1. Tune in to texture
All tofu is not created equal. Depending on how it’s been prepared, tofu textures can vary from soft and silky (usually called "silken") to extra-firm and "pressed" (the most dense and "meaty" of tofus). Different textures require different cooking techniques and will net incredibly varied results.
"If people are unfamiliar with tofu, they often perceive that the firmer the tofu, the better," explains Andrea Nguyen, author of cookbook Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home. The problem, she says, is that too many people default to throwing it into a wok and hoping for the best. "It ends up like rubbery, overcooked chicken breast,” she says. "It’s really gross."
Finding the best texture for what you're cooking will take a little experimenting, but it's worth the effort. While a more tender tofu may crumble when you pan-fry it, for example, you might prefer its more delicate flavour.
2. Drain it
Tofu's texture is determined by its water content. So whether the block you're working with is silky or rigid, draining some of its liquid will help the tofu more readily absorb seasonings. Think of tofu like a sponge: if it’s already saturated, there won’t be any room to suck up anything else.
Nguyen says there are many ways to drain tofu, depending on what you're planning to do with it -- from letting it sit on a cutting board or on a waffle-weave tea towel for 15 minutes before cooking, to actively pressing it between a pair of baking sheets (the top one weighed down with a couple of food cans) to squeeze out extra moisture while firming up the block.
If she's going to be deep frying her tofu, for example, Nguyen soaks it first in very hot, salted water before draining it. That firms up the exterior and adds a little extra flavour. Experiment until you find a method that works for you.
Page 1 of 2 -- Discover great tips for cooking your tofu on page 2 3. Season it
Nguyen says she's heard too many people complain that tofu doesn’t taste like anything. "But if you think about it, most proteins are dull and bland on their own," she says, pointing out that unseasoned chicken is about as dull as it gets. "Tofu is a sponge for flavour."
While freshly made tofu may need little more than olive oil and salt as a garnish, you can also try preparing your tofu with different herbs or sauces, or add a little chili to a marinade. Nguyen says different cooking techniques will also impact how well the tofu sucks up flavour. "If you are using more tender tofu, for example, you can braise it first and it will absorb flavour better," she explains.
4. Fry it (or grill it, or bake it, or...)
While there are tons of tasty ways to prepare tofu, Nguyen's recipes often call for tofu to be fried. As she explains in her book, "Cooking tofu in hot oil creates a wonderful chewy-crisp coating on each piece of tofu, adds a rich fattiness, and creates a lovely golden colour."
From quick deep-frying to pan-frying in a large nonstick skillet, there are lots of low-fuss and delicious options. Tofu is so flexible that it also responds well to grilling -- try it on the barbecue -- as a filling for dumplings or as a soft, sweet pudding. Keep an open mind -- the possibilities are endless.
5. Mix it up
Nguyen, who grew up in a Vietnamese family where tofu was a staple, says that in North America, tofu is often seen as a meat substitute reserved for vegetarians and health nuts. In Asia, however, tofu is often eaten in combination with meat -- with all sorts of flavourful results.
Adding tofu to a dish is a great way to cut back on meat consumption without giving it up altogether, Nguyen says. Whether it's tofu-chicken meatballs or pairing tofu with pork, she says the key to enjoying it is to to see it as an ingredient in and unto itself -- and not as a mere meat replacement. "Tofu is a staple that has great versatility," she says. "And it's delicious!"
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