Tofu Katsu (豆腐カツ)
Katsu just means "cutlet" in Japanese, and it's an easy dish that can be prepared by breading and frying a protein. Straight out of the package, tofu doesn't work great for this because of its high water content and bland taste.
That's why I freeze and defrost the tofu to reduce its water content and alter its texture. Then I infuse it with a flavorful marinade to transform it into a meaty plant-based protein that's perfect for making a traditional Japanese katsu.
Katsu is usually served with thinly shredded cabbage and a condiment called Tonkatsu Sauce. The sauce is made with fruits, vegetables, and spices, giving it a unique sweet and spicy flavor like a sweet and viscous Worcestershire sauce. Since most bottled Tonkatsu Sauce includes meat or fish extracts, I've created a homemade vegan Katsu Sauce that goes perfectly with this crispy Tofu Katsu.
Why This Recipe Works?
- Freezing and then defrosting and pressing the tofu removes most of the excess water from the tofu leaving behind the soy protein. This transforms the tofu, giving it a meaty texture.
- Brushing the pressed tofu with a mixture of vegetable stock and Marmite infuses it with meaty umami.
- An egg-free batter of flour and water acts as the glue that holds the panko breadcrumbs to the tofu while resulting in an ultra-crispy crust.
- Homemade katsu sauce sweetened with date syrup adds another layer of flavor to the katsu.
Table of contents
Ingredients for Tofu Katsu
- Tofu - Tofu is made by coagulating the soy protein in soy milk. This results in curds that still contain a large amount of water. Freezing the tofu causes the water to form ice crystals which can then be melted and pressed out of the protein, which gives the tofu a firm, meaty texture. I recommend using firm, or extra firm tofu for this. Silken or soft tofu is made using a different process and contains a high percentage of water. This makes it unsuitable for the freezing and thawing process.
- Marmite - Marmite is a condiment made from spent brewer's yeast which is loaded with amino acids and B vitamins. Amino acids create the taste of umami, and B vitamins (particularly B12) are nutrients that are commonly found in meat. Dissolved in vegetable stock, the Marmite creates liquid umami that can be painted onto the tofu to give it a meaty taste. If you can't find Marmite, Vegemite will also work.
- Vegetable stock - Vegetable stock is the liquid I use to dissolve the Marmite. You can use any umami-rich liquid here, such as konbu dashi or mushroom stock.
- Batter - Japanese Katsu is usually prepared by dusting the food in flour and then dipping it in egg before breading it in panko. To make this vegan friendly, I use a simple tempura batter of flour and cold water to act as the glue to hold the breadcrumbs onto the tofu. The batter can also crisp when fried, which makes the crust extra crispy. If you want to make this gluten-free, you can substitute a GF all purpose flour and use gluten-free panko.
- Panko - Panko literally means "bread crumbs" in Japanese. Japanese breadcrumbs are made with the white part of sandwich bread and are torn rather than pulverized. This results in large bread crumbs with a more airy texture than their Western equivalent. If you can't find panko, you can make your own by cutting the crusts off of fresh sandwich bread (check the ingredients to make sure it's plant-based), cutting it into small pieces, and then pulsing the bread in a food processor until you have crumbs that are about ¼ to ⅛-inch in size.
Ingredients for Vegan Katsu Sauce
- Sake - Sake is an alcoholic beverage made with rice. It contains a high concentration of amino acids, which gives food the taste of umami. The alcohol gets boiled off in the first step of making the sauce. It won't taste quite the same, but using a good vegetable or konbu stock is a suitable alternative.
- Apple Juice - Apple juice is added as a natural source of sweetness and acidity, and it also contributes a fruity flavor to the sauce.
- Vegan Worcestershire sauce - Tonkatsu sauce includes a complex blend of spices. Rather than gather them all, it is much simpler to just use Worcestershire sauce, which contains most of the same spices. Just make sure the one you choose is vegan, as some brands include anchovies.
- Soy sauce - Soy sauce contributes most of the salt to the sauce and is also a rich source of umami.
- Ketchup - Ketchup adds sweetness, umami, and tartness to the sauce, along with a fruity flavor. If you'd rather not use it, you can substitute an equal amount of tomato paste with some additional date syrup and Worcestershire sauce.
- Date Syrup - Dates are a common addition to Japanese tonkatsu sauce. They add a mild natural sweetness and wonderful caramel flavor. While you can puree regular dates with some water and press them through a sieve, I prefer using date syrup because you can use it right away.
- Onion - Grated onions provide flavor for the sauce, and as the onions dissolve, they also help thicken the sauce.
- Garlic - Garlic isn't a traditional addition to katsu sauce, but I like adding it to mine for some extra flavor.
How to Make Tofu Katsu
To get the meaty texture into the tofu, you'll need to freeze it overnight. Just cut a slit into one side of the packaging and squeeze out as much water as you can without smashing the tofu. Then you can pop the whole container into the freezer. I usually do this as soon as I buy the tofu, so I always have a supply of frozen tofu I can use right away.
The next step is to defrost and press the tofu to remove the excess water from it. I usually do this by putting the tofu on a wire rack set over a tray, and then I place another tray over the tofu and weigh it down with cans or jars. Keep in mind the tofu will be super slippery just out of the freezer, so you'll want to partially defrost it before you start pressing it. A quick way to do this is to run the block of tofu under warm water.
Once the tofu has been fully defrosted and pressed, discard the water. You may also want to give the tofu another quick squeeze with your hands to remove any water that's been reabsorbed after removing the weight.
Slice the tofu in half horizontally into two cutlets of an even thickness. If you have trouble cutting it straight, you can insert a few toothpicks around the centerline of the tofu to act as markers before you cut it. You can also trim the corners of the tofu off at different angles to make it look more like a cutlet if you like.
