Ah, tofu. The staple of vegans and vegetarians everywhere, and one of the earliest and easiest ways of incorporating protein in a plant-based diet that didn’t involve just taking the meat out of whatever you’d ordered or crunching through a handful of nuts.
I inherited a Dreo 6-Quart Air Fryer this week, and after scrambling around my kitchen for something to test it with as my first recipe, I felt like the stars had aligned. This week (May 6-22) is National Vegetarian Awareness week in the UK, where I’m based; and what should I find in the barren, desolate wasteland that is my pantry? Two boxes containing different brands of tofu – one silky and soft, and one firmer and more spongy.
I was a vegetarian for five years back in the 2010s (followed by three years of pescetarianism) before I packed it in on account of some health issues, so I have a huge appreciation for those who commit to the lifestyle.
While vegetarianism gained popularity during the 20th century, it predates the modern era by at least a couple of millenia. As early as the 6th century BC, early Jain and Buddhist sources practiced non-violence towards animals, as did the Ancient Greeks in the teachings of Pythagoras – although recent findings suggest that as far back as 4,000 years ago, Ancient Egyptians may have practiced vegetarianism for religious reasons.
Tofu, meanwhile, dates back to the Chinese Han dynasty around 2,000 years ago, with its rise in popularity largely being attributed to its high-protein nature coinciding with the spread of Buddhism.
In my days of meatlessness, meat alternatives weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and often came with a pretty significant price tag, so me and tofu became intimately acquainted pretty quickly.
However, it’s not always the easiest food to deal with. One of my favorite things to do with tofu is to crisp it up and toss it into a rice or noodle dish such as ramen, but you can often find yourself with clumpy, cornflour-coated chunks of uncooked tofu if you’re not giving it your full attention while it’s in the pan – and I’m not known for my patience or attentiveness.
So, while my Dreo doesn’t rank as one of TechRadar’s best air fryers, the idea of frying tofu in it filled me with excitement. After researching tips and tricks for air frying tofu online, here’s what I found when I gave it a try…
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Read on to discover what happened when we cooked tofu in an air fryer – or, if you’re ready to take the leap to get your own, check out the best prices right now:
Preparing the tofu
If you’re familiar with tofu, you’ll know that it’s packaged in water, which is great for keeping it fresh, but not so great when it comes to achieving a crisp and crunchy texture on the outside. So, when you’re pan-frying with tofu, it’s important to squeeze as much moisture out of it as possible before cooking.
This is just as important for air frying – while moisture is pretty crucial to the process, substances like a wet batter just won’t crisp up quickly enough for the desired crisp, and will result in a messy tray.
I don’t have a tofu press – as much as I want one, my cozy London flat doesn’t offer much space for non-essential tools – and I’ve found that, generally speaking, the best way to squeeze the moisture out of tofu is by placing it on a flat surface and then compressing it with a relatively heavy object, ensuring that you’ve laid down some kitchen towels to capture the run-off moisture. Silky tofu is very delicate, so make sure you don’t use something too heavy, as it’s likely to just squash the juicy, squishy bean curd.
I left my firmer tofu to dry for 20 minutes, and my silkier tofu for an hour. This still wasn’t long enough for the silky kind, as we’ll discuss later, so if you’re keen to try this at home, go for one and a half hours, switching out the kitchen towels every 15-30 minutes. Next, I cut the tofu as evenly as I could into roughly 1-inch / 2cm cubes.
Tofu isn’t the most flavorful thing in the world; however, it does take on seasoning very well. I wanted to try to air-fry the tofu in a few different ways, so I separated it into several batches.
First I divided both types of tofu into two batches, taking one-half of each to cook without seasoning. I left the firm tofu as it was, and coated the silky tofu in cornflour to give it the best chance of crisping.
For the other halves, I tried two different recipes. The spongy tofu was seasoned with sesame oil, garlic and soy sauce (inspired by Live Eat Learn), and the silky tofu with paprika, garlic powder, sesame oil, soy sauce, cornstarch, salt and pepper (inspired by Jessica in the Kitchen). I left these batches to marinate for 30 minutes before cooking.
Air-frying the tofu
First up were the two plain tofu portions. I preheated my air fryer to 380F / 200C for three minutes, as per the instructions, and then carefully laid out my tofu cubes on the cooking tray, taking care not to overfill the tray and leaving space between them for the airflow. Both preheating and spacing are crucial to air frying, as success when cooking with air fryers depends on a good circulation of hot air so that moisture on the surface of foods can evaporate immediately, giving them that desired crispy texture.
The silky tofu lost a lot of its structural integrity in the process of tossing it in the cornflour – which was when I realized that I’d underestimated the drying time required – but the tray was hot enough from the pre-heat that the bottom of the tofu cubes firmed up, stopping them from slipping through the non-stick plate.
Having read a few different guides to air-frying plain tofu, I set the timer for 15 minutes, shaking the tray halfway through when my fryer notified me to do so – this ensured that the hot air reached every part of the tofu cubes to crisp and brown them. When the cooking time was up, I was delighted to find that both types of tofu had developed a wonderful crisp. The spongy tofu could have done with five minutes less, as the cubes were fairly dry, but they still had the desired texture.
Understandably, the fairly deformed silky tofu hadn’t achieved an even crisp, but I was delighted with its texture – a lightly crisped outer edge and a beautiful, layered sponginess inside.
Excitedly, I took my learnings from the first batch into my second: the spongier tofu marinated in soy, oil and garlic went in for 10 minutes, while the silkier tofu marinated in powdered seasoning, soy sauce, cornflour and oil went in for 15. This time, I placed the cubes on a piece of baking parchment to prevent messy drips, although it was tricky to keep this weighed down. Be warned: the airflow inside an air fryer can lift the parchment, creating a safety hazard if it comes into contact with the hot element at the top of the tray.
Adding moisture back into these two batches in the form of oil and soy sauce definitely affected the results. The spongy tofu didn’t quite get the thick, crispy fry from the first batch, although I preferred this, personally – the first batch was far too dry for me. The silky tofu, however, flat-out refused to crisp, even though I’d been generous with the dry ingredients in my mix. I tried giving it a further five minutes to cook, but the seasoning was starting to slide off the cubes. Again, I think this was down to my impatience with the drying process – but perhaps air-fried silky tofu just isn’t the way forward if you want seasoning on it.
Overall, I’d say my first foray into air-frying tofu was pretty successful. All four of my tofu batches were delicious, and worked well as a healthy snack. Plus, the process was immeasurably easier than pan-frying, so it ticked all the boxes for me.
Next time I’d avoid coating silky tofu at all, and I’d leave it to dry for longer; my first batch had that wonderful, pastry-like layering to it that you just can’t get with thicker tofus.
If you’re thinking of investing in your own air fryer as a vegetarian or vegan, there are plenty of amazing recipes out there that you can try, and air-fried tofu is a great place to start. Simply toss it into a noodle bowl or stir fry, serve it with rice, or even eat it by itself with a spicy mayo or sauce of your choosing. Yum!