Take your time: tips for cooking with tofu from a Pittsburgh sous chef | Pittsburgh City Paper

Take your time: tips for cooking with tofu from a Pittsburgh sous chef

click to enlarge Take your time: tips for cooking with tofu from a Pittsburgh sous chef
Kimberly Rooney 高小荣
Tofu dandan noodles
The pandemic forced a shift in many people’s relationships to food — ordering in rather than going out to eat, cooking more often, or, in some cases, simply learning to cook.

For me, the pandemic represented an opportunity to improve my repertoire of tofu recipes. A little more than a year later, I’ve expanded my list of go-to tofu recipes, but for more concrete advice, I talked to Alex VanLaningham, who has worked as a sous chef at or, The Whale and Fairlane.

“You have to accept from the beginning, you're gonna screw it up sometimes,” VanLaningham says. “And that's OK.”

I’ve been mostly vegetarian since the fall of 2018, with some exceptions for Chinese dishes, and I’ve had my fair share of food failures, from soggy, flavorless tofu to charred and burned tofu. Most Americans are meat-eaters, and the common knowledge for protein preparation centers on meat.

In some households, tofu is rarely or never used. My childhood home fell into this category, making it difficult to start from scratch. In the U.S., tofu, made from coagulating soy milk and pressing the curds, often gets a bad reputation for its taste and texture, yet it’s a common and delicious ingredient in many other cultures’ cuisines.

The pandemic led to several lay-offs that left me with more time, but social distancing cut me off from engaging with my Chinese identity through spending time with other Chinese people. Feeling adrift, I decided to ground myself by learning to cook more Chinese dishes, some of which originally call for tofu while others are traditionally meat-based recipes. For the latter, I decided to experiment with substituting meat for tofu.

Stepping outside of my comfort zone of cooking meant reevaluating how I needed to buy, store, and prepare food. But for VanLaningham, this is a key step for those who want to become vegetarian or include more tofu in their diets.

“If someone wants to realign their diet, I think that the first thing that they need to do is really realign their relationship with food,” VanLaningham says.
click to enlarge Take your time: tips for cooking with tofu from a Pittsburgh sous chef
Kimberly Rooney 高小荣
Tofu and wood ear mushroom rice bowl
Several roads led VanLaningham to vegetarianism, from his partner, who is vegetarian and lactose intolerant, to his interest in related issues such as global warming and factory farming. His experiences as a chef also influenced him, particularly when a cooler broke at or, The Whale, ruining thousands of dollars of dry-aged beef he had been working on.

“I realized that all these cows kind of died for nothing, you know?” VanLaningham says. “And it was really upsetting for so many reasons, but I knew right then that I should really cut down on how much I attached my life to meat consumption.”

While it was impossible to be fully vegetarian during his time working as a cook, the pandemic has given VanLaningham time to experiment and perfect his tofu techniques. For him, the key to cooking with tofu, like any process, takes a little time to turn into a routine. With that in mind, one can explore the versatile potential of tofu.

“Saying 'I don't like tofu' is kind of like saying 'I don't like pasta.' There’s an uncountable number of ways to make pasta,” VanLaningham says. “Tofu is very similar. It's a blank slate that you can add to your meal in any way in any flavor combination that you really want it to be.”

Just as meat requires seasoning — and sometimes thawing — tofu also requires preparation. Pressing tofu confounded me at first. Most articles suggested I buy a tofu press, which I had neither the money nor space for, but VanLaningham has an easier, cheaper solution: “sheet tray, grate, paper towel, tofu, paper towel, and then cast iron skillet. Or two.”

VanLaningham sometimes uses a stack of books or bricks wrapped in aluminum foil. Regardless of what you use to press your tofu, the key is to create even pressure that won’t crush the tofu. The length of time you leave it to press depends on the texture you want from the tofu and can range from 20 minutes to an hour, although, according to VanLaningham, anything past an hour and 10 minutes likely isn’t worth the time.

While it’s possible to press tofu on a cutting board or plate, setting it on a grate can help it dry even further. Alternative methods for drying tofu include putting it on a grate in the freezer, where the water expands and presses the tofu as it freezes, leaving you with tearable chunks of dry tofu. When marinating tofu beforehand, you can also dry tofu in an air fryer or oven with a catch-pan underneath, although VanLaningham doesn’t recommend buying an air fryer solely for this purpose.

For those short on flavoring time, Asian markets such as Lotus Food Company and WFH Oriental Market in the Strip District sell a wide array of tofu, including pre-baked and pre-marinated. While it may be difficult to get to the Strip, especially for students or people who don’t have cars, tofu has a shelf life of two-to-three months, allowing you to stock up in just one visit.

Just as pressing the tofu takes time, so does seasoning it. Letting tofu soak in a marinade before pressing it can help flavor the bean curd, but blending spices in with arrowroot powder or cornstarch before frying can also add flavor while also reducing clumping during the coating process.
click to enlarge Take your time: tips for cooking with tofu from a Pittsburgh sous chef
Kimberly Rooney 高小荣
Tofu and white mushroom crumble over rice
“Don't be shy with your seasoning, because you're not going to overdo it,” VanLaningham says. “You can over-salt … but it's really hard to over-garlic something, you know, it's really hard to over-onion something.”

He recommends at least 30% of the seasoning-starch mixture should be spices, and to add spices to the mixture while coating the tofu in small batches. To further reduce clumping, pat down the tofu after breaking or cutting it into smaller pieces. When cooking, add tofu in small batches to avoid lowering the heat of the oil and try to avoid excess coating mixture getting into the frying pan.

“When you introduce a fat-like oil into a thickener ... what you’re actually creating is a roux,” VanLaningham says. “You're creating mass in the pan that's going to also suck away heat from the tofu itself and you're going to get a much less crispy outside of the tofu. The oil can't get nearly as hot as it would otherwise without burning.”

Tofu is versatile simply as chunks or cubes, but its potential extends beyond that. VanLaningham loves to add silky tofu to Hollandaise sauce, and his favorite tofu experience was serving tofu “ricotta” lasagna to his Italian step-mother from the Mon Valley, who was shocked to find out what she was eating.

“That's my favorite thing I think, is just hearing, ‘Oh my god, this is vegan?’ from people I cook for,” VanLaningham says.

I now cook a rotation of tofu dandan noodles, tofu and mushroom rice bowls, and home-style tofu, but since I still have plenty of room for improvement, I’ll start with VanLaningham’s parting advice: “Good food, even at restaurants, does not happen quickly.”