Food & Drink

The Definitive Guide to Tofu Styles

Everything you need to know about every kind of tofu.

collage of different types of tofu
Ted McGrath/Thrillist

Tofu, the polarizing vegan protein, is now everywhere from chain restaurant menus to the shelves of your local grocery store. Made from mashed soybeans that are pressed into a block, giving it its distinctive cubed shape, tofu is a staple in many kitchens.

The tofu-making process isn’t too different from cheesemaking; it includes a coagulation step that drains the soybean curds of excess liquid. It’s 100% plant-based and comes in varying degrees of firmness and texture, which makes it a perfect, universal ingredient in so many different dishes across a range of cuisines. That being said, tofu originated in China and has been consumed there for over 2,000 years. It made its way to other Asian countries over the centuries -- through trade as well as occupation -- and has seeped its way into curries, soups, and stir fries.

But there isn't just one type of tofu. They differ depending on how much liquid is extracted from the soybeans during their coagulation process. Firmer tofus have less water, whereas soft and silken tofu are bloated with liquid, giving it its signature jiggly texture. Then there are tofus that have been fried or baked or smoked to make them extra delicious. So which kind should you buy? Consult our handy guide below.

Firm

Firm tofu is ideal for pan frying, baking, and making tofu steaks. It holds its shape nicely, yet can still absorb lots of flavors and marinades. Because tofu is pretty neutral in terms of flavor, it’s easy to be creative when using tofu to replace other types of proteins. Need a vegetarian interpretation of orange chicken? Try tofu. Need a protein to include in your fried rice? Firm tofu is your friend.    

Medium & Soft

Medium and soft tofu aren't as great as retaining their shape as firm tofus, but can still be a vehicle for delicious sauces. This is the type of tofu you find in your miso soup, tingly mapo tofus, and gently fried agedashi tofu. They’re not as dry as firm tofu -- so they don’t do well baking in the oven -- but will work great in whatever noodle or soup dish you’re feeling.

Silken

Silken tofu is like the whole milk of the tofu world. It is rich and creamy, which often makes if the perfect ingredient in creating vegan mayonnaises and dairy-free cheesecakes. It can also be blended for dips and sauces, vigorously whisked with sugar to create a fluffy "whipped cream" or mousse, or eaten delicately, drizzled with a ginger syrup, for dessert. Traditionally, in Japan, silken tofu is served cold with grated ginger, bonito flakes, and soy sauce: a perfect beginning to any meal.

Tofu skins

Tofu skins -- also called bean curd skins -- are what you get when you boil soy milk and a skin forms on the surface. The skins are delicately extracted and can be used fresh, dried, and even fermented. Flavor-wise, tofu skins taste like regular tofu, just thinner. However, when layered, and seasoned, they can often imitate the flavors and textures of chicken and duck, creating widely-used alternatives to meat. The skins are also used to wrap rice and dim sum and create tiny, delightful tofu packages.

Fried tofu

Fried tofu is exactly what it sounds like: squares of tofu fried and pre-packaged for your easy consumption. It’s not as crispy as you might suspect, nor is it as compact and crumbly as firm tofu, but instead has a spongy, airy texture perfect for absorbing sauces. Throw these guys into your pad thai and stir-fries and call it a day.

Seasoned tofu

Seasoned tofu makes dinner possible with minimal ingredients and effort but maximum flavors. Tofu that comes pre-seasoned and prepackaged is typically savory, steeped in soy sauce, garlicky marinades, and sesame flavorings. One of the best versions is a Korean chili tofu that’s made fresh, speckled with green onions, and sold at most Korean grocery stores.

Tofu spread

Eat it with crackers, spread it on sandwiches, and dunk your veggie sticks into it. Tofu spreads are available in a variety of flavors, with a lot of classics reminiscent of your favorite bagel shops: garlic and herbs, garden vegetables, sun dried tomatoes, and even smoked salmon. If you love cream cheese but dairy doesn’t love you back, tofu spread is a wonderful alternative.

Braised tofu

Braised tofu typically uses firm tofu and poaches the rectangles of soybeans in a soy sauce-heavy marinade before vacuum sealing it in its braising juices, thus creating a ready-to-eat, well-seasoned tofu masterpiece. Use braised tofu as a tofu steak or served over rice for the quickest vegan meal of your life.

Baked tofu

Baked tofu is just like braised tofu in the sense that it, too, is marinated and vacuum sealed -- but prepared slightly differently. Instead of poaching the tofu in its flavoring, baked tofu is -- as its name suggests -- baked, and then left to soak up its marinades in its packaging. Again, it’s usually made from firmer tofus to hold its shape and retain its texture in the baking process. It’s also ready-to-eat straight from the package.

Smoked tofu

If you find yourself committing to a plant-based diet -- and missing bacon -- then smoked tofu is the answer to all your problems. As suggested by its name, smoked tofu is prepared by, well, smoking tofu, which leaves it with a deep, meaty flavor perfect for stuffing into sandwiches or layering on rice bowls.  

Tofu pockets

Tofu pockets are a variation of fried tofu that can be sliced and filled like… a pocket. Traditionally, in Japan and Korea, they are filled with rice and can be sprinkled with furikake. They make for a protein-rich alternative to flour-based wraps and bread and can be stuffed to your heart’s content with your favorite ingredients.

Chickpea tofu

Chickpea tofu is sort of the black sheep of this bunch, because unlike all the other tofu varieties included in this list, chickpea tofu isn’t made from soy but instead is made from -- you guessed it -- chickpeas. Chickpea tofu is commonly found in Myanmar, which is why it can also be referred to as Burmese tofu. It undergoes a similar process to soy-based tofu to get to its final form, and can be included in salads, curries, or eaten fried.

Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email, get Eatmail for more food coverage, and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.

Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist who loves her tofu soft, firm, fried, whatever -- she doesn’t discriminate. Catch her talking about her love of Korean tofu soup on Twitter @katthompsonn.