But people do because they’re primarily treating tofu like a meat substitute. They expect it to behave like meat during the cooking process. And when it doesn’t, there’s an onslaught of performance anxiety.
As a workaround, many people buy the firmest tofu possible for stir-frying. They often reach for super-firm tofu, usually sold in vacuum sealed packaging. That stuff is so dense that a few minutes in the wok is not going to do much to it. The result is tofu that tastes like pieces of rubber eraser with sauce on it. Yuck. That’s not delicious tofu. It’s torturous tofu.
You can stir-fry tofu in smart ways to yield big flavor and terrific textures. Here are options and things to consider:
Use tender tofu and be gentle. For example, the dish at the top of this post is the ubiquitous mapo tofu, a spicy tofu with beef and Sichuan peppercorn preparation that’s ubiquitous on Chinese menus; see Asian Tofu, page 101, for the recipe.
In that classic, medium or medium-firm tofu (stuff that feels like the flesh between your thumb and index fingers; I often buy Trader Joe's regular organic tofu in the 20-ounce tubs but a firm tofu, such as Whole Foods' is fine) is cut into cubes, then soaked or blanched in hot water and drained. Exposure to hot water facilitates draining and helps the tofu to better hold its shape during the stir-frying.
You add the tofu to the pan and gently shake or stir it. You don’t vigorously move it around the wok with a spatula, lest it fall apart. There’s a fair amount of liquid and seasoning too so the tofu takes on the other ingredients. This is delicate stir-frying with some simmering involved. The results are creamy cubes of tofu with incredible flavor.
For non-spicy alternative, try the tofu with shrimp and peas (page 100). This is a dish that many Asian Tofu recipe testers made without being assigned to it:
In preparations such as Japanese tofu with pork and bitter melon (page 106), the tofu is purposefully broken up during the stir-frying process to yield a scramble-like finish. Sometimes it’s good for the tofu to break apart!
Go for sturdier seasoned, pressed tofu. If you’re set on stir-frying super-firm tofu, try using seasoned pressed tofu that’s been simmered with seasonings (often times five spice and soy sauce), marinated, then baked. It’s called dou gan in Mandarin.
Based on a dish prepared for me by a Chinese family in Chengdu (Sichuan, China) this is a deliciously simple stir-fry of tea-smoked tofu with pepper (page 104):
I make the smoked tofu from storebought super-firm tofu (page 38) because I like to dial in the seasonings and use organic tofu. Plus it costs less to make it myself. However, you can prepare the stir-fry with five-spice baked tofu sold at Asian markets and health food markets. Look for the brown squares or rectangles in vacuum-sealed packages in the refrigerated sections.
Regardless of how you obtain the seasoned pressed tofu, you don’t have to drain it before cooking. The stuff is extremely compact. Cut it, then cook it. It’s sturdy tofu that you can confidently move around the wok. It’s been seasoned already so there’s some flavor built in. You won't end up with torturous tofu.
Fry the tofu first. Yep, it’s like double cooking. You can panfry, shallow-fry or deep-fry pieces of tofu beforehand – like up to 5 days in advance. Seriously.
Frying tofu adds a rich fattiness and creates a lovely golden color. It also makes tofu that holds its shape during cooking. You can push, toss and move it around with ease.
For the bean sprouts with tofu on page 143, the tofu is cut into small pieces and then panfried to a delicate crisp. The tofu has character and stands out in the stir-fry, a popular side dish at Singaporean street hawker stalls.
With bigger pieces of tofu, deep-fry them. The dish above is Vietnamese in origin. It’s the lemongrass tofu with chiles from page 108. I first had it on Phu Quoc island (a place famous for fish sauce) and fell in love with it, not just because I was sitting on the beach with a cold beer in my hand. Dau phu xao xa ot is an amazing Viet tofu dish.
In Vietnam as with other Asian countries, you can buy deep-fried tofu from vendors. Here at home, the fried tofu is sold in plastic bags at Asian markets. It’s a convenience tofu. I like to fry my own because I know the quality of the tofu and oil. Plus I season the tofu a bit with a soak in salted water before the deep-frying.
Is deep-frying tofu a nasty thing to do? No. It’s actually pretty undramatic and fast. I owe Phuong a post on how to fry tofu well so stay tuned. (6/11/12 update: The post is up!) Or check the recipes in Asian Tofu and you’ll see how easy it is.
Can you use panfried tofu instead of deep-fried tofu for a stir-fry? Yes, but slabs of panfried tofu are not as sturdy or tasty and deep-fried. Be gentle with your stir-frying motions.
If stir-frying tofu challenges you, I hope these strategies and suggestions set you on the path to delicious and stress-free tofu stir-fries! If you’re a pro at stir-frying tofu, add your tips below please. Feel free to pose questions too.
- Tofu Frying Tips (deep-frying, shallow-frying, panfrying)
- Tofu, Kimchi and Bacon Taco Recipe
- Chinese Fermented Black Bean Magic (plus recipes)
- Fried Tofu and Egg Pancake Recipe (Tahu Telur)
- Tasty Tofu recipes in March issue of Sunset
- Panfried Egg Tofu "Scallops"
- Is Tofu Healthy or Harmful?
- Guide to Tofu Textures - a sample video from Asian Tofu ebook; keep the info in your back pocket when shopping