I received this question on Facebook after posting Rice Noodle Salad With Grapefruit-Sriracha Vinaigrette:
“What is the secret to getting nicely browned, crispyish tofu, like what a restaurant would serve? Mine always comes out kinda soft, mushy, etc. I recently tried a firmer tofu – I even pressed out the water. It was better, but still not what I was hoping for. Any tips?
Signed, Soggy Soy In Sacramento”
Dear Soggy Soy,
You are definitely off to a good start by using firmer tofu. I recommend extra-firm tofu, but you can even find super-firm varieties. And yes, pressing tofu is great for soaking up marinade. But the secret to nicely browned tofu isn’t necessarily the tofu itself. The secret is (cue ominous music)….your equipment.
Now, I’m not saying to go out and purchase a $12,000 Viking stove (but if you get one, pick one up for me, too.) The tools I recommend are affordable objects that will take you a long, long way.
1) A cast iron pan. A well-seasoned cast iron pan, to be specific. Even a good quality stainless steel pan won’t do the trick, unless you’re frying it in tons of oil. And even then, your “mush risk” may be high. And those cheapo non-stick pans, well, they may work for a few months, but yuck.
Cast iron will last you a lifetime. And through that lifetime, it’s functions will only improve, because the more you use it, the smoother and more non-stick it becomes.
Because it heats quickly and evenly, it’s ideal for tossing around tofu with minimal oil, without fear or burning or mushing. And another added benefit is that it can go from stovetop to oven, if you ever need to finish something off down below. So get yourself a preseasoned cast iron pan and fall in love. Or better yet, steal a really well-seasoned one from your best friend’s mom, like I did. It’s from the seventies and works like a charm!
And the next most important tool is….
2) A thin, flexible metal spatula. Nothing fancy. Those big ergonomic plastic spatulas may seem friendly, but they’re like clumsy uncles on the dancefloor, tripping everyone else up. You can tell just by looking at them: they are way too thick to flip tofu efficiently. Even if you get your tofu perfectly browned, the spatula can not physically get under the browning to keep it intact. Instead, it tears the “skin” off, leaving the beautifully cooked layer stuck to the pan, and a sad mushy piece of tofu floating around willy nilly.
Before you ask: Wooden spatula? No, pretty much the same problem. Save that for soups. Thin plastic spatula? Uh-uh. Not strong and not precise enough. Some other kind of metal spatula? Not those stiff stainless steel ones. Your spatula needs flexibility. It’s all about sneaking it’s way between the browned surface and the pan.
The good/bad part is that they don’t make spatulas like they used to. The best ones that I’ve found come from thrift stores, and cost under a dollar. Fancy-ass kitchen supply stores tend to only carry the tofu-hating kinds of spatulas. So if you’re buying new, look for those super cheap ones in your supermarket or at a dollar store.
Allow these Instagrams to demonstrate:
Now that we’ve got the equipment covered, let me give you a little advice on actually sauteeing your tofu.
Preheat the cast-iron pan to medium. Don’t add tofu to a cold or luke-warm pan. It needs to hit heat so that it can sear. If you don’t hear a sizzle immediately, your heat is too low. Don’t be shy, turn it up.
Always lightly oil the pan before adding the tofu. A little spray of oil should do it. In fact, I think the less oil you use, the better. You can add a little more as needed during cooking.
Once tofu is in the pan, sprinkle with a little salt, for flavor and for drawing out the moisture.
Let it cook for a few minutes before flipping. The beginning stages of cooking, when the water is being drawn out, aren’t ideal for flipping. The skin may be adhering to the surface of the pan too much. But in a few minutes, when it’s lightly browned, it will release, and become easy to sneak your spatula underneath to flip.
And, that is pretty much it. Flip tofu to brown on all sides, but don’t fuss over getting it perfectly uniform. It really shouldn’t need more than 10 minutes. Then your tofu is ready to be smothered in sauces, stuffed into sandwiches and sacrificed in stir-fries. If you use this method, you don’t even need to press the tofu beforehand, a cursory squeeze over the sink should suffice, just to get a bit of the water out.
So, I hope this wasn’t so long as to be intimidating. Really, it’s nothing. You flip some tofu around in a hot pan. End of story. End of mush. Now let’s get some tofu browning!
And if you want to read more about cast iron and seasoning, here are a few great links:
A very thorough investigation of cast-iron seasoning and upkeep
How to season a cast-iron skillet. But read the entire series on the Ktchn.