THE WASHINGTON POST – The more you cook, the more you learn. And sometimes unlearn.
Take tofu. My knowledge of how best to prepare and cook it has taken many twists and turns over the years, especially when it comes to the one thing that seems so frustrating: how, why, and whether to extract more of it. humidity.
A long time ago, I used to squeeze. You may be familiar with the exercise: if you don’t have a special device, it involves balancing the plates and maybe a heavy can to press the tofu for about half an hour. The reason? Make room for a marinade to penetrate, theoretically adding flavor to every millimeter of the interior. But in my experience, these marinades never penetrate very well, even when the tofu is pressed. More often than not, I just focus on the power of a glaze or sauce to add so much flavor to the exterior that it provides a nice contrast (or offsets) the neutral interior.
Instead of worrying about getting too much moisture from the tofu, you can just focus on getting the tofu out. Drying the outside prepares it for better pan-frying, making the outside firm and a bit crispy, while leaving the inside creamy. (Crispy tofu, on the other hand, only happens when you dip it in a starch before frying it, and for that you don’t even need to dry it, because the moisture helps the starch stick ).
A few years ago after hearing about a microwave technique, where you wrap it in towels and atomize it for about a minute, I went this route. Besides expelling moisture, it can also help the tofu hold up better in stir-fries and the like, although if you’re using extra-firm or firm tofu, that’s not much of an issue.
As I’m always on the lookout for new ways to make tofu, I was intrigued by the one I read about in J Kenji Lopez-Alt’s new comprehensive book, The Wok. He instructs you to slice the tofu and pour boiling water over it, writing that the hot water “will actually extract more moisture from the tofu.”
When I tried it in Lopez-Alt’s recipe for Korean Spicy Braised Tofu, however, the tofu never felt “slightly sticky and dry to the touch” as promised. I patted it dry, went on and loved the resulting dish: a quick skillet gives the tofu a wonderfully crispy fluffiness, then it quickly simmers in a spicy soy sauce that becomes a glaze.
After talking to my friend Andrea Nguyen, author of Asian Tofu and other great books, I tried the same recipe three more times, preparing the tofu in a different way for each.
For the skillet, Nguyen likes to dry the tofu in brine, lightly salt the slices and let them sit for a few minutes before removing the moisture. It worked well too, as did the microwave method. Do you know what also worked? Do nothing. That is, I sliced the tofu and just wiped it clean before frying it.
It was another suggestion from Nguyen, who has proven in cookbooks such as Wonderful Vietnamese Cooking Any Day that she has an unerring sense of what’s worth doing in the kitchen and which is not. (She often lets the tofu drain for a few minutes while she prepares other ingredients. “I rarely squeeze it,” she said.)
Again, I got that crispy, chewy exterior that’s pretty much indistinguishable from the tofu I made using the other methods.
Lopez-Alt’s recipe, which puts a delicious dish on your table in just 25 minutes, works wonders whether you worry about your tofu or let it be.
KOREAN SPICY BRAISED TOFU
This recipe by J Kenji Lopez-Alt makes a slightly chewy, sweet-spicy tofu dish that goes from start to finish in less than half an hour. After preparing the tofu, you cook it twice in a wok: first frying it in oil, then braising it in a simple, fiery sauce that turns into a syrupy glaze.
Note that although this recipe was written for the wok and is taken from Lopez-Alt’s new book extolling the virtues of this pan, you can prepare it in a cast iron skillet or other heavy skillet instead. .
FOR THE TOFU
One firm block tofu (14 to 16 ounces), drained and cut into half-inch slices
Two tablespoons of groundnut, rice bran or another neutral oil
FOR THE SAUCE
Quarter cup of water
Three tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon gochugaru (Korean pepper flakes), or to taste (can substitute crushed red pepper flakes or Aleppo pepper)
Two teaspoons of granulated sugar
Two teaspoons of toasted sesame oil
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds, plus more for serving
Two medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed
One green onion, trimmed and thinly sliced
Prepare the tofu: Pat the tofu dry with a clean tea towel. If desired, wrap the tofu slices in the towel and microwave on HIGH for one minute. (Alternatively, you can sprinkle the tofu slices on each side with a quarter teaspoon of fine salt and let sit for 10 minutes before patting them dry).
Heat a wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Reduce heat to medium, add oil and stir to coat. Add the tofu, one piece at a time, in a single layer (it will rise up the sides of the wok a little) and cook, gently shaking the pan occasionally, until crispy and golden brown dark on the first side, three to five minutes. (If the tofu sticks at all when you swirl the wok, let it cook undisturbed for a minute or two before gently removing it with a thin metal spatula and swirling the wok to make sure nothing sticks ).
Slide the tofu out of the wok onto a large plate and return the wok to medium heat.
Turn the tofu pieces over (pull them aside if they’re stuck on the edges), then put them back in the wok and cook them on the other side, swirling the pan gently, until they are crispy on the other side, three to five minutes. Slide the tofu onto a plate and set aside.
Prepare the sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the water, soy sauce, gochugaru, sugar, sesame oil, sesame seeds, garlic and green onion until thickened. sugar dissolves.
Reduce heat to medium-low, add sauce and tofu to wok and cook, turning tofu occasionally, until sauce reduces to a syrupy glaze that coats each piece, about two minutes . Sprinkle with additional sesame seeds and serve.