Friday, July 24, 2015

Tofu Jerky (and other camping food)

I know, I know. Tofu Jerky sounds like the vegetarian you dated once in college, the one who held you hostage in his apartment while he made you his famous nine-hour eggplant and molested your neck and shoulders with an unsolicited rubbing because you seemed tense. And you were! You were tense. Later, Tofu Jerky!

Instead, it’s this: Jerky. But made of tofu. By the kind of jerk who has nothing better to do than fiddle around with tiny slivers of crumbly, slowly dessicating soy curd. Be forewarned: This is a project! “Is it easy?” the kids asked, the first time we were devouring it on a road trip, and I loved the question—which is always code for “Will you make us this all the time?”—but no, it’s not really easy. Nor is it exactly hard. It’s just time-consuming and involved, with many trifling little steps.

But what it is is delicious, cheap, and a fantastic high-protein snack for camping and travel and school and road-trips and all those other times when you are starving, starving, starving, so you eat a handful of crackers and then feel like you’re uraveling into a carb-fueled, still-starving homicidal maniac. This is satisfying and chewy, salty-sweet and excellent, but just short of addictive, so you won’t eat the whole jar and then be carsick. Which is to say: it’s not as good as the beef jerky I used to make (sigh), but it’s much cheaper, and also I mostly don’t eat meat anymore. What? Oh, a story for another day. Suffice it to say: Ben eats enough meat for all of us, and this jerky is good enough to bother making.

I made a double batch last night (shown here) because we are leaving today for our camping trip! Yay, yay, yay! Which is why I have to run off and clown-car ten cubed acres of gear into a single Subaru wagon. I lie: Michael’s in charge of the surrealist math problem that is loading up the stuff. I’m in charge of the food, food, and more food. Speaking of: someone requested the one-pot camping couscous, which is now here, along with the pie-iron pizza and a food-packing list. The granola is here. The muesli, as well as the fish and squash packets, are here. The camp rice and beans is here. (There's a whole camping section in the recipe index too.) But I’ll still be in line at the clam shack. Say hi, okay?

Tofu Jerky
I started with a Mark Bittman recipe, but then ended up changing it over time, adding the initial soy-sauce brushing, e.g., as well as the vinegar and liquid smoke and garlic powder. You could pretty much baste it with whatever. In fact, it occurs to me that I have more or less recreated the flavor of bottled barbeque sauce, so maybe you should simply use that! If you do, will you please let us all know how it turns out? (Process photos below.)

1 (15-ounce) block extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons soy sauce (divided use)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
½ teaspoon liquid smoke (or chipotle puree or smoked paprika)
½ teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon white vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Heat your oven to 225, and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat. While the oven is heating, I actually wrap the tofu in a clean dishtowel and stick the tea kettle on top of it, just to get some of the extra water out before starting. You can leave it like this from 5 minutes to an hour.

Slice the tofu into fiddly little slices. I do this by bisecting the block horizontally, and then cutting these halves into long, very skinny slices. They’ll be a little thicker than 1/8 inch, and they should be as even as you can make them, although they won’t be even, I can tell you that right now. You will eat a lot of raw, poorly cut slices as you go, and you will wonder why, until you put some soy sauce on them, and you’ll think: not bad!

In the end, you should have about 28 good slices, which you’ll squeeze onto the pan so that they’re touching. Brush them on one side with soy sauce and then turn them all over (a total pain!) and brush the other side, using 2 of the 3 tablespoons altogether. Put them in the oven for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, stir together the remaining ingredients, including the remaining tablespoon of soy sauce. Take the baked tofu out of the oven and brush it all over with half the sauce, then return it to the oven for 15 minutes. Take it out of the oven and flip each fiddly, now-hot piece over, then put it back in the oven for 30 minutes. Baste it (you’re now basting the unbasted side) with the remaining sauce, and put it back in the oven until it’s done, 15-45 minutes. Seriously, that’s the range I’m giving you. Not only that, but you’ll also want to pluck out various slices as they’re done so that they don’t get over done! And you’ll know you’re only doing this because you did not cut them evenly in the first place.

