Air fryer tofu nuggets get flavor from a freezing trick — and a sauce

You may have heard of a trick involving freezing tofu that magically transforms it into something palatable.

I have some issues with that framing, namely that tofu requires any transformation whatsoever to taste great. Apologies to Billy Joel, but I love tofu just the way it is: clean and mild and able to fit in with the flavors of whatever dish it’s in. It’s the fresh mozzarella (or the boneless, skinless chicken breast, if that’s more your speed) of soy products. For nearly 2,000 years, Asian recipes have used this quality to demonstrate its versatility.

I used to think you had to do so much to tofu to add flavor. All that pressing, all that marinating (much of it, honestly, to little or no avail). The trick all along, I finally learned, is to concentrate on adding flavors to the exterior of the tofu, flavors so powerful that the mildness inside is a nice counterpoint. I’m thinking about such recipes as Maangchi’s wonderful sticky, spicy tofu, which gets its crunchy exterior texture from potato starch and incredible flavor from a gochujang glaze.

Get the recipe: Air Fryer Tofu Nuggets With Honey-Mustard Sauce

But just because tofu doesn’t have to be transformed doesn’t mean it can’t be from time to time, if only for a change of pace. And freezing and thawing tofu does change its character significantly, making it perhaps a little chewier and definitely a lot spongier, the latter quality helping it take up any marinade you toss it in, pretty much instantaneously.

That’s why this technique is sometimes used for recipes where the tofu is playing the part of plant-based “meat.” After it defrosts, you can use your hands to easily squeeze the extra liquid out of it, making room for you to inject your own flavors through and through.

In fact, tofu treated this way sometimes takes up the flavor of a marinade too easily, as I discovered when I started playing around with a “nugget” idea. In my first several attempts, I kept having to dilute a soy-sauce-based marinade more and more, because the nuggets tasted like sodium bombs. Once I got that balance right, I realized another issue: That absorbed marinade also ran the risk of making the tofu a little soggy. Spongy is good; wet sponge is bad.

I settled on squeezing liquid from the tofu twice: once before marinating and once after. Enough of the flavor remains to season the cubes from the inside out.

Then: How to cook them? I took a cue from chicken nuggets and dipped these in yogurt, coated them in panko and air-fried them until GBD (golden brown and delicious, to use a restaurant-industry term). Like any good nugget, I knew they’d appreciate a dipping sauce, so I made my favorite: honey-mustard, made in a jiffy with just three ingredients. Since these are so well-seasoned, the sauce is a welcome bonus, not a dire necessity.

Could you make these nuggets with tofu that you’ve merely patted dry, coated and fried, without the freezing and defrosting? Sure. Would you miss out on some of the fun and flavor? Indeed.

Get the recipe: Air Fryer Tofu Nuggets With Honey-Mustard Sauce

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