This salt and pepper tofu recipe is inspired by salt and pepper shrimp (椒鹽蝦), which is a very popular dish in Chinese restaurants. I cook the tofu in a similar way as salt and pepper shrimp: coat the tofu pieces with cornstarch, shallow fry the tofu, then toss the fried tofu with dry seasoning.
You’ll want to use ground white pepper in this recipe instead of black pepper. Chinese-style salt and pepper dishes get their distinct peppery flavor from ground white pepper (胡椒粉). White peppercorns are similar to black peppercorns in that they come from the same plant. However, white peppercorns are soaked before they’re dried. The soaking process removes the outer layer of the peppercorn, leaving a peppercorn with a brighter and more intense flavor.
In my salt and pepper tofu recipe below, I season the tofu with a mixture of kosher salt, ground white pepper, and ground shiitake mushrooms for umami flavor. For the ground shiitake mushroom powder, I ground 2 shiitake mushrooms in my spice grinder, a process that I explain further below. The tofu tastes a little bland without extra umami flavor, which is why I added the shiitake mushroom powder.
HOW TO MAKE SALT AND PEPPER TOFU
WHAT TYPE OF TOFU TO USE
I prefer to use a very dense style of tofu for this dish because the tofu is not as porous. Consequently, I don’t need to worry about moisture coming out from the center of the tofu cubes and getting into the hot oil during the frying process. Moisture in hot oil can cause the oil to splatter everywhere.
Confusingly, this type of dense tofu can be labeled as “super-firm tofu” or “firm tofu” depending on the brand.
There are 2 main types of super-firm tofu that you can find at the supermarket. Some brands like House Foods packages super-firm tofu in a plastic tray with the tofu block soaking in a lot of water. Other brands like Nasoya sell sprouted super-firm tofu in a huge thick brick that is shrink-wrapped. I’ve found that tofu that comes in these large bricks to be chewier.
By the way, if you are using House Foods super-firm tofu, you’ll need about 1 1/2 packages of tofu. You can use the remaining tofu for smoothies, teriyaki tofu, or as the filling for my gluten-free crystal-skin dumplings.
If you went to an Asian supermarket and bought tofu made by a local Chinese tofu producer, this dense style of tofu is usually labeled as “firm tofu” and comes in shrink-wrapped packages. If you feel and press the tofu gently, you can tell that the tofu is dense. Hodo, which is available in many supermarkets, also labels this style of tofu as “firm tofu.” Again, their “firm tofu” is shrink-wrapped.
I understand how selecting the proper tofu can be very confusing. If you are still unsure about which tofu to buy, look for packages that say something like “no pressing required” on the label.
PREPARE THE TOFU
Drain the tofu from the package and wrap the tofu in a cloth or paper towels. Give the tofu a gentle squeeze and just let the wrapped tofu sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes as you prep the rest of the ingredients for the dish.
Then, unwrap the tofu and cut the tofu into rough 3/4-inch cubes. Don’t worry if they’re not perfect. As you can see in the photo above, mine aren’t perfectly uniform.
In a small bowl, combine 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch with 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt. Sprinkle half of the cornstarch mixture over the tofu and toss everything together until you don’t see much dry cornstarch. Sprinkle the rest of the cornstarch over the tofu and toss again.
PREPARE THE SEASONING
Mix 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, and 3/4 teaspoon shiitake mushroom powder together in a bowl and set it aside.
Make the shiitake mushroom powder by breaking up 2 dried shiitake mushrooms into small pieces with a kitchen mallet or meat tenderizer. Then, transfer the shiitake mushroom pieces to a spice grinder. I usually use an electric coffee grinder (affiliate link) that I dedicate to grinding spices. There will be some tiny pieces of mushroom that somehow manage to avoid the blades. You can pass the mushroom powder through a strainer or sifter to extract those mushroom pieces. You won’t use all the mushroom powder in the recipe, so save the rest in a jar for later.
FRY THE TOFU
For this recipe, I recommend shallow frying the tofu inside a wok with 1/2 cup of canola oil. That way, you won’t waste too much oil for frying.
Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat, until the oil reaches 375ºF. This should take about 2 minutes. I usually use my thermometer to test the heat of the oil. If you don’t have a thermometer, you can rip off a small piece of tofu and toss it into the oil. If it sizzles rapidly, the oil should be hot enough for frying.
Given the relatively small amount of oil in the wok, fry the tofu in 3 or 4 batches. Carefully lower 1/4 to 1/3 of the tofu cubes into the wok, making sure not to overcrowd the wok with tofu. Fry the tofu for about 2 to 3 minutes, until the bottoms are lightly golden. Use tongs to flip the tofu and fry the other side for another 2 minutes.
