Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Easier than you thought: The secret to crispy tofu

I enjoy doing stir fries. They're simple. They're quick. They make plenty for leftovers. And they're healthy, more or less ;) Right?

I used to automatically include meat in my stir fries because, well, aren't you supposed to have meat? C'mon, I live with a guy... if the plate doesn't have something on it that used to bleed, then it's not a complete meal. However, since stumbling upon the following technique, I haven't used meat in a stir fry in ages and neither of us miss it a bit.

I used to do tofu the same way each time... cut it up into strips or cubes and fry it quickly in some oil. It would come out that weird texture that cooked tofu has... at once rubbery, soggy, oily and bland. I seasoned the hell out of it, I even tried flavored ones with no real change in the end result. Then one day I was following a recipe for a new dish, which included cubes of fried tofu, though for the life of me I can't remember what it was. The instruction was quite simple, and I almost missed it... I reread it and for a second debated if I should follow it, or just continue cooking the tofu like I always do. Remembering how underwhelming the "usual" method's results were, I threw caution to the wind and, shock of shocks, followed the instructions.

For tofu that stays crispy on the outside and moist on the inside, cut a block into cubes (I prefer firm tofu for this method) and place in a large ziplock bag. To the bag add 3-4 tablespoons of cornstarch and a bit of seasoning if desired. Close the bag and shake vigorously to completely coat the cubes. You will know they are fully coated when the inside of the bag has no more cornstarch on it, it will all be stuck to the cubes. Have a heated wok or skillet ready with a good amount of oil (at least a few tablespoons) and empty the bag into the skillet. Stir quickly to coat with the oil, adding more if needed. The tofu will absorb a lot of oil, so I start with a few tablespoons and add more as needed to avoid going overboard. Allow the tofu to cook, stirring occasionally. The cornstarch will take a while to brown, so be patient. Keep stirring to avoid scorching, but otherwise let it do its thing. After 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the batch, you will have crispy, lightly browned cubes of tofu goodness. Remove to a plate to cool and continue preparing your veggies.

As with most fried/crispy foods, this tofu does not retain it's crispiness indefinitely. Do not, if at all possible, add it back in to the stir fry or to a sauce. I build my plates by putting a bed of rice, then the veggies, then the tofu and spoon the sauce over immediately before serving. Also, it does not reheat well. It tastes fine as leftovers, but the crisp coating goes soggy once allowed to cool, so if possible, cook only enough for the meal at hand. If a single block is too much for a single sitting, cook only half of it with the cornstarch coating and perhaps cook the other without. 'Naked' tofu is better suited to sitting in a sauce (either in the pan or in the fridge), as that allows it to soak up more flavor and won't suffer from the humidity.

So there you go! A super simple, but super effective technique for sprucing up that tofu stir fry! And, while you're waiting for the tofu to cook, you can make a quick sauce to go over it. I find this one better than the store bought stuff and it only takes a minute to make. You can even make a big batch and store it in the fridge for the next time.

Teriyaki Sauce
1/2 cup soy sauce (i use reduced sodium)
1 tbsp fresh ginger, grated
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed
3 tbsp brown sugar
water to dilute, if desired
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 cup water

Place everything but the cornstarch and water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. In a bowl or glass, mix the cornstarch and water to make what is called a slurry. Make sure all of the lumps are broken up, you do *not* want lumps of cornstarch in your sauce! As the sauce heats (do not boil), taste it to see if you wish to dilute... this one is very much to your taste. I prefer mine a bit stronger so add only a few tablespoons of water to cut the salt, but you can add up to a cup of water. Once you are happy with the balance, pour the slurry in and stir. Keep the pot on the heat and keep stirring as the sauce thickens. I suggest using a wooden spoon and scrape the bottom of the saucepan often. If it does not thicken as much as you want, you can add more of the slurry; likewise, if it gets too thick, you can thin it with water. Once thickened and heated through, pour over your favorite stir fry or rice dish and enjoy!

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