Salt and pepper tofu air fryer (椒鹽豆腐)
This Chinese-style Salt and pepper tofu air fryer is crispy and golden to perfection! The best part is you don’t have to press the tofu so this dish comes together FAST!
Much healthier, lighter, and easier to make than deep-frying. Sprinkle the tofu with salt and pepper seasoning and serve with Chinese chicken wings or crunchy Taiwanese popcorn chicken for a delicious family meal!
What kind of tofu should I use?
Use extra firm tofu because it has already been pressed and has most of its water removed. The texture is more dense and the tofu also has a higher protein content. (I use this one)
A rule of thumb is — the lesser the moisture, the crispier the tofu will be.
I don’t recommend using firm tofu and soft tofu because they contain more water than the extra firm ones. You’ll need to press the tofu to remove water, then dice and season.
This air fry salt and pepper tofu uses all pantry staples. To make this dish vegan and gluten-free, you’ll need these ingredients.
- Extra firm tofu: Buy extra firm or super firm tofu because they are already pressed.
- Coarse sea salt, garlic powder, white pepper, ginger powder
- Sichuan peppercorn powder: Made from whole Sichuan peppercorns and ground into powder. It has a lemony and citrusy flavor and gives the dish an authentic taste. See my section below on this popular Chinese seasoning.
- Avocado oil, potato starch, avocado oil spray
- Spring onions, garlic cloves, fresh red chili pepper, avocado oil
- Salt and pepper seasoning
- Coarse sea salt
- Five-spice powder: It’s a blend of ground spices with cinnamon, cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, and star anise in equal parts.
- White pepper, garlic powder, Sichuan peppercorn powder
Substitutions and variations
- Starch: Other starches like corn starch and arrowroot starch works great if you don’t have potato starch. I prefer to make mine without cornstarch.
- Fresh chili peppers: I used serrano chili pepper. You can also use Thai red chili peppers. For non-spicy alternatives, use red bell peppers or sweet pepper.
- Different flavor: Sprinkle a teaspoon of your favorite seasoning, such as onion powder, smoked paprika, or black pepper.
- Low carb: Whey protein isolate is a good starch alternative to make it low carb.
Sichuan peppercorn and powder
Sichuan peppercorns are aromatic spices from the prickly ash shrub, popular in Asian cuisines, especially Sichuan. They’re famous for their unique and numbing flavor, called mala in Mandarin. You can see how I use them in Chinese steamed eggplant salad and black pepper chicken stir-fry dishes.
For the powder version, the peppercorns are lightly toasted and ground into powder. You can use them as you would with ground black pepper.
If you can’t find Sichuan peppercorns, you can use the following substitutions to get an approximate flavor.
- Ground black pepper mixed with coriander seeds
- Lemon pepper seasoning
How to make Air fryer salt and pepper tofu
Whether you use Ninja Foodi or other air fryer brands, here are simple instructions to make crispy air fryer tofu:
- Pat the tofu dry with paper towels before and after slicing them into cubes.
- Combine the seasonings in a mixing bowl. Gently toss the tofu cubes with the oil and the starch until they are evenly coated.
- Preheat your air fryer. Spray oil on the basket and add the tofu pieces in a single layer. Flip the tofu halfway through. They are ready when golden brown and have a crispy exterior.
- Chop the spring onions, garlic, and chili pepper while you wait. Set aside a small portion for garnish. In another bowl, prepare the salt and pepper seasoning.
- Saute the aromatics, then add the tofu and half the amount of the salt and pepper seasoning. Toss for 30 seconds.
- Transfer to a serving plate. Garnish with scallions and chili pepper. Serve with extra spices on the side.
Tip for pan-frying: Add 3-4 tbsp of oil to the pan and preheat it over medium heat until the oil simmers. Add the tofu and shallow fry until golden brown on all sides. Scoop the tofu cubes out with a slotted spoon and drain away excess oil.
How do you keep tofu from sticking to the air fryer basket?
The trick is to let the food rest in the basket for 10-15 seconds before you attempt to flip it.
Because tofu has less fat, it can stick to the inside of an air fryer basket. You should –
- Spray the air fryer basket with avocado oil
- Toss and coat the tofu with oil evenly
- Spray another layer of oil on top of the tofu
- After removing the basket from the air fryer, let the food rest for 10-15 seconds before you flip the food.
When the food in the air fryer cools down, it tends to “shrink” slightly. This makes it easier to remove from the rack after the surface moisture has dried up.
How to make ahead, store, and reheat
- Make-ahead: Prepare the aromatics ahead of time and store them in an airtight container in the fridge before use. You can also combine the seasonings beforehand. Keep them in a cool, dry place.
- Storage: Store cooked dish for up to 5 days in the fridge.
- Reheat: You can enjoy the leftovers at room temperature. To reheat, air fry them at 360°F for 4-5 minutes.
