Sweet and Sour Tofu
Make this sweet and sour tofu recipe in under 30 minutes! Crispy tofu and a sticky sweet & sour sauce mimic the classic Chinese takeout dish in this vegetarian friendly meal.
*This post was originally published October 2013. Photographs, recipe & text have been updated.
It took me a long time to warm up to the idea of tofu.
Until about 9 years ago, I pretty much thought all versions of it were like the slimy disgusting stuff you find in the warmed up toilet water they call miso soup.
Once I realized a hibachi restaurant’s standard appetizer was probably not the best barometer for judging a food’s potential, however, the world of tofu opened up and recipes like Mapo Tofu, Hot and Sour Egg Drop Soup and Sheet Pan Meal Prep Tofu became go-to meals in my kitchen.
There were a few mishaps along the way to a decent tofu meal like buying the silken kind by accident instead of extra firm.
Although, if you make that mistake just make this healthy peanut butter cookie dough dip with it – problem solved (in a very delicious way!).
Or, being lazy and not spending a few extra minutes to press the water out of it before cubing, thinking it couldn’t make that much of a difference.
Spoiler – it does.
But now I know those things.
And so, when I inevitably forget to take something out of the freezer to defrost for dinner or just prefer to eat a plant-based meal, I almost always have a package of tofu in the fridge as a solid backup plan.
Lately, this sweet and sour tofu recipe is top of the list for a quick and easy Chinese takeout-like meal.
Sweet and sour tofu isn’t something you always find on Chinese takeout menus.
Without a doubt, however, you’ll see sweet and sour chicken.
This recipe is literally an exact copycat just with tofu instead of chicken.
HOW TO MAKE SWEET & SOUR TOFU
This recipe basically boils down to two easy steps:
- making the sweet and sour sauce
- making the crispy tofu
I like to start by making the sweet and sour sauce.
It’s made using all pantry/refrigerator staple ingredients. And, I can assure you it’s a lot healthier than the sauce you’d find in your Chinese takeout container.
Once the sauce is made, you can set it aside and turn your attention to the tofu.
There are a couple tricks to getting nice and crispy tofu we’ll go over below. Trust me when I say they’re worth the extra few minutes because no one likes soggy tofu!
MAKE THE SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE
Mix the following ingredients together in a small bowl:
- soy sauce
- rice vinegar
- minced garlic
- minced ginger
Once those are well combined, add the arrowroot powder and a little bit of water to a separate small bowl. Stir until the arrowroot powder is fully dissolved.
Now, add that mixture along with the remaining water to the bowl with the sauce ingredients and stir everything together.
This can be set aside until you need it at the end of the recipe.
MAKE THE CRISPY TOFU
It’s important to not only drain the tofu from the water in the package but also to press it for at least 15 minutes.
Pressing the tofu removes additional water and really helps to get it nice and crispy in the pan.
You can use an actual tofu press if you have one.
Or, do what I do and place the block of tofu on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet. Put a paper towel on top of the tofu then a big heavy cutting board and something heavy on top of that.
It’s a bit of a contraption but it works well and I don’t need to store another single use kitchen gadget.
The other tip for getting crispy tofu pieces is to tear it into bite-sized pieces. This is in place of cutting it into cubes with a knife.
Tearing it with your hands allows for more jagged edges and surface area to get nice and crispy golden in the pan.
It’s not a totally necessary step, you can definitely cut into 1″ cubes if you prefer but, it’s an easy trick that takes no additional time so I like to use this method.
I also tear the tofu into bite size pieces in my easy sheet pan BBQ tofu recipe. Check that one out too for another easy plant-based meal!
Once you have the tofu torn or cut into approximately 1 inch pieces, add it to a large bowl.
Toss with the soy sauce, garlic powder, salt and pepper. I eyeball the salt and pepper based on our taste preferences.
Add the cornmeal and arrowroot powder and toss well until every single piece of tofu is coated in the mixture.
Now it’s time to pan-fry the tofu by adding enough avocado oil to a hot skillet so that it just barely coats the bottom of the pan.
Add the tofu to the pan (it should sizzle immediately when it hits the hot oil. If not, your skillet isn’t hot enough!) and cook on each side until golden brown and crispy.
Transfer the tofu to a plate lined with a paper towel and set aside.
Another way to get super crispy tofu is to make air fryer tofu! Feel free to use that method and then come back to this for the rest of the recipe.
BRING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now that both the tofu and the sweet and sour sauce are done, add the peppers and onions to the pan and cook until just slightly softened, about 2-3 minutes.
Add the sauce and tofu back to the pan and stir until everything is well combined. Cook for about 1 minute until the arrowroot powder activates and the sauce thickens.
