How to Deep-Fry Tofu (and Pan-Fry It, Too)
Follow these tips from cookbook author Andrea Nguyen, and golden, crisp-chewy tofu is just a few steps away.
Shatter-crisp chicken. Crunchy-on-the-outside, creamy-on-the-inside fries. Warm, golden-brown fritters. There's something so irresistible about deep-fried food, all the more satisfying when you make it at home—and if you haven't added the joys of deep-fried tofu to your repertoire yet, consider this your primer.
We chatted with tofu aficionado and cookbook author Andrea Nguyen (whose many books include Asian Tofu and Vietnamese Food Any Day) to get her recommendations for deep-frying tofu, from the kind of tofu you should be cooking with to the dishes you can use the final product in. She also shares why she likes to salt her tofu before frying, and if you'd like to pan-fry your tofu, her guidelines for that as well. No matter which method you choose, with just a few simple steps, you'll be on your way to golden, crisp-chewy tofu you won't be able to get enough of.
Related: How to Bake Tofu, Step-By-Step
First Thing's First: Get Your Tofu
Tofu comes in several different varieties, including silken, firm, and super-firm. Typically, Nguyen will use firm tofu for deep-frying, but you can use extra-firm if you'd like. Frying tofu gives it "extra character," she says.
"The beauty of deep-frying tofu is that it makes it much more sturdy, and it's also fatty-rich tasting," Nguyen explains.
You can also buy tofu already fried, if you want. But as Nguyen points out, you won't know when it was fried, or what kind of tofu was used, so she recommends frying your own.
"Tofu always tastes really, really good when it's freshly fried, so I just want to encourage people to do it," she says.
Cut, Soak, and Drain
To start, take your tofu block and cut it up into pieces. You could do cubes, or little logs, roughly the size of "if you were to stack two or three dominoes together," Nguyen explains. She then places the tofu pieces in a bowl, and dissolves one and a half teaspoons of fine sea salt in two cups of very hot water. Next, you pour the water over the tofu and let the mixture sit for 15 minutes, seasoning the tofu in the process. At that point, pour off the water and put the tofu pieces on a paper towel or clean dish towel for another 15 minutes so they can drain.
"The salt helps to create a really beautiful color and flavor," Nguyen says. "And it helps it drain, so that's why I do that."
After the tofu has soaked and drained, you're all set to fry. Just be sure to give the pieces a final pat to dry them off beforehand. Nguyen likes to deep-fry tofu in a wok at "a moderately high heat, so between 360 and 370 [degrees Fahrenheit]," with a neutral oil. Since a wok has more surface area, you won't have to use as much oil as you would in a Dutch oven, she says, but you can certainly use one if you don't have a wok. She typically pours about an inch and a half of oil into her wok for deep-frying.
You'll want to deep-fry the tofu in small batches, around three to four pieces at a time (this may vary depending on the size of the tofu pieces). Too much tofu in the pan at once could result in the oil temperature fluctuating. She also notes that the tofu pieces may stick together while they're frying in the oil, so have chopsticks or a skimmer on hand to separate them if needed.
"They strangely like wiggle and float themselves toward one another and they stick," she says. "And it's the darndest thing, you're like, 'why do you have to be friends?' Sometimes they stick and sometimes they don't, it depends on the tofu."
Ultimately, when she's deep-frying tofu, she says that a batch will take two to three minutes to cook. The end result should have golden and crispy exteriors. Once they're done, you can transfer the pieces to a plate lined with paper towels or a rack and let them cool. Then, they're ready to eat, or you can store them in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
How to Pan-Fry Tofu
You can also pan-fry tofu, like Nguyen does in her recipe for Shaking Tofu from Vietnamese Food Any Day. When pan-frying, she uses a pound of firm or extra-firm tofu—"most people like extra-firm because it's a little sturdier." She takes the tofu, cuts it up, and like with deep-frying, reaches for fine sea salt for some pre-fry seasoning. However, instead of mixing the salt with hot water, she sprinkles it directly on the tofu, saying it's like dry brining. The tofu sits on top of two layers of paper towels or clean dish towels (use non-terry, to avoid fibers) for 15 to 20 minutes, and will naturally drain in the process.
After the tofu has drained and you've blotted the pieces dry to get rid of excess moisture, it's time to fry—Nguyen says you can use a well-seasoned skillet or a nonstick skillet with one to two tablespoons of neutral oil. If you want a nutty flavor, she suggests trying semi-refined peanut oil (such as Lion & Globe), or blending unrefined peanut oil one-to-one with a neutral cooking oil.
Cook the tofu over medium to medium-high heat, searing it for one to two minutes on each side. (She typically sears three sides). "What you learn when you're pan-frying tofu is you just look at the edges on the side that's touching the pan, and you're going to see it get golden," Nguyen says. "And so once it's golden, then it's time to turn it. It's a very meditative process."
Just like with deep-fried tofu, transfer the pieces to a plate lined with paper towels or a rack to dry, and then you can store them for up to one week in the fridge in an airtight container.
Dishes That Use Fried Tofu
Whether you're working with deep-fried or pan-fried tofu, Nguyen says there are plenty of ways you can use it, including curries, stews, noodle soups, and sandwiches. Pre-frying makes it hold up well for stir-frying, too. "It's going to have this wonderful exterior that's fatty and kind of chewy," she says. "So it makes for very interesting tofu dishes." She likes to fry at the beginning of the week and then keep the tofu on hand for different meals.
And if you're worried about misstepping while you cook it? Don't be.
"It's very forgiving, and I've made a lot of mistakes—what I've thought to be mistakes—with tofu, and it turned out just fine," she says.