Never feel lost at shopping for tofu again! This is your beginner’s guide to all different kinds of tofu; how to select them, how to prepare them and what recipes to use them in. In this article, we look at:
- What is Regular/Chinese-style/Block-style Tofu (from soft to extra firm to super pressed)
- What is Silken Tofu (from soft to extra firm)
- Specialty Tofu (like tofu noodles and fermented tofu)
Video Guide for Buying Tofu Types, Common and Specialty Tofu, Differences and Uses
What is Tofu?
Tofu is just soybeans, water, and a coagulant like calcium sulfate or magnesium chloride. In fact, you can easily make your own tofu at home. But these three ingredients give rise to dozens of varieties of tofu! Add a couple extras and you have countless more types of specialty tofu!
This is all because the humble soybean is a wonderful comprehensive source of plant-based protein and includes all the essential amino acids. This makes it powerfully nutritious for a low-cost source of complete protein and especially appealing for vegetarian or vegan diets. However, simple blocks of tofu can be kind of same-y and we love variety!
For the purposes of simplicity, let’s call the most common tofu typically seen in a Western supermarket “Regular Tofu”. It is also known as block tofu, cotton tofu, or Chinese-style tofu. When you find it in grocery stores, the English label will usually just say “Tofu” along with the firmness.
How Regular or Block Tofu is Made
This style of tofu is made from coagulating pure soymilk which turns into curds. Then the curds are transferred to a mold where it can be pressed to varying degrees in order to adjust its firmness. In a commercial setting this is done in huge rectangle containers. Then the curds are cut into “blocks” and put in tubs with water or vacuum packed.
The resulting tofu can be called soft tofu, medium tofu, medium firm tofu, firm tofu, extra firm tofu, and pressed or super pressed tofu.
It will have a particular texture and you’ll be able to visually see how it came from fluffy soybean curds having been pressed together.
Store-bought block tofu is also flash pasteurized so it can last several weeks longer in the fridge compared to homemade tofu.
Soft tofu is commonly mistaken for silken tofu. It doesn’t help that some manufacturers label their silken tofu as soft tofu. The difference is in how Silken Tofu is made and the texture as well. Soft tofu is minimally or not at all pressed. Rather it can be curdled in a mold before being cut and transferred to the familiar white tub you’ll find at the store.
It’s also available in Smooth varieties where the curds are so silky that you might have a lot of trouble distinguishing it from silken tofu.
How to Use Soft Tofu
The smooth custard-like mouthfeel of soft tofu makes it a nice addition to soups, or sliced and covered in sauces, deep-fried with caution (as in agedashi tofu), blended as a sauce (like my oil-free Alfredo), turned into a sweet pudding, or added into smoothies for extra protein and creaminess.
Medium, Medium Firm and Firm Tofu
My favourite type of tofu for it’s versatility; Medium, Medium Firm and Firm Tofu is where tofu is even more complicated when you’re trying to tell the difference. It’s often defined as tofu that is as tender as that fleshy part at the base of your thumb. But even that varies from person to person. And similarly, medium firm tofu varies from brand to brand. So for this section, I will refer to all three labels as medium firm.
To make things confusing, some brands’ medium is like another’s firm. Still others’ firm can be more like a soft in another brand. But generally, medium-firm tofu is contains less water than soft, making it more dense and more easy to handle without breaking. However, it’s still delicate so you should treat it with care. I’ll often use a spatula instead of trying to pick up slices by hand.
How to Use Medium, Medium Firm and Firm Tofu
As mentioned before, these varieties of regular tofu can be used in a wide range of dishes. You may not even believe the different textures you can get out of the same block of tofu!
It’s lovely in braised dishes, tofu stew if it’s not too thick, and as an egg-alternative for making Breakfast Sandwiches, and as an egg-alternative for a Tofu Scramble. Plus, it’s especially delicious in Mapo Tofu.
However, don’t stop there! Medium Firm tofu can be pressed for a heartier texture, seasoned and air-fried for the easiest high protein salad, rice or noodle topping. I love to use this tofu press (this is an affiliate link so a small commission is earned if you use it; no extra cost to you). You can dial in the pressure that you want so you get the firmness that you prefer depending on what kind of recipe you’re making.
Pressing firm or medium firm tofu gives you the ability to handle the tofu easily, add marinades that will soak in better than non-pressed, and keep its shape in stir-fries such as this Black Pepper Tofu.
Freezing then thawing medium firm tofu can give rise to two different types of textures. For tofu on the firmer side, the water freezes into little bubbles. After it’s thawed, it can be easily pressed to release most of the water inside. Then you’re left with a sponge-like texture that can soak up flavorful marinades like a sponge.
This typical frozen tofu is often thrown into soups or braised dishes traditionally. It can also be marinated, coated and fried for a super flavourful tofu that is crispy on the outside and full of flavour on the inside.
