Let's assume that I have two identical pans, with equal amounts of oil in each, and two practically identical slices of tofu (or whatever else, but I'm referring to items that would be more spongiform like tempeh, seitan, etc). Further, I would like a crisply browned, non-oily filet to come off the pan.

In this experiment, the independent variable is that one is heated to medium (a generally specified temperature for frying tofu), and one is nice and heated up for searing;

  • If I apply the tofu to both pans and let each one stay on the heat for as long as it takes to brown equally, will one absorb more oil than the other?

For further detail;

  • Does the moisture level impact oil-aversion?
  • If so, will a wetter block cause less oil absorption?
  • Would a dusting of flour or quick rub of salt benefit one or the other method?
  • Just out of curiosity, why is the amount of oil absorbed important? – Mien Feb 16 '12 at 19:55
  • @Mien mostly because I'm interested in the chemistry behind it, but I can see a lot of people going veg*n doing so out of health concerns and wanting to min-max the calories and fat intake – mfg Feb 16 '12 at 19:56
  • In terms of tagging this vegan/vegetarian - meta.cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/21/… – rfusca Feb 16 '12 at 20:48
  • @rfusca I'm not trying to rack up entries here, this question is specifically aimed at vegans, vegetarians, and anyone else who would have experience cooking with tofu and other similar spongiform materials. My tagging is in line with Robert's consideration. There are a variety of corollary bits of information that frying/searing meats could offer, however I assume that as I have more experience frying tofu now that I am vegan, vegans would generally be better at answering this question with quality and depth of experience. – mfg Feb 16 '12 at 21:30
  • What's vegetarian about this, probably most people who use tofu are non-vegetarian? – TFD Feb 16 '12 at 21:55

Higher temperatures, as a rule, mean less absorption of oil because the force of the steam trying to escape from the food pushes against the oil. Here is a link to a scholarly article discussing the mechanics of fat absorption in the production of french fries (complete with a table of results and diagrams). Interestingly, the author says that potatoes deep fried at more than ten degrees Celsius below the recommended temperature of 180-185C leads to 40% higher fat uptake. I expect pan-frying leads to a much lower total uptake of fat, but I am sure the principle is the same.

(For a fun explanation of the mechanics, here's Alton Brown in part II of the "Man Food" episode of Good Eats. Enjoy.)

Now, your question was aimed at tofu (or some spongy equivalent), and you asked about the effects of flour vs no flour. I could not find any articles with data on those exact elements of your question, but I suspect the answers will all derive from the same underlying principles. In other words, as a rule, cooking at low or medium heat means that the spongy and/or dredged product will tend to absorb more fat than at high heat.

So, then, why do the recipes you have seen typically call for cooking tofu on "medium" heat? My guess is that the recipe authors found that high heat makes the outside brown too much by the time the inside is "done" to the authors' preferences -- and perhaps a little extra oil in the tofu makes it taste better. I am not sure, however, because most of the recipes I've seen call for searing a crust onto the tofu using medium-high heat.

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  • Exactly what I was looking for in an answer. I think your reasoning behind heat preferences is spot on. – mfg Feb 17 '12 at 14:16

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