Use a spider spatula to remove the tofu from the wok and transfer it to a cooling rack. I don’t like transferring the fried tofu to a plate because the heat from the tofu can cause the tofu to steam at the bottom, turning the tofu soggy. Continue frying the remaining pieces. The subsequent batches might take slightly less time to fry.
TIP TO KEEP TOFU WARM
Because you’re frying the tofu in 4 batches, the first batch of tofu might be cool by the time you finish frying the last batch. You can heat the oven to 185ºF and place the cooling rack over a large baking sheet. Then, transfer the baking sheet into the oven.
After you fry a batch of tofu, transfer the fried tofu to the cooling rack inside the oven. The heat in the oven will keep the tofu pieces warm.
SEASON THE TOFU
Once you have fried all the tofu, pour the hot oil into a heat safe bowl, leaving about 2 teaspoons of oil in the wok. You can use the oil to stir fry other dishes the same day. Once cooled, you can transfer the oil to a jar and refrigerate it. Try to use the oil in the next few days and make sure to strain the oil to remove any solids before transferring the oil to a jar.
Heat the wok over medium-high heat and fry minced garlic for 1 to 2 minutes, until most of the pieces are lightly golden but not brown. Transfer the fried garlic to a bowl.
Drizzle 1 tablespoon of hot oil in the wok and fry sliced red chili peppers for about 2 minutes, until they start to soften. Then, add the scallions and cook them for 10 to 15 seconds, until they start to soften. Transfer all this to the bowl with the garlic.
Now, transfer the tofu back to the wok and pour the salt and pepper seasoning over the tofu pieces and toss everything together. Pour the garlic, pepper, and scallions over the tofu and toss everything together. Taste the tofu. If you want more pepper flavor, add another 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of white pepper.
ALTERNATIVE COOKING METHOD: PAN-FRYING
For those of you who prefer not to shallow fry the tofu, you can pan fry it. If you pan fry the tofu, it is not necessary to coat the tofu with cornstarch. The cornstarch will actually add more hassle because you need to pan fry all sides of the tofu to ensure that there isn’t any raw cornstarch left of the tofu. Pan frying all sides of the tofu will take more time, and I don’t think it is worth the hassle.
I recommend cutting up the tofu into larger pieces like the triangles in my teriyaki tofu recipe or large rectangles that are about 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick.
Because it takes longer to brown tofu with the pan-frying method, I suggest simply pan frying the 2 large sides of the tofu. Pan fry the first side in some oil for 3 to 4 minutes over medium-high heat, until golden brown. Then, flip the tofu pieces to the other side and pan fry for another 2 to 3 minutes. You can also pan fry the smaller sides of the tofu pieces, though it is not necessary.
Once you pan fry all the tofu pieces, you can fry the garlic, peppers, and scallions and season the tofu like you would the shallow-fried tofu.
One final note about pan-frying tofu: you can use extra-firm tofu for this pan-frying method. Just make sure to press the tofu for at least 20 to 30 minutes before pan-frying it.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH SALT AND PEPPER TOFU
- Chinese Garlic Green Beans
- Chinese Garlic Cucumber Salad
- Chinese Stir Fried Shredded Potatoes (Tudou Si)
- Roasted Asparagus
Salt and Pepper Tofu (椒鹽豆腐)
- 1 pound super-firm tofu, see note 1
- 2 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch, see note 2
- 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, add more to taste
- 3/4 teaspoon shiitake mushroom powder, see note 3
- 1/2 cup canola oil, any neutral oil works too
- 3 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 or 2 red chili peppers, such as Fresno peppers, sliced (optional)
- 3 tablespoons sliced scallions
- large bowl
- 2 small bowls
- spider spatula
- cooling rack
- large baking sheet
- Drain the tofu from the package and wrap it with a cloth or paper towels. Give the tofu a gentle squeeze so that the cloth or paper towels absorb the extra moisture. Let the tofu sit on the counter for 10 to 15 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Cut up the tofu into small, roughly 3/4-inch cubes. They don’t need to be perfectly uniform. Then, transfer the tofu cubes to a large bowl.
- In a small bowl, mix the cornstarch and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Sprinkle half of the cornstarch mixture over the tofu and toss to coat. When you no longer see any dry cornstarch, sprinkle the remaining cornstarch mixture and toss again.
- In another bowl, mix the remaining 1 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, and 3/4 teaspoon shiitake mushroom powder. Set it aside.
