A Meat Substitute with a Perfect Texture: Fried Tofu

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

When I’m looking for a delicious food that goes with anything, I never hesitate to fry tofu. Fried tofu provides all of the crunches that I desire from dishes like tempura or tonkatsu, and it requires no meat, which means that I don’t have to sweat the fat as much. Whether I deep-fry the food or fry it up in my skillet with some sesame oil, I can’t get enough of the soy-based entrée, and in this guide, I’m going to show you exactly how wonderful frying up tofu can be.

So, how did I come across this love for deep or pan-fried tofu?

Well, there was a time when I was eating a lot of meat, and a friend showed me how versatile tofu is as a main dish. At first, I was skeptical and then she showed me how well tofu could take on the flavors of the foods that you cook around it, and I was hooked. Frying it up just was kind of a natural progression for me, and I’ve loved it ever since.

Why Fried Tofu is so Amazing

One of the first things that you should know about tofu is that it’s made from soy bean curds, which makes it a great meat substitute for both vegetarians and vegans alike. It’s very easy to come by in both supermarkets and health food stores, and it’s packed with more than its fair share of vitamins and minerals. For example, tofu is a type of food that is loaded with isoflavones and phytoestrogens, which are important for protecting against some very deadly conditions like heart disease and osteoporosis. In addition to this, research has even indicated that tofu can help the body fight some cancers.

Secondly, the texture is amazing. While the gelatinous texture of tofu isn’t for everyone, frying up the tofu adds on crispiness that makes it a true pleasure to consume. When it’s fried, you don’t have to worry about the texture because the crunch outside brings it all together. This type of tofu can even be fried up in an air fryer, but I admit, I prefer to deep fry my tofu from time to time, despite the additional saturated fat.

From a health perspective, a half cup of fried tofu is about 77 calories per one ounce serving, and it has about 3.2 grams of polyunsaturated fat and about 1.3 grams of monounsaturated fat. When you compare this to deep-fried meats like country fried steak, which has more than 15 grams of both of these kinds of fat per serving, and you start to realize the health benefits. Tofu is also loaded with vitamins that aren’t plentiful in meatier main dishes. I love the fact that, per ounce, tofu provides calcium and vitamin A as well as a similar level of protein as you’d find in meat dishes.

Recent research also is starting to indicate that tofu may lower the levels of bad cholesterol in the body. This LDL cholesterol is the form that is responsible for increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular conditions, so tofu may make a difference!

A Little Tofu History

While it’s often thought that tofu originated in Japan, in fact, it originated in mainland China. This soybean curd that’s rich in amino acids has been being prepared in Asia for more than 2,000 years. According to legend, a Chinese cook had been preparing soy milk when it accidentally curdled after he had added nigari seaweed into the mix.

Nearly eight centuries later, the meat substitute made its way to the island nation of Japan, and it quickly became a staple of the Japanese diet. It more than a thousand years for the food to become popular in the western world, but during the health craze of the 1960s, many Americans learned of the dish’s value as a meat substitute.

How to Fry Tofu

As I mentioned, there are a couple of ways to fry up tofu. While my favorite method, and a guilty pleasure of mine, is to fry it up in my deep fryer, you can pan fry and air fry your tofu so that it has a crunchy and delicious outer shell of batter.

Deep Fried Tofu

For this recipe, I’ve opted to show you two different ways of making this deep-fried meat substitute. These two methods differ slightly, so the second method will just feature the differences.

Wok-fried Tofu

What you’ll need:

  • One pack of firm tofu
  • Three to four quarts of vegetable oil
  • A large wok
  • Two cups of cold water in a bowl

Directions

Whenever you’re working with tofu, I find that a good practice to perform each time is to wash away any excess brine. To do this, prepare a bowl with about two cups of water. Next, cut the tofu out of its packaging, remove it, and place it gingerly into the cold water. Using your hands, gently rub the water over the tofu’s surface so that you are washing away any sediment but not leaving indentations. The water will start to become somewhat cloudy, which is completely normal.

