Cooking School: Seriously Amazing Fried Tofu

Hello, friends! I’m really excited to introduce a new section to the cooking side of Savor + Harvest (with Karl): Cooking School! I am very passionate about the process of cooking, and I also understand that not a lot of us have had the privilege of having a teacher in the kitchen. Therefore, I decided to devote a small number of Savor + Harvest posts to showing you all some simple techniques and tips that I like to keep in my culinary arsenal and use frequently.

I should be clear, though. I’m definitely not a trained chef. I’m every bit a home cook who learned the basics from my mother and grandmother. The reason I’d like to share these tips with you is because they came to me after many hours, days, and even years of research in the kitchen, as well as tons of trials and many errors. These are tried, tested, and proven in our kitchen, and now I want to bring them to you to help you simplify your mealtime routines, make your cooking more versatile, and give you some exciting new ways to look at traditional recipes.

With that said, in each Cooking School post, I’ll give you step by step photos and instructions for either a basic, cornerstone dish/dish component that you can use widely, or creative ways to adapt standard recipes for special diets (I’m looking at you, vegans, vegetarians, and gluten avoiders).

I also feel that providing you with some ideas for how to use ingredients more broadly is particularly relevant and extremely important during this time of the COVID-19 crisis. Nowadays, we have to be conscious of how much food we buy and how much we waste. No ingredient should be taken for granted. Therefore, I want to work with you all to show you how to use the ingredients you have on hand to make wholesome and flavorful dishes.

Ready to break out the skillets?

This first Cooking School lesson involves tofu (again), but I think you all will LOVE this recipe, and you may even be surprised by how much you find yourselves craving it.

It’s really unfortunate that tofu gets a such a bad rap, but I kind of get it. Most people don’t know how to truly prepare and cook with tofu, or how to use it as a great alternative to dairy and meat as a source of protein. Thus, they end up with soggy, flavorless messes instead of mouthwatering, texturally pleasing morsels that make a great addition to any dish. For those of you who are wary of tofu, let me tell you a little bit about how I came to love it.

For a short time back in grad school, Ryan and I lived in upstate New York. Just down the street from our apartment was this amazing Thai restaurant, Taste of Thai, that we would order from probably too often. They totally succeeded at adapting their dishes for special diets, and I was always surprised at the variety of their foods that were available to me as a gluten-free vegan.

The one dish I kept going to though, was rad nah. If you’ve never had it before, it’s this beautiful amalgamation of savory soysauce-based gravy and perfectly pan-seared veggies, served with some sort of a protein and toasted, wide rice noodles. Being vegan at the time, I would always order the dish with tofu, and man did that restaurant work magic with tofu. It became an obsession of mine!

Prior to going vegan, I hadn’t had much experience with tofu. When I was in high school, I went on a self-assigned healthy kick and decided that I wanted to try putting tofu in my salad. So, I proudly hiked home from the grocery store with my spongy soy block, and whipped it out of the packaging and onto a cutting board. I cut it into blocks and then tossed it right onto a salad without even seasoning it. In short, I was not impressed. The texture tasted like nothing, the flavor tasted like nothing, but it still had this heaviness to it that I really didn’t like at all. So my sixteen-year-old self put tofu to the side and deemed it not worth my time.

My second major tofu experience was at a friend’s birthday party in college. They were a very enthusiastic vegan and decided to make barbecue marinated tofu for the party. Knowing that I was not a fan of tofu, but also being the curious foodie that I am, I decided to give it another try.

As I suspected, I was totally underwhelmed and even a little put-off. The dish tasted simultaneously burned and underdone. The sauce had completely solidified, but the tofu was still mushy and flavorless. I should also say that this friend had a reputation as a pretty great cook, so I became convinced that tofu was just gross, even when cooked by skilled hands.

Fast forward a few years to my time in upstate New York. I’d been vegetarian for a few years prior, relying mainly on mushrooms, eggs, beans, and high-protein grains for protein. Then I decided to go totally vegan, saw how many tofu recipes there were out there in the vegan world, and faced the reality that I might have to learn to like tofu. So, we called up Taste of Thai, ordered some rad nah with tofu, and I tried to go in with an open mind.

Turns out, I didn’t even need to have an open mind. It was fabulous! The tofu was crispy on the outside and soft and airy on the inside. The best part was that the crispiness didn’t go away despite the fact that the tofu was in a sauce. Instead, it absorbed all the best parts of the sauce flavor, and provided some wonderful texture in contrast to the softer rice noodles. The tofu pieces were like little comforting and flavorful pillows!

After that day, it became my mission to recreate the magic of Taste of Thai’s fried tofu. It took me a few tries, but I got there eventually and the solution was surprisingly simple.

This version doesn’t use any flour or cornstarch to coat the outside of the tofu as you might assume because it doesn’t need it. Tofu is capable of becoming crispy and golden on its own, so we kept it totally simple, utilizing just three ingredients.

Let’s get to it!

Step 1: Choose the right kind of tofu.

I’ve briefly touched on this before in my tofu larb recipe, but we’ll go a little deeper now. When you go to the store (or do your grocery orders online!), you’ll see there are several different textures of tofu available. The most common is extra-firm, which is what you want for most of the tofu recipes you’ll find here. Extra-firm is typically easy to cook with because it resists falling apart at higher temperatures. When stir-frying or deep-frying extra-firm tofu, it’s a breeze to get that signature nice golden brown crust to form!

Firm tofu is another good option, but might have the tendency to fall apart or stick to the bottom of the skillet as you fry it. However, it’s great for tofu scrambles or dishes like the tofu larb, in which the tofu doesn’t really have to maintain much of a shape.

