Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Vegan Tofu 'Bacon'


Before I even get started, I feel I need to set the record straight: I eat bacon, real, pork belly, smoked, fried in a pan bacon. I know what bacon tastes like, it has been less than a week since I had my last delicious rasher, and while I feel a tad bit guilty admitting that to what could potentially be a completely vegan audience (all six of you) there is some merit in that as well. I am not duped into thinking something is as good as bacon if it is not and to be perfectly honest, tofu 'bacon', like that made from turkey, is not bacon. It is, at its best, a satisfying alternative should you find yourself in a situation where you can not, do not, or should not eat the real thing.

However one gets to the crossroads of choosing tofu 'bacon' over pork bacon is irrelevant, what is important is that the substitute comes as close as possible to the real thing with as little effort as possible. There are choices in this effort arena as well. If ease of preparation and limited time are of the utmost interest to you, there are a few recipes, like this one, similar to this, and just about exactly like this one here, that in all honesty are acceptable options. The shortcomings with these recipes is simply that they taste a lot like a piece of fried tofu with some bacon flavored sauce poured on it, (which by the way, is exactly what they are) but inside bread, smothered with vegan mayonnaise, sandwiched between tomatoes and lettuce that's okay. I was in search of a little better than 'okay'.

There is an actual chemical reaction in the brain that causes the phenomenon we all recognize as 'bacon mania' attributed to the Maillard Reaction, which is a rather lackluster way to describe the chemical reaction of amino acids and sugar to produce a browning effect, usually as a result of heat. Bacon's appeal however runs much deeper than a gorgeous red-brown color. Famously cited by Arun Gupta of The Indypendent as possessing six ingredient types of umami, the term used to describe flavor beyond what the taste buds discerns as sweet, salty, sour, or bitter; Gupta equates the umami of bacon with that of addiction, a neurochemical reaction in the brain that makes bacon unequivocal to other foods in terms of taste. It makes sense then that it takes a bit more effort than frying bean curd and tossing it with sauce to compete with an extraordinary flavor profile like bacon. 

The challenge to transform umami-desolate tofu into anything close to 'bacon' requires both a manipulation of flavor packing ingredients along with a bit of planning and attention to cooking technique. Since umami is a fascination of mine, I knew that components such as cooking sherry, tomato paste, balsamic vinegar, and soy sauce all give a punch by themselves but their umami-ness multiplies when they are used together. The results, to my palate at least, are a clear success in the 'addictive' category, as I found myself returning to the plate to sample these tasty little fried strips far more times than I expected. Was it crisp mouth-watering bacon? No, but neurochemically I'd say it was close. 
Admittedly, tofu does not really get crisp, certainly not in a traditional bacon sense, but this method does create a nice chew that mimics that of thick-cut bacon and has an appealing 'meat-like' mouth feel.  

My favorite firm tofu comes in a 19 oz package and is pre-cut into four blocks. This brand is available at the local Asian market for a fraction of the cost of tofu available at the grocery store.  
Press the tofu by placing several paper towels under the blocks, wrapping them up around the edges and placing a few more on top. Set something heavy on it (cookie sheets also work well for this) to force out some of the extra water. Tofu with less water content is less likely to crumble, cooks in less time, and absorbs more marinade.
Slice the tofu as evenly as possible into 1/4 inch strips, thinner slices will cook more quickly but break up too easily during the marinade process. Place slices into the marinade as shown to keep them from sticking together.
Once the marinade vessel begins to fill beyond capacity with tofu, carefully pour the contents into a plastic bag and carefully lay any remaining tofu pieces on top, turning the bag carefully to submerge them in the mix. Allow the tofu to marinate overnight in the refrigerator, turning occasionally to be sure all pieces are equally coated.
Arrange the tofu, along with the liquid marinade on a greased cookie sheet in one even layer. The tofu is somewhat fragile at this stage, so it takes just a bit of finesse to keep them from breaking up. Experimenting with cooking technique revealed the high temperature in the oven optimally dried out the tofu which greatly improved the texture while reducing the marinade and intensifying the bacon flavor.
Tofu contains a lot of water, it takes a significant cook time to dehydrate it to a meat like consistency. After 25 minutes, the tofu should be firm enough to turn over. Flip the tofu pieces and return to the oven to bake an additional 10 minutes. 
When tofu looks adequately browned and 'crisped' sprinkle with nutritional yeast and black pepper, tossing to coat thoroughly and allowing the  residual heat and oil on the pan to help the yeast melt into the tofu. The yeast is a fermented product that creates a salivatory effect on the tongue, another punch of umami. 
Remove the tofu strips to a paper towel lined plate to blot up any extra oil left on the surface of the tofu but do not leave it between layers to steam, remove to a plate to cool and serve. Tofu 'bacon' has the best flavor at room temperature.
I would love to know of any further enhancements someone might attempt, while keeping within the vegan constraints of strictly non-animal based ingredients, so please let me know in the form of comments below as to your discoveries!

