Last Updated on June 24, 2022 by Jennifer Pallian BSc, RD
Chili Garlic Tofu with a sticky-sweet spicy sauce: a healthy, easy recipe with vegan protein + 3 boss tips for making crispy tofu every time. Plus, see my expert answer to whether or not you should marinate tofu.
This is such a simple recipe, I make it all the time even for a quick desk lunch. Packed with sweet-spicy flavours and plant-based protein, it really scratches the itch for comfort-food takeout but is super healthy, vegan, and doesn’t feel heavy. Try it, I think you’ll love it. Even my kids gobble it up (ok fight over it, if I’m being honest).
How to Make Chili Garlic Tofu
To make this easy breezy recipe, just pat dry the tofu, dust it with cornstarch, fry it in a hot pan. Turn off the heat and pour the sauce ingredients into the same pan. They thicken up right away, at which point you add back the tofu to coat it in the sticky, glistening, delicious sauce. Here are a few extra keys for success:
- Tofu may be crispy before it gets super brown – tap the crust with a knife to feel it crackle. You can keep cooking until truly brown, but as long as it’s crispy, I call it done (I like to preserve the moisture in the middle).
- Choose a high-heat oil. Olive oil is not a good choice because of its low smoke point. I like avocado oil for the health benefits and high smoke point.
- Turn off the heat after cooking the tofu to make sure you don’t burn the honey in the sauce. There should be enough residual heat (even after the minutes it takes to whisk up the sauce in a bowl) to reduce it quickly even off the flame.
Just 3 Ingredients In My Delicious Chili-Garlic Sauce
Somehow even with so few ingredients, this sauce hits all the yummy flavours and is so, so good.
- Honey (you may swap in another sweetener, like maple syrup or brown sugar)
- Chili garlic sauce (also known as sambal oelek). This chili sauce already has vinegar, chilies and garlic in it, which makes 3 ingredients in a single jar. I love that it saves the step of mincing cloves of garlic.
- Soy sauce (swap in tamari to make a gluten-free version)
What Kind of Tofu Should You Choose?
For pan-fried tofu, I love medium tofu for a custardy middle and a crisp crust but it is delicate. Firm or extra-firm tofu work perfectly as well, they just have a meatier texture.
Because I love the softer centre, I don’t press the tofu between layers of paper towel (which is a common first step to remove excess liquid in a tofu recipe), I just pat dry the outside before dusting with cornstarch.
Why Won’t My Tofu Get Crispy? Forget that problem! Here are 3 Essential Secrets for Perfect, Crispy Tofu Every Time:
If you wonder why your tofu doesn’t crisp to perfection, I’ve got you.
- Pat dry then dredge the tofu is cornstarch or flour. A dusting of starch absorbs surface moisture allowing maximum crisping. Water is the enemy of crisping.
- Make sure you preheat the pan for several minutes. This ensures a super-hot cooking surface, and one that doesn’t have any cold spots. Then add the oil and let that preheat as well. It should appear thinner and almost shimmering when it’s ready. A hot pan with hot oil make for a perfect sear without sticking.
- Don’t agitate the tofu. This is not a stir fry. If you move it before it’s ready, it is more likely to fall apart (and also won’t crisp). Let the tofu cubes cook until they release easily from the pan before you flip them
Is It Better To Pan Fry or Oven-Bake Tofu?
I love to pan-fry tofu because the direct heat makes for a super crispy crust. Baking is fine, but hot oil in a pan is really key to irresistible crunchy outer layer.
You could air fry it by brushing the dredged tofu with oil, cooking until crispy and then brushing with sauce and air frying a couple minutes longer, but you will have to monitor closely as the sticky sauce may scorch quickly in the air fryer’s intense heat.
The TRUTH About Marinating Tofu
You might be wondering why I’m only saucing the tofu after cooking, and if marinating it wouldn’t be better. I’m often asked if you should marinate tofu overnight, how long it takes tofu to soak up flavour, or if marinating tofu actually even does anything at all. Honestly, most marinated tofu is underwhelming. The added moisture of liquid ingredients reduces the crisping of the surface of the tofu, only the very outermost layer even gets the flavour, and if there’s any sweetness in the marinade (which I love!), it will burn in the pan.
This method of crisping the tofu first and saucing it second is the best way I’ve found to get the golden brown crust. The tofu is still smothered in flavour, without bitter burned parts.
What to Serve with Chili Garlic Tofu
I love to serve this yummy tofu as part of a grain bowl for lunch, but it’s also a delicious dinner main course dish served with rice and a green veggie, like green beans. You could even serve the tofu in wraps with cucumbers and lettuce for a grab-and-go lunch. If you’d like to garnish it, I recommend green onions, sesame seeds and/or a drizzle of toasted sesame oil to taste.
Other Delicious Tofu Recipes
Chili Garlic Tofu: Sweet, Spicy and Delicious
- 1 block of tofu medium, firm or extra-firm
- cornstarch for dusting
- 2 tbsp high-heat oil like grapeseed or canola
- 3 tbsp soy sauce
- 3 tbsp honey
- 2 tsp chili garlic sauce
- Preheat a large cast iron skillet over medium-high heat.
- Slice tofu in half crosswise (like if you were to open it like a book) and then in strips. Pat dry on both sides with paper towels then dust generously with cornstarch. Sprinkle one side of the tofu with salt.
- Add oil to the pan and when it is shimmering hot, add tofu in a single layer. Cook completely undisturbed (seriously don’t budge it!) until it lifts easily and is beautifully golden underneath. Carefully flip all pieces and repeat until golden on the second side. Transfer tofu to a plate and turn off the heat, leaving skillet on the unlit burner.
- Whisk sauce ingredients together in a small bowl and add to still-warm skillet. It should bubble up right away and reduce to a thick consistency in just a minute (if not, turn heat back on). Add tofu and turn to coat with the sticky sauce.