Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu
Let’s talk tofu.
For as innocuous as a food comprised of pressed soybeans might sound, tofu can be surprisingly incendiary. Want to hear a group of middle-aged, mild-mannered computer analysts get riled up? Ask them their feelings on tofu. Care to put a bit of passion into a zenned-out peace child? Bring up tofu. Interested in watching Ben’s face contort into a perfect expression of disgust? Tofu all the way.
I find that attitudes towards tofu fall into one of two categories:
- Tofu Attitude Camp A: Love it; give me more of it.
- Tofu Attitude Camp B: I wouldn’t feed that to my cat.
I happen to be a hearty, happy member of Tofu Attitude Camp A, and I am convinced that Camp B’ers would embrace the ‘fu too, if only they could take a bite of properly prepared Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu.
Uncooked (or poorly cooked), tofu has the flavor and the texture of a limp, overused kitchen sponge. When tofu is properly sautéed and seasoned, however, its naturally bland taste and sponge-like texture becomes an asset. Thirsty tofu eagerly absorbs spices, making it an ideal culinary canvas for your favorite flavor combinations.
Tofu’s supple texture presents a larger problem. Even the zippiest of seasonings cannot redeem the formless, squashy blobs that tofu becomes when cooked improperly. As long as I have teeth, I will pass on tofu mush and so should you.
The easiest (and arguably the tastiest) way to resolve the tofu-texture issue is to deep fry it, a common practice in many Asian restaurants. While deep frying does give tofu the crispy exterior and firm texture that we’re after, it also negates tofu’s benefit as a lean, clean source of protein. Further, were I to deep fry anything in Ben and my miniscule apartment, the place would smell like a KFC for the next three weeks.
Preferring to reserve my deep-fried indulgences for pickles and cheese curds, as well as to keep peace with my neighbors, I set out to devise a tofu-cooking method that would give me tofu pieces that boasted the same crispy, satisfying texture as the deep-fried tofu that I love, minus the deep fry.
I also wanted my “unfried” tofu to be easy to prepare—no tedious standing at the stove or fancy tofu presses for this lady. We’re all busy people, and I have 20 nails to paint, a nasty front closet to reorganize, and a grandmother to call. Let’s save time in the tofu-department, shall we?
After a few bad batches and more than a few Google searches, I nailed it: Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu.
The three-part secret to Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu: Freeze; simmer; sauté. Freezing the tofu causes the water in it to expand and create extra air pockets that super-charge its surface area, as well as its flavor-absorption power. Slipping the tofu into a pot of boiling water, then simmering it for 10 minutes firms and plumps it. Finally, a light sauté over high heat gives it a crispy brown exterior.
As an additional health bonus, very little oil is needed for the sauté, since the tofu pieces are already nice and firm, thanks to Freezing Step 1 and Simmering Step 2. The simmer step is the most critical. If you are truly pressed for time, you can skip the freeze and the sauté, and simply simmer the tofu. Though the texture won’t be quite as crispy as if you had sautéed it, and it won’t absorb flavor quite as well as if you had frozen it, your resulting tofu will still be pleasantly firm and satisfying.
Moment of brutal honesty: I have no idea why the simmer-method works. (To any food scientists in the audience: I’m all-in for a tofu chemistry lesson.)
One additional step that improves texture and two things you can skip: Cutting the tofu into strips prior to freezing moderately improved the texture, so do it if you have time; no need to spend more than 2 seconds pressing the tofu dry and no need to thaw it prior to simmering, so don’t bother. A score for time-savings! Let’s pour ourselves a glass of wine.
With Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu, we have tofu texture nailed, but we still need to talk taste. Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu is hankering to meet your next stir fry. I absolutely love it in my Three Pea Ginger Tofu Stir Fry, and I have a feeling you will too.
Finally a word to Tofu Attitude Camp B: I beg you, give tofu another chance with Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu. We’re having a rockin’ time over here in Camp A, and you definitely want to be part of the shenanigans. I’m trying to be intriguing here. Come visit us and try a bite. After all, everything tastes better (un)fried.
Ultra Crispy Unfried Tofu
How to cook crispy, firm tofu pieces that taste deep fried, minus the deep fryer! A healthy tofu cooking method in 3 easy steps.
Yield: 15 ounces of crispy tofu (enough for a stir fry that serves 6 or a dipping appetizer that serves 4)
Total Time: 22 minutes
- 1 15-ounce block extra firm tofu (do not use firm or silken)
- 1 tablespoon canola or grapeseed oil
- Unwrap tofu. Lightly blot with paper towels to remove excess moisture. Slice block into 1-inch thick strips. Reassemble block, wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for 3 hours our up to 2 months.
- When ready to cook, remove tofu from freezer and unwrap. Bring a pot of water large enough to completely submerge the tofu to a boil. Gently slip frozen tofu block into the water (no need to break apart the strips.) Reduce heat to a gentle simmer. Continue simmering for 10-15 minutes, until tofu floats. Remove immediately and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate to cool. Once tofu is cool enough to touch, carefully separate any strips that have not yet come apart. Cut strips into 1/2 to 3/4 inch-wide pieces.
- In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil over medium-high heat until very hot but not smoking. Add tofu pieces in a single layer. Let cook for a few minutes on one side, then with a heat-proof spatula, turn the tofu pieces so that all sides brown, cooking for a few minutes on each side. Once tofu is lightly browned and crispy (about 10 minutes), remove from pan. Use in your favorite stir fry, dip in peanut sauce, or add to soups or stews.