Tofu can split opinion. While I belong to the ‘Pro Tofu’ camp, for many it is often bland, lacklustre, and uninspiring. You may have seen it in the fridge section in Tesco and decided to give it a miss. Tofu is BORING.
I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be. When treated the right way, tofu can transform into a thing of beauty, an ingredient that can saturate with whatever you soak it in. Flavour city. Bathe it in a marinade, toss it into a stir fry, let it simmer away in a soup – tofu is capable of exquisite things. All it needs is your freezer.
Now, hear me out. I am on an ongoing campaign to make a champion of tofu, and this is my solution for you. Freezing your tofu may sound terribly arduous. Who has the time for that? But the whole process has a favourable ratio of effort to impressiveness. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Tofu is capable of exquisite things. All it needs is your freezer.
But before we delve into the intricacies involved when cooking with it, we begin with an analogy. Stick with me, it will be worth it.
Think of tofu as a glorious, edible sponge (this analogy gets a lot more appetising too, trust me). When you buy it, it comes packaged in a little plastic tub suspended in a weird semi-water-semi-soy-juice situation. It does what any sponge would do when left to float in liquid – it absorbs it. Now when it comes to cooking tofu, you want to make it taste of something other than soy. Teriyaki, hoisin, sesame oil… the possibilities! However, it isn’t going to be able to soak up much of whatever you marinate it in if it is already impregnated with all that water from its tub.
Pressing tofu helps to eliminate all this liquid – wringing out the proverbial sponge if you will. You are usually instructed by cookbooks and the like to achieve this but swaddling the block of firm tofu in a kitchen towel and placing something heavy (several tins of tomatoes, a big wooden chopping board, all the books from your reading list you have been ignoring…) on top of it and letting it do its thing for an hour. All good. And when you get back to it, your little block of tofu is dry and ready to drink up any marinade you desire. Sorted, right?
I have been pressing tofu for years now and saw nothing wrong with this method. Sure, at times I piled too many books on top my tofu and it collapsed under the pressure (a fitting metaphor for uni life), and sure you needed to plan ahead. And yes, it never FULLY soaks up as much marinade as you had hoped for. But I figured that this was the limitation of cooking with tofu, and that there was no way around it.
How wrong I was.
I learnt this trick by accident. And upon discovering how sub-zero temperatures can completely and utterly transform its texture, I took to the internet, fully ready to patent my discovery. But I realised that freezing blocks of tofu was quite a done thing, especially in Asian restaurants.
And upon discovering how sub-zero temperatures can completely and utterly transform its texture, I took to the internet, fully ready to patent my discovery
If the technicalities involved in this do not interest you, skip ahead. But for food geeks, here’s how it works. When the tofu is frozen, the water within it freezes and expands into ice crystals, which push out against the protein structure of the tofu. When it is thawed and the crystals melt back into water, that expanded network remains stretched, leaving you with an ultra-spongey, very chewy block of tofu which is much easier to press. It will be capable of soaking up a gargantuan amount of marinade – so much more than it would have otherwise. If frying tofu is your thing, pre-freezing tofu and pressing it means that it holds much less water, and so crisps up beautifully when tossed into glistening hot oil.
It will be capable of soaking up a gargantuan amount of marinade – so much more than it would have otherwise.
Convinced yet? Here’s how to do it: drain a block of extra firm tofu and pop it in a Tupperware or freezer bag into your freezer. You can do this well before you need to cook it, and I usually have several blocks in my freezer at any time so that I am ready to deploy one whenever a tofu craving strikes. The day before you want to whip up a tofu dish, thaw the block out at room temperature. If planning ahead isn’t your forte, never fear. You can also thaw the tofu out but popping it into a pot of boiling water until it is no longer icy in the middle.
Once it’s all thawed and no ice remains, you are ready to press. None of the faff involved with wrapping and heavy books. You can simply press all the liquid out by squeezing it gently, but purposefully, over the sink with a hand on either side of it. Be amazed at all the liquid it releases. After that, you can chop, marinade, and proceed as your recipe commands.
If you remain sceptical about whether all this effort is worth the trouble, give it a go. It will make transcendent sense of your next teriyaki tofu.
Image Credit: Robert Couse-Baker