- Pour the canola oil into a wok over medium-high heat. Once the temperature of the oil reaches 375ºF, the oil is hot enough for frying (it should take about 2 minutes). If you don’t have a thermometer, you can also test the temperature of the oil by pinching a tiny piece of tofu and carefully adding it to the wok. If the tofu sizzles rapidly, the oil is hot enough.
- Fry the tofu in 3 or 4 batches. Carefully transfer 1/4 or 1/3 of the tofu into the wok. Don’t overcrowd the wok with tofu or else the tofu won’t fry properly. Fry the tofu for about 2 minutes, until the bottoms of the tofu start to brown. Using tongs, carefully flip the tofu over. Fry for another 2 minutes or so, until the tofu looks golden. Use a spider spatula to scoop up the fried tofu. Give the spatula a few shakes to shake out any excess oil. Transfer the fried tofu to the cooling rack. (See note 4 on how to keep tofu warm.)
- Add another batch of tofu into the wok to fry. The tofu may brown more quickly than the first batch because oil is likely hotter now. You can reduce the heat to medium if you find the tofu is browning too quickly. Transfer the fried tofu to the cooling rack and repeat.
- Once all the tofu cubes are fried, turn off the heat. Pour the hot oil into a heat-safe bowl, leaving about 2 teaspoons of oil in the wok. (See note 5 for information on what to do with the fried oil.)
- Turn the heat to medium. Then, transfer the minced garlic to the wok and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until most of the garlic is lightly golden. Turn off the heat and transfer the garlic to a bowl.
- Heat the wok on medium. Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil that you used for frying tofu into the wok. Next, add the sliced red chili peppers, if using. Sauté the peppers for 1 to 2 minutes, until they start to soften. Then, add the scallions and sauté everything for another 10 to 15 seconds to soften the scallions. Transfer the peppers and scallions to the bowl with the garlic.
- Add the fried tofu back to the wok. Sprinkle the salt and pepper seasoning over the tofu, and toss to coat the tofu with the spices. Taste a piece of tofu and add more salt, white pepper, or mushroom powder if necessary. Pour the garlic, peppers, and scallions over the tofu, saving some fried garlic to sprinkle over the tofu as garnish. Toss everything together.
- Turn off the heat and transfer the tofu to a serving bowl. Sprinkle the remaining fried garlic over the tofu pieces. Serve the salt and pepper tofu immediately. This dish goes well with my jasmine rice, egg fried rice, kimchi fried rice, Chinese garlic green beans and/or Chinese garlic cucumber salad.
- I prefer to use dense tofu for this dish because the tofu isn’t porous. I don’t need to worry about water releasing from the tofu and into the hot oil during the frying process. Confusingly, some brands like House Foods call this “super-firm” tofu while others like Hodo call it “firm tofu”, which usually comes in shrink-wrapped packages. Read the blog post for more information about this. Look for tofu with statements like “no pressing required” on the label. That’s usually a cue that the tofu is dense.
- I do not recommend substituting the cornstarch with potato or tapioca starch. I found that those starches turn slightly gelatinous in the hot oil and don’t actually crisp up the tofu as well as cornstarch.
- Make the shiitake mushroom powder by breaking up 2 dried shiitake mushrooms into small pieces with a kitchen mallet or meat tenderizer. Then, transfer the shiitake mushroom pieces to a spice grinder. I usually use an electric coffee grinder (affiliate link) that I dedicate to grinding spices. There will be some tiny pieces of mushroom that somehow manage to avoid the blades. You can pass the mushroom powder through a strainer or sifter to extract those mushroom pieces. You won’t use all the mushroom powder in the recipe, so save the rest in a jar for later.
- I don’t like transferring the fried tofu directly onto plates because the heat of the tofu will steam the bottom side, turning the tofu soggy. Because you are cooking the tofu in 3 or 4 batches, the first batch of tofu may turn cool by the time you cook the last batch. You can heat up your oven to 185ºF. Place the cooling rack on top of a large baking sheet and transfer the baking sheet to the oven. After you fry a batch of tofu, transfer it to the cooling rack in the oven. You can remove the tofu from the oven when you are ready to toss it with the dry seasoning.
- You can use the oil to stir fry other dishes the same day. Once cooled, you can transfer the oil to a jar and refrigerate it. Try to use the oil in the next few days and make sure to strain the oil to remove any solids before transferring the oil to a jar.
- Pan-Frying Directions: You can pan fry the tofu instead of deep frying it. Cut the tofu into large rectangles or triangles. You do not need to cover the tofu with cornstarch. Pan fry the 2 large sides of the tofu pieces over medium-heat until golden brown. Then, season the tofu the same way as the shallow-fried tofu. Read the blog post for more details.
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