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Tofu is an ideal plant-based protein source for vegans and vegetarians. It’s sustainable, tasty, versatile, and can be prepared beforehand, making it a meal prep winner.
How to Meal Prep Tofu
Tofu is a favorite meal prep ingredient because it’s healthy, low-fat, gluten-free, and cholesterol free. Depending on what you cook with it, tofu absorbs loads of flavor. However, not all tofu is created equal, so read on to learn how best to meal-prep tofu.
Buy the Right Tofu
When I first started exploring tofu – having grown up in a household where meat and two vegetables were the norm – I was overwhelmed by the variety. I didn’t know whether to buy smoked, silken (sounds gorgeous), soft, firm, or extra-firm tofu. I learned by trial and error, but you don’t have to!
Tofu or bean curd is made from coagulated soy milk, which is then pressed into shapes of varying densities. The more liquid pressed out of curds, the firmer its texture. Tofu’s been around for millennia and is used a lot in Asian cuisine.
I first bought silken tofu, enchanted by the name. This tofu has a custard consistency and is good for sauces, soups, dips, and puddings. I didn’t find it ideal for the meal prep my family needs, which is portable and easy to eat.
For meal prep, it’s best to go straight for the firm or extra-firm tofu, which keeps its shape when baked, sautéed, or fried so you can easily add it to different meals.
Store your tofu sealed in its package and refrigerate until you use it. Treat it like raw chicken and use it within the recommended shelf-life, usually one week. Tofu is perishable and highly susceptible to bacterial contamination.
Another step before you can cook doesn’t sound meal-prep friendly. Bear with me: this step is vital and takes little hands-on time. You can carry on with other prep while the tofu is pressed.
What does pressing tofu mean?
When you buy tofu, it’s often in a tub of liquid. Draining the liquid is insufficient, as the tofu is absorbent, like a sponge, and contains excess water.
You, therefore, need to press out as much liquid as possible. There are four reasons why you should press tofu:
- It’s easier to work with firm tofu rather than soggy lumps.
- Well-pressed tofu has a hearty, dense texture similar to paneer cheese.
- The tofu will crisp up nicely in the oven or air-fryer.
- Without the bland water, the tofu’s flavor improves.
My grocery store stocks vacuum-packed tofu, a game-changer: no pressing is needed! But if you eat a lot of tofu, it’s worth investing in a tofu press, like the TofuBud. This device will press all the water out of a block of tofu within 15 minutes.
Here’s how to press tofu if you don’t have a tofu press:
- Remove the tofu from its packaging, draining off all the water.
- If you have a large block of tofu (more than 10oz), slice it in half.
- Place the tofu on a cutting board or large plate covered with paper towels or a dish towel to absorb the liquid.
- Set the board next to the sink for easier drainage and less mess.
- Cover the tofu with more paper towels and place another wooden board (or plate) on top.
- Let the tofu compact for 10 minutes – you don’t want to squash it.
- After 10 minutes, put a heavier weight on the top board (e.g., a cast-iron pan or some large cans).
- Allow the weight to press the tofu. Pressing should take 15 to 30 minutes. Do not leave uncooked tofu at room temperature for more than two hours. Otherwise, you risk contamination and foodborne illness.
- You can turn the tofu halfway.
A word of warning from my experience: do not attempt to press silken tofu. Big cleanup and no tofu that night.
Stop your meal prep here if you don’t want to cook the tofu immediately. The joy of pressing tofu is that once it has been pressed, it won’t reabsorb water. Put the pressed tofu into a container of water. It will last for three to four days, so long you change the water daily.
Tofu is most delicious when cut up, exposing the edges to heat and allowing them to brown and crisp. Chop the pressed tofu gently as if you were cutting a block of soft cheese.
Common ways of chopping tofu are:
- small blocks
Your tofu is ready to use.
On the one hand, you can use the tofu “raw.” Because tofu has already been cooked in the production process, it is not a raw ingredient. Think of tofu like cheese or yogurt: add chunks to salads, throw it in a smoothie, or enjoy it as a snack. However, tofu in this state is very breakable and perishable, so it’s not ideal for adding to dishes to be eaten days later.
Tofu is best cooked. However, you can stop your meal-prep here, storing the chopped tofu in water in the fridge. It will keep for three to four days with regular water changes – unless it’s already been standing in the fridge after pressing, in which case you need to cook it.
For the longest time, I avoided cooking tofu as it is bland. My kids didn’t like the creepy texture. I then discovered you could marinate and fry tofu, making it delicious!
Place your pressed, chopped tofu in a marinade of your choice. Here are some ingredient combinations that work well, but use whatever’s in your fridge. Create your marinade depending on how much tofu you have:
- olive oil, balsamic vinegar, honey, and garlic
- olive oil, lime juice, garlic, and cilantro
- soy sauce, olive oil, garlic, ginger, and rice vinegar
- soy sauce, peanut butter, garlic, ginger, maple syrup, lime juice, and rice vinegar
- BBQ sauce, paprika, olive oil, apple cider vinegar, garlic, and onion powder
Allow the tofu to soak for about 30 minutes before cooking. You can also place it in the fridge. If the tofu has already been standing for three days, you should cook it after marinating.
When I’m busy with a meal-prep session, I make the marinade while the tofu is pressed, then chop it and pop it in the marinade. I then freeze tofu in its marinade in a freezer-safe bag for up to six months. Defrosting the tofu in the fridge overnight means it’s ready for cooking the next day.
You can cook the tofu straight out of the marinade, but to get a really crisp exterior, there are some tricks.
Make a mixture of cornstarch and other seasonings like salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, etc. Toss the pieces of tofu in the seasoning. The mixture should coat the tofu.
Tofu is a versatile ingredient and lends itself to several different cooking methods. You can sautée it in a pan with a little oil to sear the outside or grill it for a smokey flavor. However, there are two methods that are ideal for meal prep.
Oven baking is an easy way to prepare a lot of tofu at once.
- Put the tofu in a single layer on a lined baking tray.
- Set your oven to broil.
- Broil the tofu for 15 minutes or until it reaches the required crispness.
- Flip the tofu halfway through cooking.
An air-fryer is a handy device for meal prep, as you are hands-off and use less oil than other frying methods.
- Add the tofu to your air-fryer basket in a single layer.
- Air-fry at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
- Open the fryer and toss the tofu.
- Continue to air-fry for another five minutes or until the tofu is crisp.
Allow the tofu to cool, and then pack it in airtight containers and refrigerate. Eat the cooked tofu within six days.
Ideally, keep the tofu separate from the rest of the dish, as it will lose its crispness.
Ways to Use Meal-Prepped Tofu
This protein-rich food is a handy addition to several meals.
For example, you can serve the tofu for lunch with a plate of brown rice and broccoli. This is an easy meal to prep ahead of time.
You can also add cooked tofu to the following:
- green salads
- poke bowls
- grain bowls
- noodle bowls
- soups, as a garnish
- baked potatoes as a topping
- sandwiches or wraps, as a filling.
Tofu is a major ingredient for vegan and vegetarian meal-preppers, as it is rich in protein and other nutrients. It’s ideal for meat-free Mondays, or add it to your lunch rotation in a salad or rice bowl.
Nathaniel Lee is an avid cook, drawing on his decades of home cooking and fine dining experience. He is a contributing chef at Mashed, and his recipes and contributions have been featured in Tasting Table, Edible Arrangements, Insanely Good Recipes, and The Daily Meal.