My love of yuba runs deep. If I ever found myself in a Sophie’s Choice situation, forced to say goodbye to either tofu skin or meat, you’d find me silently screaming after deciding to let my baby beef go. That said, dare I declare that this vegan yuba cheesesteak is even better than its carnivorous counterpart? Oh yes, I dare. Okay, I’ll admit that my opinion of this sandwich is severely skewed due to my undying affection for yuba, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still pretty darn delicious.
If it makes you feel more comfortable, just call it a yuba sandwich inspired by the iconic cheesesteak. The jury is still out on who makes the best cheesesteak, but what I’m looking for is tender and juicy thinly sliced steak, a fresh, crusty roll with a fluffy interior, and I’m always “wiz wit”—meaning I want my cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz and onions.
I want the same qualities in my vegan version and luckily, most of the equation is already covered. Kenji’s recipe for vegan cheese sauce utilizes the gummy texture of over-whipped potatoes to recreate the texture of processed cheese. It only takes a few minor tweaks in seasoning to get all the glory of Cheez Whiz in vegan form. I leave the bread-making to much better folks than myself and pick up hoagie rolls from the local bakery. All that’s left is the “steak,” and my trusty friend yuba’s got it covered.
Yuba—or tofu skin, or bean curd sheets—are made by lifting off the skin that forms on top of warm soy milk due to surface evaporation, similar to the skin that forms on a cup of warm cow’s milk. It can be found in many forms, from fresh to dried, in sheets or even in bundles made to mimic chicken. It’s basically pudding skin, and what could possibly be wrong with that? Its mild flavor and chewy texture makes it a perfect stand-in for meat, but that’s not to say that it isn’t something wonderful all on its own.
For my vegan cheesesteak, I decided to go with thick, fresh bean curd sheets. They come stacked like a ream of paper but are very perishable, so it’s best to keep them frozen until you’re ready to go. These thicker sheets have enough heartiness to retain a slight chew after prolonged simmering. The tender bite of bean curd sheets is pretty close to that of a properly sliced and cooked steak. They are absorbent and feature a textured exterior, allowing the sauce to cling to every inch.
I cut the sheets in half lengthwise and then crosswise into 1-inch strips. As an optional meaty bonus, I place the yuba strips in a bowl tightly covered with plastic wrap and smoke them for half an hour with the Breville Smoking Gun. It’s an easy way to add a hit of smoke to anything. If you don’t have a smoking gun you can set up you own indoor smoking rig, or you can even just add a dash of liquid smoke at the end.
To flavor the yuba, I add brown flavors every step of the way. Getting many layers of Maillard reaction and caramelization is key to replicating the meatiness of steak. I start by making an umami-packed roasted mushroom stock. I toss together quartered button mushrooms, quartered onions, roughly chopped celery, and carrot with oil and salt. I spread the vegetables on two half-sheet trays and roast them in a hot oven until deeply browned, tossing every fifteen minutes.
Once the vegetables are browned, I caramelize tomato paste in a saucepan until the bright red color transforms to a deep mahogany. To this toasted tomato paste, I add the roasted vegetables and top it off with water before simmering. After straining, I fortify the mushroom stock with a few spoonfuls of a high-quality vegetable base such as Better Than Bouillon. Better Than Bouillon is made from vegetable concentrate, soy sauce, and yeast extract. It’s loaded with savory flavors and naturally occurring MSG, and so it quickly gives depth and long-cooked flavor to vegan and vegetarian dishes.
While the mushroom broth is simmering, I also caramelize onions and roast king oyster mushrooms, which will be added to the mix at the end. The trumpet mushrooms are joining the team for their ability to sop up sauce like a sponge, which prevents the yuba filling from getting wet and soggy. I shred the trumpet mushrooms lengthwise to create a coarse and rough texture, maximizing surface area and sauce-sucking potential. I then toss the mushroom shreds with oil, salt, and pepper before roasting until golden and crisp.
To finish up the bean curd “steak,” I sprinkle sugar across a wide sauté pan and allow it to caramelize to a dark brown. Once browned and nearly smoking, I drop in the bean curd strips and stir to toss in the caramel. Next, I season the yuba with paprika, garlic powder, and a few generous turns of black pepper. This is all topped with the mushroom broth and everything gets simmered down until the liquid reduces to a thick glaze. I finally stir in the caramelized onions and roasted trumpet mushrooms to finish off the filling.
You could stop here and finish the sandwich with a few slices of vegan cheese, but I need Cheez Whiz in order to call it a cheesesteak. Kenji’s vegan cheese sauce almost nails it, but it’s too spicy and Southwestern-inspired for an East Coast sandwich. To push his sauce closer to Philly, I omit the chipotles, jalapeños, and hot sauce. Instead, I add a teaspoon of tomato paste and a heap of nutritional yeast. I love the musky taste of nutritional yeast; it’s cheesy with a hint of wet basement—in the best possible way.
All that’s left is to assemble the sandwich. I prefer untoasted buns, and I generously smear them with the cheese sauce before loading them up with yuba “steak,” followed by more cheese, of course. For the most authentic experience, I like to wrap my sandwich up in foil, shove it in the bottom of my backpack, walk around town, and eat it hours later once the yuba, cheese sauce, and bread have all gotten to know one another. But eat yours immediately, if you must.