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Air Fryer Salt and Pepper Tofu is so delicious, it will make even non-believers into tofu lovers! It’s crispy tofu cubes tossed with spicy chile peppers, crispy garlic, and a sprinkling of flavorful spices.
I love the Cantonese-style salt-and-pepper preparation using any type of protein. Deep-fried Salt and Pepper Chicken Wings is a favorite Chinese restaurant takeout dish. Air Fryer Salt and Pepper Chicken is just as delicious and a bit healthier and easier to make at home than the deep fried version.
Salt and Pepper Calamari or Salt and Pepper Shrimp are also popular. This vegetarian version of Crispy Salt and Pepper Tofu is perfect when I want those flavors and textures, without the meat. And because it is cooked in the air fryer, it is lower in calories and easier to cook.
Why should I air fry tofu?
Air frying tofu gives you crispy, crunchy tofu bits without having to use a ton of oil or creating the mess that goes along with deep frying. The result is super flavorful and healthier than deep fried. Cleanup is easier, too!
What ingredients do I need for salt and pepper air fryer tofu?
I love this recipe because it uses just a few ingredients that you probably already have around the house. The only specialty ingredients are Chinese Five Spice (this can be substituted with individual spices) and Szechuan peppercorn, which is optional. Here are the ingredients (note that the full list with measurements in included in the recipe card below).
- Firm tofu or extra firm tofu
- Oil for spraying, spritzing, or brushing
- Green onions
- Fresh chiles (red, green, or a mix)
- Sesame oil
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Chinese five-spice powder
- Sichuan peppercorns (optional) or Szechuan Pepper Salt seasoning mix
What kind of tofu should I use?
I like to use firm or extra-firm tofu for this salt and pepper tofu recipe. Softer tofu varieties, like soft tofu or silken tofu, are delicious in other dishes, but the firmer tofu holds together better for this type of dish.
What is Sichuan Peppercorn?
Sichuan peppercorn or Szechuan peppercorns are called “flower pepper” in Chinese. They have a unique flavor—floral, citrus-y, and a bit hot. The spice causes a tingly, mouth-numbing sensation that many people find appealing.
I use Szechuan peppercorns in my Vegetarian Dan Dan Noodles, Szechuan Shrimp, Chinese Salt and Pepper Wings, and Air Fryer Salt and Pepper Chicken. You can buy Szechuan peppercorns online or in most Asian markets.
How do I make this crispy air fryer tofu?
To get tofu cubes that are nicely browned and crisp on the outside, there are a few steps you need to follow (Please note: the complete recipe, with ingredient measurements and step-by-step instructions, is included in the recipe card at the bottom of this page. You can scroll there or use the “jump to recipe” link at the top if you don’t want to read the helpful information and tips include in the post.)
- Drain the tofu (see below for more information on how to do this.)
- Cut the pressed tofu into 1-inch cubes.
- Toss the tofu pieces in cornstarch.
- Spray or brush the tofu pieces with oil (please see the section on oil sprays and air fryers below!)
- Air fry until beginning to brown.
- Toss the crispy fried tofu pieces with chile slices, green onions, and salt and pepper seasoning mix.
Can I make deep fried Salt and Pepper Tofu?
Yes! The recipe is basically the same for air fried tofu and deep fried tofu, only instead of putting the coated tofu cubes into the air fryer, you’ll cook them in hot oil on the stovetop.
For deep fried tofu, heat a few inches of oil (use a neutral flavored, high smoke point oil like peanut, safflower, avocado, canola, etc.) in a deep, heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat.
When the oil begins to shimmer, drop in the tofu cubes. Don’t cook too many at a time. You don’t want to crowd the pot. Cook, turning over with chopsticks or tongs, until the tofu pieces are golden brown all over, about 2 or 3 minutes. Use tongs or a slotted spoon to remove the tofu from the oil and set on a paper towel-lined plate to drain off any excess oil.
Pan frying or shallow frying the tofu is also an option. To pan fry, put just about half an inch of oil in a skillet and heat over medium high heat until it shimmers. Add the tofu cubes and cook until they are golden brown on the bottom. Flip and cook to golden brown on the second side.
Whether you deep fry or pan fry, you’ll want to quickly stir fry the chili pepper slices and minced garlic in a skillet to brown them. Toss the fried tofu with the crispy garlic and chiles, salt, five-spice powder, and pepper, and sichuan peppercorn or seasoning mix, if using.
