Crispy Tofu Bites
Tofu is a protein-packed plant-based food, but it's not usually known for having an incredible texture or delicious flavor. The trick is to think about it as a blank canvas you can use to create almost any texture or flavor you want. This crispy tofu bites recipe aims to get the texture ultra-crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside.
The tofu is then glazed in a savory-sweet sauce that's redolent of ginger, garlic, and black pepper, making it ridiculously flavorful. The result is a crave-worthy one-bite appetizer that's delicious alongside a pint of beer or a glass of wine.
Table of contents
Why This Recipe Works?
- Drying the surface of the tofu through a combination of draining, salting, and patting with paper towels reduces the tofu's surface moisture, making it much easier to crisp.
- Deep frying the tofu at a high temperature gets the surface nice and crisp while the center stays tender and moist.
- Glazing the Crispy Tofu Bites in a savory-sweet sauce right after they come out of the oil ensures they absorb a ton of flavor without going soggy.
Ingredients for Crispy Tofu Bites
- Tofu - Tofu comes in many shapes, textures, and sizes, but for crisping, you want the softest firm tofu you can find. Soft and silken tofus are made from soy milk that's had a coagulant added, and then it's slowly heated to set. This gives it the texture of soft egg custard. It works great for simmered dishes like mapo tofu, or miso soup, but it contains too much water to crisp properly. The other kind of tofu is set by heating the soy milk and coagulant rapidly, which causes curds to form. Then the mixture is strained, and the curds are put into a mold to drain and press. How long the tofu is pressed determines how firm it is. This is the type of tofu you want for crisping, but you ideally want one that hasn't been pressed for very long as it will make crispy tofu that has a softer, more juicy texture on the inside. Unfortunately, brands aren't very consistent with their labeling. If you're using House Foods brand, their "medium-firm" tofu is perfect for this.
- Salt - The salt not only lightly seasons the tofu but also helps draw out extra moisture from the tofu's surface through osmosis.
- Mirin - Mirin is a sweet Japanese alcoholic beverage that's also commonly used as an ingredient. It is made by fermenting rice with koji, which breaks down complex carbohydrates (i.e., starch) into sugar. The rice proteins also break down into their constituent amino acids during fermentation, and these amino acids create the taste of umami in the sauce. Since the sauce is boiled before being used for glazing the tofu, the alcohol will burn off. When choosing mirin, stay away from ones that include corn syrup, sugar, or MSG, as these are most likely not real mirin. You also want to avoid mirin with salt added as this will make the sauce too salty as is, and you'll need to reduce the amount of soy sauce to compensate.
- Soy sauce - I use a standard Japanese soy sauce for this, but other types of soy sauce will probably work for this particular sauce.
- Aromatics - Since tofu doesn't have a ton of flavor on its own, I like adding some aromatics to this sauce, like ginger and garlic. Ginger can be a little fibrous, so I usually grate it to a pulp first and then squeeze it to get the ginger juice out. This allows you to get the flavor of the ginger without the stringy bits.
- Black Pepper - Black pepper adds a wonderful fragrance to the sauce and a mild creeping heat. You could also use chili flakes here if you want the sauce to be spicier.
- Sesame seeds - Toasted sesame seeds contribute a nice nutty flavor and poppy texture that keeps each bit of the tofu interesting.
How to Make Crispy Tofu Bites
Tofu comes packed in water, so you first want to drain it very well. The best way to do this is to remove it from its packaging and set it on a wire rack set on a tray for at least an hour.
Then you want to cut the tofu into bite-size cubes. I usually cut a 1-pound block into 9 cubes. Sprinkle every side of the tofu cubes with salt and let the cubes drain on a few sheets of paper towels while you prepare the sauce.
I like to grate the ginger and then squeeze the juice out of the pulp to make the sauce. This way, you can get plenty of ginger flavor without the stringy bits in the pulp. Then I add the grated garlic, mirin, soy sauce, and black pepper and put this on the stove over high heat to bring it to a rolling boil.
Once it's boiling, I'll cook this for about another minute, which will burn off the alcohol while lightly thickening the sauce. Unlike teriyaki sauce, you don't want to get it super thick; otherwise, the sauce won't absorb into the fried tofu properly. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and set it aside.
