Most foods are made exponentially more tasty once deep-fried (witness: state fair food), but I feel that this is especially true for tofu. A crispy coat somehow transforms these wiggly little cubes into something rather magical. And addictive.
But deep-frying tofu is a little much for an average weeknight. Here's how to achieve crispy tofu perfection at home with a lot less fuss.
I've found that pan-frying tofu is an excellent stovetop option for making a quick batch of golden, crunchy tofu at home. There's really nothing to it: press the tofu of excess liquid, toss with some cornstarch, and pan-fry the cubes in a little oil in a skillet. Fry the tofu before making the rest of your recipe — it will stay crispy for a little while after frying and you can use any leftover oil in the pan for cooking your next ingredient.
I've also been playing around with ways to season the tofu before frying it. A sprinkle of salt does the job quite nicely, but tofu is really a blank slate and it's fun to play around with flavors. After pressing, try tossing the tofu with a little soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil — or any other seasonings that sound good to you. Let the tofu sit for a few minutes to absorb the seasonings, then carry on with pan-frying.
Besides being a little easier for your average weeknight, pan-frying tofu has the added advantage of using less oil. Crispy tofu that's still ostensibly healthy feels like a win to me.
One final note: serve the tofu within an hour or so for maximum crispiness. The pieces will lose their crispiness if refrigerated and become chewy. If you have leftover tofu, though, don't toss it! I have a deep fondness for these no-longer-crispy tofu cubes and love their savory chew in a quick rice bowl or lunch salad.
Equipment Paper towels or clean dish cloths
Heavy weight, like a 28-ounce can of tomatoes
Small strainer, optional
10" to 12" skillet, stainless steel or cast iron preferred
Wire cooling rack
Press the tofu: Remove the tofu from its packaging. Line a plate with a folded paper towel and set the tofu on top. Set a small plate on top of the tofu and weigh it down with something heavy, like a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Press for 15 to 30 minutes. You will see liquid collect around the tofu.
Cut the tofu into pieces: Remove the weight and drain off the excess liquid. Pat the tofu dry. Slice the pressed tofu into cubes, thick rectangles, or sticks, depending on how you plan to use the tofu.
Season with salt: Transfer the tofu to a shallow dish and sprinkle with the salt. Toss to evenly season the tofu.
Coat with cornstarch: Sprinkle 1/3 of the cornstarch over the tofu, then toss to evenly coat. Continue sprinkling and tossing until all the cornstarch is used. This is most easily done with a small strainer, but can also be done by sprinkling with your hands. After adding all the cornstarch, the tofu should be evenly coated with a sticky, gummy layer of cornstarch.
Warm the oil: Set the skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Heat until the oil shimmers and flows smoothly to coat the bottom of the pan. It should not smoke. If you see a wisp of smoke, lower the heat slightly and immediately proceed with adding the tofu.
Add the tofu: Add all of the tofu in a single layer. The tofu should sizzle upon contact — if not, wait a few minutes to let the pan heat before continuing.
Pan-fry the tofu until golden: At first the tofu will stick to the pan (unless you're using a nonstick skillet). Wait until the tofu releases from the pan before browning the next side; the underside of the tofu should be golden-brown. Continue frying until all sides are browned and crispy.
Transfer to cooling rack: Transfer the browned tofu to a cooling rack while you finish your recipe. Eat the tofu immediately. It will remain crispy for a few hours, but will become chewy and lose its crispness if refrigerated.
Marinated Tofu Cubes: For extra flavor, toss the sliced tofu in a mixture of soy sauce, rice wine vinegar, and sesame oil and let stand for a few minutes before coating with cornstarch and frying.