7 min read

Stone Soup #16: Tofast, tofurious - Easy Pan-Fried Tofu

And soy on and soy forth

Stone Soup is an ongoing quarantine feature in which I come up with a recipe that uses the impossible thing in your cupboard, without making you go to the store or wasting any of your ingredients. Last time, you all helped me figure out what to do with a fuckton of peppers.

Before we get started, I just want to say thank you so much to everyone who has sent well-wishes to Tinkerbell the Good Dog after her surgery yesterday. She is currently very uncomfortable, very snoozy, and very grumpy about wearing her cone.
If you’re a new subscriber who signed up to help us defray the vet bills, double-thank-you — the help with that expense has made it so we don’t have to look down the barrel of any hard decisions just yet, no matter what the results of the surgery turn up. It’s a huge relief. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

But you didn’t come here for gratitude, you came here to read about food, so let’s dive in! Joanne says:

My ingredient is tofu. I enjoy it when I eat out, but I've never successfully cooked with it at home. It seems to repel any marinade I make and remain flavorless. Plus, do I fry it, bake it? Don't know. I can go savory or sweet, even full on dessert if that's how you want to do it.

I have an unopened package of Wildwood Organic Extra Firm Tofu and all sorts of things in my pantry* that might help transform it into something tasty.

That asterisk is where I removed a link to Joanne’s very thorough, beautifully organized pantry inventory! Damn, I love a good pantry inventory. Thanks, Joanne.

And you know what else I love?

Tofu is rad as hell. It’s delicious, packed with protein, and super-versatile to cook with. But I was intimidated by it for a long time! The media I consumed as a kid told me that tofu was gross and weird. I suspect that a wide combination of factors led to tofu being a reliable punchline in the nineties — xenophobia, the efforts of various American meat lobbies, a conservative/Christian aversion to ideologies and religions that might include vegetarianism, I could go on — but regardless of the reason behind the jokes, the message was clear: tofu is a bad meat substitute that you’ll never be able to cook right.

But hey, great news, that’s horseshit. Tofu wouldn’t be such an enduring and enormous staple of so many regional cuisines if it was ~yucky~. There are a zillion different ways to handle tofu (leave your favorite preparation in the comments!) so I’m just going to share my personal go-to favorite here. I have no doubt Joanne is going to knock this particular preparation out of the park.

So come on, Joanne, let’s make some

Easy Pan-Fried Tofu

Seriously, this is such a snap, you’re gonna love it. First thing’s first, very important to note: Joanne has extra-firm tofu, which is what this recipe wants. Firm tofu works too, but anything softer won’t hold up to the amount of handling this is going to require.

Step One: Drain & Press. Your firm tofu will be in a container with a bunch of water, similar to how fresh mozzarella is stored. Go ahead and drain that off — don’t worry, you’re not discarding anything as useful as aquafaba (which we used to make knockoff mont blancs not too long ago).

Time to press out the excess moisture that’ll make the tofu soggy if you try to cook it as-is. First, gently wrap your tofu in a couple of layers of paper towels or a clean dishcloth. Set it down on a plate. Invert another plate on top of the tofu, so you’ve got a little sandwich where the plates are the bread and the tofu is the filling (this would not be a very good sandwich to eat but it will be useful to us now). I highly recommend putting this sandwich inside of a baking dish while you’re pressing it, because no matter how attentive I am, my tofu-pressing always overflows and puts tofu-water all over my countertops.

Put something heavy on top of the tofu-plate-sandwich, like a teakettle or a big bag of rice. That weight will slowly press the excess water out of the tofu. Walk away for half an hour. This is a great time to clean the kitchen, or do some yoga, or stare into the yawning abyss that is social media during a pandemic! Do whatever makes you feel least like the universe is an open mouth filled with rows and rows of endlessly gnashing teeth.

After 30 minutes have elapsed, go back into the kitchen and drain puddled water off the plate, change out the paper towels or wring out the dishcloth. Reassemble your sandwich, put the heavy thing back on top of it, and go spend another 30 minutes living whatever kind of life you’ve made for yourself.

Come back and unwrap your tofu. It’s ready to use! Neat!