Remove the tofu from the bath and use a cloth or a paper towel to remove any excess moisture that’s still on the surface. Make sure not to press too hard; you should be gently patting the tofu block. Once the tofu is semi-dry, using a sharp knife, cut into the soybean curd so that you’ve formed several 3/4-inch thick cubes.

Now that your cubes are formed, gently place them on a paper towel-lined plate and let them dry for about 15 minutes. I always let them dry because excess water can cause the hot oil to splatter everywhere during preparation.

Grab your large wok and start to heat it over high heat. As it’s heating, pour in the full two quarts of vegetable oil. It should take about three minutes for the oil to get hot enough for frying, so when this time has elapsed, use a pair of chopsticks or a slotted spoon to carefully lower the tofu into the hot oil.

Using a spatula or the aforementioned cooking chopsticks, move the tofu around in the oil so that they don’t fry together. During this hot oil bath, your tofu will gradually darken until they are a deep golden brown. When they reach this level, remove them from the oil and place them on a paper towel-lined plate to drain.

In a Deep Fryer

The primary difference that you’ll need to consider when deep-frying in a deep fryer is that you’ll need to be sure that the tofu pieces don’t stick to the fry basket. When I’m frying in my deep fryer, I lower the basket so that it’s fully submerged in my oil. Next, I drop each piece of tofu one-by-one into the oil using a wooden slotted spoon. I do this very slowly so that each piece starts to cook a bit before it hits the bottom of the fry basket, which will help it not get caught up in the mesh.

Additionally, I would also err on the side of caution when using a deep fryer. You won’t be able to separate the tofu as it fries easily, so I suggest cooking the tofu in batches of up to six cubes; this way, you won’t have a lump of tofu to separate later.

Pan Fried Tofu

Looking for ways to cut down on your saturated fat? This recipe, which calls for far less oil, is a good option. For this particular recipe, I like to use one of my favorite cast iron pans so that I can get a beautiful brown coating on my tofu that’s fried. It’s the belief of some tofu fans that this method is better than deep frying and worth committing to memory, so let’s get to it.

What you’ll need:

  • One pack of extra-firm tofu
  • ½ cup of cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • A large skillet (preferably cast iron)
  • Two tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Two cups of cold water in a bowl
  • A teaspoon of salt

Directions

Similarly to our deep fried method, you should cut open the container of your tofu and clean it in a bowl of water. Additionally, dab the tofu with a dry paper towel to remove any extra moisture that’s remaining after the cold water bath. Once the tofu is semi-dry, you’re going to dry it further as you did in the previous method, but this time, you’re going to place a paper towel on top of it as well as a plate. Next, stacks something semi-heavy like a pan lid on top and let it sit for the 15 minutes, which will cause the tofu to become more compact and pressed.

While the tofu is compressing, the liquid will be squeezed out of it. Drain this liquid with a paper towel and slice the block of tofu into cubes that are about ¾ of an inch thick. Next, you’ll want to coat the tofu in the dry ingredients, so first apply the salt and then apply the cornstarch so that the tofu is very well coated. When you’re done, the outer layer will be somewhat gummy.

In the large cast iron skillet, warm the vegetable oil until it easily coats the bottom of the pan. Once it’s hot, add the tofu in a single layer. When I’m cooking this at home, the tofu usually starts sizzling as soon as it hits the layer of oil.

Initially, you may experience some sticking, but the tofu will gradually release as it cooks, which means that it’s time to flip the cubes until all the corners are a deep golden brown. Once it’s at this stage, the tofu will be nice and crispy and ready to eat, so transfer it to a paper towel-lined plate and serve once it’s drained.