Vegan Tofu 'Bacon'

19 ounces tofu, drained, pressed, and cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup soy sauce (reduced sodium can be used but gives a slightly less authentic bacon saltiness)
1/4 cup cooking sherry
1/2 tablespoon brown sugar (double if you prefer sweeter 'bacon')
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
1/4 cup canola oil
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
black pepper to taste


  1. Mix together soy sauce, sherry, brown sugar, tomato paste, vinegar, and liquid smoke in a 2 cup or larger measuring cup. Whisk thoroughly to be careful to fully incorporate the tomato paste.
  2. Lay the tofu slices into the marinade container carefully and swirl to submerge. When the container is too full, carefully pour out the contents into a plastic bag and lay any remaining tofu slices on top, turning the bag to coat. (Tofu sticks together, this method insures that each piece will get its fair share of marinade.) The tofu is a bit fragile at this stage, handle it with care.
  3. Marinate the tofu overnight or at least 4 hours. Turn the bag over to evenly disperse the sauce.
  4. Heat the oven to 450-degrees and with the rack in the middle position. 
  5. Pour the 1/4 cup of canola oil onto a large baking sheet and carefully lay out the tofu slices with the marinade into one layer on the pan. 
  6. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the tofu begins to brown and firms up enough to be turned over. Return the pan to the oven and bake another 10 minutes or until the pieces begin to look crisp on the edges and are noticeably more firm. 
  7. Pile the warm tofu 'bacon' toward the middle of the pan and sprinkle with the nutritional yeast and black pepper. Toss to coat evenly, the residual heat and oil left on the pan will help the yeast melt into the pieces. 
  8. Blot up any remaining oil with paper towels and remove to a plate to serve. 
Store leftover tofu 'bacon' covered in the refrigerator. 


3 comments:

  1. This is genious! And vegan! Couldn't be any better =D Thanks for sharing this recipe!

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  2. You're hilarious and this "bacon" looks awesome. I've been wanting to try coconut bacon--have you tried that? Any thoughts on tofu vs. coconut bacon?

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    1. I haven't had coconut 'bacon', but the idea is intriguing for sure. I know that the Oriental Market here gets nearly succulent coconut in for their New Year celebrations every year, I LOVE those, they have a great chew and they come in much larger pieces than any coconut I have ever seen before. The logistics of cutting it myself into that thin shape seems very daunting. The round shape, the hard flesh, I would need a tool to accomplish that I think? And coconuts are not cheap here, so another hit on the negative, but I could honestly see it working, probably just not too practical for my situation. It could be possible to transform the sweet perfection of the New Years coconut into bacon, but that would be criminal, not to mention I'd have a hard time not consuming it all before I got it stripped of the sweetness to transform it into 'bacon'. If you come up with a good recipe and method, I sure hope you link it back here, sounds interesting!

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