How to Cook the Perfect Tofu Strips
One of the first things I learned after becoming a vegetarian was that it was hard to cook with tofu. This might sound blasphemous to some people because the common description of tofu is that it’s like a sponge, soaking up whatever flavor you put next to it. Well, if that’s true, then all the other ingredients are to blame for all the bad tofu dishes I’ve had. More often than not, I found tofu to be largely bland in flavor and boogery in texture. But, without meat, something had to occupy that portion of the plate and the meat-like vegetarian foods, found in the freezer aisle, tend to be full of oils, salts and sugars that negate their positive qualities. So I forged ahead, determined to find a passable way to eat tofu. What I found, however, was delicious.
Note: For the purposes of this article, I was using extra firm tofu (14oz) that had been drained and dried with paper towels.
As I said, if you rip into tofu, even firm tofu, it has a gelatinous quality that isn’t terribly appealing. So, when eating it, I wanted to find ways to limit that jello-like texture. The best way I discovered was how the tofu is cut. Large chunks tend not to cook as well, or absorb flavors. But, shredding the block apart doesn’t make for an appealing meal either (and turmeric is a terrible spice to add to it). This can lead to over-seasoning or over cooking, which isn’t going to help your quest for the perfect tofu meal. What I settled on was a thin strip, at approximately half a centimeter in thickness. I found that this size makes it cook thoroughly, while still providing a large enough surface to season and flip.
There are a lot of different things you can season tofu with, but what I found to be the most effective is a mix of ‘generic’ powders. I call them generic only because they can fit in with almost any savory meal type without overpowering it. The mix is as follows:
- Garlic Powder
- Onion Powder
- Black Pepper
- Table Salt
I never really had success with marinating tofu because the water inside of it, even with vigilant draining, often refuses to accept anything other than its own tofu-flavored liquid. So, after several failed attempts at liquid marinades, I switched to these dry powders. The advantage here is that dry powder sticks to a wet surface like super glue. You don’t even really have to try to get it to stick, just sprinkle it over the strip and the only way to get it back off is to run water over it again. I don’t have specific measurements, just a light dusting of each seasoning on each side of the strip will be sufficient. Be extra careful with seasonings that pour quickly. The lighter colored ones, like salt and onion powder, can pour out fast, but blend in with the white tofu. Then you’ve got a punch to the face of salt and onion and that’s just going to ruin your meal. (One way to avoid this would be to use a tablespoon to scoop out the powder then gently sprinkle it over all of the strips. I usually lay them out on a platter for seasoning, so it should be an even dusting.)
Currently, I find frying to be the best method for cooking these strips. I wish I could say that you could cook them without any kind of oil, but I have yet to find an alternative that works just as well (white wine just boils off and the strips still stick to the pan). However, you really don’t need much oil. A spray-oil will work with just one light coat. At medium heat, it takes approximately 2-3 minutes per side, per strip (assuming your pan is heated up). Watch for when the seasonings and the edges of the tofu start to turn golden brown. You’ll also notice that, when cooked, the strips are much stronger so you can safely set them aside on a plate to be served.
The Endless Uses
You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t specified what these tofu strips are intended for. And that’s because you can use them for almost anything. Stir fry, sandwiches, mixed vegetables and salads are but a few of the many uses for these strips. My personal favorite is what I call a ‘tofu scramble’. Basically I cut up the strips into smaller cubes, then fry them again with green peppers and onions for a fantastic substitute to scrambled eggs. And, if you made an entire package of tofu strips (which I recommend) then you can store them in the fridge for use with meals all week. For me, a 14oz package of tofu will create enough strips for three meals (for two people). Though, that will obviously vary based on the thickness of the strips and how much you use in each dish. But, for me, this method of cooking resolves all the previous issues I had with tofu. It gives them a better consistency (think soft deli meat), establishes a better base flavor (garlic and onion go with everything) and gives tofu the true versatility it deserves (I seriously feel like I could put these in anything).
It should be noted that the overall prep time for these strips can be a tad long. Between draining, cutting, seasoning and cooking the tofu, you could be looking at an hour of preparation before even deciding what you’re going to put them in. But, I assure you it’s worth the effort and will provide enough meal opportunities to make up for the investment later.