How will you know when it’s done? It will go from opaque white to a kind of translucent, plasticky look. It will still be flexible—you don’t want it to get crisp—but it will look like it’s now made out of... I have to say it again: plastic. If you get sick of waiting, turning the oven off and leave them in the cooling oven for a while, and they’ll be done after that. (Nice, clear instruction, no?)

Cool the tofu on a rack, then store it in a bag or jar in the fridge or in a cooler, where it will get leathery and more jerk-like overnight. I don’t know how long it lasts, because we eat it all, but Mark Bittman says 1 week.
Why are you starting with something packed in water, when you want to end up with something dry? Good question.

Bisected! (Likes girls and boys.)
Cut into fiddly maddening slices. 
Soy-basted and baked.


  1. Dang! We just got back from a 17-day road trip and could have used a salty-non-carbohydratey snack. Not that I would have wanted to deal with fiddly anything before we left (other than fitting acres of gear into a volvo whose air conditioning would conk out on mile 200). I wonder how you could make it last longer than a making it on a snowy February day to use for a summer backpacking trip? The bottled bbq sauce with lots of preservatives? Freezing? A food dehydrator? I will try to remember this recipe in February and give it a try.

  2. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Idea: If you have two baking mats, maybe you can flip the slices more easily by laying a new mat over the top of the slices and flipping the whole pan onto it? Unless they fall all over the floor! Hmmm

  3. Anonymous, I have two sheet pans and two baking mats, and I think it would work with the extra stiffening of another pan on top. Maybe a little bit of straightening out after the flip, but that should take care of most of it. I have some of those lovely oven gloves that take the fear of hot pans unsensibly out of me, so I might try it.

  4. Catherine, do you ever freeze tofu to alter the texture? Separately, I bet freezing for....fifteen minutes? would make the tofu easier to slice, kind of like you do with meats.....

  5. Tofu Jerky! I went to Hampshire with him in the early 90's! Looking forward to reading your book, but no pressure. Enjoy camping!

  6. PERFECT TIMING as always, Catherine!! We leave on Friday for a 23-day road-trip odyssey from NJ to the great Southwest and northward. We're tent camping half the time, and hoteling it where bears are a concern. I'm getting twitchy in the food department and came here for inspiration and encouragement, with a side dish of lovingkindness, which you always provide! Will SO be scouring the camping section of the recipes...

    Enjoy your trip!!!

  7. Anonymous11:14 AM

    I consider myself forwarned! (: With love, Cathy K

  8. Oh goodness, maybe I can go to the Clam Shack and "bump into" you! Every year I read your post after the fact and think "damn, so close". Maybe this is my year! (I love about 20 minutes away haha)

    1. *live, obviously, not *love. Although I do love it here.

  9. Wow, this sounds good, although a bit much work.

    I actually love tofu and some say that for this, I should turn in my man card. Well I say "To heck with 'em."

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Oh boy - Yummy! I'm afraid I'll be making this again this weekend because it won't last until the camping trip in Utah :0 )

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  12. Thank's for sharing. i like Tofu Jerky. I did not know this cooking method. It is difficult to inhibit the temptation to look at the foods I love. It’s a very useful post. thanks for the efforts.

  13. It sounds like you have great plans for your camping food! Wow! I'll save your tofu jerky recipe for when I am feeling like doing something fiddly. :-)

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  16. Umm... Yummy! Perfect for a camping outside in the nature in a beautiful sunny day... When I have a chance like that, I will prepare it. Thank you for sharing

  17. Firstly - if you only partially/lazily read the instructions like I did, you will miss the part about flipping the raw tofu slices over to brush with the rest of the soy sauce - but you will be so sloppy with this process and actually have so much since you didn't flip them over - that plenty will go down the sides and underneath and soak through that they will be thoroughly coated and tasty and you will never bother to flip the raw slices again.
    Secondly, these are so yummy and strangely addictive that when I am doubled over with intestinal cramps for essentially eating an entire block of tofu I will probably blame you instead of my lack of willpower in the face of funky/salty/chewy snacks. - My poor child is hoping for some for his lunch tomorrow - lord give me strength.

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  19. How well does it keep unrefrigerated?

    1. Marli, I'm not sure. We've certainly had it at room temp during long car rides and stuff, but I'm not sure about backpacking.

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