Cooking techniques, Ingredients & Flavours

How to cook tofu in a stir-fry

August 30, 2004

Today’s question is from Rajesh Krishnamurthy, who is having problems with handling tofu. He writes:

I have always had problem with tofu, in that it crumbled or was too soft. I’ve tried frying it in a wok for a few minutes but not too happy with the results. Do you have any tips for that?

I have not one, but more tips for that. You’re not the first person to ask me about that either. The first time I tried making tofu, I got the tofu equivalent of overcooked scrambled eggs. It took me a fair bit of research to figure out how to tame the darn thing.

Rajesh, I have no idea where you live, so I don’t know what type of tofu you get in your part of the world. There are a fair few varieties of tofu you can find in the east. The most common varieties you’ll find in shops here are the soft, silken tofu and the firm pressed tofu.

The silken tofu has a higher water content, is very fragile, and is best used in soups and salads. It has a mushy, creamy texture and has the consistency of a soft custard. It it totally unsuitable for stir-frying and will readily disintegrate if you stir-fry it. Are you sure this isn’t the type you’re buying? Ask if your shop has “firm tofu” or “pressed tofu”.

The firm tofu feels fairly firm to the touch and can be cut into cubes relatively easily. This type has a smooth surface on the top of the blocks because it’s been pressed to extract some of the excess water in it. (This, incidentally, also increases the protein content per kg of the tofu.) The tofu is fine for stir-frying as long as you don’t cut into very small pieces or toss the living daylights out of it. If the tofu is sold packed in water, it most likely is the firm tofu.

What’s that? Your supermarket sells only the silky type? Well, you’ll just have to catch the next flight to the nearest Chinatown, won’t you?

Yeah, right. OK, here’s my quick-fix instead.

If you’re stuck with the soft tofu because nothing else is available, you can turn it into a semi-firm form by pressing it at home. Cut the soft tofu (gently now) into blocks that are no more than an inch thick. Put these blocks between two sheets of strong kitchen towel on both sides. Then put a firm weight of about one kilogram on top. If you can’t find a weight that’s big enough, put a large flat plate on top of the tofu and put the weight on top of the plate, right in the middle so the weight is evenly distributed. Leave this weight on for about 1-2 hours, changing the paper towels a couple of times so you can get rid of the extra water. At the end of this ordeal, you’ll be left with tofu that’s about 75% of the weight you started with, but much firmer. Use this in your stir-fries instead and you’ll notice the difference.

Now that I have answered your question, let me pontificate about tofu for a while. I’ve met people who have absolute hatred for tofu. One of my veggo friends once described it as “a sorry excuse for a vegetarian ingredient”. At the risk of being accused of heresy by my fellow lovers of oriental cooking, let me add that I partially agree with this assessment. Tofu in its native soft state presents itself to me as a bland block of custard, with a smooth, slippery texture and almost no taste of its own. In this form, the only way I can eat it is to cut into very small pieces and tossed along with other ingredients in some spicy noodles. I dread biting into large blocks of it in  a stir-fry because to my Thai chilli-conditioned tongue, it just doesn’t have much flavour. (Here’s where some purist argues viciously with me that its purpose is to act as a “balancing” flavour in a medley of strongly flavoured dishes. Yes ma’am, your point is noted and acknowledged.)

Where was I? Oh yes, the bland nature of regular tofu. I’m not a big fan of anything “bland”. (Digression: Hell, I don’t particularly like French food.) So you’d think that I would’ve given up on tofu as a lost cause. Thankfully, there are other ways of giving this ingredient some more assertive qualities.

The simple way is to freeze the damn thing. Put a block of tofu in the freezer overnight. The next day it will look as if someone painted it brown. Don’t worry, it hasn’t gone to the dogs yet. Now put this frozen block in the refrigerator for a few hours to thaw. It will now have a nice, airy texture and a far meatier, chewy feel. This to me is a better approximation to a meat substitute. Stir-fry this and your tofu dishes will taste better. But please… don’t even think of doing this with the silky tofu I talked about earlier. You will not be able to salvage anything from the resulting mess, unless you want a tofu-stuffed omelette.

