Crispy and delicious Salt and Pepper Tofu is a super easy snack or meatless main you can make with only a few ingredients and in a short amount of time. Chewy and flavorful, this tofu is baked or air-fried, not fried in oil so it’s lighter but still as tasty as the salt and pepper dishes you may have encountered at Chinese restaurants.
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Hey Internet, I love a good tofu dish. In fact, I have a huge list of tofu recipes that’s growing all the time. In fact, I’ll have to add this one on there as we speak.
But seriously, give me a tofu dish and some take-out inspired flavors, and I’m a happy person. If that sounds like you, you may also love my sticky tofu or vegan honey garlic tofu, sweet and sour tofu, panko tofu, kung pao tofu, vegan orange chicken, or my vegan beef and broccoli.
Salt and pepper tofu is inspired by salt and pepper dishes you can usually find at Chinese restaurants in the United States. They’re often meat-based, but I’ve seen salt and pepper tofu a few times and every time I see it, I order it. It’s so good.
But the kind I’ve ordered at restaurants is fried in oil and a little heavy, so I wanted to try my hand at a lighter version made at home. And wow, it is delicious.
My easy salt and pepper tofu recipe is made with simple spices you already have in your cupboard and air fried (baking and pan frying instructions also included) to perfection.
Optionally, for a restaurant-style experience, you can sauté up some shallot (or onion), garlic, green onion, and red chili topping for your crispy tofu. Alternatively, I’ll suggest a few great sauces to dip your tofu in, such as my vegan garlic aioli.
Why This Recipe Works
Crispy salt and pepper tofu is so easy to make. All you really need to do is toss the cubed tofu in the seasoning mix and either air fry or bake it (pan frying instructions also included).
But I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make tasty air fryer tofu (or baked tofu if you prefer or don’t have an air fryer). AND, if you want, you can serve it either with the sautéed aromatics on top or with a dipping sauce (or both!).
The first trick to crispy tofu is to use super firm tofu (or you can press firm or extra firm tofu). Basically we want excess water out of there so we can adhere the seasonings and impart flavor. It also helps the tofu get crispier.
Super firm tofu comes in a vacuum sealed plastic sleeve, NOT in a tub of water. This tofu is sometimes called high protein tofu not because it has artificially added protein but because it’s essentially a larger block of tofu that’s pre-pressed into a smaller package, giving you a more dense and less hydrated block of tofu.
The tub of water packed tofu is still okay if that’s all you can find. Purchase the tofu called firm or extra firm in this case, and drain the water.
You don’t HAVE to press this tofu but I highly recommend it if not using the super firm tofu that comes vacuum sealed. You can buy a tofu press or you can make one using two cutting boards or plates and a heavyweight like a cast iron skillet, kettle bell, or heavy books. Press for 20-60 minutes and drain the excess liquid before cubing.
But this is why I buy the super firm tofu whenever I can so I can skip the pressing step.
My next trick is to add a little acid (apple cider vinegar, white vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) to some non-dairy milk and let it get a bit curdled for 6-10 minutes. This makes vegan buttermilk and it’s the perfect liquid to get a nice flavor and coating to our tofu.
Don’t have non-dairy milk or don’t want to do the vegan buttermilk step? Just use oil to adhere your spices.
Speaking of, that’s my final trick. Mix the seasonings and cornstarch together and sprinkle over your tofu in a bowl and toss with a spatula to coat. You can also do this in a ziplock bag.
Then you just air fry or bake and enjoy!
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Ingredients and Substitutions
- 2 tablespoons unsweetened non-dairy milk: Soy milk seems to curdle the best for this recipe, but any unsweetened “original” flavor of non-dairy milk will work (be careful not to buy vanilla flavored!). Alternatively, just use oil (and no acid) to adhere the spices. I recommend a high heat tolerant oil like grapeseed or avocado oil.
- ½ tablespoon apple cider vinegar: Any vinegar or lemon juice will work. Keep in mind if you use a strong flavored vinegar (like balsamic) that flavor will come through. This will curdle the non-dairy milk which creates our vegan buttermilk.
- 1 pound block super firm tofu: I’m talking about the kind in the vacuum-sealed plastic, not a plastic tub of water. If you only have firm or extra firm tofu (that comes in water), you can still make my salt and pepper tofu. Drain all the water from the package and then use a tofu press or two plates or cutting boards, paper towels, and a heavy weight (like books or a cast iron pan) to press the tofu for 20-30 minutes. Otherwise the tofu may turn out soggy—I speak from experience. I recommend the super firm tofu if you can find it—I can usually find it in my local supermarket, Trader Joe’s, Asian market, and even Costco.
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt, or to taste: This is a medium amount of salt. I initially started with a full teaspoon and that was too salty for me. And half a teaspoon left me searching for saltiness, so ¾ teaspoon seemed to be perfect. Alter for your tastes.
- ½ teaspoon fresh cracked pepper, or to taste: Again, do as much as you like here. I HIGHLY recommend using fresh cracked black pepper from a grinder or a peppermill as it will give you a much fresher and more pronounced black pepper flavor. I can’t even go back to pre-ground pepper after trying fresh cracked black pepper. I know that sounds a little extra but I think it’s an OK thing to be snobby about.
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast: I know it sounds a little weird but nutritional yeast is super savory and toasty here—and no, it does not make the tofu taste cheesy. But if you hate the stuff, replace it with plain old breadcrumbs (use gluten-free if needed).
- ½ tablespoon cornstarch: This helps the breading adhere to the tofu. Arrowroot powder or potato starch can also be used. If you want to leave it out the recipe will still work, it might just be slightly less crispy.
