100 Techniques

Technique #21: Cook Flavorful Tofu That Doesn't Disintegrate

Hint: Season it and firm it up at the same time.

Published Oct. 11, 2023.

This is Technique #21 from our 100 Techniques Every Home Cook Can Master.

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Tofu has been one of the predominant proteins in Asia for thousands of years. Its clean, vegetal flavor and variety of textures makes it a versatile ingredient in all different types of recipes.

Although freshly made tofu is common in Asia, in the United States it’s typically sold in refrigerated water-packed blocks. The commonly available styles (silken, soft, firm, and extra-firm) differ mainly in how thoroughly the curds have been drained and pressed, which removes moisture and firms up the structure.

Because tofu has no bones or fat (like meat) and also has a high water content, it cooks quickly. But all that water also means it falls apart easily. In some applications, this is a benefit. But for other situations, you want it to keep it shape. Here's our technique for that.

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The Different Types of Tofu

You can find detailed descriptions of the different types of tofu in our guide to tofu, but here's a quick rundown.

On the most delicate end of the spectrum, silken tofu is so fragile that it disintegrates at the slightest disturbance, so it’s great in foods like smoothies or dips, or sliced and topped with a spicy dressing, as in our Spicy Cold Tofu (Liángbàn Dòufǔ / 涼拌豆腐).

At the opposite end of the spectrum are firm and extra-firm tofu, which are usually interchangeable. We love firm tofu for stir-fries and for many braised and stewy dishes because it holds its shape well and absorbs flavors readily. (Extra-firm tofu is even more resilient, but it tends to cook up too chewy in braises.)

All About Tofu

Tofu—from silken to firm and more—is an essential ingredient in East and Southeast Asian cuisine. Follow along to learn more about this versatile food.
Read the Guide

However, for some braised or stewy dishes, like mapo tofu, soft tofu is a must. And soft tofu also is our top choice for pan-frying. Pan-fried soft tofu boasts a crisp exterior and silky interior that delivers an irresistible textural contrast. In these cases, how do you keep your delicate tofu from crumbling to tiny bits?

To Keep It Together, Think Dry and Firm

One of the most important steps in preparing tofu is drying out or firming up its exterior in some way to help it hold together.

For pan-frying, draining it and then drying and pressing the exterior with paper towels works well. To use soft tofu successfully in a braised dish, simmering or steeping it in hot salt water or other salted liquid like broth first is essential. The heat and salinity of the soaking liquid shrinks the proteins in the outer layers of the tofu, tightening them and helping them stay intact during cooking while still allowing for a yielding interior texture.

Watch our test cook prepare mapo tofu that features firm yet tender tofu.

Step by Step: How to Cook Tofu That Doesn't Disintegrate

Here are the key steps for flavorful tofu that stays intact from prep to plate.

Step 1: Cut into Desired Pieces

No matter what dish you are preparing, cut tofu into cubes, fingers, or desired-size pieces.

Step 2A: For Pan-Frying Tofu, Drain

Spread tofu pieces over paper towel–lined baking sheet and let drain. Gently press dry with paper towels.

Step 3A: Coat Tofu

Combine cornstarch and cornmeal in shallow dish. Coat tofu pieces thoroughly with mixture, pressing gently to adhere; transfer to wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet.

Step 2B: For Braising Soft Tofu, Steam and Let Stand

Place tofu pieces and liquid in large bowl and microwave, covered, until steaming. Let stand to firm up exterior while preparing remaining ingredients.

Step 3B: Add to Pan

Gently pour tofu with broth into pan with other ingredients.

Recipes That Use This Technique

Use your newfound tofu-cooking knowledge with any of these recipes.


Mapo Tofu (Sichuan Braised Tofu with Beef)

This braise of custardy tofu cloaked in a garlicky, spicy meat sauce is a signature dish of the Sichuan province.
Get the Recipe

Warm Cabbage Salad with Crispy Tofu

When paired with crispy pan-fried tofu and a zesty dressing, ordinary cabbage can be transformed into an impressive entrée.
Get the Recipe

Vegetarian Mapo Tofu

This braise of custardy tofu cloaked in a garlicky, spicy sauce is a signature dish of the Sichuan province.
Get the Recipe

Tofu Banh Mi

Our Vietnamese-style banh mi sandwiches feature crispy tofu, fresh cilantro, and pickled carrots and cucumber.
Get the Recipe

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