How To Add Smoky Flavor To Baked Tofu

In today's increasingly experimental, accessible, and largely avant-garde culinary scene, tofu is becoming recognized as more than just a staple of vegan and vegetarian diets. In 2022, the U.S. tofu market was valued at a whopping $105.55 million, which sales analytics firm Brand Essence Research projects to increase at a steady CAGR of 2.8 percent for an estimated $128.06 million by 2029. Even the outspoken anti-vegetarian Anthony Bourdain once admitted, "For me, the apex of Sichuan food, my absolute favorite, improbably enough, is a tofu dish." (He was talking about mapo tofu, and we understand the hype.)

But even diehard fans will likely confess that, on its own, tofu does little to inspire excitement, let alone an appetite. Why? Tofu is coagulated soy milk. It's similar to the process of how cheese is made from milk — soybean milk "cheese" curds become tofu. By itself, the flavor is understated at most, or more accurately, non-existent. But that makes tofu a blank canvas, and in turn, one of the most versatile ingredients in the food world. Tofu is naturally super porous, meaning it can quickly absorb and retain other flavors. (Here are the tips to keep in mind while preparing tofu.)

As legendary writer Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once put it, "The mind is like tofu. By itself, it has no taste. Everything depends on the flavor of the marinade it steeps in." It's all about the marinade. With this in mind, here's how to add a smoky flavor to baked tofu.

Whip up a simple brine with paprika or liquid smoke

Believe it or not, tofu can pack the smoky umami flavor of a grilled piece of meat. All it takes is water — and a little spice. To impart a knockout smokiness, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Andrea Nguyen of Viet World Kitchen suggests simmering those baked tofu pieces in a simple brine (via Food & Wine). Nguyen recommends using a mixture of water and seasoning — like smoked paprika or liquid smoke — and allowing the flavors to absorb overnight. For stronger flavor, the longer you allow the tofu to marinate, the better, says Vegan Food & Living.

Paprika is made from dried, ground peppers, and when smoked, it lends a mild, savory flavor that can elevate neutral tofu in a big way. Liquid smoke is exactly what its name suggests: as wood burns, its smoke is captured and condensed into a liquid. It's a natural byproduct, and it imparts a major smoky flavor to food without having to use a smoker. Just be sure to proceed with caution. Liquid smoke is often used to flavor various meats and cheeses, and a little goes a long way, especially when you're working with such a highly suggestible ingredient as tofu.

Minimalist Baker suggests baking the tofu pieces in the oven, before marinating them, and sauteing them on the stove to finish. To skip sauteing and to simply bake uncooked tofu post-marinade, Vegan Food & Living recommends 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes.