin, flexible, metal spatula at Ikea for about $5 (let’s not ponder the ethics of that). It’s this guy: Works like a charm every time!

  • March 26, 2013 at 2:57 pm: Jojo

    I love this post Isa! I especially love the Instagram spatula guide and I’ll be using your cast iron tips soon.

  • March 26, 2013 at 4:26 pm: doug

    So, after all that crap, how do I brown tofu?

    • March 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm: IsaChandra

      You’ll have to actually read the post. Sorry for the inconvenience!

  • March 26, 2013 at 5:56 pm: Hoodwinked

    I do love frying my tofus in the cast iron but lately I also have been baking them in my toaster oven. It comes out sooo much better (and quicker) than baking in the regular oven; the concentrated heat and all.

  • March 26, 2013 at 6:15 pm: JDS

    I have found cast iron does a very uneven job of heating. My pan of choice is the thicker anodized version of Cuisinart Green Gourmet – – this has an inert ceramic coating, with none of the off-gassing nasties of Teflon(tm) – – and is non-stick. Thus very little oil produces uniform browning. I use a bamboo spatula that is remarkably effective as well as non-stick friendly. It all works great.

  • March 26, 2013 at 7:19 pm: April

    My preference is to press the tofu dry for 1/2 hour or longer. Cube and toss the cubes in a bowl of himalayan salt and organic corn starch. Sautee stir fry style or oven bake. This makes tofu perfectly browned each time.

  • March 27, 2013 at 10:21 pm: Bean woman

    Great article. Getting the pan hot and not touching, turning the food before it browns and releases it’s self is one of the hardest things to do. Step back away from the pan, put the spatula down. Draining the extra firm and then lightly flouring it with seasoned flour helps also. The seasoned flour can have any seasonings you can dream up.

  • March 30, 2013 at 9:09 pm: Sylvia

    I tried this today for the first time. It worked perfectly! Thank you so much for showing us how to brown tofu. If you can’t find a metal spatula at a local store, this thin metal cookie spatula works very well.

  • April 10, 2013 at 12:03 am: Malinda

    It worked great! Thank you for the tips!

  • May 3, 2013 at 12:33 am: laura

    I think a fish slice spatula is probably perfect for this, they are slim and flexible, but strong. sometimes called a fish turner.

  • May 17, 2013 at 5:48 am: Jenn

    Thanks so much for this post! I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly 20 years and never been able to brown tofu–it’s always stuck in the past and made a mess. However, with your guidance, I turned out perfect tofu in a single try. I’m not sure what made the difference, but I’m thrilled!

  • June 27, 2013 at 4:28 pm: Amandar

    If you have trouble finding a spatula, a fish turner works well too. I bought one at TJ Maxx after months of looking for one to replace my perfect spatula after it broke. Dollar store is not really an option, the cheap ones break easily. Thanks for the thrift store idea, i’m going to start hoarding spatulas.

    Seriously, why the crap don’t they make good spatulas anymore?!

  • July 31, 2013 at 1:41 am: Neil

    As one of the employees of Viking Range, I am truly honored that you would mention our products on your blog. We work really hard to build the ultimate kitchen appliances for people who care about their food. Remember, everything taste better when cooked on a Viking!

  • August 1, 2013 at 8:09 pm: Larry L.

    Excellent way to brown tofu, tried every other way possible, this is the best and healthiest way yet,
    thank goodness I have a 12″ cast iron frying pan, well cured over 20 years, Want to boot myself fot not thinking of this was sooner..

  • August 29, 2013 at 11:10 pm: Jane

    Great advice. Tonight, I used a little coconut oil. Divine.

  • September 22, 2013 at 8:32 pm: Yodamom

    Thank you ! I tried my cast iron Dutch over and it worked great ! years, many, many years of soggy skinless tofu and this was the secret. ~sigh~ better late than never

  • October 16, 2013 at 5:30 am: サマンサ disney

    ヴィトン カバン

  • December 14, 2013 at 8:44 pm: Delo

    Ok,, go to your hardware store and get a “dry wall spatula”. Cheap stainless and works great! :)

  • December 24, 2013 at 6:21 am: Joshua

    Never cooked tofu before this evening, but have eaten it in many fine establishments around the world. Followed your instructions to the letter and met with great success, was even accused of having tofu cooking experience by those who partook in the meal. Thanks for your clear and helpful guidance!

  • January 7, 2014 at 4:54 pm: Yoli

    Loved your style of writing! Thanks!

  • February 10, 2014 at 4:38 am: Anna

    Perfect! Thanks so much. You are right, the thin spatula, seasoned cast iron pan (mine pre-dates the 70s, even) and high heat are key. It’s the first time in 30 years of eating tofu that I got my tofu crisped up just right. There is even a chance my kids will go for it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

  • February 13, 2014 at 7:38 pm: Kelli

    Whoa, I just did this then mixed the tofu into some Seeds of Change quinoa. YUMMM

  • February 23, 2014 at 8:49 pm: Amy

    This actually worked! I’m impressed with my direction-following skillz.

  • April 16, 2014 at 8:43 am: CPP

    Hi Thanks, lots of laughs (lol?) & info.

    (Tofu-hater – its bad for u, u know if unfermented)

  • May 4, 2014 at 5:00 pm: florence marie

    thanks for the good info – will follow your directives soonest. couple edit fixes for you: “it’s functions” is possessive – so should be “its functions” not to be confused with “it’s nothing” which is a contraction of “it is” …..

  • May 16, 2014 at 1:02 pm: Serviced Apartments Lady

    Haha well I’m glad that it’s actually that easy! Thanks for the no nonsense answer!

  • January 6, 2015 at 12:50 am: lindsey

    I’ve always wondered if Isa’s stove doesnt get as hot as ours and/or if her kitchen has better ventilation but almost all of her recipes I have to turn down a few notches or else we’ll have smoke flooding our apt all night! I get the same results with this tofu on medium heat with my cast iron skillet. So my advice to anyone trying this out for the first time, test your skillet first! And maybe unplug your smoke alarm! I agree with Isa to not be too afraid of it being too high because you want it to sear but also be aware that your stove could be different like mine apparently is.