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COOKING FOR TWO: Cornstarch is key to keeping the crunch in tofu

by Melissa Clark, The New York Times | January 12, 2022 at 2:17 a.m.
Crispy Tofu With Balsamic Tomatoes (New York Times/Kate Sears)

I used to be convinced that the only way to get truly crisp tofu was to fry it.

I'd roasted it and broiled it, but I was never able to achieve those burnished, crisp corners that a pan full of screaming-hot oil reliably delivered.

Then I tried a technique from Jenny Rosenstrach's excellent cookbook, "The Weekday Vegetarians," and everything changed.

The method involved coating tofu cubes with a mix of oil and cornstarch before roasting them at high heat. It was the cornstarch that made the difference. When roasted without it, the tofu turns brown but stays soft. It's the starch that adds the crunch, without splattering oil all over my stove and floor the way frying would. I was hooked.

The beauty of this recipe, other than the crunch, is how adaptable it is. You can spike the cornstarch mix with all kinds of seasonings. Rosenstrach uses soy sauce. For this recipe, I added a mix of garlic powder and oregano. I've also tried preparing it with other spices or citrus zest, a dash of fish sauce or another of chile oil, and they worked beautifully, too.

Similarly, you can use either extra-firm or firm tofu. Extra-firm gets crunchier on the outside, but stays more rigid inside. Firm has a more pillowlike and squishy core. Just avoid soft tofu, which holds too much moisture to really brown.

Once you've got the crisp and salty tofu cubes, there's loads of ways to use them — as croutons on a salad, stuffed into sandwiches, mixed into stir-fried vegetables, eaten by the handful when no one is looking (try to save some for dinner).

In this version, I added tomatoes and onions to the baking pan. Then, to lend a fruity, bright note, I drizzled the vegetables with balsamic vinegar, which condensed into a sweet-tart glaze.

You can swap other vegetables for the tomatoes and onions, just as long as they'll cook in the same amount of time as the tofu — 25-35 minutes. Try chunks of mushroom, cauliflower florets, red pepper strips or thin slices of winter squash.

This recipe serves two hungry people or three moderately hungry ones. All in all, this does take longer than frying, but any extra cooking time is made up for by less cleanup time, a trade-off I'm always willing to make for a dinner this good.

  photo  A coating of cornstarch and oil plus a long stint in a hot oven mimics the deep fryer for this tofu sheet-pan dinner. (New York Times/Kate Sears)  Crispy Tofu With Balsamic Tomatoes

  • 1 (14- to 16-ounce) package extra-firm or firm tofu, cut crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided use
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, divided use
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use, plus more for finishing
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano, divided use
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved if large, kept whole if small
  • 1 large red onion, cut into 1/4-inch wedges (about 2 cups)
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1 ½ teaspoons balsamic vinegar, plus more for finishing
  • ½ cup fresh cilantro or parsley leaves and tender stems, roughly chopped

Heat oven to 400 degrees and line a sheet pan with parchment paper.

Arrange tofu slices on a clean kitchen towel or on paper towels. Cover with another kitchen towel (or paper towels) and place a flat cutting board or baking pan on top. If your cutting board or pan is lightweight, stack a few cans or a skillet on top to weigh it down. Let tofu drain for 15 to 45 minutes.

Transfer tofu to a cutting board and cut slabs into 1-inch cubes. Pat them dry with paper towels and season both sides of the tofu with half of the salt and black pepper.

In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together 1 tablespoon oil, cornstarch, garlic powder (if using) and half of the oregano. Add tofu to cornstarch mixture and gently toss until tofu is evenly coated. Dump tofu onto one side of the prepared sheet pan.

In a large bowl, toss together tomatoes, onion, garlic, balsamic vinegar, remaining oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle in the remaining 2 tablespoons of the oil, tossing to combine.

Arrange vegetables on other side of the prepared sheet pan. Bake until tofu is crisp and golden brown, and tomatoes are condensed, 25-35 minutes. Halfway through baking, flip tofu and toss vegetables while keeping the tofu and vegetables separate.

To serve, sprinkle cilantro on top and drizzle with balsamic and oil, if you'd like.

Makes 2 to 3 servings.


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