Whether or not oil is healthy at all has been up for debate. Oils aren’t whole foods, and they come heavily processed, so even avocado, coconut and flax oil may not be doing much good in our bodies. Cutting down or eliminating oil can be necessary for health concerns, or a dietary choice for health or weight loss. The good news is it’s not that difficult to keep tofu and stir-fry tasting great (and not burnt!) while opting to leave out the oil. I used to use too much oil in everything, and while I’m not one hundred percent oil-free now, the days and weeks without it feel better, and they have gotten much easier over time. Even finding a way to make a little oil go further will work wonders. Veggies, tofu and tempeh have so much water of their own that one tablespoon of oil and some salt to help release the water can suffice for a whole pot. Here are seven ways to avoid oil and cook delicious tofu and stir-fry.
There are a number of ways to steam stir-fries and veggies, depending on the end product you desire. Traditionally, steaming involves elevating the food above the water with a steamer, which has a very light, cooked-all-over result. Spicing the food has to wait until after. My preferred option for this type of cooking is to put just a little water or broth in the bottom of the pot. You can add it when you add the veggies, or if you want a chaunce, lightly toast the spices and add water, letting the liquid crackle like oil wood before adding your ingredients. This method can work with or without a lid. For me, it works best to cover the pot while the vegetables are cooking, and then remove to steam off the rest of the water and brown them. Be ready to add more liquid if the vegetables start to stick, but as you add spices and heat, they’ll release more water and you won’t need to add much. For caramelizing onion, let the onion cook by itself in the pot, stirring consistently, until it starts to brown, and then add just enough water to keep it from burning or sticking. Onion may be the trickiest to cook the same without oil, but even that’s doable!
Baking can sometimes replace stovetop cooking, for fuller flavor in bell peppers, squashes and yams. Veggies will still bake just fine in the oven without being tossed in oil, and will brown and crisp over time. These can be covered with aluminum foil to cook faster and stay tender, if preferred. I typically cook them at 400 degrees F. To keep baked veggies from sticking to the bottom, parchment paper, in my experience, is actually more effective than oil, and speeds up the cleaning process. Silicone pans are also an option, allowing baked goods and veggies to easily come up without oil or parchment, but parchment paper will work with your existing pans. For retaining moisture, like in baked tofu or for a softer sweet potato, baking also works well with a thin layer of water in the bottom of the pan. While not strictly necessary, covering the pan helps prevent overzealous cooks from getting steam burns. If you make extra, here are at least 10 different ways to use leftover baked veggies!
The Right Pan
Good quality pans will help. Common wisdom suggests that non-stick pans would be the best option, but caution is advised because of health concerns with overheating. However, a good-quality non-stick pan that is made without the harmful chemicals will be easier to use than traditional types. Stainless steal, copper, cast iron and aluminum are all still likely to work if they stay clean and well-maintained, with a smooth bottom. I’ve been working with a pan that claims to have marble coating for a few years now, which has been great, but I can still burn things easily if I don’t pay attention.
Alternatives to Water
Balsamic is one of my favorite flavorings for tofu, broccoli, zucchini and so much more. Use it the way you would use water or broth, above. The tartness can be balanced out with traditionally sweet spices or a touch of agave or molasses. Red wine vinegar can also work well in much the same way as balsamic vinegar.
Soy sauce, or its unfermented cousin liquid aminos, which has a milder flavor and is considered a healthier alternative, are also great for cooking oil-free, adding interesting flavors and liquids. Soy sauce also replaces any need for salt. While the sodium will leech water out of the vegetables, tofu will often just soak it in, so this is often a good option to pair with water or avocado to keep from over-salting.
Some people swear by baked and fried avocado, and others wouldn’t think to try it or expect to enjoy it. I’ve noticed that cooking avocados can enhance the flavor. The natural oils in avocado will help keep the stir-fry from sticking, and it will also add a creamy flavor and texture.
Skip this if you need or want to avoid fats entirely, but if you’re just looking for an alternative to the heavily-processed oils and still need the fats and calories that are closer to nature, nut butters are a great solution. Some health food stores and local co-ops will even sell freshly-ground nuts with no added ingredients, which is ideal. Peanut butter and almond butter tend to lend a Thai flavor to food, but my favorite is tahini, or sesame butter. Tahini is bitter by itself, but pairs well with soy sauce or lemon juice. Lead image source: dumbonyc/Flickr