Air Fried Tofu

I’ll admit that I’m a bit new to the fad of air frying, but when I’ve made tofu that’s fried in my appliance, it’s come out pretty crispy and tasty. Frying tofu this way locks in a lot of the flavor and doesn’t need as much oil, yet it still has that deep-fried consistency that’s so perfect for many dishes.

What you’ll need:

  • One pack of extra-firm tofu
  • ½ cup of cornstarch or arrowroot powder
  • One tablespoon of sesame oil
  • Two cups of cold water in a bowl
  • A teaspoon of salt

Directions

Prepare and clean the tofu using the water, and press it for about 15 minutes until all excess liquid is removed. Slice the tofu, and in a bowl, toss it with the sesame oil. Next, throw in the salt and toss, and then throw in the cornstarch so that it’s well-coated. Next, preheat the fryer to about 390 degrees Fahrenheit and add the tofu into the fryer basket. After five minutes have elapsed, remove the basket and shake the tofu and place the tofu back in the fryer for an additional five minutes. Serve.

Recipes

If you’re looking to make a fried tofu dish, you’ll have more than a few scrumptious options. In this part of the guide, I’m going to show you some of my favorite tofu meals that are sure to satisfy everyone. You can use any of the abovementioned tofu-frying methods in these recipes, so feel free to fry up your soybean curd any way you want.

Fried Tofu Fajitas

This one is very easy to make because you’ll effectively be adding the tofu that you’ve fried to a fajita.

What you’ll need:

  • One pack’s worth of tofu that’s been fried
  • Eight flour or corn fajitas
  • ¼ cup sliced peppers
  • ¼ cup sliced onions
  • ¼ cup of minced garlic
  • One bunch of coriander
  • 1/3 tablespoon of oregano
  • One lime’s worth of juice
  • ½ cup of Greek yogurt

Prepare the tofu as listed above and set aside to cool. Next, take the Greek yogurt and combine it with the bunch of coriander and blend it in a food processor until it forms a smooth sauce. In a large skillet, place the onions, garlic, and peppers and sauté them for about four minutes or until the onions start to appear clear and the garlic has browned somewhat. Transfer these veggies to a plate that’s lined with paper towels to drain.

Arrange the tortillas so that they are side-by-side and add the tofu to the center. Next, layer the sautéed onions, garlic, and peppers on top of the tofu and pour on the coriander/yogurt sauce. Sprinkle a little oregano on each of the fajitas and fold them neatly. Serve.

Fried Tofu Stir Fry

Who doesn’t love a nice stir fry? When I’m stir-frying, I use cooking chopsticks and a large wok, which makes it very easy to keep the food from burning. Anyway, here’s how to make up a nice stir-fry using tofu that’s been fried.

What you’ll need:

  • One pack’s worth of tofu that’s been fried
  • ½ onion, finely chopped
  • ½ cup of sliced peppers
  • ½ cup of minced garlic
  • One stalk of bok choi
  • Two tablespoons of sesame oil
  • One teaspoon of soy sauce

Prepare your tofu according to one of the methods that I listed above. For the most part, this recipe works well with the pan frying method because you can quickly transfer the prepared tofu into the wok from another skillet. Heat a large wok over medium-high heat and add in the sesame oil. Once the sesame oil starts to glisten and is clearly hot, toss in the onions, peppers, garlic, and the stalks of the bok choi. Set aside the leafy part of the bok choi for later.

Next, stir fry the vegetables in the wok until they start to cook through. Once the veggies are ready, add in the tofu that’s been fried and continue stirring for one more minute. Add in the soy sauce and stir-fry for an additional minute. Finally, place the leaves from the bok choi in the stir wok and cook for about 30 seconds or until the leaves start to wilt slightly. Serve atop cooked rice.

Final Thoughts

Tofu is one of the most versatile foods out there, and frying it up adds a bit of crunch that works well to improve the texture of the meat substitute. I suggest giving fried tofu a try – it’s delicious, has a great texture, and goes with a wide variety of dishes from around the world.

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Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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