Do you already love tofu? Not yet? Are you having difficulties in finding the most flavorful tofu recipes? Do you want to enjoy tasty tofu dishes? In this article, we’ll try to cover all the basics of preparing and making tofu marinades, including which tofu to choose, and how to cook it to get the best result. We’ll do this by going over 6 yummy tofu marinade recipes, so don’t miss out on those!
What is tofu?
Tofu is believed to have been invented in China about 2000 years ago, and has since become a staple ingredient in south-east Asian cuisine. Being derived from soybeans, tofu is low in calories and high in protein (50-55%) making it an ideal meat substitute for vegans and vegetarians.
This nutrient-dense, chameleon of a food is made using soybeans, water and a coagulant like “nigari” or gypsum.
Soybeans are soaked in water over a period of hours, after which the mixture is boiled, filtered and coagulated to form soy “curd.” This soy curd is separated and pressed to remove excess water, and the remaining solids at the end of this process is what we call tofu.
Today it’s typically sold in the form of blocks under two main categories, “fresh tofu” and “processed tofu.”
- Fresh tofu is made directly from soy milk and used as marinated tofu.
- Processed tofu is produced from fresh soybeans like pickled tofu, stinky tofu or thousand-layer tofu.
Tofu comes in many different varieties too, like silken tofu, firm tofu and super firm tofu, to name a few. We’ll go over which types are best for marinating below.
If you’re new to tofu, you probably have loads of questions about it, and one of those might be ”Is Tofu Gluten-free?” Read about that in our article because the answer isn’t always straightforward.
Best tofu to marinate
Tofu is comparable to meat in not just its protein content, but also its preparation method. Just like meat needs marinades, sauces and seasoning to make it appetising, so does tofu! On its own, it’s rather bland and sponge-like, but it’s this exact quality that makes it perfect for absorbing any flavor you want it to.
Tofu is categorised into different categories based on its water content; the more the water content, the softer the tofu.
- Soft or silken tofu is ideal for spreads, stews and sauces. Not suitable for stir-frying or baking.
- Firm tofu is what is better-suited for heavy handling like stir-frying, grilling and pan-frying. It is also the kind that holds marinade and seasoning flavors the best.
- Extra-firm and super firm tofu can be cut into cubes without losing form and are great for stir frying and deep frying. Super firm tofu has the least water content due to which it is often a first preference for using as a meat substitute. However, absorbing marinades is not its strong suit.
Do you need to press tofu before marinating?
The short answer is yes. The main reason is to remove the excess water to help the tofu absorb the marinade and seasoning better, resulting in yummy, thoroughly marinated tofu.
You need to imagine it like that. If you have a sponge full of water, it cannot take up anything more. But if you squeeze your sponge empty, it can absorb new water again. Therefore, while tofu is pressed during the manufacturing process, it is advisable to press it again before cooking to “adjust” the water content.
We use our trusted TofuBud*, but you can choose any DIY method or tofu press. After pressing it, pat it dry with a paper towel.
Alternatively, you can wrap the tofu block in either paper or cloth kitchen towels and press it down with a heavy object. Feel free to use something that you already have in your kitchen, like a chopping board, a book, a can of soup or a heavy skillet. Even a large pot filled with water, placed on top of a block of tofu, will do the trick!
Marinade vs sauce vs glaze
The primary function of a marinade, a sauce or a glaze is to add flavor to the tofu. They also impact the texture and tenderness of the tofu. The major differences between them are based on:
- when they are applied to the tofu, and
- how they interact with the tofu
A marinade is intended to seep through the tofu. The acid in the marinade, like vinegar or lemon juice, makes the tofu tender, which allows the flavors to percolate inside with ease. Everything from steaks to pan-fries, to stir-fries and tofu skewers can benefit from marination.
A glaze is an external coating of flavor that is applied to tofu during the cooking process. Glazes are normally thicker than marinades or they are made by reducing the left-over tofu marinade. They also tend to have some kind of sugar as the base, which helps with the crisping process aka caramelisation. Stir-fries, baked tofu or skewers especially love glazes.
A sauce is usually a flavoring that is used after the cooking is done like a dipping sauce. If it is used for dipping, then the sauce is often diametrically opposite in flavor to the tofu marinade. Tofu steaks are particularly well suited for this.
And there is actually a forth example, where the sauce is the main star of the dish. An example would be stews or curries, where the tofu is actually cooked in it. In these recipes, no pressing is needed as tofu in curries tend to be soft and spongy, rather than crispy.
Ingredients of any tofu marinade
Now onto the part where we get to the actual marinating – it’s sort of the easiest part! In most cases, the ingredients you’ll need are the ones that you already have stocked in your pantry, making it even easier to get started.
To make a tofu marinade, you can mix and match flavors to suit your taste preferences. However, to balance the flavors, a general rule of thumb is to pick at least one of the following ingredients from the flavor groups mentioned below:
Choose between olive oil, sesame oil, nut butter or other type of plant-based fat such as soy yoghurt or coconut milk. Oil will help the other flavors blend as well as help the tofu crisp up when cooked. So the thinner your tofu marinade is, the better will be the absorption.
Anything from rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, and orange juice to red wine will work. Acid helps soften the structure of the tofu a bit so that the flavors can seep into the tofu better.
Soy sauce (tamari or liquid aminos for gluten-free), Worcestershire sauce or miso paste are some great salty additions to make tasty tofu marinades. If you need to eat gluten-free, check out our Gluten-free Soy Sauce Substitutes and our Gluten-free Worcestershire Sauces posts for more info.
For some sweet flavoring, you can add maple syrup, brown sugar, molasses, date syrup or any other sweetener that’s to your liking.
