When I talk with folks about meatless meals, the conversation always comes around to tofu. I find people in two camps: (1) those who hate it and are sure it is always bland (2) those who want to like it, but aren’t really sure how to work with it to make it delicious.
I’m here to help.
There are many different kinds of tofu and ways to prepare it. You can buy it anywhere from soft as custard to extremely dense; it can be fermented, pressed, deep fried, dehydrated, etc. You can even make it yourself. That’s not what I’m here to tell you about today. If you want to get deeply into the ways of tofu, you want my friend Andrea Nguyen’s book, Asian Tofu, which must stand as the new definitive work on the subject.
By the way, please notice the title of her book: Asian Tofu. I know there are folks who like to do all sorts of non-Asian things with tofu, like turn it into “cheesecake”, smoothies, lasagna, etc. If you enjoy such things, godspeed. For me, tofu is best understood as a food with a long history throughout Asia. As I talk about in my cookbook, it is not a meat substitute; in fact in many traditional dishes from China, Korea, etc. tofu is served with meat. Tofu is simply a way of turning the humble soybean into something that, with proper cooking, is hearty, craveable and nutritious, with a subtle, sweet flavor and a range of appetizing textures.
But back to the point: Today, I’m not going to teach you a bunch of ways to cook tofu. I’m going to teach you one basic method for making pan-fried tofu with a crispy, browned crust that is absolutely delicious. This is my go-to approach that I use in lots of recipes, and oh-so-frequently for simple improvised weeknight meals. It is easy to do, takes just minutes, and the results are far superior to simply cutting up cubes and throwing them in your stir-fry.
(By the way, this is different than the fried tofu you may have eaten at many Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants. Restaurant fried tofu is typically deep fried, which is also great, but for most people it is too much oil and mess for normal home meals.)
Step 1: Buy Good Tofu
Don’t panic if this doesn’t work for you, but if you live in a big city, there is a good chance that there is at least one store that is making fresh tofu every day. For example, in Seattle we have Thanh Son Tofu and Northwest Tofu. Both are great local artisans that make a product incomparably better than what you’ll find at the grocery. When I walk into Thanh Son in the afternoon, I can buy a pound of extra-firm tofu for about $1.50 and it is literally still warm from production. (If you want to recommend tofu shops in other cities, please add them in the comments below.)
Ok, I hear you: you don’t live near a tofu store, or you aren’t willing to go track one down. Fair enough. (But trust me, when you eventually do, it will be worth it.) Your next best bet is to find a store that moves a lot of tofu. You want the stuff packed in a rectangular, water filled box (or maybe wrapped in plastic), in the refrigerator section. Please not the shelf-stable UHT boxes. Choose an extra-firm tofu with the latest expiration date you can find. That is usually going to be a better indicator of quality than the brand. If you open it and smell more than a tiny whiff of sourness, or it feels slimy, it isn’t going to be good.
Step 2: Cut Your Tofu
Open the package, drain out the water, and cut your ‘fu into slabs about 3/8″ thick. That will give you a nice ratio of crust to interior. You can, if desired, break those slabs down further into strips or cubes. (For cubes, 1/2″ is probably a better size.) That was easy.
Optional Step 2.5: Soak Your Tofu in Hot, Salted Water
This wasn’t in the original article, but Andrea Nguyen wrote in to encourage me to try it, and indeed it does make the crust even crispier and more delicious. Bring some well-salted water to a boil and pour it over your tofu. Let this stand for about 15 minutes, then drain. I don’t understand the science of why this improves the crust, but I’ve tried it side-by-side with two pieces cut from the same original block, and fried at the same time, and the difference is noticeable.
By the way, if you are finding this post helpful, my cookbook has 150 recipes that will get you out of the rut of making the same few vegetarian dishes over and over again. Why not pick up a copy right now?
Step 3: Dry Your Tofu
Were you thinking I’d say marinate your tofu? In my experience, this is a waste of time. The marinade barely penetrates. You can flavor it with a sauce, later.
Were you thinking I’d say press (weight) your tofu? You can, if you want, but that is why I had you buy extra firm tofu in the first place, so that it already has a firm texture.
What we need to do is get the surface of your tofu dry. Put down a clean dishtowel. Lay the tofu out in a single layer on said dish towel. Put another clean dishtowel on top and pat well, all over, to remove as much surface moisture as possible. This is what is going to allow it to brown. It will also reduce dangerous and unpleasant sputtering when you put it in the skillet.
Step 4: Pan Fry Your Tofu
The optimum pan for this job is a big cast-iron skillet. It holds a ton of heat, and develops a lovely non-sticking surface. We are going to cook this over very high heat, so you probably shouldn’t use a non-stick pan as it might damage the coating or even be dangerous. A wok is really only a great choice if you have a wok burner capable of pumping out serious BTUs. Otherwise, the flat bottomed skillet works better because it allows the tofu to stay in contact with the hot surface for longer periods of time.
So: heat that skillet over high heat. On my stove: maximum heat. If you have a commercial level Wolf or Viking, etc., it might be an notch down from there. When it is hot, add about 2 tablespoons of a neutral vegetable oil or peanut oil. Something with a high smoke point. Swirl to cover the surface. Pat the tofu dry one more time and put it in the skillet it in a single layer, with plenty of room around each piece. Don’t crowd the pan, or the heat will drop too much and the tofu will steam, not brown. If you are doing a full pound, you’ll probably need to do this in two batches.
Cook on one side until it is deeply golden brown, then flip (preferably with a slotted spatula). If you are doing cubes, it becomes impractical to get all 6 sides of every piece, so instead you’ll just toss them every minute or so and hope to get most of them. When both sides are done, remove to a plate and, depending on what you are going to do with them, possibly season with a little sea salt. Done.
If you are going to turn this into a stir-fry but don’t have that wok burner, don’t be tempted to add the vegetables and sauce on top of the tofu. It will ruin the crust. Instead, remove the tofu from the pan, do your vegetables, then add the tofu back just in time to make friends with the sauce.
So again, the keys: buy good tofu, get it really dry, fry in a hot skillet with a decent amount of oil, don’t crowd the pan, and cook until it is really brown.
Was that so hard?
How about yakisoba, tofu & kimchi dinner for 1, jap chae, Thai tofu salad (yam tofu), red curry delicata squash with tofu … and in my cookbook you’ll find khao soi (Chiang Mai curry noodles), seared tofu poke (Hawaiian style), Sichuan dry-fried green beans with tofu and more.