How to make genuinely delicious tofu

22 August 2014

When I was in primary school, Mum went through a phase where she tried cooking with tofu quite a bit. Actually, I only seem to remember one tofu recipe that she made repeatedly, it was tofu, capsicum and tomato in a watery sauce. At the time I had to hold my nose to eat it. My tastes have matured since then, but I suspect I would still find that meal bland and unappealing.

Fast forward to my first trip to Japan in late high school. There I thought I learned the trick to making tofu edible - it was using it as a meat filler rather than a meat replacer - minced meat + crumbled tofu was ok, if not as good as the mince without the tofu.

After returning to Australia, however, I'm pretty sure that I barely, if at all, saw tofu again until my next time in Japan. This time around, I discovered Aburaage, tofu that's been pre-deep fried for you, and that was pretty good, if you define good based on taste rather than the effect on your arteries. I actually bought that to cook with every now and then, but unfortunately, it's very expensive to buy here in Australia

After returning from Japan, I turned vegetarian, followed by vegan. It was time for me to forge a new relationship with tofu. It took a while. I've been vegetarian for nearly two years now, and it was only recently that I discovered how to make really good tofu.

A lot of people recommend freezing tofu to give it a meaty flavour and help it absorb the marinade. That definitely improves the tofu, but it's not the method that had me dancing around the kitchen and snatching pieces of tofu from the pan and shoving them into my mouth. Crispy on the outside, smooth and creamy on the inside, I never knew tofu could be this good. It's lightly salty though otherwise rather bland, but in a pleasant way, like chips are bland. Of course, once you've added it to a stir-fry with a flavoursome sauce, you won't need to worry about bland. Admittedly, it's not exactly low fat, but I'm ok with that.

surprisingly delicious tofu

How to make genuinely delicious tofu

Most of what I write here came from Herbivoracious. Definitely read that article in full. However, I'm going to reproduce the basics here, with some of my own perspective.

Step 1: Buy good tofu

Get good, fresh, firm or extra-firm tofu. Do not use the shelf-stable dry packed tofu. It has it's uses, but a stir fry is not one of them. If you can, buy tofu from your local Asian food shop rather than from Coles or Woolworths. I find this one to be excellent, even though I think it's only firm rather than extra firm.

It's made locally, so I'm not sure how readily available it is, but they sell it in my local Asian grocer. If you're in Melbourne, you may be able to find it. Whatever you do, do not use the organic firm tofu they sell in Coles, it has a really lumpy texture, which will not give you the effect we're after here.

Step 2: Cut your tofu

Rather than making big cubes, slice the tofu into thin slabs about 1cm thick. Then slice the rectangles in half on the diagonal to make triangles (my preference), or alternatively cube it, slice it into strips, or just leave as rectangles.

Step 3: Soak the tofu

This is optional in the guide I was following, but I have decreed that it is not. Soak the tofu in freshly boiled well-salted water for about 15 minutes, making sure that the pieces of tofu are separated so they all have water exposure. This pulls some of the moisture out of the tofu, improving the texture, and also makes it slightly salty and delicious straight out of the pan.

Step 4: Dry the tofu

Lay out a clean tea towel, spread out the tofu on top, then put another tea towel on top. Pat dry.

Step 5: Pan fry the tofu

Heat a pan over high heat, using a high smoke point neutral tasting oil. Peanut oil is good. You want to make sure there is a decent amount of oil in the pan. Do not skimp on the oil.

I go against instructions and do it in a non-stick pan (I don't own a cast iron one), though I turn the heat down a notch, and it still works great. Put the tofu in the pan in a single layer. You may need to do several batches, but if you overcrowd the pan it won't crisp.

When the tofu is golden brown, flip it over. When it's golden brown on both sides, set aside on some paper towel.

If you're making a stir fry, or curry or whatever, removing it from the pan is important. If you dump everything on your tofu, you will ruin all the work you have put into crisping the tofu. Add the tofu back into your dish right near the end, when you're putting the sauce into the stir fry, or just in time to heat up if it's a curry. Or just season it with some more salt and eat it. It really is surprisingly good.

surprisingly delicious tofu

Note: when I took these photos, I used (sustainably harvested) red palm oil for frying, because Mum bought it for me last time she visited. The vivid yellow colour comes from the red palm oil, so if you use peanut oil, expect a more ordinary colour. I couldn't bothered redoing it all with an ordinary oil just for the sake of realistic looking photos.

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