Tofu: To press or not to press?

Turns out, opinions vary widely — almost all of them strong

By Maggie Hennessy


Published November 13, 2022 5:30PM (EST)

Cutting tofu on the chopping board (Getty Images /	by [D.Jiang])
Cutting tofu on the chopping board (Getty Images / by [D.Jiang])

Try posing the following question to your social media town square: "Are you a fan of pressing tofu or do you think it's overrated?" and you'll likely find yourself inundated with a range of responses — almost all of them supremely self-assured.

"I always press it. I use the tip from America's Test Kitchen to slice it, freeze it, thaw, and then squeeze out the extra water." (Two responses mirrored this.)

"Overrated. I prefer 'pre-pressed' tofu if I need something with low moisture."

"I only do it when I'm pan frying so it gets a better crust. Otherwise not worth the time." (A few responses emulated this one, too.)

"I do not press tofu other than to give it a dab just to remove excess moisture." 

That last response, which falls closest in line with my own view, particularly when frying tofu, comes from J. Kenji López-Alt, chef, food writer and author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. "For cottony-style tofu (i.e., the most prevalent in Western supermarkets), really all pressing accomplishes is it turns one type of tofu into another type," López-Alt added. "For silken-style tofus, you cannot press out excess liquid anyway, as the gelled matrix is so tight, you'd end up just breaking it." 

In other words, enough lower-moisture tofu styles — from extra-firm to baked, fried, and smoked — exist in the market nowadays to largely negate the pressing step altogether. So unless you're trying to avoid a trip to the grocery store, why bother? Several respondents echoed this sentiment; one in Boston shared a screener of his favorite pressed tofu from local maker Chang Shing Tofu, which is maddeningly hard to find outside Massachusetts, by the way. 

Not so fast, anti-pressers!

I didn't tell most of my respondents what prompted this informal survey in the first place. I received a tofu press from U.K.-based Tofuture, which had left me wondering about the need for such gadgets when I'm often too lazy to even press tofu using the old, book-weighted pan method. 

When I confessed as much to Jenny Yang, she replied that she and her mother (who still makes tofu at home the traditional way) enjoy amassing the various tofu presses they come across in shops and online. This is in spite of the fact that Yang is the owner and president of Phoenix Bean, a small-batch tofu maker in Chicago that supplies all of the above low-moisture varieties to retailers in seven Midwestern states. 

Indeed, Yang was surprised to learn that so many had abandoned the pressing step, largely because commodity-manufactured tofu — made by coagulating soy milk then curling it on the tray — is saturated with liquid. 

"It all depends on what kind of tofu people buy or use or are familiar with," Yang said. "That's why many recipes say to press it, to cover all kinds of tofu." 

Especially when frying, she added, removing liquid through even a light pressing helps prevent splattering. 

Like Yang's mom, Phoenix Bean manufactures tofu using traditional methods, starting with soaking soybeans until they sprout, then adding water and stone-grinding them. The entire protein-rich soy slurry (including the plant fibers) is cooked and pressed in a forming box lined with cheesecloth, during which time the flavorful tofu water drains out. This enables Phoenix Bean to customize the texture, moisture and density of its curds, from extra soft to al dente tofu "noodles." 

The tradeoff, if you deem it one, is that the products lack the months-long shelf of machine-processed tofu, which defies time in its acidic brine. Because I can't find small-batch tofu like Phoenix Bean and Chang Shing in southern New Mexico, I typically resort to Nasoya or the grocery store's private-label brand — always suspended in slippery liquid. 

As such, you may rightly wonder why I left the Tofuture press unopened in its box for months after it arrived, despite reliably cooking tofu each week. Beyond my aforementioned laziness, I chalked this up to a long-held, inexplicable hangup about welcoming new kitchen gadgetry into the fold. (A dear friend encapsulated this sentiment a few weeks ago: "My rule of thumb with any kitchen gadgetry is, is it worth cleaning it?" And just like that, two more weeks of tofu cookery passed, sans press.) 

After finally trying it out this week, however, I wholeheartedly deem the Tofuture press worth the cleanup. I only had about 20 minutes to press my firm commodity tofu block before cubing and frying said curds up for lunch with a little sea salt, lime zest and juice. I placed it in the slotted inner tray, put the lid on and secured the (cleverly adjustable) elastic bands around the hooks. When the tofu emerged, compact and branded lightly with the Tofuture name, it had released just enough brine to crisp up beautifully when I slowly pan-fried it in grapeseed oil — on another excellent tip from López-Alt. 

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"Moderate heat and plenty of time will get it very crispy, even without a coating or deep frying," he noted.

While I can't guarantee that this little green box will change my too-lazy-to-press ways for good, I sincerely appreciated its simple functionality and tidiness. (Plus, I know one enthusiastic tofu-press collector in Chicago should it lie dormant too long.) 

If, however, after all this back and forth you remain decidedly anti-press though still open to crispier tofu, López-Alt offers up a few alternatives for drying it really well beyond blotting vigorously with paper towels. 

"I simmer it briefly, or pour boiling water over it then immediately set it out on a rack to air-dry, or place it on a rack in a very low oven for a little while or uncovered in the fridge overnight to encourage evaporation," he said.

You may notice that nearly all of said steps require additional dishes; weigh this accordingly. 

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By Maggie Hennessy

Maggie Hennessy is a Chicago-based freelance food and drink journalist and the restaurant critic for Time Out Chicago. Her work has appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine, Taste, Eater and Food52.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chicago Commentary Phoenix Bean Press Technique Tofu