If there’s any one food item that anyone expects me to be an expert in, it is most certainly the moist, white block of congealed soy protein known as tofu. Probably most people hear me say “vegan” and assume that this ubiquitous source of vegetarian protein is most of what I eat anyway. It’s hard to even get indignant about it. After all, I do eat a lot of tofu.
I grew up with a taste for tofu. I’ve only been a vegetarian since I was fifteen, but both of my parents grew up in Honolulu and they both happen to be great cooks, influenced by the Pan-Asian culture surrounding them. They made me golden curry-flavored stews and spicy eggplant with generous hunks thrown in, piled high with white rice. It was as casual in our household as chicken is on the mainland. When I decided under their roof that I would never eat anything with a face again, they just made more stir-fry. It always baffles me now that people are so repulsed by something so innocent as tofu. Again, our family dinners spanned many cuisines; it has never occurred to me to dismiss a dish without trying it first, with the caveat now that I don’t consume animal products on principle.
I understand that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea or protein of choice. I also know that there is nothing but conflicting information for women’s health about the effects of soy on estrogen and that soy is in almost every packaged food product imaginable. Regardless, a doctor has never been alarmed the standard presence of soy in my diet, and I believe it is typically quite safe. Tofu can be finicky to get to your liking, though – I never had the patience to turn tofu in a frying pan to get them lightly browned and crispy like my mom’s. But I maintain that with a little patience and the right pre-cooking technique, there is a tofu dish for you.
Here’s where I admit that I haven’t always been the tofu guru I’d like to think I am now. It isn’t that it’s difficult to cook tofu, and you don’t have to cook it once you take it out of the package at all. I order soft tofu in my curry at Thai restaurants sometimes just to avoid the extra greasiness that can be associated with fried tofu. However if you’re not thrilled on the idea of tofu to begin with, you’re probably searching for a chewier texture and more toothsome flavor, which requires something I’ve already confessed to be lacking – patience.
Because of this deficiency, I cannot attribute to my discovery of this unbelievably simple technique to my own devices. I owe this trick to easy, chewy tofu to my brilliant friend Emily. I have known her and her partner Ryan a very long time and our households love to trade spaces and host potlucks from time to time. On one occasion she was making slabs of tofu in addition to several sides, and as she was bustling around the kitchen checking on whatever needed checking, I noticed she was peeking in on the very top rack of the oven. She wasn’t baking them, the preferred health-conscious method of preparing tofu to which I had become accustomed – she was broiling them!
You cannot understand the philosophies that shattered in my brain at that moment. The simple act of placing pressed slices of firm tofu directly under a heat source in order to achieve that thin, crisp, golden layer on top while still preserving the chewy insides was entirely novel to me. I was so used to the tedious steps of pressing, slicing, greasing, turning, and watching tofu that I couldn’t conceive of the process as anything less than complicated. I’m embarrassed to even describe it here, since it feels like a big “duh” to anyone who knows anything about putting stuff in an oven.
Since I’m still meeting people who think they don’t care for tofu, I must not be alone in my naivete. Here, then, are the so-simple-your-child-could-do-it-but-maybe-children-shouldn’t-use-broilers steps to achieving perfect cubes, slices, triangles or whatever shapes of tofu to toss in any salad, curry, or stir-fry you desire.
HOW TO BROIL PERFECT, CRISP, CHEWY TOFU
- 1 block (about 12 oz) firm or extra-firm tofu
- oil pan spray (I use Trader Joe’s Coconut Oil Cooking Spray)
- sprinkle of sea salt
- This first step is optional. Removing as much water as possible will allow the pieces of tofu to broil more evenly, thereby achieving a chewier texture. I highly recommend doing this if you plan on marinating the tofu in seasoning first. Drain the water from the container of tofu and remove the block from the packaging. Wrap the block in a clean kitchen towel or two and place on a clean counter top. Balance a heavy, flat item on top of the wrapped block such as a cast iron pan or a cutting board laden with textbooks. Let sit while you continue, or approximately 15-20 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to broil and spray a baking pan. If you have the option, set at a low-heat broil. If you didn’t press your tofu, you can use high heat.
- Unwrap your tofu and lay out on a cutting board. Cut the tofu into your desired shape. (Here’s a helpful video I found from TofuPedia.com.)
- Lay out the tofu evenly on your prepped baking sheet, taking care to leave some space between each piece of tofu for even crisping and easy turning.
- Sprinkle sea salt over your sea of tofu, rubbing it in a little over the sides of each piece or slice.
- Put under the broiler and keep a close eye on your tofu! If you made slabs or sticks, turn over your pieces of tofu once the first side under the broiler starts to turn golden and feels like it’s starting to get firm to the touch, about 6-12 minutes depending on the heat of your broiler. If you made cubes, you might just want to loosen the cubes with a thin spatula, shake the pan and spread them out again a bit instead of individually turning each cube.
- When the tofu is done and golden, it should start to crisp up along the edges and form some air bubbles along the surface. Take out and cool for about 5 minutes.
- Now is the perfect time to add the tofu to your dish – throw it into stir fry, stir it into curry, or toss with sauce and ladle on top of your favorite grain or roasted veggie.
- Find newfound love of tofu, apologize to the Internet, and enjoy.