Tofu 101: What is Tofu? How is it Made?

What in the World is Tofu and How is it Made?

Tofu: Either you love it… or you haven’t had it prepared well.

Most people are at least a little familiar with the general idea of tofu, but don’t know what this mysterious white substance really is. Tofu gets a bad rap as a “meat substitute” but in reality, it’s an incredibly versatile (and yummy) food! So, what in the world is Tofu??

The process of making tofu is actually quite similar to the process of making cheese. Tofu is made by grinding soybeans, adding water, heating the mixture and coagulating it by adding calcium or magnesium salt. This mixture is then pressed together to form the classic tofu cube.

The Origin of Tofu

Legend has it that tofu was born more than 2,000 years ago in China. 

Oddly enough, like so many other great inventions, the birth of tofu was a complete and total accident. Supposedly, a chef who was attempting to flavor soy milk with nigari (a crystallized salt) ended up with a curdled mixture instead. rather than throwing it out, the gutsy chef tasted his curdled concoction, decided it was good, and shared his accidental discovery with the culinary world.

Over time, tofu has evolved, branching off from the original product into a variety of interesting and delicious options. All of the different tofu options can be confusing for the beginner tofu enthusiast, so here’s a simple guide to some of the different types of tofu.

Different Types of Tofu

The biggest difference in tofu lies in how much water has been pressed out. The more water you remove, the more firm it becomes.

There are a few main types  of tofu- here’s a short breakdown: 

Silken Tofu

This type of tofu is also known as “Japanese-style” tofu. It contains the highest amount of water, and it will most likely crumble if you try to hold it in your hands. Silken tofu (also known as soft tofu) is so soft and creamy that it can be added to puddings, sauces or dips- it can even be used as an egg substitute in some recipes. 

Regular Tofu

Regular tofu is soft, like silken tofu, but a little more compact. This kind is also more common than silken tofu. Regular tofu is great at soaking up the flavors of the dishes it’s added to. However it crumbles easily if mishandled, so it’s recommended that you don’t pan fry it.  

Firm Tofu / Extra Firm Tofu

Firm (or extra firm) tofu holds its shape better than the softer alternatives, and can absorb the flavors of whatever it’s added to without falling apart. If you’re looking to pan fry your tofu and add it to a bowl of ramen, firm tofu is the way to go!  

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The Best (Most Delicious) Way to Fry Tofu 

If your tofu is headed for a delicious bowl of ramen, you’ll want to give it a crispy coating that can absorb a little bit of the broth, but also stay nice and crispy even after dropping into your noodles.

Frying tofu is easy, fast, and tastes better than simply cutting up plain tofu and throwing it in your ramen (although we love this option, too!) 

Choose Your Tofu 

Most tofu sold in grocery stores comes in water-packed blocks, in the refrigerated section. When you’re looking for tofu, look for packages that have the latest expiration date on the package. Tofu should look uniform and white, and not have any odor or discoloration. Like we mentioned above, firm or extra firm tofu will work best for frying. 

After opening your tofu (if you don’t use it all) store the leftovers in an airtight container and cover it with water. 

Prep Your Tofu 

To prep for frying, drain out the water and cut your tofu into cubes or strips. 

Some recipes recommend that you press the tofu block with paper towels before cutting, but this can be harder to do. We recommend cutting up the tofu, laying it out on a pan lined with paper towels, and pressing down gently on top with more paper towels to remove the excess water. 

Your tofu should be dry to the touch before you fry it. After it’s dry-ish, you’re ready to get cooking!

Fry Your Tofu

Any pan will work, but cast-iron skillets work best because they hold more heat and develop a nice non-sticking surface. Otherwise, flat-bottomed skillets will also work because they allow all the tofu pieces to stay in contact with the hot surface while you fry them.

First, heat your skillet on high heat (pro tip: tofu loves high heat!) then add about 2 tablespoons of a cooking oil that has a high smoke point- like soybean oil, avocado oil, canola oil, peanut oil, or coconut oil.

Cook your tofu on one side until it is a nice golden brown, then flip and repeat on the other side. If you are frying cubes, it becomes difficult to brown all 6 sides, so just toss them around every minute or so to get each side nice and brown. 

When your tofu is done, move it off of the heat and on to a plate to season. Typically, a little salt is good enough, or if you’re using your fried tofu in a recipe, follow the directions as suggested.  

Speaking of recipes, we have a few easy tofu ramen recipes that will blow your mind…

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Our 5 Favorite (Easy!) Tofu Ramen Recipes

One of the best things about Mike’s Mighty Good ramen (well, besides the insane convenience- of course!) is the fact that you can customize each and every single bowl to be exactly the way you want. 

Here are five of our favorite tofu ramen recipes: 

Crispy Tofu Ramen With Organic Ramen Noodles – High-protein and easy to make, this recipe incorporates lots of veggies + deliciously crispy tofu!

Spicy Vegetarian Kimchi Ramen Bowl – Comforting, spicy and decadent- and under 10 minutes to make?? Running to the kitchen now… 

Creamy Vegan Kimchi Ramen – Courtesy of Alexa Soto, this creamy ramen recipe is exactly what the doctor ordered. The soymilk adds a creamy texture, and the tofu contributes to the subtly sweet taste- we promise you’ll love this tofu ramen recipe!

Tofu Thai Red Curry Cup Ramen – Fast, delicious, and vegetarian… where do we sign? This recipe combines firm tofu, red curry paste and a hint of lime. *swoon*

Roasted Garlic Tofu Achaar Vegetarian Cup Ramen – This flavorful recipe will become a go-to, promise! With a little roasted garlic achaar, a soft boiled egg and some cubed tofu, you can make this ramen recipe in under 10 minutes.

At the end of the day, our tofu friend deserves more credit than it gets in foodie circles! It’s one of the most underrated (and delicious) ramen ingredients we can think of. 

Have you tried adding tofu to your ramen bowl? 

If so, we’d love to see how your noodle creation turned out, so tag us in your tofu ramen bowls on Instagram so we can share the love too!

"Mike's Mighty Good has permanently changed my lunch game. Never knew an 'instant soup' could be so good."

Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant of the Stuff You Should Know Podcast