Finally, there’s silken tofu. Silken tofu is kind of miraculous. It’s extra soft and tender and absorbs flavor extraordinarily well. I love using it in soups and broths if I’m looking for a tender protein addition. However, you really can’t cook it in blocks like we are about to do with this recipe as it is extremely fragile. Instead, many of us use it as the base for smoothies, sauces, and dips. It’s a great alternative to dairy bases. You can even use it to make a vegan quiche (yes, this is coming up in the recipe rotation).

The bottom line is that tofu comes in many shapes and textures, so choose the right one depending on the type of recipe you are making. That is a huge key to turning your tofu from mushy and underwhelming to something you crave frequently. For this fried tofu, we’ll want extra-firm.

Step 2: Press your tofu.

We’ve also touched briefly on this in the tofu larb recipe, but in case you don’t want to go back and refer to that, I’ll review it here.

When you’ve taken the tofu out of the package, wrap it in a few layers of paper towel or a clean dish cloth. Set something heavy and flat-bottomed on top, like a cast iron skillet or Dutch oven. Then, let it hang out under pressure for about half an hour.

When it’s finished pressing, the outside should feel only a little damp to the touch, and most of the water should have been absorbed into the cloth.

Step 3: Slice your tofu.

This part is more of a preference rather than a requirement, but you should follow one basic rule when choosing how to slice your tofu. The smaller the blocks or triangles you make, the quicker they will cook. This can be good and bad. It’ll get the dish finished faster, but you run the risk of really drying out the tofu, which negates a huge reason that this recipe is so good!

I like to slice my tofu into medium-sized triangles, as you see above. They look pretty in whatever dish you are adding them to, and the thinner edges tend to crisp up perfectly while the middle remains soft and airy.

Step 4: Prepare your skillet.

The type of oil you use to fry your tofu is very, very important. Never use olive oil for frying! I prefer to use vegetable, safflower, and avocado oil. Unlike olive oil, these options taste neutral and have high smoke-points. This means that it will take a lot of heat to make these oils begin to break down, burn, and thus ruin the flavor of the food you are cooking.

The skillet you use is also important. I prefer to avoid teflon-coated nonstick skillets, and honestly have very little experience with copper or ceramic coated non-stick pans, so I don’t feel qualified to comment on those. However, I LOVE my cast iron skillet. I am planning on doing a detailed post on the benefits of and care for cast iron skillets in the near future, but all you need to know for now is that cast irons cost about the same as a lower-end teflon non-stick pan and even less than a higher-end coasted nonstick. The one pictured in this post is a 12-inch skillet, and it was $25 from Bed, Bath, and Beyond. They last forever, conduct heat perfectly, make your food taste better, and are really easy to maintain. Trust me, get one.

Prepare to begin frying by pouring in a half-inch deep layer of your preferred cooking oil into a cast iron or other nonstick skillet. Set your range on medium-high heat. Add a pinch of salt to the oil. This adds a little bit of flavor to the tofu and helps keep it light and fluffy during frying.

Step 5: Begin frying!

Watch the oil in your skillet carefully. As it heats up, you should see it start to shimmer. More specifically, you should see the surface begin to glisten and faint divots will appear to move around.

If you’re still not sure if your oil is hot enough, you can go ahead and add one small piece of tofu to the skillet to test it. It should immediately bubble around the piece once added. If it doesn’t, then the oil is not hot enough. Be sure that your oil is up to temp! If you add the tofu before the oil is hot enough, it will absorb too much oil, leaving it greasy and heavy.

Once your oil is hot, add your tofu and immediately begin tossing it to coat it and prevent it from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

Once you’ve tossed it a few times, you should see the surface begin to turn faintly golden.

Now that it’s coated with oil, the tofu should no longer be in danger of sticking to the pan. Turn it and let it rest on each side for thirty seconds to a minute, until the browning evens out on all sides. In total, this should take about 10-15 minutes.

Once the tofu has turned deep golden on each side, remove it from the oil with a slotted spatula and place it on a paper-towel lined plate. Add another pinch of salt to the top of the tofu. Let it drain for 2-3 minutes before serving. When cut in half, the pieces of tofu should be evenly crisp on the outside, and light, porous, and still moist on the inside.

Uses:

Here is the fried tofu simmering away in a savory mushroom broth with bok choy and jammy eggs.

Fried tofu is extremely versatile. As I described above, you can use it in stir-fries or Asian-inspired soups and broths. You can also use it as a main dish anywhere you would normally put fried chicken, fish, or other proteins. We’ve even paired it alongside slow-cooked greens and vegan mac-and-cheese for a plant-based take on classic comfort food. It’s even delicious by itself with a little bit of salt. I’ve been known to eat it as a snack (shh…don’t tell on me!)

Seriously, guys, this stuff is ridiculously tasty. I hope that you try it and love it as much as we do! I would love to know if you all created this dish and how it turned out for you!

Seriously Amazing Fried Tofu

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Difficulty Level: Easy

Serves: 4

Ingredients:

  • 1 14 oz. block of tofu, pressed and cut into cubes or triangles
  • 3/4 c. high-smoke point cooking oil (e.g. safflower, canola, or vegetable oil)
  • Salt to taste

To assemble: Heat oil and a pinch of salt in a cast iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering.

Add sliced tofu to the skillet, tossing immediately to prevent sticking. Once tofu is coated with oil, let it rest and continue to fry for approximately 30 seconds per side until each surface turns a deep, golden brown, about 15 minutes.

Remove tofu from oil with a slotted spoon or spatula and transfer to a paper towel-lined plate. Top with another pinch of salt, and let drain for 2-3 minutes. Serve as desired in soups, stir-fries, salads, or by itself.

Take a page out of Karl’s book and do some chilling this evening, friends.

Happy Fry-day!

<3 Karl, Ryan, and LM

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