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The Vegan Experience: How to Cook Crispy Tofu Worth Eating

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[Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

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Editor's Note: Welcome to the third year of The Vegan Experience! All month we're exploring the vegan lifestyle, from dining out to eating in, developing a slew of delicious recipes for vegan appetizers, snacks, and entrees along the way. For more posts in the series, check here!

Tofu is my favorite food, which makes me an outlier. People don't like tofu. And I get it. There's a lot of bad tofu out there, and it's easy to dislike when it's soggy, mushy, or bland. But great tofu—tofu with a tender center surrounded by a well-seasoned, crisp crust—is one of the most satisfying bites of food I can think of, a food that can and should be appreciated by all serious eaters, no matter their diet.

Here's how to cook tofu so good even tofu-haters might come around. First we're going to talk about how to shop for tofu, then we'll talk about how to crisp up plain slices of tofu, and finally we'll figure out the best way to prepare tofu for stir-frying.

Dry = Good

The goal when frying tofu—whether pan-frying or deep frying—is the same as the goal when frying meat or vegetables: to alter the texture and flavor. In the case of tofu, we're talking about adding some crispness to an otherwise tender food, and adding some rich browning, which brings out tofu's natural sweetness and bring some savory notes to the forefront.

Crispness comes from the dehydration of the exterior layer of proteins in your tofu slices, while browning occurs when those proteins and carbohydrates are exposed to temperatures above around 300°F or so, precipitating the Maillard reaction (that's just the fancy word for "things that make your food golden and delicious").

Some things are not good dry. Cake. Pools. Sex. But tofu is different. The key to both crispness and browning is the removal of moisture, so the drier you get your tofu to begin with, the more efficiently these reactions will take place, and the better the contrast between crisp exterior and moist, tender interior will be.

There are a number of ways to dry your tofu out before cooking it, but the easiest first step is to get the right tofu to begin with. Tofu comes in two basic forms: silken and cottony, which are made using two different coagulating agents. Within these two categories, you'll find varying degrees of firmness from custardy soft to very firm and meaty, depending on their final water content. Some brands conflate soft with silken, but traditionally, the two are orthogonal measures (that is, it is possible to have soft cottony tofu just as it's possible to have firm silken tofu).

For crisping purposes, you want to use cottony (non-silken), extra-firm tofu, which holds its shape and browns better than other varieties.

Cut and Dry

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After choosing the right variety, the second step is to slice and dry your tofu. Some recipes recommend pressing your whole block of tofu to remove excess moisture before slicing. This works fine, but takes some time. Much easier is to slice the tofu, then lay the slices out flat on a cutting board or baking sheet lined with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. More surface area = faster water removal = dinner on the table that much faster.

I've also seen it suggested to employ the microwave in the aid of draining tofu: the theory is a few seconds on high power will cause the protein structure to tighten up slightly, squeezing out excess moisture. It works, but it's frankly a pain in the butt to microwave tofu in batches. An equally effective but much faster and easier method is to do what tofu goddess Andrea Nguyen suggests: pretreat the tofu by pouring hot salted water over it.

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It may seem counterintuitive to add water to something you're trying to dry out, but boiling water will actually cause the tofu to squeeze out more moisture, bringing it to the surface and making it easier to blot off, while the salt gently seasons the slices. In any case, your tofu should be dry to the touch before you cook it. Have you ever stuck out your tongue and left it out for few minutes to see how dry it can get? That's what your tofu should feel like.

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Marinades

It seems like a no-brainer to marinate tofu, but I'd actually advise against it. While non-silken tofu does have a somewhat spongy texture that will absorb marinades, you end up with tofu that browns too fast and tastes like raw marinade on the inside. I prefer keeping the tofu tasting like tofu, using a sauce applied after cooking to lend it flavor if it needs it. The combination of intense sauce with clean tofu flavor is far more pleasant (or sophisticated, or classy, or whatever it is that'll get you to try it).

Similarly, a dusting of spices can be tasty if the spices are fresh, properly toasted, and balanced, but again, you want to apply them after cooking the tofu. Tofu simply takes too long to crisp up properly to be able to season before cooking without running the risk of burning those spices up.

Where's Your Coat?

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Just like there are days when you put on your full winter gear to head out, others in which you lounge around in your pajamas on the couch, and still others where nary a piece of fabric girds your loins from dawn to dusk, the way you coat your tofu depends on the situation.

