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Tofu – getting it right!

I don’t eat a lot of meat, and my son eats even less. Several times over the years I’ve given tofu a try and came up “icky” every time. It tastes fine in restaurants or when prepared by other people, but every time I’ve tried it, it comes up bland at best, or crumbles to moosh at worst.

Well I’ve finally figured it out! The answer, as is often the case, is all in the prep.

I’m not even going to try to mention every wrong thing I’ve ever tried, but I will say that one of the “wrong things” has been trying to fry the tofu in oil before doing anything else with it.

All that happens when you fry raw tofu in oil is you’re giving it a chance to soak up the oil. Tofu is like a sponge – whatever you put it in, it absorbs. Oily tofu is not my idea of yummy.

So here’s what I’ve been doing instead. Note that this is only possible because I’ve been cooking on my son’s ScanPans for the past several weeks – I bought him a set of the new ScanPans as a college graduation present and they’re way better than my ScanPans (of the previous generation of technology) ever were! Gotta get me some of them!

To make this technique work, you need really good non-stick cookware like ScanPans, or a well-seasoned (and I do mean WELL seasoned) cast iron skillet.

I have not tried this technique with Silken Tofu, but if you’re using that, skip the first step. Silken tofu doesn’t need to have excess moisture removed.

Take your firm or extra firm tofu, drain, and press between clean, lintless kitchen towels (I use REAL cheesecloth, not the gauzy stuff but the real thing, sometimes called flour sack cloth) or paper towels to squeeze the moisture out.

I USED to think I needed to squeeze moisture out of the tofu before starting this – read it somewhere or someone told me so – but have found this not to be the case, and the tofu texture is better (I think) if I don’t do this. Just frying it gets enough of the moisture out without turning it into little teeny bricks.

Slice the tofu to about 1/2″ thick, then cut those in quarters to get triangular pieces. You could cube it, the shape is not actually all that important, we just want some regularity in the size of the tofu pieces.

Heat a heavy non-stick frying pan to a fairly high heat – water drops scattered on the surface should sizzle and jump. Lay your tofu pieces out and fry to a golden brown, then flip and brown the other side. This takes several minutes and the purpose is partly to get even more moisture out, as well as sealing the outside so it doesn’t fall apart when you cook with it. I press gently from the top with a small metal spatula to help get even more of the moisture out. You can use metal with ScanPans, but some nonstick pans may not be so forgiving – use your judgment. I prefer a metal spatula because the plastic ones tend to stick, things stick TO them, and they aren’t as handy flipping things.

When the tofu is as brown as you would like (could range anywhere from light golden brown to a quite deep brown, depending on your personal taste), flip the pieces and brown the other side. I will often then also flip them up on each edge, but that’s not required.

When the tofu is browned to your liking, remove from the pan and soak for at least 30 minutes in a marinade. There are lots of marinade recipes out there for tofu . If you google them you will find them. But here’s the recipe I used tonight, which is my own concoction and worked out quite well:


for approx 1/2 block of tofu

1/4c fish sauce
3 T soy sauce
1 T lemon juice
1 T lemongrass, finely chopped
2 T finely minced ginger or ginger paste
1 diced green chili OR 1-3 tsp hot chili paste
2 T chopped cilantro, leaves and stems
1 T crushed garlic

Here is another marinade

Mix well in a glass or food-safe ceramic bowl (some metal bowls may react with acidic ingredients and change the taste), then add the fried tofu. Allow tofu to marinate for at least 30 minutes. If marinating for longer than that, cover and place in the fridge. I marinated for about 6 to 8 hours and it came out really well. My son even complemented me on it!

You can use the above prepared tofu in any recipe that calls for tofu. Also, the cooked tofu will store much longer than the raw stuff.


Yeah, not really pad thai because it uses woon sen (bean thread noodles, made from mung beans). Not really Pad Woon Sen because it uses pre-canned Pad Thai sauce. BUT yummy!

I made this using what I had in the cupboard and the fridge, except for the bean sprouts which my son picked up on the way home (they don’t keep long, it’s best to buy them as needed).

