Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Tofu Tuesday: Say Goodbye to Soggy

Tofu Tuesday: a quest for tasty tofu recipes

Just a warning, this one's kind of long.  But stick with me there's a lot to learn and it actually is interesting despite the fact that it's tofu.  Prepare to discover something new.  If nothing else take a look at the pictures and see if you can guess what's going on.

I think what gets me about tofu is the texture.  I'm a texture person and tofu is just so, I don't know, soggy?  It could be I'm buying the wrong kind, not pressing it long enough, or haven't found the right way to prepare it.  While it's not difficult to change the outside texture of the tofu, the center is often still "raw" so to speak.  I don't want to eat a nicely crusted piece of tofu that is still soggy and tofu tasting in the center. I don't want to take a forkful and think, "oh this is just a slab of tofu trying to be something else." No, I want to take a bite and think about the flavors in the dish without even noticing that I'm eating tofu.  This will take some trial and error.  I'm looking for a fail-proof method but also want to try out recipes for different marinades, sauces, coatings etc. As of now, I'm going to try both at once to speed up the process.  I can only take so much tofu.  (Who knows, maybe all these tofu experiments will bring me full circle back to meat.)  I'm also cutting recipes in half so I don't have as many leftovers.  Feel free to double the recipe if you're using the whole block of tofu,  plan to feed a few people or want leftovers.

This week I tried 2 methods, each time with a different marinade.  But first, let's talk about pressing tofu.  Water-packed tofu should generally be drained and pressed before using.  Pressing out the liquid allows the marinade to soak in and flavor the tofu, hopefully all the way to the center.  Here's how:  Open the package and drain off the water.  Cut the tofu into slabs and lay them on a dinner plate or cutting board that has been lined with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Now put another towel or paper towel on top of the tofu and another plate on top of that. (kind of like you're making a sandwich)  Place a heavy object (cookbooks work great) on top to press the tofu down. Let this sit for at least 20 minutes.  I think this is where I have problems, I'm pretty sure I don't wait that long.  Also, make sure you have enough absorbent material to soak up the water, otherwise your tofu is just sitting in all the liquid you were trying to press out.

Now that we've pressed out all the liquid the tofu has "room" to soak up new flavors. This is where the marinade comes in.  The longer you soak the tofu the more marinade it will absorb (up to a point, obviously).  If I plan far enough ahead I try to soak it overnight to decrease any chance that the center will still taste like, uh, tofu.  Before marinating, cut the tofu into the size and shape you plan to use it in.  Thinner pieces and those with more surface area seem to work better as far as flavor absorption.

Okay, that's the basics on pressing and marinating.  The next variable is how to cook it.  My experience with baking it thus far is that a) it takes too long and b) it still has that disappointing soggy yet rubbery tofu texture.  I've had better luck with the broiler.  This method is much faster and makes the outside crispy.  The only problem here is that it can get super dark and crispy on the outside and still be soggy in the middle. (As evidenced by the super dark pictures you see.)  A combination of baking and broiling might solve this, but I haven't gotten that far yet.

For both of the marinades below I drained, pressed and broiled the tofu.  But here's the key variable, I FROZE one block of tofu before draining and pressing.  Just put the whole package in the freezer before you open it.  This gives it a spongy texture that allows the marinade to soak in all the way to the center.  It also eliminates that soggy center issue and gives the tofu a chewy meat-like texture.  See the difference?  The tofu that was frozen has lots of little pockets to hold in juices and flavor.  (I'd go into the science behind this, but this post is getting long and I don't want to scare away the few of you still reading.  Email me if you really want to know.)

The tofu on the left is straight out of the package.  The tofu on the right has  been frozen and thawed.  
Freezing also makes it much easier to press the tofu. I find that pressing tofu sometimes makes it fall apart (maybe I'm pressing to hard?).  But, when it has been frozen and thawed everything holds together better.  The pressing time also decreases.  The liquid is pressed out in 5 minutes tops instead of 20 plus minutes.  Think of it like a sponge and a sweatshirt, it's easier and faster to get water out of a sponge than a sweatshirt.  The sweatshirt just stays soggy longer.  (Yeah, bad analogy, but it's all I've got right now). Of course the down side of freezing is you need to plan ahead.  The tofu needs to freeze completely (in water) and then thaw completely before you can press out the liquid.  If the tofu is still semi-frozen the ice crystals rip it apart when pressing and you'll just end up frustrated.  I never learn things the hard way.

Okay, now to some pictures and examples of what I saw happen using these methods.

First I used the BBQ marinade recipe below, but did not freeze the tofu. After draining and pressing the tofu I let it sit in the marinade overnight.  Then it went onto a foil-lined baking sheet and then under the broiler.  It took longer to broil than I expected because there was still so much moisture in the tofu.  After about 10 minutes per side of broiling the edges were getting burnt but the tofu was still rubbery instead of crispy.  At this point I took it out and figured that was as good as it was going to get.  If you like BBQ flavor, this is a great marinade.  But since the method here wasn't too stellar the center still tasted like tofu, not to mention the texture.  I'd use the marinade again, just not the method.

Next I tried the frozen method with the Orange Sesame marinade below.  This marinade had a good balance of orange and sesame flavors along with mild soy sauce and notes of garlic.  More importantly the flavors were present all throughout the pieces leaving no tofu taste. Yay!  The tofu was frozen in water and then thawed completly. At this point I could squeeze out most of the liquid like a sponge, but I still sliced it and used the pressing method described above just in case.  The marinade absorbed in a matter of minutes but I didn't get around to baking it until the next day so it sat in the fridge overnight. Here's a picture of the marinated tofu before baking.  Notice how spongy and un-tofuy it looks.

It took about 5-6 minutes per side under the broiler. It got really dark because I used a thick dark soy sauce which seems to turn anything black (more on that tomorrow).  If you don't look too closely it almost looks like beef.  Okay, maybe not, but it looks a lot less like tofu than you would expect. 

The pieces were crunchy on the outside and softer but still chewy on the inside.  This was a good kind of chewy, much more similar to meat texture and not at all like what you expect from tofu. I almost didn't even know I was eating tofu.  I still wouldn't call it moist and juicy, but it was closer none the less.  Slices that were 1/2 inch thick or less had the best texture.  When they were thicker there was too much contrast between the outside and inside textures.   

If you want to try this let me know because I've got a few more tips I can share.  I just figured no one is actually going to make it and I can stop writing so many details.  Here's the marinade recipes minus the instructions. 

BBQ Tofu 
adapted slightly from Peas and Thank You
1/2 block firm tofu, drained and pressed (I used 1/2 of an 18oz block of unspecified firmness from Trader Joe's)
1/4 tsp granulated garlic
1/4 tsp onion powder
1 Tbsp Worcestershire
1 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp water
1-1/2 tsp ketchup
1/8 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1-1/2 tsp brown sugar

Orange Sesame Tofu
adapted slightly from Peas and Thank You
1/2 block firm tofu FROZEN, THAWED, drained and pressed (I used 1/2 of an 18oz block of unspecified firmness from Trader Joe's)
1-1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 tsp sesame oil
juice and zest from 1/2 an orange

Food for Thought:  "A little spark of kindness can put a colossal burst of sunshine into someone's day" -unknown

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