What to serve the tofu with
Air fry tofu with salt and pepper is delicious when served with rice or as a side dish. It can also be used as a topping for stir fry or enjoyed as a snack with dipping sauces. Here are some ideas:
- Topping: Add the tofu to spicy peanut noodles, or veggie stir fries like garlic green beans or Chinese broccoli with garlic sauce.
- Side dish: Serve the tofu alongside Asian cucumber salad or Chinese smashed cucumber salad for a light and refreshing meal.
- Dipping sauce: Dip the crispy tofu in Chinese garlic chili sauce, sweet Hoisin sauce, or full-flavored Taiwanese shacha sauce.
- Use extra firm tofu: The water and moisture content have mostly been pressed and removed so it saves you time from having to press the tofu.
- Use starch: Gently coat the tofu with starch. It helps to create a crunchy exterior.
- Don’t Overcrowd: Arrange tofu pieces in a single layer in the air fryer basket. Overcrowding can lead to uneven cooking.
- Use oil spray: Spray the air fryer basket with avocado oil and spray a little more on top of the tofu cubes so they crisp up evenly.
- Wait 10-15 seconds: Halfway through cooking, remove the basket and wait for 10-15 seconds. It’ll be easier to flip the tofu after the surface moisture has dried up.
- Salt and pepper seasoning: Add salt and pepper, preferably Sichuan peppercorns for a unique, numbing flavor.
- Add Aromatics: After air frying the tofu, toss with fresh aromatics like scallions, garlic, or chilies for an extra flavor boost.
- Serve Immediately: Tofu is best when it’s hot and crispy, so try to serve it right after cooking.
Air fry tofu at 400°F (204°C) for 10-15 minutes. Flip the tofu halfway through to ensure even cooking. For extra crispiness, you may need a few more minutes. Always check for your desired level of crispness.
Yes, air-fried tofu is a healthier option than deep frying. Tofu is rich in plant protein and air frying uses less oil. However, the healthiness can depend on the other ingredients used in the recipe.
Bringing tofu in a warm saltwater solution can make it crispier. However, this adds an extra step. Using the extra firm or super firm tofu can achieve a similar crispy exterior in less time.
Chinese restaurants usually make tofu crispy by first pressing it to remove excess moisture, then coating it in cornstarch or a similar starch. Some also freeze the tofu and then press it to remove the moisture content. The tofu is also deep-fried and double-fried until it achieves a crunchy, golden exterior.
More tofu recipes you might like
If you love this air fry salt and pepper tofu recipe, you’ll want to add these tofu dishes to your weeknight dinner list.
Salt and pepper tofu air fryer recipe
For the tofu:
For the aromatics:
- 2 whole spring onions, finely chopped
- 0.5 oz garlic cloves, finely minced, 4 large cloves
- 1 whole fresno chili pepper, seeds removed, finely chopped
- 0.5 tbsp avocado oil
- Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towels. Slice it into a little larger than ½-inch cubes. Pat them dry again with clean paper towels.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the seasonings from salt to peppercorn powder. Add the cubed tofu and gently toss with a rubber spatula. Add the oil and sprinkle in the starch 2 tbsp a time until all sides are coated evenly.
- To air fry, preheat the air fryer following your default setting temperature. Once preheated, spray the basket with avocado oil. Add the tofu and spread the pieces evenly in the basket with some space between them. Air fryer at 400°F (204°C) for 10 minutes. Carefully flip the tofu, spray more oil on top and air fryer for an additional 5 minutes. The tofu should be golden brown and a little crisp outside. Set them aside.
- In the meantime, chop the spring onions, garlic, and chili pepper in a bowl. Reserve some spring onions and chili pepper aside for garnish. Prepare salt and pepper seasoning in a separate bowl.
- In a preheated saute pan, add the oil and saute the aromatics over medium heat for 1 minute with a sprinkle of salt.
- Add the tofu. Sprinkle in half amount of the salt and pepper seasoning. Toss to combine for 30 seconds.
- Transfer them to a serving plate. Garnish with reserved scallions and chili pepper. Sprinkle in more salt and pepper spice and serve with extra on the side. Serve immediately.
- For the fresh red chili pepper, I use Fresno chili pepper. You can also use Thai chili pepper or serrano chili. Remove the seeds so they are less spicy.
- For a non-spicy version, use diced red bell pepper or sweet pepper.
- Pan-frying method: Add 3-4 tbsp of oil to a pan and preheat over medium heat until the oil simmers. Add the tofu one by one and shallow fry them until golden brown on all sides. Use a splatter guard to prevent splatter.
- Can you make this dish without the Sichuan peppercorn powder? The dish will taste less authentic without it. You can grind the whole Sichuan peppercorn into powder.
- If you can’t find Sichuan peppercorns, you can use Ground black pepper mixed with coriander seeds or lemon pepper seasoning to get an approximate flavor.
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