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?
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.