I really love tofu. In the summer, I like it diced up and sauced gently with soy sauce and minced scallions. I like it with a bunch of its water pressed out, and then marinated in any variety of sauces (soy sauce/brown sugar/ginger/garlic/black vinegar/scallions being a favorite) and baked. But my favorite was stir fried. There’s always been one problem for me with stir fried tofu, though. It makes a hell of a mess.
Because really, what’s the point of stir frying it if you’re not going to get some kind of crispy outer layer around the velvety tofu within? Otherwise you might as well have used an easier option.
But I really loathe stir frying tofu to get that crispy outside. Oh, I did it from time to time, mainly because the lag between attempts had been so long that I had forgotten the pain of it. But I never enjoyed the process. And I wasn’t completely happy about the result, either.
You know the drill, those of you who love tofu. You weight down the tofu chunk on a bunch of paper towels, cover it with paper towels and a heavy object—in my kitchen, a marble mortar. You periodically change the soaking paper towels, turning the tofu slab over, to get it as liquid free as you can manage—never enough, in my experience. Then you cut it into manageable cubes. And you toss it in some cornstarch. And then you heat up a wok, or a frying pan, to medium high, and you toss in a handful at a time of the little white thingies and gingerly turn them over until they’re browned on all sides.
“Browned on all sides.” Hah! What usually happens is they blacken on some sides, almost brown on others, and then you get entirely sick of the whole thing, and pull them out with a couple of sides still a pallid beige. Not to mention all the bits of tofu left behind sticking to the sides of the pan.
By the time you’re through, the spatters made by the irredeemably damp tofu hitting the hot oil are all over your stove. And probably all over you, too.
This saddened me, this battle with tofu. I felt it shouldn’t, nay, couldn’t be inevitable. There had to be a better way. A détente, as it were. Especially when I found a wonderful tofu recipe in the Guardian, by Yotam Ottolenghi, which was practically my Tofu Dream come true. Wonderful sauce. Easy to throw together. EXCEPT FOR THE DAMNED BROWNING OF THE TOFU.
One day I just had had enough. The stove was a miserable mess. I was hot and way too bothered. I was going to find out a different way to get that crunchy tofu or disavow stir fried tofu forever.
This is the point at which I have to cover with praise a really fantastic food writer/blogger. Because why hadn’t I just thought of that in the first place? I mean, looking on the Internet to see if anyone else had a better way.
All I had to do was type into the search bar: how to make crispy tofu. And it popped up. The Grail. “How to Make Crispy BAKED Tofu.” Baked! My god! That’s it! BAKED.
It’s on a blog titled COOKIE + kate, and I can never be grateful enough to the mastermind behind it. Her hack, which is also in her cookbook, is so simple, so perfect, so delicious, that I can never forget the first moment I discovered it for myself.
It goes like this:
Buy extra firm tofu (though I’ve tried this with firm tofu, works fine).
Dice it BEFORE you weight it to get rid of the liquid. Why on earth I never thought of this myself, I’m sure I don’t know. It gets rid of so much more liquid this way. I just layer the diced tofu on a clean towel, cover it with another towel, lay a plate on top, with my marble mortar on top of that. I turn it once or twice, maybe changing the towels if they get too damp. An hour does it just fine. Even a half hour, this way.
Then toss the cubes with a tablespoon of olive oil, same of soy sauce or tamari, and same of arrowroot starch or cornstarch. Toss till the white powder disappears.
Finally, just spread the tofu cubes in an even layer on a cookie sheet that’s either been oiled or covered with parchment paper (the latter is Kate’s idea, and I must admit I bought some parchment paper just for this recipe and have never regretted doing so). Bake for 25 minutes.
“Boom!” she says. “Perfect tofu.” She’s not whistling Dixie here, either.
At this point, you have beautiful golden brown tofu cubes, with a lovely crunchy outside and velvety innards. Truly perfect tofu. You can do anything you like with it.
Let me suggest my own version of Ottolenghi’s “Black Pepper Tofu.” Particularly for you lovers of fiery dishes of the Asian persuasion. Most of the ingredients can be found in the local grocery store, and what can’t is at the local Asian market.
Like this (for two people with hearty appetites, for four just double quantities):
Make your tofu as above. Put aside.
To a wok or large skillet, add about a quarter cup of butter. Melt.
–6 small or 4 large shallots, thinly sliced
–2 to 3 hot fresh chillies, thinly sliced (I mix a green and two reds—remove the seeds and ribs first unless you like things REALLY hot)
–1 Tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
–8 cloves of garlic, crushed
Saute all this over low to medium heat, stirring once in awhile, until everything is soft and shiny. About fifteen minutes.
–1 ½ Tablespoons kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
–1 ½ Tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
–1 ½ teaspoons dark soy sauce
–1 Tablespoon white sugar
–2 to 3 Tablespoons black peppercorns, coarsely crushed in a mortar
Add the tofu to warm it through.
Stir in 4 to 6 scallions, cut into lengthwise slivers and then into segments of a couple of inches each. (Or just cut them up any way you feel like it.)
That’s it. Serve over brown rice. I recommend a cucumber salad on the side.
Fiery. Absolutely mindbendingly delicious. At first glance, it looks like a lot of work, but if you think about it for a moment, it just means you measure everything out beforehand, putting each segment in a bowl, and toss it all together in sequence. A breeze, really, if you’ve got all the ingredients to hand. And of course, if you’re missing one or two, or you don’t like one or two, just leave ‘em out. The really important thing is the tofu. And Kate has solved that for us all.
Props to her from the bottom of my heart. Really.
Bless you, Kate, wherever you might be, at whatever stove. You too, Cookie, And yum.