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If you like it plain (as I do from time to time), then the way to do it is to fry the slices in a heavy cast iron skillet over moderate heat until deep brown and crispy on both sides, using a thin metal spatula to flip the slices as they crisp. Taking your time is key: the more gently you brown the slices, the more evenly and deeper brown you can get them without burning them.

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If, on the other hand, the tofu is destined for a stir-fry or some other saucy application, you'll want to give them a crispy coating that can both absorb a bit of sauce, and provide a layer of protection so that the tofu can stay crisp even after saucing.

I tried coating tofu with various blends of of flour, potato starch, rice flour, and corn starch, both pan-frying and deep-frying, and found that the crispest, cleanest-tasting results came from a deep-fry in a simple coating of cornstarch.

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Crisp fresh out of the fryer, that is. After a few minutes of resting while I prepare the rest of my stir-fry and sauce, the crisp coating had softened. What if I were to use a wet batter instead? I'd spent a long time working out a recipe for a Korean Fried Chicken batter which worked equally well on a batch of Crispy Buffalo-Fried Cauliflower. Would the same coating work on my tofu?

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Indeed it did: a quick dredge in dry cornstarch followed by a dip into a cornstarch, water, and vodka mixture before a plunge into a wok with a quart of 350°F oil resulting in ultra-crisp bites of tofu that stay crisp even after you finish them off in a stir-fry.

How To Stir-Fry Crispy Tofu

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When stir-frying, the order in which you cook your ingredients is of vital importance. A standard wok range in a Chinese restaurant has separate controls for the gas and oxygen flow, allowing them to reach heat outputs in excess of 80,000 bTUs. This allows cooks to add ingredients in quick succession, keeping everything hot enough to produce smoky, browned flavors without any excess steaming or boiling. It's this high heat that gives a good stir-fry a tender-crisp texture, bright color, and a lightly smoky, charred flavor.

A home burner, on the other hand, is about an order of magnitude weaker than a restaurant wok range. This means that rather than adding all of your ingredients to the same wok, it works far better if you cook your individual ingredients in batches, reheat the wok between batches, and combine them all at the very end. (See our Wok Skills 101 series for more details.) Most stir fries follow the same basic formula: two or three main ingredients, cooked one at a time, followed by some aromatics, and a sauce to bind it all together.

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For instance, to make a crispy tofu and broccoli stir-fry with a glossy, garlicky sauce, I start by deep-frying the coated tofu in the wok, then transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. I then pour off the oil (I save mine in a covered pot to be reused later), wipe out the wok, and heat a little bit more oil in it over high heat until it really starts smoking.

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In go the second main ingredient: broccoli florets, cut into bite-sized pieces. For the best flavor, you want a combination of browning through direct conductive heat—that is, heat from the wok—as well as the flavor gained by tossing the broccoli into the air, allowing the hot air rising from the burners to vaporize some of the micro-particles of oil that get sprayed up during the process.

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As soon as the broccoli is browned but before it's completely tender, I add the aromatics.

Chinese dishes incorporate a wide range of aromatic vegetables and spices, but for this particular dish, I'm using what's sometimes called the Holy Trinity of Chinese cuisine: finely chopped ginger, scallions, and garlic,. I go heavy on the garlic.

30 seconds-worth of tossing and they're done. The broccoli and aromatics go into a bowl to rest while I cook the sauce.

This particular sauce balances some acidity with some salty, sweet, and savory elements: Chinese rice wine, soy sauce, bean sauce, vegan sugar, vegan stock, and toasted sesame oil. Some cornstarch binds it all together: As it cooks in the hot wok, it should reduce into a syrupy, flavor-packed glaze.

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All that's left is to toss your tofu and broccoli in it, garnish with some toasted sesame seeds, and you're ready to eat.

The result is tender-crisp crowns of broccoli and crunchy bites of tofu with moist, tender cores, all coated in a glossy, flavor-packed sauce. Even my wife, the big tofu-hater, finished off her plate (though admittedly, she did very generously insist that my sister take all the leftovers).

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The beauty of the technique is that with this coating under my belt, I'm now equipped to incorporate crisp tofu into any number of stir-fries, which means my vegan menu options have just become virtually limitless, and coincidentally, so have yours.

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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