All the above is important, but the right combination of spices and seasoning is the main reason we do the marinating in the first place. Onion, garlic, ginger, mustard, hot pepper sauce, tomato purée, olive paste, thyme, basil, rosemary, oregano, paprika, cumin, coriander and chili powder or even liquid smoke are all great for adding that extra zing that every marinade needs.
Top tips to marinate tofu
- Size of the tofu matters – The smaller you cut the tofu, the easier it will be for the marinade to seep through. This Teriyaki Stir-fry is cut especially thin compared to this Tofu Steak, so there is no surprise why the flavor is much deeper in the stir fry and why you need an accompanying sauce for the steak.
- Quick or overnight -> If time permits, leave it to marinate overnight in the fridge. However, don’t sweat it if you are pressed for time, because even 5-30 minutes of marinating does wonders. You can always reduce the left-over marinade to make a glaze and brush you tofu within before cooking, baking or grilling.
- Thin or thick marinade -> Thin tofu marinades (soy sauce-based ones for example teriyaki marinade) go deeper, while thick tofu marinades (milk or yoghurt-based ones) tend to remain more of a coating. Therefore, how you cut your tofu can mean a huge difference.
How to cook marinated tofu
Baking, stir-frying and grilling are all great options for cooking tofu. Which you choose depends mainly on the textures you are hoping to achieve.
- Stir-fried tofu is super crisp with golden edges and a chewy center.
- Baked tofu, on the other hand, is crispy on the outside with a soft, almost creamy center.
- Grilled tofu is similar to stir-fries in a sense that it can get a crispy crust. It is also charred with lovely stripes.
- Cooked tofu is usually soft and spongy with no crispy edges.
Pan-frying or stir-frying
Preheat a pan over medium heat. Add a dollop of oil or any other fat to your liking, before placing the tofu strips or cubes in the pan. Fry on both sides. Tofu tends to stick to the pan, so pick a heavy bottomed pan on which you can add oil, or play it safe and pick a non-stick pan. The below image is from our Crispy Sticky Teriyaki Fried Tofu recipe before (1) and after (2) frying. Stir-fried tofu can be used in everything from salads and grain bowls, to stir-fries, tacos, burritos, and noodle dishes.
Use a baking sheet or line a sheet pan with parchment paper and arrange the strips or cubes of tofu on it. Bake at the temperature indicated in your recipe till the edges of your tofu pieces are golden brown. Remember to flip them halfway through the indicated bake time. Note that baked tofu loses its crispness upon cooling, and then attains a divinely firm chewiness.
Or you can bake them in the sauce like we did with out Chinese BBQ Tofu Burger. The below photo shows the tofu after baking.
You can grill tofu in a grill pan, int the oven under the broiler, on a gas grill or on a blackstone (griddle). Our Grilled Buffalo Tofu Skewers recipe (pictured below) explains in details how to do each methods. The most important to thing to know about if you plan to grill tofu is that it tends to stick to it. So make sure you apply a generous coat of oil or use an oil-based marinade.
Cooking in sauce
If you choose to cook tofu in sauce, please note that the tofu will be soft and spongy rather than crispy and chewy. We also tested this Thai Red Curry Tofu recipe with pan-fried marinated tofu and cooking the veggies in the sauce separately. But the texture just wasn’t right. Personally, soft and spongy tofu was a much better choice.
The 6 most flavorful tofu marinades
We feature below our favourite tofu marinades. Use these to prepare your tofu any way you like, whether it be baking, stir-frying, grilling or deep-frying. You won’t be disappointed. If it’s too hard to pick just one, try them all one after another for an entire week and let us know which one turned out to be your favorite!
Teriyaki Tofu Stir Fry
The marinade for this Teriyaki Fried Tofu recipe is a no-nonsense mix of just three ingredients; teriyaki sauce, maple syrup and vegetable oil. It has a delicate balance of flavors that greatly complements the mild natural flavor of tofu.
Spicy Tofu Steak with Chimichurri Sauce
With just two sauces and a few spices you’ll be able to turn your regular weekday dinner into a dinner feast. The marinade for this Spicy Tofu Steak recipe is both spicy and smoky, and you can adjust the spice levels according to your taste. A marinated steak is best paired with chimichurri sauce, baked baby potatoes and garlicky Roasted Asparagus.
Chinese BBQ Burger
Our Chinese BBQ Tofu Burger is a gentle balance of sweet, savory and aromatic flavors. The molasses in the recipe squares off the sharpness of the Chinese 5 spice mix. The molasses also aids the caramelisation process during baking that gives it a distinct smoky, sticky flavor reminiscent of charcoal grill flavors. It is perfect to serve with Vegan Coleslaw.
Grilled Buffalo Tofu Skewers
Make this hot and spicy vegan Buffalo sauce marinade at home using a couple of ingredients, some seasoning and maple syrup. The maple syrup is a neat touch to mellow out the spices and helps in achieving a crispy sweet glaze on your tofu. Check out these yummy Grilled Buffalo Tofu Skewers, where the leftover marinade serves as the perfect dipping sauce to make it even more flavorful.
Chipotle Sofritas (Braised Tofu)
Made by blending four types of chilies; Chipotle chillies, Poblano peppers, black peppers and bell peppers in a food processor, and combining red wine vinegar to it to offset the heat, this one packs a punch! Our Chipotle Sofritas is an easy classic, ensuring you’ll be making it again and again. It is also a very special recipe as the tofu is fried first, then crumbled and finally braised aka cooked in the marinade sauce to reach full flavor.
Thai Red Curry Tofu
This rich Thai Red Curry Tofu contains a blend of spices that are aromatic and lightly spicy, making the tofu taste spicy but not too hot. It is also thick and creamy from the coconut milk and gets a bite from the veggies you add.