When you eat tofu out at a restaurant, it’s borderline perfection – chewy and dense on the inside, surrounded by a golden halo of crispy crust, bursting with flavor.
How could anyone hate on this fantastic, delicious food?
Then you try to recreate that dish at home – you take your block of tofu out of the pan, you cut it up and throw it in a frying pan. Not even close! You wind up with soggy, floppy pieces of flavorless tofu and an oil-spattered stove.
What sort of magic is going on in restaurant kitchens?
It all comes down to one simple word: draining.
The key to making perfect, crunchy, flavorful tofu at home is draining all the water out – and I don’t mean giving it a squeeze over the kitchen sink!
It’s non-negotiable, ALL the water has to go, for two important reasons.
- First, draining the tofu gives it a great chewy, meaty mouthfeel.
- The second reason is all about flavor – imagine tofu as a sponge. When you purchase it, all the little pockets are filled with water. Draining the tofu empties those pockets, leaving them to be filled back up – say, with pineapple teriyaki marinade or Italian vinaigrette or any flavor you like. Who doesn’t want their food to be completely saturated with barbecue sauce, anyway?
Losing the water is the most important factor here. Luckily, you aren’t the first person to want to remove water completely from their block of tofu, so there’s lots of methods and products you can use to squeeze every last drop of water out of your tofu and achieve perfect golden crust.
What Kind of Tofu Needs to Be Drained?
Photo Credit: allrecipes.com
Before we go into the logistics of draining tofu, we should clarify what type of tofu we’re talking about here.
Soft and silken tofus aren’t usually good candidates for draining since they don’t tend to hold their shape. Trying to press these often results in an unattractive mush, so they’re best used for things like smoothies and mousses.
Firm, extra-firm, and super-firm tofus, however, will benefit tenfold from being drained. Since these can hold up to the literal pressure involved in the draining process, they become chewy and dense and are therefore good choices for salads, stir-fries, and grilling.
Make sure you don’t accidentally try to press your silken or soft tofu – you want the result to be a dense, waterless block, not a weird puree.
This method is the easiest, cheapest, and most low-effort of the three.
When you bring your tofu home from the store, plop it in the freezer, container and all. Let it freeze overnight, or until absolutely rock hard.
The next day, allow the tofu to thaw out in the fridge or the kitchen sink until it’s completely thawed, and there are no ice crystals left. At this point, open the container and allow the packing liquid to go down the drain in the sink.
Clean hands for this step! Take the tofu block between your palms and press over the sink – the water will pour out easily, and there will be a lot of it!
You can continue to use your hands for this process until all of the water has been drained, or you can compress the block between two plates until it’s completely dry. Ta da! Drained tofu.
Something to note about this method is that, while easy, there are two cons that come to mind. The first is that, similar to cooking a batch of dried beans, the first step to cooking tofu that is drained this way is “press the tofu yesterday”. It works best with some planning.
Secondly, freezing the tofu noticeably alters the texture – not really a con, but it may not be the texture you’re going for.
Freezing tofu makes the “air pockets” in the final product much drier – some people love it, but I find it to be similar to the texture of bread.
My husband adores tofu that’s been frozen, thawed, and marinated, but I prefer a denser, chewier, more solid piece of tofu. Try it at home and see what you think – there’s no effort involved in giving it a shot.
If you’re not into the texture of frozen tofu, or you’re looking for an alternate method of draining, pressing tofu is the next best thing.
Homemade tofu presses are easy to make with items you probably have laying around in your kitchen as you’ll see in our complete guide to making a tofu press at home.
I’ve also include photos to show you exactly how to build one, step-by-step.
But to get you started, here’s what you have to do…
You’ll need a few key components for a homemade tofu press – something to soak up the water, such as paper towels or a dish cloth, something flat to balance on top of the tofu, like a cookie sheet or a book, and some heavy things, to weigh it down. You can use whatever you have at home – I’ve used everything from a few cans of beans to a cast iron frying pan to a foil-wrapped brick, all of which were successful. In the spirit of DIY, use what you’ve got.
Remove your tofu from the packaging and wrap it well in paper towels or a dish cloth. Set your flat object (I like a baking sheet, so I don’t wind up with soggy books) on top of the tofu and carefully balance your heavy objects on top. I prefer to use one large, heavy item like a cast iron skillet instead of clusters of things like canned beans. With the skillet, you don’t even really need the flat object, and there’s less chance that things will fall over.
The next step is to wait. Depending on how heavy your weights are, it will take anywhere from 30 minutes to a few hours to drain all the water out. If you want to squeeze every last drop of water out of your tofu, it’s a good idea to change the towels once or twice to make sure everything is nice and dry. The end product will be much thinner than what you started with, but that denseness is going to be what gives the tofu its awesome flavor.
When it’s finished, unwrap the tofu, cut into slices or cubes, and use in your favorite recipe. Pressed tofu doesn’t tend to store well, so try to use it right away.
If you’re looking to make a small investment in your tofu prep, or you eat a lot of tofu like I do, a commercial tofu press might be a wise addition to your kitchen. You can read my full guide to tofu presses, or read on to learn how to use my personal favorite, the TofuXpress.
The TofuXpress and most other ready-made presses consist of a container to hold the tofu and a spring-loaded plate.
You simply remove the tofu from the package, place it in the box, snap on the pressing plate, and walk away. The tofu press does all the work for you – while you’re in the shower, while you’re at work, however long you’re away.
When you’re ready to use it, simply pour the water off the top, pat it dry, and put it back into the container with your favorite marinade.
It wasn’t until I started using my TofuXpress that I was proud to serve tofu to omnivores. Being such a ubiquitous food to veganism, and earning its fair share of undeserved hate, it was important to me that the texture is perfect before I started serving the stuff to my meat-eating family.
And the Tofu Xpress made that happen!
It pressed more water out of my block of tofu than I had ever been able to get with just a homemade press. The saying “you get what you pay for” probably applies here, so if you’re able and interested, it’s a great product to have, but if not, you’ll still achieve pretty good results with what you have laying around in your kitchen.
Next Stop: Marinade
Each of these methods will help you achieve dry tofu, and therefore, a better-tasting dish. If you’ve been nervous to try tofu because of what you’ve heard about its texture, try draining it before cooking it up – the results might surprise you! What is often touted as a floppy, slimy protein is a powerhouse of nutrition, texture, and flavor, if you’re willing to put a little time, effort, and ingenuity into its preparation.