Sometimes it feels like tofu is woefully misunderstood. “Creative” recipes like the tofurkeys of the last decade likely did a great injustice to tofu, painting it as an odd substitute to much preferred meat. Yet tofu is incredibly versatile as an ingredient and incredibly nutritious as a staple in the diets of so many, and years of studies have shown that the soy has great health benefits when consumed in the right doses. It is incumbent of all great chefs to try (barring any soy allergies) to approach tofu with an open mind and a creative vision. Prepared correctly, tofu can amaze in the way it adopts so many distinct flavors and textures. Using the following techniques, anyone can wow their friends and family with tofu that puts run-of-the-mill, meat-based dishes to shame.
Step one: Drain the TofuFirst thing’s first: tofu needs to be dry in order to be properly worked with. Whether the tofu you’re using is homemade or store bought, you absolutely must drain it of all water before beginning. You can drain your tofu by first dabbing it dry with paper towels or kitchen towels. Next, cover your tofu with rags or kitchen towels and place it between two cookie sheets (the cookie sheet beneath will catch any run-off liquid: you can go without and just place one cookie sheet on top of your tofu, but then clean-up could become a bit of a hassle). Place something heavy on the top cookie sheet, (like a cast iron pan, or a thick cookbook – you’re hoping for about 10-15 pounds although too much less shouldn’t matter). Let the tofu compress under this heavy wet for at least an hour. Then, remove your heavy object and unwrap the tofu from its rags; it should be relatively dry and somewhat rubbery: think of the consistency of a hard-boiled egg.
Step two: Cornstarch (maybe?)Step two is argued over, and it really comes down to preference: to cornstarch, or not to cornstarch? After cutting your tofu (usually into inch-by-inch cubes), put it in a bowl and add cornstarch. You should be going for a light coating: just enough to make it dry to the touch, but not really visible to the naked eye. The cornstarch will make the tofu crispy. A lot of first-time tofu consumers take issue with its consistency: if I’m describing you, then the cornstarch step is going to be vital. No matter what your recipe entails, you’ll end up with a crispy exterior (like the exterior of fried chicken): it will offer a crunchiness that will hopefully assuage any texture concerns. If you’re a tofu veteran and don’t mind some squishy sponginess, then feel free to omit cornstarch from your recipe.
Step three: be quick, be hot!No matter what your recipe begs of you, one thing must not be understated: cook fast at hot temperatures! With tofu (unlike with a lot of meats), your best bet will be to achieve a fast sear and an only slightly longer “cook:” use hot temperatures and rely on sesame, peanut or coconut oil instead of olive or vegetable oil (these are heavier oils and could hurt the consistency of the tofu).
How To Prepare Tofu At Home
At this point, what you do with your tofu is really up to you. Tofu is highly versatile: it can work with any flavor profile you need, and so, as cheesy as it may sound, the limits are not with tofu but really with your own imagination. Some ideas to get you going include:
- Cube it and add it to your stir fry. Add the tofu to your wok around the same time you would add chicken or any other meat, and mix it around to get a golden-brown color. The tofu will pick up the flavor of your marinade perfectly, and you will have an amazingly-tasty, meat-free dish.
- Cut the tofu into strips that are about an inch wide and 4 inches long and drop them into a deep fat fryer, or a skillet with ½ inch coconut oil or sesame seed oil in the bottom. As long as your oil is deep enough to allow the strips to bob in the oil, you’ll get hot, tasty, and moist, meatless chicken strips! Make sure you flip the strips regularly to achieve a golden-brown color. Add some homemade buffalo sauce, and you will likely have an easy and meat-free product to rival the very best chicken wings.
- Broil or Grill your tofu. Put your broiler or grill on high, throw some well-seasoned tofu on a piece of parchment paper and then onto a cookie sheet, and then put them in the oven or on the grill. Turn them over half way through to ensure an even cook and a nice golden color. Your tofu will be done in around 5-10 minutes, so keep a close eye on them. Add to a summer salad for a nice boost of protein or serve as a stand-alone appetizer with a zesty sauce.
- Add tofu to soup! Cube your tofu, and then pop it into any stove-top or slow-cooker soup or stew. Unlike the other ingredients you may have cooking, tofu doesn’t have to go long: you can add your tofu last and cook it for as little as ten minutes for the tofu to adopt the flavors of the broth around it. And in this case, you don’t need to bother with cornstarch: soup broth will soften the tofu anyway. You can also fry your tofu before-hand and then add it to your soup – it should retain some of its crunch this way.
- Experiment and have fun! Because of the variability of tofu, it can be used in just about any way, and in just about any dish to add texture and a healthy protein to the meal. And unlike meat, you really needn’t worry about undercooking for the sake of your health. As long as you’re not picky about texture, it’s really hard to mess up tofu, so don’t be afraid to get crazy with it!