Why You Should Think Twice Before Marinating Tofu In Oil

If you're new to the world of tofu, you may be tempted to soak the fermented soybean product in a marinade, just like you would with your favorite fish or meat. Flavorful marinades are indeed a great way to give your tofu some extra oomph, but the rules of the road differ from preparing other proteins. Specifically, when marinating tofu, remember to ditch the oil since it's hydrophobic (repelled by water).

Most regular packaged tofu contains more than 80% water content (hence the need to press it before most cooking methods). Water molecules are polar (ie. they have one negative and positive end) and don't mix well with nonpolar fat molecules (which have an even charge distribution). As a result, oil and water separate when mixed, meaning fat's chemical properties will prevent your marinade from soaking into water-rich tofu.

So, when choosing the ingredients for your marinade, it all comes down to the laws of attraction. Since porous tofu contains lots of water to begin with, for a quality soak, it's best to marinate it in low-fat liquid ingredients. Sesame oil is a common ingredient in tofu marinades, but we recommend either skipping it or adding it at the end of marination for maximum flavor absorption. Instead, look towards other polar, hydrophilic (water-loving) ingredients that impart acid, sweetness, and umami like soy or fish sauce.

Marinate your tofu with water-based liquids

Tofu is already very tender, soft, and sponge-like, so unlike marinating meat, the tenderizing properties of the sauce aren't as crucial. Instead, when choosing a tasty tofu recipe for this week's dinner, prioritize water absorption capacity and what flavors you want to shine through in your dish. 

For instance, acidic and tart ingredients go perfectly to amp up the relatively neutral taste of tofu. Opt for citrus like lemon, lime juice. Or, you can achieve a similar flavor with lemongrass and make our flavorful yet satisfying lemongrass tofu with Asian greens. You can also soak your tofu in a mixture of low-fat Greek Yogurt, curry powder, cumin, and chili spice for a plant-based take on tandoori yogurt chicken.

Dry white wine, fruit juice, and maple syrup also make for flavorful marinade additions that will soak right into the tofu. And don't forget to season the liquid with spices like sesame seeds, chili flakes, ginger, or salt. Marinate your tofu in these and other water-attracting ingredients for at least an hour, or overnight, for the best taste.

Additional tofu tips for the most flavorful dish

Tofu is porous, so the less water it's holding the more flavorful ingredients it can absorb. For optimal flavor and texture, make sure sure to drain out the block's water before marinating it. Draining your tofu ensures it stays firm when soaked in tangy and savory sauces. It also helps prevent the pieces from crumbling or breaking when cooking. 

For less work, choose firm or extra firm tofu (which contain less water to begin with), then press the water out of your block. To do so, slice your tofu in half horizontally, then stack the pieces and cover them in a dish towel. Place a heavy object like a frying pan on top, then let the block sit so the water can squeeze out. 

Once drained and marinated, lay your pieces of tofu out on a sheet pan to cook in the oven. Since the marinade won't contain much fat, oil the pan or use parchment paper to prevent sticking when baking. Or for extra crispy tofu, try pan-frying it or preparing it in the air fryer.