Marinated tofu is great, but getting tofu to actually absorb marinades is trickier than it seems. If you want the flavor to get all the way inside, you have to get heat involved somehow, whether that’s in the form of a dip in boiling salty water, or by pan-frying, baking, or my new favorite pre-marinade technique: Air-frying.
Cold, raw tofu rejects marinades because of its high water content and low porosity. It will eventually suck up a marinade, but mostly on the surface, and only after a long, long time (think a couple of days). Par-cooking it speeds up the process by driving out some of that water, leaving more room for seasonings. For proof, look no further than the Superiority Burger crispy fried tofu sandwich, which uses an initial pan-fry to force the tofu cutlets to absorb a marinade made from pickle brine, hot sauce, and Dijon mustard. I’ve used this technique to great effect for years, but I have to say, air frying is both easier and better: It’s hands-off, super effective, and really lets you play around with the texture.
There’s no single ideal way to air fry your tofu; the specific technique you use depends on what kind of textural experience you’re after. Craving something super thin and crispy, almost bacon-like? Slice firm tofu into 1/4-inch thin slabs, toss with plenty of oil, and air-fry at 450F for 3–5 minutes a side. Or, for something on the opposite end of the texture spectrum, cube soft (or even silken) tofu, skip the oil, and air-fry at 350F for 20–30 minutes until firm and totally dry on the surface. It will turn out almost like paneer or queso fresco in texture, ready to absorb lemon juice and salt for the ultimate vegan saag paneer.
Those are just two of many directions you can go with your air-fried tofu. Ultimately, as long as you’re intentional about your technique, you can use this method to prep any kind of tofu, cut into any size, and get exactly the result you want. Just remember: For a crispy surface, oil the tofu and use high heat; for a drier surface with no real crunch, skip the oil and lower the heat; for something in between, play around with the amount of oil and the temperature until you get exactly what you want. Even if you don’t nail it on the first go, you’re still guaranteed to get a firmer, sturdier piece of tofu that’s ready to absorb whatever flavorings you like.
The final step in this prep process is, of course, the marinade. No matter which recipe you choose, for the absolute best absorption, I strongly recommend heating the marinade up to a simmer and pouring it over your tofu the second it comes out of the air fryer. (Hot tofu plus hot marinade equals maximum absorption in minimum time.) Then, let it cool to room temperature, cover, and refrigerate. Whether you’re pan-frying it, throwing it on the grill, or dredging it for a full-on deep-fry, you’re in for the most flavorful tofu of your life.