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You can nail this method without any special tools or gadgets.

By Betty Gold
April 01, 2021
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Tofu is the secret 'sauce' in so many delicious dishes, from mapo tofu and tofu fried rice to crispy tofu with cabbage and carrots, tofu noodle soup, tofu "halloumi" with lentils and burst tomatoes, and even this decadent vegan chocolate cream pie. But despite the fact that it's a rich, creamy, and savory source of planet-friendly plant-based protein, we still hear that many struggle to nail the perfect texture when cooking with tofu.

"I've always said that if you don't like tofu, you're making it wrong," says Ashley Hankins, the vegan recipe developer, photographer, and content creator behind Eat Figs Not Pigs and soon-to-be-released book, Make It Vegan: From Quick & Easy to Deep Fried & Delicious. "I get it—I want to be completely clear with the fact that I am the last person in the world that ever thought I would adopt a fully vegan diet. Growing up in a Filipino household, meat and eggs were at the center of every meal. Tofu can help fill that void! Stick with me and I'll show you how to get the juiciest, crispiest, most moist and flavorful tofu there ever was." (I'm in.)

According to Hankins, the secret to nailing crispy tofu is pressing it before you cook.

How to Press Tofu

First, you'll notice that blocks of tofu almost always come in a bit of water. Get rid of it. Make a slit in the top of the packaging and drain off the water. Then cut the tofu into slices, whatever size you like, but no thicker than 3/4-inch.

Next, you can either snag a tofu press on Amazon or swap in something that can function as one. If you're open to buying one, Hankins recommends this affordable model—but in a pinch, she says you can use a few simple items around your kitchen.

"If you don't have a press, you'll need a kitchen towel, something flat like a cutting board, a large pan, and some heavy things to serve as weights, such as a few large cans," she says. "Wrap the tofu completely in the towel to absorb any excess liquid that may be released and place it on a plate. Place the cutting board on top of the tofu so the pan has something flat to sit on. Place the pan on the cutting board, then load the cans into the pan—leave them there to press the tofu for the amount of time specified in the recipe. The weight will press out the excess liquid from the tofu."

Whatever method you're using, Hankins recommends pressing for 20 to 30 minutes to extract a sufficient amount of liquid.

Also, a quick FYI: Pressing works only for extra-firm or firm tofu. (If you want to make a smoothie or a creamy sauce, choose silken—it blends up smooth and silky.) Go ahead and use firm and extra-firm blocks interchangeably, although extra-firm definitely has more texture.

The Rest of the Route to Crispy Perfection

Now that you've pressed your tofu, the next step is to bread it and bake it in the oven. Cut or tear tofu into bite-sized pieces, then gently coat each one in flour, then allow them to soak in a dish of milk (for a fully vegan recipe, use non-dairy) for a couple of minutes. Using a separate slotted spoon or tongs, remove the tofu from the milk, shake off any excess liquid, and then gently toss with Panko breadcrumbs seasoned with salt and pepper. As you finish coating each one, set the tofu bites on a baking sheet, leaving plenty of space between them. When you're finished, spray the tofu bites with cooking oil and bake on the middle rack of a 425°F oven for 20 minutes, until golden brown, flipping the pieces over and spraying the other side halfway through.

If you want to pan-fry or sauté, you've got a couple of options. You can certainly just heat up some olive oil in a skillet, preferably nonstick, season the tofu with salt and pepper and get going, just like you would good chicken or other pieces of protein. That means into the hot skillet, and no touching until you see some color, then toss or turn.

Tofu Serving Tips

"You can enjoy this crispy tofu with rice or rice noodles for a simple yet satisfying meal or use it to make any of your favorite tofu recipes," Hankins says. "Just remember that the crispy baked tofu tastes best when eaten right away. So if you plan to use it in another recipe, I don't recommend making it ahead of time. Prepare your desired sauce and additional accompaniments of choice while the tofu is in the oven."

A note on incorporating tofu into recipes: Unless you add flavor to it, tofu doesn't have a ton of flavor of its own. Marinating can help, which you can do after you've pressed it. But the big thing to consider is what you're pairing the tofu with. Make a flavorful dressing, or pair it with punchy assertive flavors of other kinds (think sesame oil, tamari, or fresh chilies). To help tofu's texture shine, mix it with foods that have contrasting textures—crispy, crunchy, chewy—to help support and highlight its natural tenderness.

Also, if you think you might have leftovers, Hankins recommends keeping the sauce, any vegetables, and baked tofu separate to ensure the tofu remains as crispy as possible.

"Leftover crispy baked tofu can be reheated in an oven or toaster oven at 400°F for 10 to 15 minutes, flipping halfway through, before being combined with the sauce and any vegetables." (Not that you'll have any leftovers.)