How to fry tofu
How to fry tofu -- that sounds like such a stupid title. The phrase seems self-explanatory -- just get some tofu and fry it! But it's not as simple as it sounds; at least it wasn't for me.
We first started eating tofu regularly after my kids fell in love with the fried tofu cubes sold at our local farmer's market. I jumped at the opportunity to cut more meat from our diets -- but when I tried frying the tofu myself, it just didn't come out the way the farmer's market tofu vendor's did. I tried dipping tofu cubes in egg whites and panko bread crumbs before frying them. I tried deep frying them. I tried pan-frying them. I tried baking them. Nothing I did resulted in the crispy, golden-brown squares my kids craved. The tofu was too white. It didn't have that crispy "skin". It broke apart and crumbled. It took ages to fry.
Many times I would give up and buy the farmer's market tofu (expensive) or the prebaked tofu in the grocery stores (expensive, and full of flavorings and sodium). But I kept trying -- and gradually, through trial and error, my fried tofu squares evolved. Now I can say they look and taste just like the tofu served with black bean sauce and sauteed vegetables in Chinese restaurants. And I didn't have to add any salt, MSG, flavorings, flour, or any other ingredient besides tofu and oil!
Most of the tofu recipes I come across simply instruct the reader to "fry tofu" or "add tofu to pan".
1. Use extra-firm tofu. Tofu is very delicate, and if you like to push your food around your pans while you cook, chances are your tofu won't hold its nice, square shape. I use extra-firm or firm tofu whenever possible; when neither are available but we really really want tofu, I'll use regular tofu, but I would never use soft or silken tofu.
2. Drain your tofu... but don't go overboard. Most of the tofu sold in US grocery stores comes in 14-oz blocks packed with liquid. You want to get your block of tofu as dry as possible because dry tofu will fry up quicker, but you don't need to soak it between tea towels for hours or sandwich it between wooden chopping boards to get out every last drop. I like to pat it dry with paper towels or cloth tea towels, at least until it stops dripping.
3. Slice the block of tofu into cubes. I like to lay the tofu on its largest side, then cut into 3 columns and 8 rows. That gives me 24 blocks with 2 nice, flat sides that I can flip easily with a spatula. Smaller cubes absorb too much oil, and larger cubes tend to break apart when you flip them.
4. Use a large frying pan and a small amount of oil. You don't need to deep-fry the tofu to get that nice, crispy skin! I give the pan a couple of swirls of olive oil (you can add a drop of sesame oil for flavor) so the bottom of the pan is thinly coated.
5. When the oil is hot, lay the tofu slices in the pan. I crowd them in as much as possible because I hate having to cook in batches!
6. After 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) minutes, flip the tofu over. I can never remember how long it takes; I usually just eyeball it. Since my pan is so crowded, the center slices cook first, so I have to rearrange the slices, moving the center ones to the side and the side ones to the center. Again, you could avoid rearranging entirely by cooking in smaller batches, but I like to get it all done at once :)
7. After another 3 or 4 (or is it 5?) minutes, remove the tofu slices from the pan. I like to use a slotted spatula to lift them up and transfer them to plate lined with paper towels. The paper towels help absorb excess oil so the tofu ends up even crispier.
8. Enjoy perfectly fried, crispy tofu. I never season the tofu because it tends to take on the flavor of whatever sauce it is served with anyway. We love tofu served on top of udon noodles, broth (chicken or vegetable), and steamed or sauteed veggies.