When I eat meatless, the point is not for my protein to mimic flesh. Still, one of my favorite vegetarian main options is tofu, and even when I buy extra-firm, I always find it a bit yielding. Unless I’m using paper-thin white bread, the first bite of my favorite veggie sandwich tends to squish the tofu in a most unsavory way. Indeed, cubing the tofu and breading it in a cornstarch or panko mixture gives the protein a bit of crunch, but when I’m looking to impart some real texture to my tofu, I freeze it.
Perhaps you’ve been confronted with this trick accidentally, after tossing a soon-to-expire hunk of tofu in the freezer for freshness? The color might have gone yellow, the block itself might’ve looked slightly wrinkled. I hope if this happened that you didn’t chuck it. Because frozen (and then defrosted and cooked) tofu takes on a decidedly unique texture that makes for excellent chow. When placed in the freezer, the water in tofu—each block is about 85-90% water, depending on the firmness—turns to ice, which changes the landscape of the protein structure. When that ice is then defrosted and drained, the tofu’s texture completely changes. The end result is significantly spongier than you’d typically find the block of bean curd—we’re talking less tough than steak or chicken or even seitan, but firm and chewy nonetheless.
But that texture is just the beginning. Japanese cooks utilize frozen tofu in a dish known as Ichiya-dofu, or Night-Dried Tofu, where defrosted tofu is simmered in a dashi-based liquid. The tofu is cooled in the liquid, where it shows its true potential. The tofu’s new spongy texture also applies to its ability to absorb sauce. Where even the best-pressed tofu still can never seem to soak up much marinade or sauce, frozen and re-pressed tofu takes on flavored liquid willingly. You’ll be delighted to find that instead of pouring your favorite stir-fry sauce or saucy glaze over cooked tofu, as the ingredients cook together, the tofu will suck it right up, truly taking on those flavors.
To get the best, ready-to-absorb-sauce texture, drain a package of tofu and press out as much water as you can—wrap the tofu in kitchen towels and place a few heavy books over it, or use a tofu press. Slice the tofu into your desired shape, then pat dry again with towels. Place the tofu on a sheet pan, ensuring that the pieces aren’t touching (if they are, they’ll all stick together as they freeze) and freeze solid, about an hour or two. Transfer the frozen tofu to a container and freeze until you’re ready to use, after which you can defrost the tofu in the fridge for a few hours. To really ensure the tofu’s new texture will soak up all your sauce, pat it dry again after it’s totally defrosted. —Rebecca Firkser.
Ingredients send grocery list
- 1 (14-ounce) package extra-firm tofu, drained, cut into 1/2-inch planks and frozen overnight (see Author Notes)
- 3 large garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons honey
- 2 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
- 1 tablespoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 lemon, zested and juiced
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon Mexican-style hot sauce, like Cholula
- 1/4 cup neutral oil, such as grapeseed or peanut
- 1 cup baby arugula
- 3 ciabatta rolls, toasted
- Completely defrost tofu and pat dry with kitchen towels.
- Grate 2 cloves garlic into a medium shallow bowl or casserole dish. Whisk in honey, vinegar, ginger, paprika, half the lemon zest and all but 1 teaspoon lemon juice. Add few good pinches of kosher salt and grate a few turns of black pepper. Place tofu in the dish with the marinade and flip the tofu around until it’s fully coated. Let marinate for at least 15 minutes.
- Grate remaining garlic clove into a small bowl. Whisk in mayonnaise, Cholula, remaining lemon zest, and juice. Season with salt and set aside.
- Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high. Cook tofu undisturbed until golden brown, about 4-5 minutes per side, then transfer onto a plate. (Halve oil and tofu and cook in two batches if need be!)
- Lightly toast the bread, then spread bottoms and tops with mayonnaise mixture. Layer tofu and arugula over the bottom, then close the sandwiches.