Another great way of making tofu taste good is to deep-fry it. Deep-fried tofu is a wonderful snack on its own because it miraculously acquires a rich spongy taste that actually tastes good without any other seasoning. Deep-fried tofu also absorbs flavours very well, so it works wonderfully in strong stir-fries and also assertive Asian curries. At Shiok, we serve deep-fried tofu with a spicy peanut sauce, and it’s delicious that way.

To deep-fry tofu, cut them into rectangular pieces no more than half an inch thick. Too thick and the insides won’t be done. Too thin and it will be too crunchy all the way. Put enough oil into a wok for deep-frying and maintain the flame at medium. If the heat is too high, the outside will be too hard. Too low and your tofu will drink the oil. Deep-fry the tofu in this oil till it gets a nice golden brown colour. Remove from the oil and drain well on kitchen towels. Wait a few minutes for it to cool down and bite into a piece. There, isn’t that better? OK, mister, put the next piece down! Put it down, I tell you! We need to use it in other dishes.

Deep-fried tofu can be stir-fried in many dishes and it will have enough character of its own to do more than just taste like bland custard. Try it out and see for yourself.

That’s just a basic primer on tofu. I hope it gives you some ideas. Email me and let me know how it works for you.

Wait, Rajesh also had another request:

I would really appreciate if you post some good vegetarian recipes.

Gosh, I’ve just typed more than 1100 words at one stretch, Rajesh. You want a recipe on top of that? Alright, I’ll post a tofu recipe tomorrow. Come back and look for it.

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22 Comments

  • Reply Audrey February 18, 2005 at 5:34 am

    Thanks for the tips! I have had the same problem as Rajesh! I tried and I tried to cook tofu and to no avail failed. I have often had friends come to work with their tofu dishes, well prepared and firm. They tried to explain to me how to cook it…but was unclear in their explainations. Nevertheless, thank you sooo mucch for the tips! Now I can enjoy a dish I was desperate to learn how to cook!

  • Reply Christine June 3, 2005 at 6:42 am

    This was really helpful! I have ordered fried tofu with oyster sauce, but had no idea how to turn that blob of white stuff into something edible. Now I think that you have given me some ideas on how to cook it. thank you
    Christine

  • Reply Nick June 9, 2005 at 10:51 pm

    I made some posoli and the recipe called for “hot” salsa. It is way too hot to eat. Is there a trick for taking the spicey out of the soup?
    Too hot in California

  • Reply Angela September 29, 2005 at 11:53 am

    Thanks I think the freezing thing will be rather useful… tofu quite often reminds me of uncooked chicken.

  • Reply Lyndsey December 16, 2005 at 10:23 pm

    The “how to deal with silken tofu” part was exceptionally useful. Whenever I ask when they’re going to get some firm tofu at my grocery store, they roll their eyes and direct me to the “firm” silken tofu. “Firm” my foot, it’s still the consistency of jello. I’ve recently been using some “meat subsitute” (they can’t even decide what meat it is) which is twice as expensive but tastes a little like bologna. It’s the only thing they carry that will work in stir-fries.

  • Reply Pamela Singer February 18, 2006 at 7:51 pm

    I made a Cajun dish but it is way to hot for me to eat. Is there a way to tame the hotness down so it is edible.
    Thank you
    Pamela Singer

  • Reply Jennifer July 15, 2006 at 1:44 am

    I have also tried to cook tofu before and it’s always a disgusting mush (even with extra firm). When I go to my favorite Thai Restaurant it’s always so good, but I’m not sure how it is that they are cooking it. After reading this post I think it might be deep-fryed, but how can i be sure?

  • Reply Elisabth October 7, 2006 at 7:16 am

    Thank you sooooo much! No matter where I would go I couldn’t find anybody who would give me a straight answer on how to cook this darn stuff and all of my own attempts failed! All of the asian places I eat at seem to cook the stuff good but I can’t ever seem to do it! I think I understand better now. I know their secrets ha, ha.