How to drain tofu
Pressing the excess water out of your tofu is very important for this recipe in particular. You want the tofu cubes to get nice and crisp on the outside. That won’t happen if there is too much water in the tofu.
The most efficient way to drain tofu is to use a tofu press.
If you don’t have a tofu press, you can press the water out by slicing the tofu into 1-inch-thick slabs. Lay the slabs in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with several layers of paper towels or a clean, absorbent dishtowel.
Lay more paper towels or another dishtowel on top and then place another sheet pan on top of that. Top the sheet pan with several large, unopened cans (like beans or tomatoes) or other heavy objects. Let stand for at least 20 minutes. An hour is even better.
This method works well for firm tofu, extra firm tofu, or medium tofu.
If you have extra time before you plan to cook the tofu, you can freeze the tofu before cooking. This gives it a an entirely different texture. Air frying it after freezing and thawing will make it extra crispy! Check out my post on crispy tofu for instructions on how to freeze tofu before cooking.
What type of air fryer should I use to fry tofu?
I have successfully made this recipe using both a basket-style air fryer with a nonstick basket and an oven-style air fryer with a stainless steel basket. Both work great.
I love to use my Ninja oven-style air fryer (Ninja Dual Heat Air Fry Countertop 13-in-1 Oven) because it is big enough to cook the all the tofu in one batch.
I have also cooked this dish successfully in my basket-style air fryer (GoWise 5.8-Quart Air Fryer), but in that one, I cook half of the tofu first and then the remaining tofu in a second batch.
Can I use spray oil in my air fryer?
It depends on both the air fryer and the spray oil! If you are using a basket-style air fryer with a nonstick basket, you can’t use nonstick cooking sprays (like Pam) that have propellants in them. You can use spray oil that doesn’t have propellants, like this Olive Oil Nonstick Cooking Spray with No Propellants in your nonstick basket. Or you can use a refillable Oil Mister.
If you are using either an oven style air fryer or a basket style air fryer that has a stainless steel basket, you can use any type of nonstick cooking spray or oil spray.
If you prefer, you can use a basting brush to brush oil onto your food before air frying.
I recommend coating your tofu pieces in oil before air frying in order to get a nice golden brown coating.
DO I NEED TO USE A PARCHMENT PAPER LINER IN THE AIR FRYER BASKET?
You don’t need a parchment paper liner, but they do make flipping and cleanup easier. Reusable silicone liners are a great, lower waste alternative if you prefer not to use single-use disposable liners.
What should I serve with this?
More easy vegetarian dinners you’ll love
Air Fryer Salt and Pepper Tofu
- 1 package 14 to 18 ounces firm tofu or extra firm tofu
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- Oil for spraying or brushing
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 2 green onions thinly sliced
- 1 to 3 chile peppers thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/8 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
- Pinch ground Sichuan peppercorn optional
- Drain the tofu (see below for more information on how to do
- Cut the pressed tofu into 1-inch cubes.
- Toss the tofu cubes in the cornstarch to coat well.
- Arrange the tofu pieces in the air fryer basket and spray or
brush all over with oil (please see the note on using oil sprays with air fryers below!)
- Air fry to tofu at 375°F for 8 to 10 minutes, until it is beginning to turn golden brown.
- Put the minced garlic, green onions, sliced chile peppers, and sesame oil in a medium bowl. When the air fryer finishes the cycle, remove the tofu from the air fryer basket and add it to the bowl with the garlic and chiles. Toss to mix. Return the mixture to the air fryer, spread it out in a single layer, and then air fry again at 375°F for 5 minutes more, until the tofu is golden brown all over.
- Garnish with salt, black pepper, white pepper, five-spice powder, and Sichuan pepper, if using.
- Serve immediately.
Let stand for at least 20 minutes. An hour is even better. 2. About using spray oil in your air fryer: If you are using a basket-style air fryer with a nonstick basket, don't use cooking sprays (like Pam) that have propellants in them. You can use spray oil that doesn't have propellants, like this Olive Oil Nonstick Cooking Spray with No Propellants in your nonstick basket. Or you can use a refillable Oil Mister. If you are using either a basket style air fryer or an oven style air fryer that has a stainless steel basket, you can use any type of nonstick cooking spray or oil spray. If you prefer, you can use a brush to brush oil onto your food before air frying.