You may have heard of tofu's cousin tempeh. This versatile plant-based protein is made of cooked soybeans that are slightly fermented to form a firm, dense cake. A nutrient-dense Southeast Asian delicacy, tempeh is a popular meat-replacing staple in vegan and vegetarian stir-fries, chilies, sandwiches, stews, tacos...you name it. Its strong, nutty taste heeds to whatever spices and marinades you subject it to and it can be steamed, fried, sautéed, or baked.
First, whole soybeans are soaked so they are easier to de-hull. Then they are boiled, simmered, drained, dried, and cooled before adding vinegar and a "tempeh starter". There's no palatable way to put this, but fermentation starts with fungus. That's right, there's a fungus among us! The most common fermentation starter for tempeh is a fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus. The beans are then stored in an aerated bag where they will turn into a block over the next couple of days.
A lot happens in 48 hours of fermentation. Not only does the fungus break down the soybean's sugars, but fermentation also breaks down the phytic acid in found in soybeans, which improves absorption and makes the starches easier to digest. Fermentation also concentrates the soybeans' protein content, which makes it easier to digest.
Once the fermentation process has done its thing, the soybeans have officially transformed into tempeh. The solid cake-like slab has a white-ish, marbled appearance and a firm and hearty, chewy texture. Good tempeh smells pleasant, clean, and subtly sweet. Some liken its aroma to that of mushrooms, which is appropriate, given its earthy flavor that becomes more pronounced as time goes on.
What does tempeh taste like? Kind of nutty, somewhat bitter or tangy like sourdough bread, and slightly savory. Think of it as tofu with a bit of a bite. In short, a nice, mild flavor that can be easily manipulated to taste like whatever you fancy.
Both tempeh and tofu are soy-based and malleable in terms of forming flavor, but that's about all they have in common. Unlike tofu, which is made from unfermented soy milk's coagulated curds, tempeh uses the entire soy bean, and is therefore less processed. Therefore it has different nutritional characteristics and textural qualities. According to The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegan Cooking retains it shape better than tofu when its cooked. Tofu can be silken, firm, extra firm, or super firm, but tempeh just comes one way: firm and chewy. While tempeh packs more calories and carbs than tofu, it is the healthier option, with twice as much protein and much more fiber than its more popular counterpart.
Tempeh packs a punch when it comes to nutrients. The way tempeh is processed gives it more protein and dietary fiber than tofu, which leaves you feeling fuller, longer. Tempeh is also rich in prebiotics, types of fiber that can improve digestive health and reduce inflammation by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in your digestive system. That fungus among us—the Rhizopus culture—may even reduce gas and indigestion!
It's also packed with vitamins. Tempeh is a good source of B vitamins which "help the body convert food into energy (metabolism), create new blood cells, and maintain healthy skin cells, brain cells, and other body tissues" according to Medical News Today. It's perfect if you're looking for a dairy-free source of calcium to help increase bone density and prevent bone loss. Plus, it has a ton of other minerals like iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, and zinc. This low-carb, low-sodium cholesterol-free food does contain fat, but it's the heart-healthy kind of plant-based omega-3 and omega-6 fats mono and polyunsaturated fats. Most tempeh is gluten free, unless it contains grains.
Not all tempeh is made simply from soybeans. Most versions also contain beans, flavorings, and grains. Gluten-free folks should look out for ingredients such as barley, rice, millet, oats, and rice. For those who are allergic to soy, there are soy-free versions made from other legumes, such as black beans, chickpeas, or lentils. Some even substitute seeds for soy, such as flax seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame sees, or even hemp seeds.
You can attempt to make tempeh the good old-fashioned way if you've got the time. There's even an Instant Pot recipe that makes quicker work out of the whole process. Homemade tastes better, but as Ina Garten would say, store bought is fine! Just make sure it's pasteurized. Popular brands include Lightlife and SoyBoy, which can be found in most supermarkets next to the tofu. If not, check the health food store or order it online.
Raw tempeh has to be cooked to at least 176°F for at least 60 seconds. Treat raw tempeh like you would raw chicken and wash your hands thoroughly after handling as well as the cutting board, knife, etc.
Check on the packaging for storage instructions. Store-bought tempeh can be kept in the fridge anywhere from three to 10 days, but it can be frozen tempeh will keep for months.
There are a variety of ways to prepare this versatile ingredient which can be used in chili, stir-fries, soups, salads, sandwiches, stews, tacos, and more. First, you'll want to decide what cut is appropriate: sliced, cubed, or crumbled, but never more than 3/4-inch thick. Steaming makes tempeh softer and more absorbent, so most recipes recommend steaming it for 15 minutes before marinating. However, you can skip this step if you bought it pre-steamed.
At the risk of sounding like Bubba Gump—you can eat it steamed, baked, sauteed or fried. The easiest way to cook tempeh is to slice it thinly then deep fry it in oil for a crispy golden crust and soft interior that's perfect for dipping. In Java, the island it originated from, tempeh is traditionally cut into pieces; marinated in a mixture of ground garlic, coriander, turmeric, salt, and water; then deep-fried and served with sambal ulek chili paste.
You can also grate it with a cheese grater and brown it a bit in oil to mimic ground beef in chili or tacos. Cut it into slabs, marinate, and pan-sear like a steak, frying for a few minutes on each side until lightly browned. Cube it up and throw it on a skewer and throw it on the grill. Add it to a stir-fry or a casserole. The possibilities are limitless!
Basically, tempeh can be substituted for meat in just about any dish. Cooking Light says despite its Asian origins, it works well with most any cuisine, including Mexican and Chinese. The Complete Idiot's Guide to Vegan Cooking suggests imparting flavor with tamari, toasted sesame oil, balsamic vinegar, peanut butter, or ketchup. Or spicing it up with rosemary, basil, and oregano or spicy curry powder, chili powder, and cayenne. But here are some recipes to get you started on your tempeh tasting trip: