For many people, choosing to be meat-free brings with it the hurdle of eating tofu. It was certainly a hurdle for me. The few times in my life I had ever tried tofu, it was soft, spongy, and tasteless. When I went veg, I was not looking forward to having tofu again. But I bought some and I tried to cook it and yes, it was awful. So I figured if I were going to know what tofu should taste like, I should have it prepared by people who knew what they were doing. I went to a few restaurants and ordered various tofu dishes and they were delicious. It became apparent that tofu wasn’t the problem, my not knowing how to use it was the problem. I set about to learn how to make tofu dishes as good as the restaurants did and now I love tofu. It’s one of my favorite foods on the planet.
Delicious tofu is about texture and flavor. A common mistake people make with vegan food is to NOT treat it as they would meat. No one would cook a steak without seasoning it first whether with a rub or a marinade; yet so often cooks take a block of tofu, drain it, cut it up, and just cook it without doing anything to it first. No wonder it tastes bland and flavorless! If you want your tofu to taste amazing, it needs a little TLC first. Here are some tips to help you make terrific tofu dishes:
1. Press the Water out of the Tofu
Tofu is packed with water and then it’s packed in water. All that water is taking up space where flavor needs to be so the water has to go. When you open a package of tofu, drain the water out of the package. Then you need to press the tofu. You can either buy tofu presses that are available or do-it-yourself. Here’s how I press tofu: I take a plate and line it with paper towels. I place the tofu block on the paper towels and put another layer of paper towels on top of the tofu. Then I put a cutting board on top of the tofu and place several heavy books on top of the cutting board. Every half-hour or so, I drain the water that has been pressed out from the plate and resume pressing. After about an hour or two, most of the water will have been pressed out of the tofu. It will look like a smaller, firmer block. If you are going to be cutting the tofu into slices, you can also slice it first and then press the slices.
2. Freeze the Tofu to Make It Firmer
If you want the tofu to have an even denser, firmer, and chewier texture, try freezing it first. Just remove the tofu from its package, put it in a food storage bag or wrap it in plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer for a few hours. When you want to use it, thaw it out in the refrigerator and then press it. This is an especially good technique to use if you need the tofu to be really firm and allow you to handle it without it breaking.
3. Fill the Tofu With Flavor
After the tofu has all the water pressed out of it, fill it back up with flavor by marinating it. A marinade can be as simple as tamari mixed with water. Most people come up with a recipe for a basic marinade that they use in the majority of their tofu dishes. Usually, it’s a combination of tamari, broth, or water, oil, and a few herbs and spices such as garlic, oregano, or paprika. To make sure the marinade really gets into the tofu, use a paring knife to score it with a few superficial cuts on both sides. That will help the marinade to seep in all the way to the middle of the tofu. Be sure to pat the tofu dry before cooking it to ensure crispness.
4. Dry Rubs Add Flavor and Texture
Whether you marinate the tofu or not, a dry rub will help add flavor and a crusty texture when you cook it. Choose a few of your favorite herbs and spices, mix them together in a small bowl, and rub them over the surface of the tofu. When you pan-fry the tofu, that rub will become a delicious crust.
5. Buy the Right Tofu for the Job
All tofu is not alike so be sure to buy the kind that will work best for the dish you are preparing. Silken tofu is good for making creams or blending into batters, but it’s too soft to use in a stir-fry. Some people like using soft tofu for scrambles. I prefer the extra-firm variety for the majority of my dishes. It enables me to handle it without worrying it will fall apart.
6. Like a Diamond, Size and Cut Matter
I once went to a restaurant that served a tofu club sandwich where the tofu was a giant block stuck between the slices of bread. If you want your tofu to have maximum flavor and texture, it’s best to cut it into smaller pieces. Thin slices are good for making cutlet-type dishes or for sandwiches. Simply cut the block of tofu in half width-wise, then cut each half into 4 rectangles for a total of 8 thin slices. Those slices can further be cut into squares or triangles depending on the presentation you want for your dish. Cut the tofu into cubes for stir-fries and salads. Just cut the tofu into 5 even slices width-wise and then 4 slices horizontally. Those 20 pieces can be further cut in half to make smaller cubes if desired. For kids, use cookie cutters to cut tofu into nuggets shaped like hearts or other fun shapes.
7. Cook the Tofu Well
After all the effort of draining, pressing, cutting, marinating, and seasoning, be sure to cook the tofu well. Whether you are making it into a curry or Asian style, baking it or frying it, breading it, battering it or dusting it with cornstarch or arrowroot powder, be patient and cook it until it’s as browned or crispy as you want it. If you are going to cover it with a hot sauce, make it even extra crispy so the sauce doesn’t make the tofu soggy.
Practice makes perfect and the more you handle tofu, the better you will get at preparing it. Once you learn all the tricks to getting the most out a block of tofu, the possibilities for amazing dishes are endless. It can change the way you and your guests think about tofu and it might even end up becoming your favorite food too.
Lead image source: How to Make the Perfect Baked Tofu
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