But when you freeze and thaw medium firm tofu that is on the softer side, the water freezes into horizontal layers. I found that if you thaw and press this type, it is very delicate and can break or crumble apart when you try. However, if you don’t open the package after you thaw it but instead re-freeze it immediately, then thaw after it’s solid again, the layers are reinforced and it becomes more stable when you try to press it. This is what I use to make my BEST Vegan Fried Chicken.
Extra Firm Tofu
Chances are, if you are following a popular vegan or vegetarian recipe, you need to buy extra firm tofu. This is the most common, most called-for tofu in the English-speaking world and has a dense and meaty texture than many will compare to chicken breast.
How to Use Extra Firm Tofu
Like Medium Firm varieties, extra firm tofu still contains water and can benefit from being pressed and blotted dry before cooking. Then you can replace the moisture with marinades or skip that and go straight to pan-frying, grilling, air-frying or baking. Without a strong marinade or seasoning, extra firm tofu can be quite bland and sometimes grainy and dry. So be liberal with sauces!
You can also cut it up untreated and cook it in a sauce, stew or soup. And it’s particularly good in curries like my Vegan Butter Chicken.
Pressed or Super Pressed Tofu
This tofu has been commercially pressed until it’s so dense that it resembles a bouncy ball of mozzarella. When you slice it, it looks smooth. It can be used just like extra firm tofu and does not require any more pressing to get a meaty bite.
However, this dense texture also makes it harder for flavours to penetrate so expect a longer marinade time and/or the need for stronger sauces or spices.
Silken tofu and soft tofu are often mixed up because they are so similar. And to make things confusing, some tofu manufacturers will label their silken tofu as soft. However, you can tell the difference by looking.
You’ll find the silken tofu in stores have been coagulated in their containers and not pressed. The texture will be smooth and custard-like throughout. On the other hand, you will be able to see the fluffy curds pressed together in soft tofu.
Silken tofu also comes in a tube format. Egg tofu also comes in this format so double check the label to make sure you’re buying the type you want.
Homemade silken tofu is made by mixing rich soymilk with a coagulant (like gypsum as I did in the above photo), then steamed or cooked in a water bath.
Types of Silken Tofu
Plain silken tofu comes in varying firmness from soft to extra firm. However, they are all much softer than the block-style varieties. For example, extra firm silken tofu is not a good replacement when a recipe called for “extra firm tofu”. You can think of them as having a consistency like Jell-O; some can be firmer than others but they are still very delicate.
Silken Tofu can also be flavoured as in dessert-style tofu.
How to Use Silken Tofu
Silken Tofu can be eaten sweet or savory, simply sliced and topped with sauces and garnishes, or incorporated into many other recipes.
Silken Tofu can also be blended into sauces to add body and smoothies to add a bit of protein.
Blended with less water and added flavourings, it can make a good yogurt alternative.
Now we get to the very interesting tofu! These special types of tofu will be found at East Asian grocery stores and occasionally, your regular supermarket in certain markets that cater to East Asian shoppers.
Deep Fried Tofu
There are two main categories of plain deep fried tofu: stewing tofu and tofu puffs. Tofu puffs are made from deep-frying soft tofu. The high water content in the original soft tofu is quickly driven out by deep-frying, leaving a hollow center and puffy exterior. They are traditionally used for stuffed tofu dishes and soups to soak up lots of flavour.
For a less traditional take, I love to season tofu puffs and throw them in the airfryer for a super crispy topping on rice or as a snack.
Stewing tofu typically have a smooth interior but the fried exterior helps it keep shape in braised dishes and stews.
Tofu Noodles are made of tofu that has been made into thin sheets and cut to resemble noodles. While you can use them as a substitute in pasta or noodle dishes they still taste and feel exactly as what they are.
I find they taste best when they are given time to soak up flavours from stir-fry sauce and fried until quite dry. Once this initial layer of flavour is incorporated, then other sauces (like tomato or cream sauces) can be added.
Fermented Tofu (Fermented Bean Curd)
There are many types of fermented tofu but one that you can commonly find at Chinese grocery stores is Fu Yu. The English label will often call it Fermented Bean Curd. These very salty creamy cubes are commonly used as a congee topping. You can also use it in stir-fries like stir-fried green pea shoots.
Mild or White Fermented Bean Curd has a flavour reminiscent of both cheese and miso paste. Red Fermented Bean Curd gets its color from red rice yeast and has a strong flavour. It’s sometimes used in making Char Siu (Chinese Barbeque Pork).
Tofu “Fish Cakes”
Some tofu is made with extra ingredients to create a bouncy texture and taste that resembles fish balls or fish cakes. It can be known as Q-Tofu. But don’t get it mixed up with fish tofu which is tofu that is made with real fish ingredients.
These vegan tofu fish cakes can be sliced up and make a great filling for sushi rolls. Or eaten as is on top of rice or congee. Or fried up for a tasty topping for noodles
Hakka-style Dried Tofu
This type of tofu has much of it’s water removed. It is cooked, often with some flavour and color, to create a very firm meaty texture. You can use it in stir-fries or any dish that you want a meaty bite that can hold up to vigorous cooking.
Did I miss any type of tofu you like? Let me know!