Step Two: Prep. Using a sharp knife, cut your tofu into pieces you want to eat. Cubes are my favorite, but slices are good too. Don’t go more than, like, three quarters of an inch thick.

Grab a decent-sized bowl and toss in a couple of handfuls of flour. I’ve used wheat flour and rice flour for this with great success, just make sure your flour-ish-thing has a pretty neutral flavor and you’re in clover.

Now, raid the spice rack. Add plenty of salt, and then layer flavors on top of that with a bold heart and a generous hand. I love adding garlic powder, onion powder, and paprika. This is a great place for any genre of spicy ground pepper, hot ground mustardseed, thyme, sage, wasabi powder, ground-up dried shrimp — go wild, layer flavors, take risks! The world is your block of tofu, and you get to season it as loudly as you like. Just don’t use anything that will leave big pieces in the bowl — you want a consistent, fine, powdery texture.

Step Three: Toss to coat. Ugh, you guys know how much I hate the phrase “toss to coat.” Why? Literally no reason, I’m just a grouch.

Anyway, toss your tofu in the flour mixture to thoroughly coat it on all sides. I recommend working in batches here — throw in a few pieces of tofu at a time, tosstosstoss, and remove to a plate. This will keep the tofu pieces from ignoring the flour in favor of sticking to each other. If you’re doing slices instead of cubes, just turn them over in the flour a few times until they’re evenly coated. It’s okay if they’re a little gummy on the outside, don’t get your blood pressure up about it.

Step Four: Pan time. In a high-sided pan, heat a small amount of olive (or similarly neutral) oil. I promise you don’t need a lot. You just need enough to fully coat the bottom of the pan. Keep more nearby, because you’ll need to add more to the pan as you work.

Once the oil is good and hot, drop in several pieces of tofu. Be conservative with how many pieces you fry at once — every time you add cold food to a pan, you cool the pan down, and a nice hot pan is the key to a crisp fry-job. Work in several batches. When the tofu is ready to turn over, it will come away from the pan easily. Fry until all your tofu is crisp and golden-brown.

The absolute best tool for flipping tofu over in my experience is chopsticks, so use ‘em if you’ve got ‘em.

Wipe out your pan if anything in there starts to burn. Add more oil to the pan as it disappears. Move finished pieces of tofu out of the pan and onto a wire rack or a paper-towel lined plate to cool.

That’s it! You did it! The secret to imparting a lot of great flavor into this particular recipe for tofu is in that coating, but if you held back a little bit there and regret it now, don’t worry. You’ve got tons of options. You can season your tofu further the moment it’s out of the pan, before it cools off at all. You can also serve it with any kind of flavorful sauce you like. Sky’s the limit. Honest. Because you controlled the flavor at every stage, you’ve got an infinitely versatile little fried protein-puck. Some options:

  • Season the flour with salt, pepper, oregano, thyme, sage, and a little of that powdery parmesan cheese from the green can. Fry and serve with your favorite red sauce, olives, and capers over wilted kale.

  • Season the flour with cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg. Fry and immediately toss in cinnamon-sugar before cooling. Serve with the goat’s milk caramel you have in the fridge from Stone Soup #10.

  • Season the flour with salt, pepper, mustard powder, cayenne, and sage. Fry and then set aside to cool. Heat some oil in a pan, add garlic and ginger, stir until fragrant. Toss in some vegetables (small broccoli florets are great here, but you can use whatever you like best — cauliflower, peas, carrot slices, whatever). Add a hearty splash of soy sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, and a healthy few shakes of red pepper flakes. Toss until the vegetables get a little bit of brown on them, and serve with tofu on top. If you have sweet soy sauce, a drizzle of that over the top of everything will make people think you’re a genius.

    Just the recipe:

    Easy Pan-Fried Tofu

    • Drain and press tofu for one hour, then cut it into bite-sized cubes.

    • In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour, salt, and the seasonings of your choice. Use a lot of seasonings. Be brave. I believe in you.

    • Toss the tofu in the seasoned flour to coat.

    • Heat a small amount of neutral oil in a high-sided pan. When the oil is very hot, fry tofu in small batches until golden-brown. Turn with chopsticks to fry on each side. Remove to dry on a wire rack or paper towel, and add additional seasonings if desired. Serve within an hour.