Correction: The version of this article that appears in the printed Sept. 21 Food section incorrectly refers to the bitter salt used to make tofu as inari. It is nigari. This version has been updated.
It should come as no surprise that the best tofu I ever had was in Japan. What’s surprising is that it was for breakfast.
At a multi-course meal in a beautiful Kyoto inn, the server, wrapped in traditional garb, poured soy milk into a cast-iron pot set over a candle and topped it with a lid. There it sat for five, 10 minutes — it felt like an eternity — before she uncovered it and we spooned it out: a creamy, nutty, delectable custard made out of little more than soy milk, presumably thickened with nigari, a bitter salt.
Here in the West, meanwhile, tofu gets a bad rap; it’s doomed to a reputation as health food in the worst, most obligatory sense. For everyone who praises its versatility and adaptability to surrounding flavors, others seem to find that same blank-slatedness to be the worst trait imaginable.
In Asia, where tofu has been a staple for thousands of years, no such debate rages. That might be because cooks there are accustomed to super-fresh tofu, whose creamy texture and mild (but not absent) flavor match the cuisines. In Japan, where subtlety is often the goal, tofu fits right in. In China, its blandness can help offset, say, the numbing fire of Sichuan peppercorns.
Back in the States, tofu’s watery-yet-rubbery texture, not its taste (or lack thereof), is what I’ve most often objected to, especially when I cook with it. Even after I drain and press it, that texture seems to make it prone to sticking or falling apart — or both — when stir-fried. Broiled, pan-fried or deep-fried, it can get tough if I’m not careful. And no matter what I would do with it, I couldn’t get much flavor into it, or certainly out of it, although I have frequently turned to the silken variety (rather than firm) to blend with herbs and seasonings for one of my go-to salad dressings.
I persisted because I was drawn to the fact that before you open the package, tofu can last in the refrigerator (or even in the pantry, depending on the variety) for weeks. But once it’s open, the clock starts ticking and you have to change the water it’s submerged in every day if you want to keep the tofu around for a week. That’s a hassle for a busy single cook interested in smaller portions.
I knew there was much more to learn about this ingredient; how could millions of people be wrong? Yet I set it aside in favor of easier, more obviously appealing ingredients.
My tastes are evolving, however, and as I’ve found myself cooking less and less meat at home out of health and environmental concerns (and partly to make up for the meat I eat in restaurants), tofu has returned to my repertoire as a high-quality source of protein. It’s nowhere near eggs and beans, in my book, but it’s moving in that direction.
I’ve gotten around my objections by focusing on marinated and baked tofu, partly because its refrigerator life is longer and relatively hassle-free, giving me multiple chances to use it before it starts to go off.
Store-bought versions are particularly dense, holding up well in a stir-fry, and they can be great when added to salads or even sandwiches. But they are much more expensive than plain tofu, and their sauce is so packed with flavor that they are less versatile. Moreover, the ingredient list includes such things as caramel color, xanthan gum and citric acid, a shame when the original product can be so pure.
I started following the direction of some of the original hippie cooks — members of the Moosewood Collective, the group behind the restaurants and cookbooks of the same name — and began marinating and baking my own, an easy process that renders the tofu slightly drier and lets me add the flavors I choose. (Usually it’s an Asian-style mix of soy, sake, ginger and sugar.)
For an even sturdier, more flavorful result, I’ve also been playing around with freezing the tofu first. It makes it much chewier and even more absorbent; or, in the words of cookbook author Kim O’Donnel (“The Meat Lover’s Meatless Cookbook”), the tofu goes “from no way, Jose, to bring it on!” I don’t like the result for any old purpose; the texture can get a little crumbly, and when I tried it on the grill, that dryness was a turnoff. But when I froze some firm tofu and then squeezed out the extra liquid, tossed it in the marinade and baked it, what came out of the oven were perfectly toothsome little squares that had sucked up much more of the marinade than the non-frozen stuff. I would’ve used that tofu all week long — if I had been able to resist popping the cubes in my mouth every time I opened the fridge.
Not every cookbook author agrees that much of anything needs to be done to make tofu palatable. Even the pressing and draining so often called for in some recipes is dismissed in others.
“A big fuss is often made about this step,” writes Deborah Madison in “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone”; for her, a cursory blotting is usually enough. In “A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen,” Jack Bishop of Cook’s Illustrated rattles off the list of techniques he has tried — including pressing, marinating and freezing — and concludes, “Some of these methods have produced good tofu, but the process always seems more bother than the results justified.”
Bishop’s preferred method is to simply slice the tofu into thick pieces and briefly drain them before treating them like chicken cutlets: Using a nonstick pan, he fries them in a film of oil for several minutes on each side until crisp and golden, leaving them relatively undisturbed (a technique that reminds me of the secret to cooking fish) except for that one flip, then makes a pan sauce and glazes them. The result works like a charm, it’s true, but I’m not prepared to let go of all my futzing just yet; I like some of his treatments best when I start with the pre-baked stuff.
However, I do see his point. And now that I’m getting more comfortable with tofu, I’m starting to back off a little bit and enjoy the less-is-more approach, especially when it comes to the silken variety.
Just the other day, I took a cue from one of my favorite Japanese cooks, Harumi Kurihara, who in “Everyday Harumi” writes about a quick dish for unexpected guests. She chops up various ingredients from her refrigerator and packs them on top of quickly drained silken tofu, surrounded by a seasoned soy sauce.
My on-hand ingredients were different from hers, but the spirit was the same: I chopped peanuts, scallions, ginger, garlic and a little Thai chili paste, laid it on a thick slice of silken tofu, drizzled some extra-dark, mushroom-flavored soy sauce around, and took a bite. The contrast between the smooth blandness underneath and crunchy, pungent spiciness on top was divine. And I had barely done a thing to the tofu.
Yonan is the author of “Serve Yourself: Nightly Adventures in Cooking for One” (Ten Speed Press, 2011).