- Optional aromatic topping: 1-2 tablespoons of neutral cooking oil, 1 medium shallot or half a medium onion (finely chopped), 2-3 cloves garlic (minced), 2 green onions (finely chopped), and 1-2 red chilies (finely chopped).
How to Make Salt and Pepper Tofu
- If making your salt and pepper tofu in the oven, preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius) now and line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat (I find this makes for crispier tofu) or parchment paper. If using the air fryer, just make sure it’s clean!
- Add the apple cider vinegar (or other acid) to the non-dairy milk and stir. Set it aside for 6-10 minutes until the milk begins to curdle. You can prepare the tofu while you wait.
- Open the package of super firm tofu, drain any excess water, and cube the tofu in a 1-inch dice (or cut in your desired shape, but thickness difference will change the cooking time so keep an eye on it). Add the tofu to a large bowl in a single layer (so the spices will cover all the cubes).
- In a small bowl, mix together the salt, granulated garlic, granulated onion, fresh cracked black pepper, nutritional yeast, and cornstarch. Mix well.
- Pour the non-dairy milk mixture over the tofu and mix once, gently. Return the tofu to a single layer.
- Sprinkle the spice mix over the tofu and use a small spatula to gently stir the tofu making sure it all gets coated. If you like, add a little extra black pepper at this time.
- Air Fryer Method: Add breaded tofu cubes to your air fryer in a single layer. Set it at 375 degrees Fahrenheit (or 190 degrees Celsius) for 14-15 minutes and shake the basket halfway through. Check the crispness. If you desire the tofu to be more crispy, cook for longer or you can give it a misting of avocado (or other) oil if you like and then cook it for a few more minutes. 20-22 minutes usually works perfectly for me.
- Oven Method: Place coated tofu cubes on your lined baking tray. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius) for 25-30 minutes, flipping the tofu and rotating the pan halfway through.
- Pan Frying Method: Heat a few tablespoons of a neutral, high heat oil (I use either avocado or grapeseed oil) in a large skillet (preferably non-stick. I like this nonstick skillet from AllClad) over high heat. Heat until it begins to shimmer, usually about 1-2 minutes. Add half the breaded tofu cubes, giving them some good breathing room. Line a plate on the counter with paper towels. Cook the tofu until browned on each side. I prefer to flip my tofu with silicone tipped tongs. Once cooked, place each cube on the lined plate. Once you’re through cooking that batch, add the remaining cubes and cook them.
- Prep the aromatic topping, if using (optional): While the tofu cooks, heat a medium or large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and let it heat for a minute or two until the oil begins to shimmer. Add the shallot, garlic, green onion, and chilies. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat when they become fragrant and start to brown. Place them in a bowl or on a plate so they stop cooking.
- Serve salt and pepper tofu immediately after cooking. Sprinkle with the cooked aromatics if desired, and/or serve with a dipping sauce like this vegan garlic aioli. Enjoy!
- Refrigerate leftovers for up to 4 days in an airtight container. I recommend reheating in the air fryer, pan, or oven to regain the crispy texture, although I have to say I really like the cold tofu… it’s not crisp anymore but it tastes really good anyway. Cold tofu is awesome in a vegan sushi bowl, just saying.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Well I prefer to serve mine with the sautéed aromatics (shallot, garlic, green onion, and chilies) sprinkled over top and a pair of chopsticks. Make it a meal with some cooked jasmine rice and sautéed bok choy or similar. Alternatively, serve it with your favorite dipping sauce (see below for suggestions) for a great snack or appetizer.
No! It’s a different take on salt and pepper dishes I’ve seen and tasted in Chinese restaurants but it’s certainly not meant to be authentic. Let’s leave it as I was inspired by those and this salt and pepper tofu recipe is a delicious option you make easily at home.
Use the air fryer (preferred) or oven methods. For the aromatics, sauté in broth or water (keep a closer eye on them).
You can store this tofu in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Whileit is probably at its absolute best on the first night, it’s still delicious when reheated. I highly recommend reheating in a pan on the stove, an air fryer, an oven, or a toaster oven to get that crispy texture back. This particular dish won’t be as delicious when reheated in a microwave since the breading won’t crisp back up.
Pro Tips for Success
- If you can’t find super firm tofu that’s vacuum sealed in plastic, purchase firm or extra firm tofu. Drain the water from the tub and blot the tofu with a paper towel. Press the tofu over the sink with a tofu press or between two cutting boards or plates with a heavy weight placed on top, such as a cast iron skillet, kettlebell, or heavy books.
- Keep in mind that people have different salt and spice tolerance levels, so if this tofu turns out too salty, not salty enough, too spicy, or not spicy enough, you have to adjust it to your preferences. If you want even more spice, try adding a pinch of cayenne or chipotle powder, or some red pepper flakes.
- Let the non-dairy milk have time (6-10 minutes) to curdle from the acid that you add. If you don’t want to do this step, use a little neutral high-heat tolerant oil instead.
- Don’t let the coated tofu sit for too long before cooking it as it will lose its ability to crisp up.
Vegan Dipping Sauces
- Vegan Garlic Aioli (oil-free option)
- Vegan Teriyaki Sauce
- Lemon Miso Tahini Dressing
- Vegan Sweet and Sour Sauce
- Vegan BBQ Sauce
- Cauliflower Cheese Sauce
- Nut-Free Vegan Ranch Dressing
More Recipes Like This
- Panko Tofu
- Puffed Tofu
- Vegan Honey Garlic Tofu
- Vegan Sweet and Sour Tofu
- Crispy Tofu
- Sticky Tofu
- Vegan Orange Chicken
- Vegan Beef and Broccoli
- Vegan Kung Pao Tofu
- If you like tofu, check out my big list of tofu recipes