Whisk the Marmite into the vegetable stock, and then use a pastry brush to paint on a generous coating of the liquid on all sides of the tofu. You won't need all of it, but make sure you apply enough so it can soak into the tofu cutlet.
Make the batter by whisking the flour and cold water together until smooth. Prepare a container with the panko and set it next to the batter.
To bread the tofu katsu, dip the cutlet in the batter and flip it over to coat every surface with a thin layer of batter. Allow any excess water to drip off, and then transfer the tofu to the container with the panko. Scoop panko onto the top of the katsu, and then shake it around in the container until you've coated all of the surfaces with breadcrumbs and there are no bald spots. Repeat the process with the other piece of tofu.
To fry the tofu katsu, add an inch of oil to a pot with high sides and then preheat it to 340°F (170°C). I do not recommend doing this in a frying pan as the katsu will bubble a lot during the first few minutes and the oil may overflow. Line a wire cooling rack with a few sheets of paper towels.
When the oil is up to temperature, carefully lower each piece of tofu onto the oil.
Let the tofu fry for two minutes, and then flip them over. Continue frying the tofu and flipping it every few minutes until the panko is golden brown and crisp.
Drain the vegan katsu on the prepared rack and slice it into strips before serving.
How to Make Vegan Katsu Sauce
To make my homemade katsu sauce, grate the garlic and onions using the rasp side of a box grater. You can also use a food processor to puree them.
Add the sake and apple juice to a pot and boil the mixture until it's thick and syrupy. This will take eight to ten minutes.
Once the sake and apple juice have thickened up, add the Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, ketchup, date syrup, onion, and garlic.
Let the mixture cook at a full simmer until the onions have started to dissolve and the katsu sauce is nice and thick. This will take another five to seven minutes. If you see foam floating to the surface, use a spoon to skim it off and discard it.
This vegan katsu sauce will keep in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a few weeks.
How to Serve Katsu
Katsu is usually served with a bed of thinly shredded cabbage, a bowl of Japanese short-grain rice, and a bowl of miso soup. It can also be served with Japanese curry to make a tofu katsu curry, or it can be turned into a rice bowl to make katsudon. As for side dishes, if it's winter this would go great with agedashi tofu and you're in the warmer months of the year, try one of my hiyayakko variations.
Other Vegan Tofu Recipes
Katsu (カツ) is the Japanese word for cutlet. When "cutlet" is transliterated into Japanese, it becomes カツレツ (katsuretsu). Since this is quite a mouthful, it's abbreviated to Katsu. It's made by breading a protein with panko and then deep-frying it, and the prefix describes the type of protein used. For example, tonkatsu is made with pork, chikinkatsu is made with chicken, and tofukatsu is made with tofu.
Tofu Katsu is a 4-syllable name pronounced as follows (read the italicized parts).
to like toad
fu like who
ka like copy
tsu like eat soup
It won't get as crispy, and the browning won't be quite as even, but you can make this in an oven by spraying a generous amount of cooking oil onto every surface of the katsu and then placing it on a wire rack set over a sheet pan. Then you can put the pan in a 360° F (180° C) oven and bake it until the panko is golden brown and crisp.
I haven't tried to air-fry this, but an air fryer is essentially a tabletop convection oven, so you should be able to use the method described above to achieve similar results as in an oven.
Packaged katsu sauce may include fish or meat extracts, so read the ingredient label. My homemade katsu sauce recipe included below is plant-based.
Vegan Tofu Katsu
- 1 pack tofu
- 2 teaspoons marmite
- ¼ cup vegetable stock
- 40 grams flour (~ ⅓ cup)
- ⅓ cup cold water
- 35 grams panko (~1 cup)
- vegetable oil (for frying)
Vegan Katsu Sauce
- ¼ cup sake
- ¼ cup apple juice
- ¼ cup vegan Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tablespoon soy sauce
- 2 tablespoon ketchup
- 2 tablespoons date syrup
- 80 grams onion (grated or pureed)
- 7 grams garlic (1 large clove grated)
- At least one day before you plan to make the katsu, cut a slit in the package of tofu and drain out as much water as you can. Then, put the package of tofu in the freezer until it is frozen solid.
- Set the block of frozen tofu on a wire rack with a weighted tray on top. Jars or cans work well as weights. You may need to partially defrost the tofu first to keep the tray from slipping off.
- While you wait for the tofu to press, make the katsu sauce by adding the sake and apple juice to a pot and boiling the liquid until it becomes thick and syrupy (about 8-10 minutes). Add the remaining sauce ingredients and continue boiling it until the grated onions dissolve and the sauce is nice and thick.
- Drain off all of the liquid that comes out of the tofu, and then slice the block in half horizontally.
- To season the tofu, dissolve the Marmite in the vegetable stock and use a pastry brush to brush the mixture onto every tofu surface. You won't need all of the liquid, but make sure you get a good coating on the tofu.
- Add the flour and cold water into a flat-bottomed container that's large enough to hold a tofu cutlet and mix it until it's smooth and free of any large lumps. Next, prepare a second container by filling it with panko.
- Dip the tofu katsu in the batter, coating all sides, and allow any excess batter to drip off.
- Transfer the tofu to the panko and scoop some panko on top. Shake the whole container to distribute the panko evenly, coat the sides, and repeat with the other cutlet.
- Prepare a wire rack by lining it with paper towels and preheat 1-inch oil in a high-sided pot to 340°F (170°C).
- Carefully lower the vegan cutlets into the oil and let them fry on one side for 2 minutes.
- Flip the katsu over and fry it for another 2 minutes. Continue flipping and frying until the panko is golden brown. Drain the tofu katsu on the prepared rack. Slice and serve with the homemade katsu sauce.