“There is so much misinformation about tofu,” says cookbook author Andrea Nguyen. One of those myths, she notes, is the idea that tofu “should be forced into, you know, like a vise so it’s so firm it won’t fall apart.” Indeed, while Asian recipes are more likely to accept the natural texture of tofu, techniques such as pressing and freezing dominate Western tofu preparations. Not only do these infuse tofu with an unwarranted sense of uneasiness, but they can also take away one of tofu’s fundamental truths. “Tofu is soft and you have to get that tenderness inside,” Nguyen says. “Otherwise you get the equivalent of overcooked chicken breast.”
Take this as your cue to skip the whole day of squeezing a block between two wobbly cutting boards and a cast iron pan, and your permission to forget about that overnight marinade. “I thought people needed a way to make tofu that was less intimidating to prepare,” says Nguyen, whose soy-seared tofu recipe is featured in Kristen Miglore’s Food52 Simply Genius: recipes for beginners, busy cooks and curious people, released last week by Ten Speed Press. Understand moisture — and how it can work to your advantage — and the result is what Nguyen calls “small tofu” with big flavor, and it takes little effort.
“I have eaten, cooked with, and written about tofu for many years,” adds Nguyen, the author of one of the many 2012 titles Asian Tofu. “I was like, let’s just let that damn thing run all its water in the pan.” Putting tofu (drained but still wet) in a pan and scooping soy sauce (also wet) on top may sound counterintuitive, but it works, explains Nguyen, creating tofu that’s flavorful, soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.
By cooking tofu in a non-oiled pan with no marinade or coating except a spoonful of soy sauce on each side, you let the tofu drain the water from every nook and cranny. Then, as the water evaporates, the tofu takes on flavor as it absorbs the soy sauce. Do not add oil until the soy sauce has evaporated from the surface, otherwise oil and water will prevent proper searing. “You’re going to create this browning effect that creates this wonderful umami flavor all over the tofu and this wonderful little crust,” says Nguyen.
As for cooking liquids, you can try Maggi seasoning, fish sauce, or coconut aminos (in the latter case, Nguyen recommends adding extra salt). But “soy sauce is the perfect thing, and there are so many kinds of soy sauce,” says Nguyen, citing mushroom soy sauce and molasses-fortified dark Chinese soy sauce as just two examples. “I think this is a really fun recipe for chefs to explore tofu or soy sauce with,” she adds.
Fewer obstacles in cooking tofu will hopefully give you more enthusiasm for cooking it; Nguyen’s own excitement about its possibilities persists after all her years of researching and cooking with it. “Tofu has personality. It never surprises me,” she says. So many textures and possible preparations come from a small bean. “It’s an ingredient that allows me to explore what it means to be East Asian,” Nguyen adds. “It allows me to also present an Asian ingredient to people and just say, look how deep this is — even though you might see it as just a plain white block.”
Soy Seared Tofu
Serves 2 to 4
1 (400 grams) block of extra firm tofu
1 tablespoon soy sauce*
1 tablespoon neutral oil, such as canola
Step 1: Drain the tofu and pat it dry with a clean tea towel. On a cutting board with a chef’s knife, cut the tofu crosswise in half and cut each piece crosswise into four pieces, for a total of eight rectangles (they should look like large dominoes). Place in a large non-stick skillet in a single layer. Drizzle over the soy sauce and flip to coat both sides.
Step 2: Cook over medium heat until nicely browned and dry on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Drizzle the oil over the tofu, then use a wide (non-metallic) spatula to turn them over. If the tofu sticks, cook patiently a little longer. If it doesn’t flip easily, use the back of the spatula to scrape off as much of the browned surface as you can before flipping it.
Step 3: Cook long enough to brown the second side, 4 to 5 minutes. Shake the pan to see if the tofu comes off the bottom. When there is a little movement, flip the tofu to add extra color to the first side if necessary. When both sides are rich, mottled brown with dark brown edges, lift tofu onto a cooling rack (optional) to dry for about 5 minutes before serving.
The tofu can be kept in the fridge for 5 days in a sealed container. Eat at room temperature or heat gently in a non-stick frying pan over medium heat with a little oil.
*About that soy sauce: If you only have low-sodium soy sauce, season with a little extra salt.
taken from Food52 Simply Genius: recipes for beginners, busy cooks and curious people by Kristen Miglore. Copyright © 2022 by Kristen Miglore. Used with permission from the publisher, Ten Speed Press. All rights reserved.