For the tofu, you want to preheat about 2-inches of vegetable oil in a heavy pot until it hits 360 degrees F (180 C). As with anything you're deep frying it'a important not to overfill the pot you're or the oil could boil over. I usually try not to fill them more than half way up.
Then you want to use some fresh paper towels to pat the tofu dry on all sides before carefully lowering the cubes into the oil with tongs. If the tofu has been dried sufficiently, it shouldn't splatter much, but it's always prudent to be careful around hot oil.
Let the tofu fry undisturbed for about five to six minutes or until it will pull away from the bottom of the pan with minimal effort. Forcing it will cause it to tear in half, so use a gentle touch and wait until the tofu has browned enough that it's no longer firmly adhered to the pot. Once it's flipped over, let it fry until it's golden brown on all sides.
Once the tofu is crisp, transfer it straight from the oil into the bowl with the glaze and sprinkle it with the sesame seeds before tossing everything together. Once the tofu has been glazed, transfer it to a plate so it doesn't absorb too much glaze and get soggy.
Garnish the crispy tofu bites with the sesame seeds, black pepper, and chopped scallion greens.
Other Plant-Based Tofu Recipes
Crispy Tofu Bites (a.k.a. Tofu nuggets) are bite-size pieces of tofu that have been fried until crisp on the outside. Some methods call for breading, battering, or otherwise coating the tofu in something to help it crisp, but in my version, I get the surface of the tofu crispy without coating it with anything.
To get an ultra-crispy crust on tofu, there are two factors at play. The first is surface moisture. Food becomes crisp because you've removed all of the water from it; that's why potato chips, the crust of freshly baked bread, and freeze-dried fruit are all crisp. Since tofu includes a ton of water, it's crucial to reduce the amount of water on the surface to get it to crisp in a reasonable amount of time. In my method, I drain the tofu and then use salt to draw out excess moisture from the tofu's surface. The second factor for getting tofu crispy is temperature. You need to get it very hot to dehydrate the outside enough to make it crisp. The most efficient way to achieve this is to deep fry it.
Yes, you can, but it's not going to get nearly as crisp. Air fryers work by circulating hot air around the food, but air is not as efficient at transferring heat as a liquid such as oil. This is why you can put your hand in a 350-degree oven for a few seconds and not get burned, but if you put your hand in 350-degree oil, you'd be burned almost instantly.
For the same reason why an air fryer won't work well, an oven won't work very well either.
I've tried making these coated with things like flour and starch, and while they tend to get even more crispy, the sauce tends to make the coating go soggy faster than frying the tofu bare.
- 453 grams medium-firm tofu
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 6 grams ginger
- 6 grams garlic (grated)
- ¼ cup mirin
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon black pepper (coarsely ground)
- 2 teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
- Scallion greens (chopped for garnish)
- Drain the tofu on a wire rack for at least one hour.
- Set the tofu on a few layers of paper towels and cut it into 9 cubes. Sprinkle them evenly on all sides with the salt.
- Grate the ginger into a pan and then gather up the pulp and squeeze out as much juice as you can into the pan. Discard the pulp.
- Add the grated garlic, mirin, soy sauce, and black pepper to the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil and continue boiling until the sauce just starts to thicken and it no longer smells like alcohol (about a minute after it comes to a full boil). Transfer the sauce to a bowl and set aside.
- To fry the tofu, heat 2-inches of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches 360 degrees F (180 C). Be sure to use a deep pot and don't fill it more than ½ way as the the moisture in the tofu will make the oil bubble a lot.
- Pat the tofu dry on all sides with fresh paper towels and carefully lower the tofu into the hot oil using tongs.
- Fry the tofu undisturbed for about 5-6 minutes or until you're able to pull the tofu away from the bottom of the pot without breaking it. Flip the tofu over and let it continue frying for another 5-6 minutes or until it's golden brown on all sides.
- Transfer the hot tofu straight into the bowl with the sauce and sprinkle on the sesame seeds. Toss to coat the tofu with glaze and then transfer the tofu to a serving plate.
- Garnish with more sesame seeds, black pepper, and chopped scallion greens.