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February 04, 2007

Cooking Question

By Ezra

So in a fit of culinary inspiration triggered by Bill Buford's Heat, I decided to give up my cheap non-stick saute pans for some serious, stainless steel cookware. Those were heady, exciting days, imagining the blisteringly quick convection of heat, the perfectly browned food, and the end of carcinogenic teflon flakes. They have not come to pass.

It's important to know that I primarily cook tofu, frying it in a tablespoon or two of olive oil till it develops a bit of delicious crust. My expectation was I'd be able to do this on slightly lower heat with the new pans, retaining more moisture in the soy itself. That's, uh, not happened. Instead, the steel cookware simply tears off the crisping, outer layer of the tofu, resulting in a dirty pan and soft, white cubes, rather than the beautifully browned chunks I'd been anticipating. I've tried superheating the oil, but that just makes the whole contraption catch on fire, albeit only for a moment or so (on the other hand, this seems to happen often in restaurants, so maybe it's to be expected)?

What am I doing wrong? How can I brown my tofu in my good pans, or is soy too wimpy and delicate for real cookware? And if so, what's the actual benefit of steel cookware? Better chefs than I seem to favor it, but why?

February 4, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

man, i haven't figured out how to brown my tofu either. i really like making pad thai, and so i cook extra firm tofu in some peanut sauce and then stirfry the noodles, but the tofu always crumbles, leaving some soft whiteness and some crispy edges all mixed in.

if you figure it out, post it so we can all learn how to properly feed ourselves!

Posted by: senior | Feb 4, 2007 9:38:51 PM

Not a chef, or even a good cook, but stainless is not a good choice for frying. Won't "season" at all.

I have good luck with cast iron. I have a wok that will rust overnight if not wiped down with oil on the inside and dried on the outside. It is much lighter than the cast and would do well with tofu. Seasoning leaves a carbonized coat that works very well as a non stick treatment.

The better teflon coating works well, just don't get it past 500 F or so.

Posted by: jeffreyw | Feb 4, 2007 9:48:22 PM

Never had much luck in stainless steel, though you can *reduce* the sticking if you keep the pan moving. Seasoned cast-iron should work OK, either a skillet or a wok.

Posted by: paperwight | Feb 4, 2007 9:49:33 PM

co on ebay or to an antique store, and get some of the old Griswold/Wagner cast iron pans. They season well and are plenty heavy dity for cooking.

Posted by: marceaumarcea | Feb 4, 2007 9:53:19 PM

Dunno about problems particular to cooking tofu, but for browning without major sticking I love my Calphalon anodized aluminum. My sis & BIL have the larger version of the set you got, and I've never gotten the knack of using it for sauteing, to be honest, although the saucepans are excellent.


Posted by: latts | Feb 4, 2007 10:02:11 PM

"go on ebay or to an antique store, and get some of the old Griswold/Wagner cast iron pans."

The beauty of cast iron is that any old cast iron is as good as any other.

Or in other words, go get yourself a cheap cast iron pan at any store whatsoever, do a google search on how to initially season it (far easier than you'd imagine), and welcome to the wonderful world of cast iron pan cooking.

I'm surprised you haven't gone cast iron already.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 4, 2007 10:06:27 PM

A tofu-cooking question on the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday! Now there's a guy who is confident in his masculinity.

Posted by: Sean Carroll | Feb 4, 2007 10:07:15 PM

Here's the wikipedia page on cast iron cookware...

Posted by: Petey | Feb 4, 2007 10:14:46 PM

Frankly, the estrogen in tofu is the only thing that properly balances my excess masculinity. Deprive me of that and it's like a live-action version of Grand Theft Auto 'round these parts.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 4, 2007 10:20:46 PM

Well, everybody's already recommended cast iron. I will too. Season it right and it will cook evenly, not stick, and last forever.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Feb 4, 2007 10:29:35 PM

For quick crisping, you need cast iron and/or a good wok. Stainless steel is excellent for a lot of things, but not for what you're trying to do to tofu.

Also, if you're into top-quality food writing, may I suggest the inimitable Michael Ruhlman.

Posted by: fiat lux | Feb 4, 2007 10:29:47 PM

"Well, everybody's already recommended cast iron. I will too. Season it right and it will cook evenly, not stick, and last forever."

Not to mention that it'll give vegans some of the iron they miss by not eating dead animal flesh.

-----

Also, one of the best part of using cast iron is how satisfying the whole process is. The ongoing seasoning of a cast iron pan makes it seem quite a bit like a living, organic thing. They're fun to cook with.

Posted by: Petey | Feb 4, 2007 10:37:06 PM

I have to repeat, get cast iron. Unless you're doing something exotic, press the tofu for an hour or so. If you're going for an outside crust, use plentiful heat, shake frequently, and involve more oil. One can also get the crusty exterior by baking it, but that only helps in some specific circumstances, usually soups. If you're going to stick (ahem) with the steel pan, use lots of oil. Really. My Reviere ware pan is what we use to make mao po tofu. Works fine, and actually ends up as greasy as one's good-but-not-hi-end restaurant equivilent. Tailoring that down is tricky, but a skill.

Posted by: fishbane | Feb 4, 2007 10:39:43 PM

Just use a lot of oil. Learning how to stir-fry tofu without it sticking to the bottom of the pan drove me f*cking nuts. The secret is lots of oil. Use way more than you think you'll need then reduce the amount once you're happy with the results.

Posted by: Chris Baker | Feb 4, 2007 10:45:45 PM

another benefit to cast iron skillets...
they are a very good cookware choice
for anemic vegetarians.

Posted by: jacqueline | Feb 4, 2007 10:54:27 PM

After I got my cast-iron skillet, I lost 30 pounds, grew back the hair on my head, and I was able to finish my degree in only 10 months!