Green beans – some.
Sorry, didn’t measure
used french style frozen until it looked like “enough”.
green onions 3-4
ginger paste, about 1 T
bell pepper, about one whole, cut in strips
2 carrots, cut into strips about 2 to 3″ long
1 to 2 extra large eggs

approx 1/2 c Pad Thai Sauce (1/2 of the Thai Kitchen jar)
1 to 2 T Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce
the pre-canned pad thai sauce is much too sweet without this.

4 bundles bean thread noodles (about 2.5 oz)
These came in 8 bundles, total weight 10.4 oz (300g).
Different brands are packaged differently.

Finally, cilantro garnish

If your tofu has been in the fridge, take it out before you begin the rest of the preparations.

Chop all your ingredients before you start stir frying and have them ready. Once you start stir-frying you need to move quickly.

Have a bowl or bowls ready to remove the veggies you’ve stir fried. I’m using a non-stick skillet to approximate stir-frying which means 2 things – first, you’re not going to get the pan near hot enough to really stir fry. Second, it will not cool quickly as a real wok (not a wok-shaped object, but a thin metal wok) would so you need to remove things or they overcook – pushing them to the side as you would in a real wok does NOT remove them from the heat.

Actually it means 3 things. I use a LOT less oil than you would have to use in a regular pan. Adjust your oil use accordingly!

Soak the bean thread noodles in VERY hot water for 5 or 6 minutes.

If they’re not “done” (bite one to see if it’s the consistency you want) in 5 or 6 minutes, stick the (non-metal) bowl in the microwave for 2 or 3 minutes. They should be “done” unless your microwave is really weak or you have too much water in the bowl (water just to cover). Some people cook them in the stir fry pan, but I only reheat, I want them done beforehand. If you do it my way be careful not to cook them to mush!

My method of doing stir fry at present is fairly haphazard so I won’t attempt to recreate it in detail here.

Basically, I add a small amount of oil to my 12″ ScanPan frying pan – 2 or 3 T. This lasts me through all the veggies until I’m ready for the tofu (see below).

I stir fry the vegetables one or two at a time, remove, then do the next batch, reserving bean sprouts for last. I stir-fried the ginger and onions together since the ginger paste doesn’t stir-fry well on it’s own. If you want to watch someone doing it for real, check this out:

How to Stir Fry Woon Sen

When all the veggies except the bean threads are done, scramble 1 or 2 eggs in the pan. Remove that.

Then add a small amount of oil to the pan and add the drained, marinated tofu, at a lower heat – we’re reheating them, particularly if they’ve been in the fridge. Place the lid on the pan and let the tofu warm thoroughly, stirring occasionally. The heat should be only moderately high. When the tofu is starting to get fairly warm, add the bean sprouts.

Moving quickly now, you don’t want all your ingredients to get cold and you don’t want your bean sprouts to cook to mush:

Add prepared, drained bean thread or rice noodles to the pan
Stir well to coat with the oil and aid in heating them up.
Add the sauce and stir well to coat.

Add in all the other cooked ingredients and cook only to heat through, stirring and lifting the noodles with a fork to mix well.

SERVE with a scattering of coarsely chopped fresh cilantro and a wedge of lime.

This makes a dry, tasty stir fry with a bit of a bite. Not really very hot at all – if you want to increase the heat, stir in some crushed red pepper when you’re stir-frying the ginger and onions.

Makes enough for 2 people with leftovers for one the next day. This is even better as leftovers!


2 responses »

  1. Sorry, but fish sauce is not vegetarian.Dead fermented does not grow on trees..easy..if it is part of a dead animal or has parts of dead animal in it, it is not vegetarian.Mushroom sauce shoulg go well instead of fish sauce, maybe also a splash of Worcestshire Sauce..there are a couple of vegetarian brands out there.But also capers give the distinct flavour of the tiny fish which are used as pizza topping or in sauces.If i need a bit of fishy flavour and not the sharp flavour i can get from capers(sardines), i use seaweed instead

  2. It's true that fish sauce is not a vegetarian ingredient, but I'm not a vegetarian so that's ok with me. So the marinade wouldn't pass muster as vegetarian, but the tofu preparation method and the idea of using a marinade does.The substitutions you suggest should be of interest to someone looking for a vegetarian marinade. Thanks for providing them!


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