  • Reply Connie February 25, 2007 at 8:13 am

    Oh I can’t wait to try this! I’m new at trying to cook tofu, just bought some extra firm by luck. I’m sure the taste I’m after is the deep fried, and I would never have known. I would have tried stir frying. I hope I don’t get the oil too hot and burn it, or too cold and let my poor tofu “drink the oil”. Just FYI, I could never develop a taste for soy milk, but found Silk Brand soy milk VERY VANILLA (not just vanilla), and I love it. Organic, too.

  • Reply Rocky Davidson March 6, 2007 at 4:49 pm

    Thanks, very much so for this helpful way to cook tofu.
    I\’ve had problems in the past with \’Flat\’ Tofu but now I Feel Really confident, Again thank-you so very much!

  • Reply Alyssa April 15, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    Thank you very much! This will help a lot!

  • Reply Marty April 20, 2007 at 1:06 am

    (1) Madhu, if you’re going to eat raw tofu

  • Reply Jessica April 20, 2007 at 2:00 am

    This was so helpful! Thank you.

  • Reply Kaye May 31, 2007 at 6:01 am

    You can get the same meaty texture and firmness by wrapping 1 inch slices of tofu in a lightly dampened papertowel and microwaving it for 2 minutes.

  • Reply bshock June 23, 2007 at 12:45 am

    Whenever someone suggests that tofu is useless because of its bland taste and texture, I have to ask him if he likewise eschews flour. If nothing else, tofu can be considered a cooking ingredient.
    But I would reject even that limitation. As a vegetarian for the last 30 years, I have tried all of the techniques this fine author mentioned. One trick he failed to mention was to find a different type of tofu still: so-called “baked tofu.” While the “firm tofu” in the average grocery is firmer than silken tofu, it still has far less texture and coherence than baked tofu.
    The commercial name of this substance may vary, but you can usually find it at a good Asian market in the U.S., as well as at high-end grocery chains like Wild Oats. (Wild Oats sells it in marinated form, but you might actually prefer that.) The restaurant chain P.F. Chang’s uses baked tofu — or is willing to do so, on request — in a number of its dishes, including the “Buddha Feast.” They refer to it as “bean curd,” but all the same, it is a form of tofu with a very satisfying bite.

  • Reply Arlington Acid June 23, 2007 at 4:01 am

    I’ve done the freezing bit for decades now but I prefer to slice it into 1/2″ cutlets first. After freezing, defrosting and squeezing the “whey” out of them, they become quite firm and spongey, perfect for absorbing thin soy-chili-ginger-cilantro sauces, which are retained and stay within the chunks during stirfrying with veggies. When you bite into these, the sauce squeezes out in a way that recalls meat (well,I’m working off of memory here, it’s been over 40 years since I’ve eaten any meat). Give it a try and you’ll never go back to ordinary tofu.

  • Reply kace August 18, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    I don’t know if anyone commented on Posted by Nick on June 9, 2005 10:51 PM, which is over 2 years old, but olives take spicyness out of salsa i believe.

  • Reply katrina July 1, 2008 at 4:01 pm

    hi geat day .c u l8ter.

  • Reply ubers July 7, 2008 at 5:34 am

    you can also cube the tofu and blanch it — plunge it briefly in boiling water, perhaps 2 minutes. drain it, and you’ll have nice from cubes that are still smooth and are more absorbent of your cooking seasonings. .

  • Reply Ash July 23, 2008 at 2:11 pm

    oh my goodness. ure a freggin genius! have u considered writing a book?
    i was stuck with sikly tofu n tried ure weight press. n it worked. u are simply brilliant!

  • Reply Penny August 27, 2009 at 7:13 am

    Not only did i learn something (many somethings) useful, i also laughed my arse off!!
    Im with Ash, write a book!!!

  • Reply Enrico September 8, 2009 at 11:20 pm

    Good Day. Get away from the crowd when you can. Keep yourself to yourself, if only for a few hours daily.
    I am from Turkey and also am speaking English, tell me right I wrote the following sentence: “Holiday train second-in-command, a first case for team transportation 1950s.”
    With respect ;), Enrico.

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