I firmly believe that all of the best cooks you will meet, restaurant or home or catering etc, will have some specific go-to recipes or techniques that function as springboards for a meal. These springboards are second nature, so the only creative effort needed is customization. That takes a lot of pressure off when faced with the nightly question: what are you going to make for dinner? An easy, pan-fried all-purpose tofu recipe is one of the best springboards imaginable. Truly! These humble yet super-savory nuggets take me from tacos to salad to a slurpy bowl of noodles.
Start with what you know, what's reliable. What's the core going to be? Then think about your cravings, and browse through your pantry to see what flavors and garnishes are available. Suddenly, you've got a plan. This all-purpose tofu recipe is one of my reliable foundations. It's an anchor for a meal, using ingredients that are always on hand, but it's flexible enough to go in any direction.
Pan-Fried Tofu: Quick, Easy, Yummy
Tofu isn't a strong flavor, but it's a friendly flavor. It takes well to sauces and marinades. I'm sure you've heard the trope, "it's so absorbent, it totally takes on whatever flavors it's dressed with!" Yes and no. It is a great vehicle for flavors, and it definitely does absorb a lot of flavors! But it's still going to be tofu.
Unlike animal proteins, you can stock up on most grocery store tofu and not worry about it spoiling in a few days. Some are even shelf-stable! That makes it the ideal "security" protein, along with things like canned beans. And now that you have this easy tofu recipe, you have a tasty way to season it, too. Wink wink.
Umami: Makes Mouths Happy
The three ingredients I always use for the marinade are umami bombs. Soy sauce, oyster sauce, and bouillon paste. They are not meant to make the tofu taste like meat, but they are meant to make it mouth-wateringly savory in a way that will tickle the deepest food pleasure centers of our brains. These pantry staples are, essentially, natural glutamate powerhouses. (Except your bouillon--your favorite brand might have added MSG, which is a-okay!!)
Using three different types of umami gives you depth. Just soy sauce would taste like… soy sauce! Which is great, but if you don't want the character of soy sauce to be too prominent, it can be limiting. By grouping a few umami-heavy ingredients together, we purposefully muddy their individual flavor profiles. That makes the final result perfectly generic for any recipe.
Rice Flour, aka Mr. Crispy
For a good long time, I wasn't using any type of flour to coat my pan-fried tofu. The result was delicious and so I was satisfied. I started to experiment with a dredge after serving it to a non-tofu lover. They liked the flavor, but found the soft spring of tofu to be uninteresting. They craved more textural contrast.
I knew I was never going to bother with a proper dredge and fry, but I did want to see if I could coax out a bit of crisp. Rice flour is the well-known secret for extra-crispy fried treats that retain their crunch. My first tests were simple: just toss the marinated tofu in rice flour and see what happens. The super-soft glutinous rice flour was fine, but it was the basic stone-ground rice flour from Bob's Red Mill that turned into a legitimate crunch.
Rice Flour Bonus: Less Mess
Regardless of the type of rice flour you have on hand, it has one simply delightful benefit: it minimizes splatters. Wiping or patting your tofu cubes dry is annoying, but the more wet marinade clinging to them the more they will spit when added to the pan. A few spoonfuls of rice flour dries out the surface enough to mitigate the mess.
"Do you have a recommended brand of tofu?"
Nope, sorry. I generally have access to whatever my nearest grocery store stocks, and that seems to change with the winds.
"Can I make this pescatarian?"
Yes! Use a non-meat bouillon paste, such as mushroom or veggie bouillon.
"Can I make this vegan?"
Absolutely. Use a veggie or mushroom bouillon paste, and hunt down a vegetarian "oyster" sauce. You also might like a thick Taiwanese-style soy paste, like the ones they sell at Yun Hai. (Not an affiliate, but their products are sensational...!)
"Can I airfry or bake this all-purpose tofu?"
I can't guide you there. All signs point to "yes" but I don't own an air fryer, nor do I have the patience to heat my oven for baking. Pan-fried tofu is, in my mind, the fastest and most approachable method.
The Best Super-Savory All-Purpose Tofu Recipe
- 1 16-ounce block firm or extra- firm tofu
- 3 tablespoons oyster sauce or vegetarian "oyster" sauce
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon chicken or vegetable bouillon paste, Optional; See Tips, below
- 3 tablespoons rice flour, Optional; See Tips, below
- Step 1Drain and lightly press your tofu for at least 10 minutes. Pat dry and cut into pieces about 1 inch big.
- Step 2In a medium bowl, whisk together the oyster sauce, soy sauce, and bouillon paste (if using). If using rice flour, whisk it in now. It will become a loose paste texture. Add the tofu and gently fold until evenly coated. Set aside to marinate while you prepare the rest of your meal's ingredients, at least 10 minutes.
- Step 3In a large nonstick skillet, heat a glug of oil over medium-high heat. Working in batches if necessary, add the tofu in an even layer and cook until browned on the bottom, 1 to 2 minutes. Turn the pieces of tofu individually and repeat until each side is browned. If your tofu is in smaller pieces, you may prefer to gently lift and stir with an offset turning spatula.**If you tofu is browning too quickly, lower your heat to medium.
- Step 4When all sides are a well browned to your liking, transfer to a wire rack or a paper towel-lined plate. A rack will promote better crisping, since it allows more air circulation.Repeat with the remaining tofu, adding a drizzle more oil as needed.
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