A few weeks ago, Phuong asked for tips on how to fry tofu well. Her husband said that Phuong’s deep-fried tofu was on the dry side. First of all, Phuong’s husband is a very lucky man that his wife deep-fries tofu at home! Secondly, I understand Phuong’s plight because I used to suffer it too. But once I set out to write the tofu book, I gained insight -- through lots of tinkering and practice -- into how to fry up delicious tofu.
Why fry tofu? Cooking tofu in hot oil creates a wonderful chewy-crisp coating on each piece, adds a rich fattiness, and creates a lovely golden color. It makes tofu sturdier for all kinds of cooking methods – such as simmering, stir-frying, and grilling. Frying tofu is a great way to advance prep your tofu. Once tofu is fried, you can keep it refrigerated for days. Cook tofu dishes with little fuss. No draining needed as the tofu is ready for action!
Many Asian tofu recipes call for fried tofu so I urge you to overcome any fears of frying. Asian markets and tofu shops sell fried pre-fried tofu. But aside from Japanese abura-age (puffy fried tofu squares or rectangles), I fry my own. That way, I know that my oil is clean and I can control the size of the pieces that I fry.
Types of frying: You have two basic choices when frying tofu. Deep-frying and shallow-frying yield the tastiest fried tofu because the pieces are completely exposed to hot oil. They’re easy, fast, and not overly dramatic tofu cooking methods.
Panfrying tofu does not create an even crisp texture all over the tofu pieces but you use less oil and can fry slabs that are a bit larger; however, too large of slabs (e.g., what you may put on a burger) can be unwieldy. Expect some sputtering when panfrying because the tofu is not quickly coated and sealed in hot oil. For that reason, be sure to blot excess moisture from the surface of the tofu pieces before panfrying.
Choosing tofu texture for frying: In general, I fry firm or extra firm tofu, which have less moisture than medium/medium-firm/regular tofu. The latter types of softer tofu are great for batter coating and deep-frying. Here’s a fabulous example from page 116 of Asian Tofu, in which the tofu turns a little custardy under its sheath of crispness. Terrific with a dunk in chile soy sauce. For Japanese agedashi tofu (page 70) that’s coated in potato starch, I turn to firm tofu because the starch soaks up a lot of moisture.
Super-firm tofu will turn crouton-like, which is nice for the little rods that go into a delicious classic pad Thai (see page 184). If you need assistance on figuring out tofu textures watch this video, which is in the enhanced tofu ebook.
Drain, Soak, or Press Tofu? You want to remove some moisture from the tofu but don’t have to render it super dry. If the tofu is coated with batter, just let it drain on a dishtowel. I like to soak the tofu in salted water to season it and facilitate draining. When deep-fried or shallow-fried, the salted, soaked tofu turns an even gold color quickly and the inside remains soft and not dried out. Flavorwise, the tofu is very lightly seasoned but your dish will be tastier in the end.
I don’t often press tofu to drain it for frying because draining or soaking does the trick.
Type of oil to use for frying tofu: Canola is great and so are vegetable/soybean oil and refined peanut oil. In general, choose a neutral-flavored oil that has a high smoking point. That is, don’t deep-fry with sesame oil. After deep-frying, let the oil cool, then strain it through paper towel, saving it for another use. Discard used oil when it has darkened or smells off.
Oil temperature for frying tofu: A deep-fry thermometer is the best tool for gauging oil temperature because you want a moderately-high temperature (360-375F) to quickly fry the tofu. My favorite thermometer is one that can clip onto my wok. Right now, I reach for this one most. (Complain to the Taylor if the numbers disappear after washing; they sent me a new one and it’s worked fine for years.)
Don’t crowd the pan or the oil temperature will lower too much. Prolonged frying can dry out tofu if too much moisture is drawn out of the tofu. Aim to do it quickly.
What to fry tofu in: Use a wok to deep-fry if you want to save on oil. A deep skillet works well. You can even fry in a medium saucepan, if you want.
Advance frying: Unless a recipe requires the immediate crispness of fried tofu, you can deep-fry a big batch and refrigerate it for five (5!) days.
People are always amazed that I deep-fry as much as I do. With some practice, you’ll be frying up batches of tofu in no time. It’s absolutely delicious minutes after it’s out of the oil. Maybe fry a some extra to sneak a nibble or two? That's the cook's bonus.
If you have extra tips or questions, pose them below.
- Smart Ways to Stir-Fry Tofu
- Tofu, Kimchi and Bacon Taco Recipe
- Chinese Fermented Black Bean Magic (plus recipes)
- Fried Tofu and Egg Pancake Recipe (Tahu Telur)