Serve the sweet and sour tofu immediately (it’s perfect over some white rice) and garnish with chopped scallions and sesame seeds.
DOES THIS REALLY TASTE LIKE TAKEOUT?
It does, I promise!
The sweet and sour sauce is sweet from the honey and ketchup and a touch “sour” (tart is really a better word for it) from the vinegar.
It’s just perfectly salty enough from the soy sauce and it thickens into a delicious, sticky, caramelized coating on the tofu and vegetables when it comes together in the end.
When I asked Ulysses what he thought as he scarfed it up for lunch, he said “It tastes just like takeout except it’s not globbed on in disgusting amounts with a disturbing amount of cornstarch”.
That’s my guy.
My Kung Pao chickpea recipe is another takeout recreation you’ll probably love too.
The classic Kung Pao dish gets a vegetarian spin but with all the traditional flavor and spice of the real thing.
And if you’re more of a General Tso’s kind of person, these general tso shrimp will be right up your alley!
Let’s talk substitutions because there are quite a few for this recipe that will work just as well.
To make this a vegan sweet and sour tofu recipe, just use maple syrup in place of the honey in the sauce.
For a completely gluten-free recipe, make sure to use tamari or coconut aminos in place of the soy sauce. I suggest using a low-sodium version of tamari or soy no matter which you choose.
Where I specify arrowroot powder, you can use either cornstarch or tapioca starch interchangeably. So no worries if you don’t keep arrowroot in your pantry!
WHAT ABOUT PINEAPPLE?
I’d love to do a poll on whether the Chinese places where you live add pineapple to their sweet and sour takeout dishes.
Here in NY, it seems to be a 50/50 split. I didn’t add pineapple chunks to this version. But, you can absolutely do that if you prefer the dish that way.
If you do, just add them to the skillet when you add the peppers and onions.
I think freshly cut pineapple is best. But, even canned pineapple chunks that have been drained of their liquid would work.
If you like things on the sweet side, you may like this option best!
So, while I stand firm in my distaste for miso soup (seriously, I’ll never understand you guys who lovingly slurp that stuff up), I do love tofu prepared like it is in this easy sweet and sour tofu recipe.
It reminds me of a quick skillet version of this BBQ Mango Tofu and it never disappoints when you’re craving something takeout-like but also plant-based and a bit healthier!
More easy takeout-like one-skillet dinners:
Jalapeno Mango Chicken Skillet
Buffalo Turkey Cauliflower Skillet
Chinese Chicken Zoodles
Creamy Skillet Turmeric Chicken with Chickpeas
Sriracha Lime Chicken Skillet
Sweet and Sour Tofu
- 14-ounce block extra firm tofu - drained, pressed & torn into 1" pieces
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- salt and pepper
- 2 tablespoons cornmeal
- 1/4 cup arrowroot
- 1 red, orange or yellow bell pepper, chopped
- 1/2 medium red onion, chopped
- 2-3 tablespoons avocado oil for pan-frying
- chopped scallions for garnish
- sesame seeds for garnish
SWEET AND SOUR SAUCE
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 1 1/2 tablespoons honey
- 1/2 teaspoon minced ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons arrowroot powder
- 1/4 cup water
- Make sweet and sour sauce by combining all ingredients except water and arrowroot powder in a small bowl. Whisk to combine. Combine 1 tablespoon of water with the arrowroot powder in a separate bowl and stir until arrowroot dissolves. Add the water and arrowroot mixture to the sauce bowl. Whisk until everything is well combined. Set aside.
- Toss the torn or cubed tofu pieces with the soy sauce, garlic powder, salt and pepper in a large bowl.
- Add the cornmeal and arrowroot powder and toss together until every piece of tofu is well coated with the mixture.
- Place a large skillet over medium-high heat and add avocado oil to the pan.
- Once hot, place the tofu in the pan and cook until golden and crispy on the bottom. Flip each piece and cook until the other side is golden and crispy as well. Transfer tofu to a paper towel lined plate and set aside.
- Reduce the heat to medium and add peppers and onions to the skillet. Cook until softened, about 2-3 minutes.
- Pour the sweet and sour sauce into the skillet and add the tofu back to the pan.
- Stir until everything is coated in the sauce and cook until the sauce has thickened, about 1 minute.
- Garnish with sesame seeds and chopped scallions. Serve immediately.
- SUBSTITION OPTIONS:
- -use cornstarch or tapioca starch in place of arrowroot powder.
- -use maple syrup in place of honey for a vegan sweet and sour sauce.
- -use tamari or coconut aminos in place of soy sauce.