Most foods are made exponentially more tasty once deep-fried (hello, 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.
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.
Pan-Frying Is Better for Tofu than a Deep-Fry
There's no way I'm deep-frying on a weeknight (unless there are doughnuts involved), so perfecting that crispy crust on a slice of tofu with just a sprinkle of cornstarch seems like a miracle. It just takes four simple steps — press, slice, coat with cornstarch (or arrowroot powder), and pan-fry — to transform tender tofu into bite-sized crunchy bits.
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.
Flavoring and Freezing Tofu
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.
If you're looking to prep this tofu in advance, press, cube, and flavor it before freezing. Then you can thaw the small cubes quickly before pan frying.
Key Steps for Crispy Tofu
- Press the tofu to drain excess moisture. This is a helpful step any time you are trying to get crispy tofu: Press the whole block between two plates lined with paper towels and top the whole setup with a heavy can. This will press out excess moisture from the tofu and make adding flavor easier (pressed tofu absorbs liquids like soy sauce more readily. Slice or cube the tofu after pressing.
- Coat the tofu in starch before frying. Arrowroot powder is a fine white powder, similar to cornstarch. It is gluten-free and a good choice if you are sensitive to corn-based products. It crisps the tofu just like cornstarch, although I found that arrowroot-coated tofu tends to stubbornly stick to the pan.
- Use a large, heavy bottomed pan, preferably cast iron. When it comes to what pan to use, choose the largest cast iron or stainless steel pan you have. The wider surface means you can fit more pieces of tofu in the pan without causing them to steam from overcrowding. I prefer a cast iron skillet here for its superior browning. If what you have is a nonstick pan, you can cut back on the oil, but the tofu pieces will crisp to a lighter, less golden hue.
- Cool on a wire rack. To maintain maximum crispiness post-frying, move the fried tofu to a wire cooling rack while you finish cooking. When placed directly on a plate, one side of the tofu will steam and loss its crispness. 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.
Serving Pan-Fried Tofu
One final note: Serve the tofu within an hour or so for maximum crispiness. If refrigerated, the pieces will lose their crispiness 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.
How To Make Crispy Tofu
What You Need
(14- to 16-ounce) block extra-firm tofu
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 and any liquid. 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 with more towels. 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 tablespoon 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 a large frying pan or cast iron 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.
Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.
This post has been updated — originally published March 2014