One of the questions I get asked a lot is how I get my tofu so crispy. No, you don’t have to deep-fry it to get it that way. You actually don’t have to fry the tofu at––although I do love it that way. Nothing makes me happier than biting into a piece of crispy tofu with a beautiful golden-brown coating and hearing that distinctive “crunch” that says it’s perfectly cooked. Even as a kid, I preferred crispy, crunchy foods. Keep your ice cream, I wanted chips.
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Now, here are my secrets for making the crispiest tofu for all your dishes.
1. Top Tofu Picks
The first thing you have to do is start with a good brand of tofu. Not all blocks of tofu are created equal. Some contain more water than others and some might say “extra-firm” on the package but you would never know it. I try to always buy my favorite brands, Nasoya and Woodstock Foods, which make the firmest tofu with the least water. Nasoya even makes vacuum-packed tofu in super-firm with hardly any water at all! Be sure to buy extra-firm or super-firm; the firmer the tofu, the less water it will absorb even after it’s pressed.
2. Press and Play
Once you have your favorite tofu, you want to press it and drain it. Tofu is filled with water and you have to get it out or it will come out during cooking and make the tofu soggy. Plus, when all that water comes out, there is more room for the tofu to absorb flavors from marinades and spices. Pressing tofu makes it firmer and even if you want it even firmer and with a chewier texture, you can freeze it and then thaw it, press it and drain it.
A word of caution, though – I find if I press the tofu too much, it can get overcooked too easily. I press it enough to get out the excess moisture. I want it crispy on the outside but soft and moist on the inside. For more, see 6 Tips that will Make You Love Tofu.
3. Super Cuts
Depending on the recipe you’re making, you will cut the block of tofu into cubes, slices or whatever shape you like. Don’t cut the cubes too small or the slices too thin. That will lead to the tofu overcooking and becoming hard and brittle rather than moist and crispy. See 7 Tips to Make the Perfect Tofu Dish for more pointers.
4. Spice It Up
Sometimes I marinate the tofu but I usually use spice blends and dry rubs, especially when I want to make crispy tofu. Anything you coat the tofu in becomes a crust that adds another layer of crispiness, even plain spices, and salt. When I want really crispy tofu, I coat it in seasoned flour, arrowroot powder or cornstarch.
To do this: make sure the tofu is patted dry. Put the tofu into a large bowl or a plastic storage bag. Sprinkle a few spoons of flour or starch over it. This is also your chance to season the tofu. Which spice blends I use depends on the recipe but my usual go-to blend includes kosher salt, black pepper, garlic powder, paprika and onion powder.
If I’m making Chinese food like my General Tso’s Tofu or Kung Pao Tofu, I add 5-spice powder and if I’m making Spanish food like Chile-Rubbed Tofu and Onions over Spanish Rice, I reach for the ground cumin. Mix it all up so the starch and the seasonings coat the tofu and let it rest for a few minutes before cooking. For recipes and tips, see 10 Ways to Make Awesome BBQ Sauces, Rubs, and Marinades and How to Make Your Own Spice Blends.
5. Batter Up
Besides seasoned flour, you can make tofu crispy by breading it or coating it with batter. Tofu can be breaded in bread crumbs, Panko, corn flake crumbs or even finely chopped nuts or ground lentils like this Ayurvedic Lentil-Crusted Tofu. Whichever you choose, the goal is to have the breading stick to the tofu and get crispy. The typical dredging and breading procedure has 3 steps: flour, “egg,” and breadcrumbs. Set up 3 shallow bowls or trays: one will have the seasoned flour, one will have your liquid coating and the third will have the seasoned breadcrumbs. The liquid coating can be vegan buttermilk (simply mix a bit of vinegar into any non-dairy milk and let it curdle), non-dairy milk mixed with some flaxseed or a spoon of vegan mayo. Dip the food into the flour and coat both sides lightly, shake off any excess flour and dip the food into the liquid coating. Shake off any excess liquid and finally, coat the food with the breadcrumbs. Place the breaded food on a cooling rack and let it rest while you continue to bread the remaining food. This gives the breading time to set before you fry it.
The batter is a combination of flour and milk or water that coats the food. Before dipping the tofu with the batter, make sure it is patted dry. Then dust the tofu with seasoned flour or starch before dipping it into the batter. Shake off any excess batter before putting the tofu in the pan. These Crispy Tofu Nuggets are dipped in batter before getting coated in corn flake crumbs while these Tofu Pakora are dipped in a batter made from chickpea flour.
6. Frying Facts
Frying should lead to crispy tofu but there are common errors made in frying that can lead to a sad, soggy mess. See Learn How to Fry Food the Right Way by Following These Tips for all the pointers. It isn’t necessary to deep-fry food to make it crispy. Pan-frying with just an inch of oil works perfectly. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat and then heat about one inch of oil in the pan. When the oil begins to ripple, it’s ready. Carefully add the tofu to the pan. Don’t crowd the pan. Be patient and let it cook. Don’t touch it. When you can see that the bottoms are getting brown, flip it. Then let it cook and keep flipping it until all the tofu is golden brown on all sides. Let it get very crispy. Make sure to transfer the tofu to a paper towel-lined bowl so the excess oil gets absorbed.
Sprinkle with salt or when I make Chinese food, instead of sprinkling salt on the finished tofu, I sprinkle 5-spice powder for added flavor. For pan-fried tofu dishes, try this Pan-Fried Tofu with Zucchini, Carrot and Black Bean Sesame Noodles, Moroccan Tofu in a Lemon-Olive Sauce Over Spaghetti, or Seared Tamari Maple Tofu.
7. Lovin’ In the Oven
If you would rather cook your tofu in the oven but still want a crispy coating, it is totally possible. Just look at this Asian Ginger Tofu, Asian Baked Tofu, Tandoori Tofu and Perfect Baked Tofu. By making oven-fried tofu, you can get all the crisp and crunch without having to fry it in oil. It’s also easier because you don’t have to stand at the stove to make it. While it’s baking, you can make the rest of the meal. When you cook tofu in the oven, bread it the way you would for pan-frying. Place the breaded tofu in a baking dish that has been sprayed with oil or lined with parchment paper. Bake the tofu at 400 degrees until browned and crisp, about 30 minutes, flipping halfway through.
The key to oven-fried crispiness is to not use too much oil or liquid so you can spray the tofu with cooking oil if you want but don’t pour oil over it or it will turn out soggy. See Tofu: How to Avoid 5 Common Cooking Mistakes for even more advice.
For me, the hardest part of making crispy tofu is setting it aside while I’m making the rest of the meal and not just munching on it. Well, I have to try a piece for quality assurance, of course, but just one piece…or two…
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