Saturday, April 30, 2016

Five Tips For Great Tofu

Tofu is a versatile, wonderful food with a long and rich culinary tradition going back some 2,000 years.  And it can totally be prepared wrong through inexperience.  Just as one can essentially ruin a perfectly good steak through improper care and cooking, one can easily make tofu that is terrible.  The difference is that most people have someone they can ask about how to cook a decent steak!  Over the past ten years of being vegetarian/vegan/mostly vegan we’ve figured out a thing or two about how to prepare tofu that people seem to really think its great--omnivores and vegetarians alike. We have hosted little tofu cooking classes for a couple friends which is what prompted me to write this post.   We thought we should share what we've learned since so many people I know seem at a loss. They seemed to pick up a few tricks and it was a beneficial experience.


TOFU TIP #1:  Pressing
The first and most crucial tip for great tofu is PRESSING the heck out of it.  By pressing as much of the water out of it the tofu, acting like a sponge, is more readily able to absorb flavor.  It also has a firmer, more pleasant texture.  Tofu that has been pressed well is not wet to the touch.  Tofu that has been pressed well is chewy and not slimy or like Jello.  Tofu that has been pressed well starts to absorb sauce/marinade immediately upon contact.  You can actually see the marinade start to wick up into the tofu.
A lot of places we've read say to press tofu on paper towels.  This makes us laugh, I gotta say.  That is simply NOT going to cut it.  The paper towel cannot absorb enough water.  Sometimes we go through three or four tea towels!

The tofu we buy does not come packed in water, but is instead vacuum sealed.  We prefer the vacuum sealed because the tofu has less water in it to begin with.  Pressing is even more critical in the water-packed tofu.  I mean, its floating in water so its fully saturated with water, but you want it to be fully saturated with flavor.  So press it and press it and press it some more.
Left:  Vacuum sealed package.  Right:  Water packed tub.
To press tofu cut it into slabs.  We typically cut a block into thirds.  Lay the slabs out on a towel.  Cover with a second towel.  And then put some weight on it to press the water out into the towels.  We use a cutting board with a big ol' canister of rice on top as a weight.  Let it sit for at least twenty minutes.  Change the towels if they're quite wet and repeat.  Remember, the more water out means the more flavor in and the chewier the texture.

TOFU TIP #2:  Marinating
Once its well pressed the tofu is ready to be marinated.  Any sauce or marinade will do.  In a pinch we'll just marinate our tofu for a mere half an hour.  However, the longer the better, in my opinion.  Overnight is great, if we remember to plan ahead.  Because well pressed tofu absorbs so much flavor you might have to double your sauce recipe if you want some left over to, say, toss with stir-fried veggies, too.  We like to cut the pressed slabs into triangles.  They look nice on a plate, fit well in a baking dish well, and have lots of edges to get nice and crisp and tasty.  Use as much marinade as you want, but remember that the more marinade in the pan the longer it takes to get the tofu nice and crisp on the edges.
TOFU TIP #3:  Baking
The third tip for great tofu is baking.  Even if the end goal is to stir-fry the tofu we always bake it first. We typically bake it in a glass baking dish at about 400 degrees F for at least 45 minutes--though once again, the longer the better.  (To a point, of course, unless you like blackened tofu.)  Bake the tofu until the marinade has mostly cooked off and the tofu starts to get crisp and chewy.  Most books say to flip the tofu half way through the baking, though we're pretty lax about that and haven't found it matters much if the tofu is well pressed and marinated.

TOFU TIP #4:  Freezing
This tofu secret actually comes into play before all the others.  Its the least necessary of theses tips, in my opinion, but does offer several perks.  One, its financially smart.  We buy tofu by the case or when its on sale and just pop them in the freezer until we need them.  Freezing changes the texture in a very positive way.  I think tofu is better after its been frozen first.  How many foods can you say that about?!  Its got a firmer consistency which is much more appealing to me.  We pull out a block of frozen tofu and let it thaw in the fridge for a day before pressing it and proceeding.

TOFU TIP #5:  Extra or Super Firm Tofu
Lastly, I would encourage the use of the firmest tofu available, as a general rule.  Tofu comes on a spectrum from silken which is almost pudding-like to the extra firm, more meat-like, varieties.  Silken tofu is never going to be chewy and wonderful in a stir-fry even following all the above recommendations.  Of course, silken and soft tofu have their place, too, but mostly in desserts, sauces, and such. We don't use the softer end of the spectrum nearly as much.  Typically, we use super firm, though a lot of "regular" grocery stores only carry extra firm and that is okay, too.
When trying new recipes and cooking techniques there is frequently a learning curve to things.  The first time I made tofu for Matt I refused to let him eat it.  I didn't know what I was doing and it was like I'd made White Jello Tacos.  I didn't want him to think THAT was tofu.  I'd eaten it before and knew it could be dang good.  It took a little practice, but I've got it nailed now.  No more tofu "Jello."  Just yum.

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