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How to press tofu — or decide if it’s even necessary

There's nothing wrong with pressing tofu, but there are easier methods for getting rid of excess liquid — if you need to do it at all. (Rey Lopez for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)
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For a long time, when recipes suggested pressing the liquid out of tofu by sandwiching it between a lined plate and another weighed down with cans, I dutifully started stacking. But did I need to? Was there a better way?

Andrea Nguyen, the instructor and cookbook author whose works include “Asian Tofu,” doesn’t blame home cooks for being confused or indecisive about how exactly to get rid of the excess liquid from tofu — or whether they actually need to. “There’s been so much fear about using tofu in cooking and so much ambiguity that people are afraid of it,” she says.

Here’s what you need to know before you get cooking.

What the liquid is. If you’re used to buying tofu at the grocery store, you’re probably familiar with the blocks packaged in water. That’s mostly what you’re contending with when it comes to eliminating excess moisture. But tofu can also harbor some residual whey, a byproduct of when soy milk is coagulated so it turns into curds. Whey is the liquid left over after the curds are removed (similar to how cheese is made).

Tofu gets a bad rap sometimes. Here’s how to make it great.

Know your tofu types. Block tofu packed in water is sold in different degrees of firmness: soft, medium, firm and extra-firm. With these, it’s pretty obvious you want to make an effort to get rid of excess liquid. But not all tofu is the same. Silken tofu, for example, is typically sold in aseptic packaging without any added water (it, too, comes in soft, firm and extra-firm varieties). The delicate nature of silken tofu also means you don’t want to press or overmanipulate it. At the other end of the spectrum is super-firm vacuum-packed tofu. It is dry and compact. “You don’t need to do much to that stuff,” Nguyen says.

In Asia, many people buy bagged fresh tofu intended for specific purposes, meaning there’s little to no prep to address moisture, says Jenny Yang of Chicago-based tofu producer Phoenix Bean. If you happen to get your tofu from a similar operation, you’re a step ahead of the game.

Understand when it’s most important. “In some recipes, it doesn’t matter,” Nguyen says of whether you need to make an effort to get rid of excess moisture. If you’re tossing the tofu in soup, “who cares?” Just pour off the water and you’re good to go.

Yang says she also doesn’t worry as much when it comes to grilling tofu.

In general, Nguyen says, “You need to treat tofu like any other protein, frankly.” Meaning, you should do your best to encourage browning for better flavor and appearance. And don’t forget to season the tofu (more on strategies that can do both below).

It helps to think about whether excess moisture will be a problem. It will in the case of pan-frying plain tofu, because more of the heat from the skillet will go toward evaporating the water than cooking the bean curd. If, however, you’re tossing the tofu in cornstarch or another starch before frying, you want some, but not a lot of, surface moisture to help the coating adhere.

Yang says too much moisture can wreak havoc on saucy dishes such as mapo tofu, leading to something watered down in flavor and consistency.

You can have tongue-tingling mapo tofu at home, no takeout box — or meat — required

Pick your method. Nguyen’s philosophy: “Keep it simple. I think people do fuss it up too much.”

When he spotlighted a recipe for Korean-Style Spicy Braised Tofu from J. Kenji López-Alt’s book “The Wok,” Food editor Joe Yonan also gave us permission to relax. “Instead of worrying about getting too much moisture out of the tofu, you can focus on just getting it off the tofu. By drying the outside, you set it up for better pan-frying, getting the exterior firm and a little chewy-crisp, while leaving the interior creamy.”

How to choose the right method? “It is pretty much up to the cook,” Nguyen says, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Do what you’re most comfortable with, or whatever gives you the best results or the least number of dishes to clean.

Find your options below, roughly ordered from simplest to more involved.

  • Draining on towels: Nguyen is a proponent of simply slicing or cubing the tofu and letting the pieces rest on clean dish towels while she preps the other ingredients. If you’re really impatient, it’s okay to just pat the tofu dry and move on, as Joe learned with the braised tofu recipe.
  • Dry brining: This technique from Nguyen is basically the same as the one above, with the addition of sprinkling a rounded quarter-teaspoon of fine sea salt over a pound of cut tofu and letting it hang out for 10 to 20 minutes (if you use kosher salt, it will take a little longer to dissolve). It seasons and helps draw moisture out of the tofu, and Nguyen says you’ll get more even browning this way.
  • Microwaving: Wrap tofu in a clean dish towel and microwave on high for 1 minute. Unwrap, rewrap with a fresh towel, and repeat. This is an easy, speedy option, though Nguyen points out that you then need to wait for the tofu to cool.
  • Pressing: Using two plates and a heavy can of something from your pantry, as described above, is an easy way for home cooks to press tofu, no devoted tofu press needed. “I do not have some special gadget to weigh tofu down,” Nguyen says, nor does she recommend it for home cooks unless you want one for homemade tofu. If you decide to press tofu, take care not to smoosh it too much, as it can break apart.
  • Rinsing: Counterintuitively, you can use water to ultimately help you get rid of it. Yang suggests rinsing tofu with hot, salted water, which adds flavor and ultimately draws out moisture. She encourages people to treat tofu in a similar manner to canned beans, which we are taught to drain and rinse before using. She finds that doing so can help eliminate any off-flavors from preservatives in the water for liquid-packed tofu.
  • Wringing: If you’re crumbling or shredding tofu for a recipe, Nguyen says, wrap the bits in a towel. Twist the edges of the towel so you have a packet that looks like a wrapped peppermint candy and squeeze out the liquid, much as you would zucchini or cucumber.