Thanks, cast-iron skillet!

Posted by: Stephen | Feb 4, 2007 10:58:43 PM

Don't you work with Ackerman? I've heard he's some sort of cooking god.

Posted by: Eric the Political Hack | Feb 4, 2007 11:09:11 PM

keep it seasoned well. I have a love-hate relationship with my cast iron pan ($3 at a garage sale), and I think it's because I don't keep it well oiled. As long as it's seasoned properly, your pan will do you right.

I just did some nice seared tofu in my Caphalon anodized Al pan. No oil or anything, and it didn't tear at all.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Feb 4, 2007 11:10:50 PM

You really don't need a cast-iron skillet for this. Maybe if you wanted to roast the tofu, but cast iron for something like this is overkill.

Put some oil in the pan, enough to give a coat. Put on high heat, wait for the oil to get up to temperature, then sear the sides of your tofu. I've never cooked tofu and don't plan on it, but I imagine a minute per side on high heat will give you a good sear and a crusty outer layer. Be sure to move the tofu around or it will displace the oil and hit the pan. A couple of times over the course of the minute (or however long it takes to get a sear) should do. Once that's done, lower the heat to medium-low and sautee in the oil and whatever juice has come out of the tofu. That will cook the inside, and the sear will help keep the moisture in.

Of course, if you're doing small cubes of tofu, just put on high head and sautee at medium-high to high heat, moving them constantly, or use a lot of oil and a wok.

Posted by: Fnor | Feb 4, 2007 11:12:06 PM

"I've never cooked tofu and don't plan on it, but I imagine..."

Um...

Posted by: Petey | Feb 4, 2007 11:15:25 PM

Frankly, the estrogen in tofu is the only thing that properly balances my excess masculinity. Deprive me of that and it's like a live-action version of Grand Theft Auto 'round these parts.

Thank Dog the hippies kept you out of Viet Nam.

Posted by: fishbane | Feb 4, 2007 11:21:58 PM

we have some nice stainless steel cookware -- all-clad master chef, but when we are frying tofu, we use the wok. we have an old wok that is well seasoned, and it does the trick. heat it up really hot and use peanut oil. i've found that nigari tofu or extra firm tofu works best for frying. the softer varieties break up too easily.

some of the earlier comments about seasoning cookware are good. when i first got my wok, i'd always thoroughly dry it on the stove and then wipe it down with oil before putting it away.

Posted by: justinf | Feb 4, 2007 11:25:30 PM

I've never cooked tofu and don't plan on it, but I imagine a minute per side on high heat will give you a good sear and a crusty outer layer. Be sure to move the tofu around or it will displace the oil and hit the pan.

Well, I've never cooked dog, but I suspect the best way is to sear it raw, keep it firm, and serve rare. I'm sure dog is just like tofu, so that must work. The weirdos tell me to eat rice, so I tried that, and it is good under dogmeat!

In fact, more like 3 minutes at ~400F heat is likely to give you a good surface, on a grill like heat element. Texture depends on how you thin you make it., and how you divvy it up.

Posted by: fishbane | Feb 4, 2007 11:30:43 PM

I just read Buford's book, Heat, also. The overarching "message" of the book wasn't that the great chefs and artisans had superior equipment (remember the butcher shop hardly had any equipment at all besides the large grinder), it was their technique. Professional kitchens use stainless steel, but then again, professional kitchens are probably cooking on a gas burner rated 18,000 BTUs, while your home cook top is probably more like 6,000.

Cast iron will give you lovely results, but some people think that the maintenance is a drag. For equally good results, I would recommend anodized aluminum from Caphalon. That stuff rules. The main advantage is that it's absolutely no problem at all to maintain. Another advantage is it's an American company. And it doesn't weigh a ton.

Posted by: Andy Imboden | Feb 4, 2007 11:31:49 PM

At last, a discussion I'm actually qualified to take part in ....

Cuisinart was a poor choice of cookware, I'm sorry to tell you. When you're feeling flush, go and buy yourself some All-Clad (the brushed steel Master Chef stuff -- it'll last you 20 years at least). In the meantime, if you want to use cast-iron, Lodge is selling pre-seasoned cookware for mere pennies. It's in all the mega-mart stores, and probably online as well.

In order to develop a crust on something you're sauteeing, you need the right combination of fat, heat, space and moisture (lack of). You need to wick away moisture from the tofu, even the extra-firm stuff, because it will inhibit crust formation. One technique I've seen Alton Brown use with great success is to cut the tofu block in half horizontally [lay your palm on the top of the tofu, and carefully slice sidways halfway up the block]. Then place these two halves between a cotton tea towel or just some paper towels,and put some weights on it. A box of sugar, or a pan with some canned goods in it. Improvise -- the point is to compress the soy cakes.

After a few hours, preferably overnight -- you may have to experiment to see how dry you like it -- you can dice the tofu into cubes. Now you can saute. You shouldn't need two tablespoons of oil, one at the most, but whatever. You need to get the oil suitably hot. So over a medium-high heat, get the oil to shimmer. This will take several minutes. It's "shimmering" when you can see slight horizontal rippling in the surface of the oil. If wisps of smoke are rising from the pan, it's at the "smoking" stage, probably too hot for this. Just lift the pan from the burner to cool it down.

Okay, now that your tofu is prepared (you might want to marinate for half an hour beforehand, just to give it flavor, but it's not essential), and your oil is hot [use a good fat -- peanut, sunflower, high oleic safflower, olive, canola] you can saute your tofu until golden. This should take no time at all, maybe 2 minutes. You should have golden brown tofu at the end.

Oh, don't crowd the pan. To saute you must leave room all around or else things steam.

Bon appetit! I hope this helps.

Posted by: Klio | Feb 4, 2007 11:41:57 PM

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