Cook Date: April 11, 2021
I’ve been experimenting with methods of cooking a crispy tofu. The oven works okay, but this battered and deep-fried tofu has a tempura-like texture that takes it to another level. Crisp on the outside and soft on the inside.
My son and daughter-in-law are vegetarian and we have their family over for dinner on Sunday nights. We rotate responsibilities for cooking, between, me, Carla, and take out. I’m not vegetarian – at all – so I’ve had to get creative on my cooking nights. One of my go-tos – to many of my friends alarm and dismay – is tofu (here is a link to some of those recipes). I’ve been struggling to get crispy tofu from the oven – as much as I’ve tried.
It was my turn to cook dinner this past Sunday so I explored more approaches to get crispy tofu. As I suspected, deep frying could solve that problem. But in the 20 years I’ve been delving into cooking methods and expanding my palate, I’ve never deep fried anything. In fact, I’ve gone out of my way to avoid deep frying things. Take Buffalo chicken wings as an example; rather, than frying, I’ve used a method, championed by Serious Eats, to roast them. (They are delicious). Serious Eats is a great cooking resource web site that has never steered me wrong; so when I read this tofu and broccoli stir fry recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt I decided my time to deep fry something had arrived.
I don’t normally take pictures of my Sunday night cooking, because the house is so crowded and the equipment gets in the way of kids and grownups. But after I had started, I asked my son to run into my office and grab my camera. So, the pictures are like a short story: they start in medias res (in the middle of things).
The first step is to get your tofu dry. Normally, I wrap a whole one pound cube of extra-firm tofu in paper towels and press it under a weighted cast iron skillet, then cut it into cubes; but López-Alt reports that you get better results by cutting the tofu into pieces and then press them wrapping and pressing. I cut it into ½-inch x 1-inch x 2-inch (ish) pieces pressed for a couple of hours, changing the paper towels often. Having more surface area got the tofu drier than my old method.
Next, I heated 1½ quarts of vegetable oil in my flat bottom wok. Doing this with a round bottom wok seems to me to be asking for trouble. As I mentioned before, deep frying is a bit concerning: things can go real wrong real fast if you spill hot oil on a gas flame. I took the special kitchen fire extinguisher out of the cabinet and had it ready to use if needed (spoiler alert, it all went fine). I wanted to maintain the oil at 350° (F) so I used a ThermoWorks timer with the temperature probe mounted in a bracket. You can see it in the picture below if you look closely.
As the oil heated, I stirred together a batter of flour, corn starch, baking powder, kosher salt, cold vodka, and cold water. It makes a nice thin batter. When the oil was at the target temp, I put half the tofu cubes in the batter then fished each piece out, let the extra batter drip off and slipped into the hot oil. My son was sure I was going to burn my fingers (I didn’t) but I wanted to get close to the oil to cut down any splash back. I cooked the first batch for about 10 minutes until it was just turning tan.
The tofu is a heat sync so the oil temp drops a bit when it is first added, requiring some fine-tuning to keep the temp at 350° When the first batch was done I removed it with a wok spider strainer to a plate covered in paper towels.
Next time I’ll line a cooking sheet with paper towels and place a wire rack insert then put the tofu pieces on the insert.
Cubing tofu is oddly satisfying, it just cuts sooo easily. Nevertheless, my tofu cubing method needs a lot of work. I measured by block of tofu HxLxW and tried to figure out how to get my cubes close to the size the recipe calls for – we are talking an 8½ x 11 sheet of paper covered with math. Why did I bother? As you can see in the picture above, I I ended up with a wide range of pieces. I should have just gone by eye, rather than trying to line up cuts with a ruler. Next time, I’ll halve and halve again the width, and then the length in 8 sections.
If you’ve read any of my other tofu-cooking posts, you know when it comes to cooking tofu, “it’s all about the sauce!” Andrew and I split one of the cooled pieces of tofu and it is the definition of bland. The centerpiece of this sauce is fermented black bean sauce. Now, if tofu turns you off, I don’t imagine the phrase “fermented black bean sauce” is going to win you over; but, it has a smell and taste reminiscent of hoisin sauce and oyster sauce. I know, I know; if you hesitated at tofu and backed up at fermented black bean sauce, then the thought of oyster sauce will have you running the other way.
While the picture above does show the ingredients used in the stir fry, they are all jumbled up. The scallion, garlic, ginger, and toasted sesame seeds go into the stir fry; the other ingredients (Xiaoshing wine, vegetable stock, soy sauce, sugar, lemon juice, toasted sesame oil, baking powder, and lemon peel) make up the sauce. If you make this (and next time I do) I’ll put the sauce ingredients together in 1 bowl instead of half a dozen ramekins.
You saw “broccoli” in the title, right? Now is it’s turn. After letting the oil cool a bit, I poured all but 1 Tablespoon into a heat-safe sturdy metal bowl. Heated that Tablespoon of oil to just smoking and added the broccoli.
Once the broccoli was browned a little bit, I added the garlic, ginger, and scallions. Once the aromatics became fragrant (about 30 seconds) it all comes out into a heat-safe bowl. What can I say stir-fry requires a lot of bowls.
Now, it’s time for the sauce. Give it a whisk and carefully pour it into the wok and stir until it glazes up a bit. Then add back the tofu and broccoli with the aromatics. Sprinkle in the toasted sesame seeds, remove from heat, and gently toss until everything is coated with that tasty sauce.
An hour before starting the stir fry, I started some Jasmine coconut rice (recipe from Yellow Bliss Road). Put the rice on the bottom of the bowl and top with the stir fry, and top with a few more sesame seeds.
Dinner is served
If you are cooking stir fry, get everything lined up before you start because once you start cooking, things happen quickly. J López Kenji-Alt tells us another essential element of stir fry is cooking things in the right order. Although the term “stir fry” implies tossing everything into a wok and stirring it together, success comes from cooking items individually first then putting it all together at the end.
The batter gave the tofu a texture like tempura fried vegetables; in other words, really nice. Although, the kids were not impressed – the unsauced tofu was “okay” – my DIL said it was the best of the tofu recipes I’ve made. Carla and Andrew loved it also.
Plus, it’s not greasy; by keeping the oil temp close to 350° the batter crisps up nicely without absorbing a lot of oil. When the oil was cooled back down to room temperature I poured it back into the bottle and there was surprisingly little loss. The used oil was very clean; if I had used a coffee filter to strain the oil, I’d be able to use it again for deep frying.
Rating: ★★★★ A perfect dish for company unless they’ll unfriend you because you served them tofu.
It’s a bit of work, and uses a lot of bowls and what not, this is a great dish.