Finally, I am getting around to writing about how to successfully stir fry tofu. But before I launch into my Ten Steps to Better Tofu from a Wok post, let’s talk more generally about our main ingredient.
High in protein and low in fat, tofu is an ancient vegetarian food product made from ground up soybeans which are pressed to extract their juice. The juice is then coagulated by the addition of an agent such as nigari, (magnesium chloride, which is traditionally obtained in Japan from evaporated sea water) or gypsum (calcium sulfate, which adds dietary calcium to Chinese style tofu), which causes it to form into cheese-like curds that are then pressed into blocks. Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, where it is called doufu, there are many theories as to how it was first created. One theory, called “The Accidental Coagulation Theory,” is one I find most likely; it states that the probable origin of tofu came about when a cook seasoned a soup made of pureed soybeans with unrefined sea salt that contained nigari. The soup then coagulated, and the cook, tasting the unexpected result, found it to his or her liking. Experimentation then began, which has resulted in the myriad forms we find tofu today.
Fresh tofu can be silky soft, like a custard, or firm, almost like feta cheese. It can marinated to flavor it, and pressed to remove most of the water; this results in a very chewy, firm texture similar to meat that is called “spiced dry tofu.” In any form, it can be fermented, and further marinated, often in garlic and chilies. Fermented soft tofu is sold in jars filled with chilies, garlic and fermented black soybeans; the scent of it is strong, and is very savory, like many aged cheeses. This sort of fermented tofu is used much like a condiment or relish and is not used as a main dish.Pressed dry tofu can also be fermented; sliced thinly and stir fried, it adds a very unique flavor to a stir fry, but the fragrance is very stinky, and not to everyone’s liking. (Zak once mistakenly brought home fermented pressed tofu for me to stir fry, and I did. He and Morganna did not like the taste of it, and -really- hated the smell of it. I rather liked it, but I have refrained from cooking it again out of respect for my family’s wish that our home not smell like fermented gym shorts.)
Tofu comes in even more forms than that, but these are the styles of tofu most American cooks will run across in their average Asian market or mainstream grocery store, and it is from these varieties that they will have to choose when it comes time to buy some tofu to stir fry. And, it is often because of the many different types of tofu found on the market that many new cooks end up with stir-fried tofu that turns into mush in the wok; it is hard for a cook to know what to buy in order to maximize their chance at success.
Pictured above and below are a group of various types and brands of tofu which are suitable for stir frying to greater and lesser degrees. Each of them can be stir fried, but some are easier to use than others, especially for cooks new to using a wok to cook tofu. Let’s examine each one in depth and discuss the pros and cons of each variety when it comes to stir frying, because I am very much of the belief that if you get the right kind of tofu, you cannot help but make a delicious stir fry.
Then in the next post, we will talk about how to go about stir frying tofu once you bring it home.
In the photograph to the left, let us first look at the fresh tofu. This tofu is what most people think about when they think about tofu; it is unfermented and minimally processed. It is white, and is marketed in blocks that weigh about eight ounces each that are packed in water to maintain moistness and freshness. It comes in various textures; Chinese style tofu such as the “Spring Creek Organic” brand in the upper left corner, is extra firm, and is frankly, the best tofu I have ever had, bar none. It is made from Ohio-grown soybeans about ninety miles from here, in Spencer, West Virginia by our hippy hillbilly friends, and it is awesome. I can cook it straight from the package in a wok with minimal breakage, and it cooks up to a great texture and flavor.
To the right of it, you see a brand that is commonly seen in Asian markets, House Foods. This fresh tofu comes in all textures, from extra soft, soft, medium, firm and extra firm. (They also make an organic version of their products, which is very good.) While the flavor is not as good as Spring Creek, and the firmness level of their extra firm is still softer, it is still very, very good, and I have had no problems achieving good results in stir frying it.
Other good brands of fresh tofu to use for stir frying include Nasoya and White Wave tofu. In all brands of fresh tofu, I suggest that you buy firm or extra firm, in order to achieve the best results when stir frying. Even so, with some tofu brands, the extra firm will require some extra work to keep it together well enough in order to stir fry it successfully.
One type of fresh tofu I do not recommend for stir frying, even though the package specifically states that it is good for that purpose (it is on the right in the picture), is extra firm silken tofu. Mori Nu puts out very tasty extra firm silken tofu in aseptic packages that do not require refrigeration. I have used it successfully in hot and sour soup and braised in ma po tofu (though I prefer the firmer texture of Spring Creek for the latter purpose), but there is no way to stir fry it without it breaking up. I even have to be careful stirring hot and sour soup after adding this tofu, so I can only imagine what evil things would happen in my wok if I tried to stir fry it. (Can we say undifferentiated mush, everyone? Icky!)
In the center of the photographs is the easiest form of tofu to stir fry of all: spiced dry tofu. Made by Water Lilies Foods in New York, and widely available in Asian markets across the country, this tofu has been simmered in a spiced broth, then pressed to remove most of the water, giving it a very chewy, firm and dry texture that is quite meaty. It comes in thick or thin blocks (the purple package in the center of the photograph is the thick blocked variety; the green package that is turned away from the camera to show the tofu itself in the foreground is the thin block variety) and it also comes in thin strips. It also is available fermented, but there are no photographs of that variety, alas, because as I mentioned before, I am disallowed from bringing it into the house.
Spiced dry tofu is the absolute easiest, most foolproof tofu to stir fry. You slice it and go. You don’t need to marinate it, add cornstarch to it, press out excess water or anything. You just slice it thick or thin, straight or on the diagonal, and it is ready to cook. I highly suggest seeking this tofu out if you have tried to stir fry tofu in the past and have only gotten scrambled up, broken glop for your trouble. You will not have that problem with this tofu.
Finally, there is a form of spiced dry tofu imported by Wen Foods which I have just started using in stir fried dishes. In English it is labeled as a tofu chile terrine, but what it is is spiced dry tofu that has been thinly sliced and marinated in ground chilies, then stacked back together into blocks. I cut the thin blocks into strips and stir fry them with onions, black beans, garlic and greens for a delicious, spicy, salty dish that forces the diner to eat a lot of rice.
There are many other sorts of tofu on the market, and among them are some soft varieties that can be used for stir frying. However, when it comes to the softer types of tofu, one always has to take extra steps in preparing them in order to stir fry them, including sometimes deep frying, freezing, pressing or pan frying them first. In my experience, if you don’t want to take the time, trouble and effort of these techniques, it pays for you to seek out the firmest types of tofu available and use them in your stir fries. It is the path of least resistance, and is the way to go when it comes making a quick, nutritious and delicious dinner on a weeknight.
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