Tempeh, tofu's slightly tougher cousin, is made from cooked, fermented soybeans shaped into a cake-like loaf. And like tofu, this wildly versatile staple of vegetarian cuisine often gets a bad rep for being bland, flavorless, or hard to cook.
We’re here to set the record straight. When prepared properly, tempeh transforms into a deliciously flaky, tender, and flavorful additive to all kinds of meals, from ravioli and stir-fries to burgers and curries.
Of course, the trick is all in that pesky preparation, but don’t worry—we’ve done the heavy eating (ahem, lifting) for you and came up with the only tempeh prep technique you need.
Prepare to have your tempeh game changed forever.
“Fermented soybeans” unsurprisingly produces more questions than it answers, so let us explain. Tempeh is made by growing the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus on dehulled, soaked, boiled, and drained soybeans. The fungus creates a white mycelium that binds the beans together into tempeh’s signature cake-like form.
Find more nutritional benefits (there are a ton!) and information about the completely harmless Rhizopus fungi in our article, Tempeh: What Is It and How Do You Cook With It?.
Now that this yellow, white, and sometimes black Mystery Loaf is looking a little less weird and a lot more healthy, let’s get to the next, most important, step.
Tempeh is most commonly packaged in a shrink-wrapped, rectangular block. It’s firm but chewy with a lumpy texture, not unlike ground beef. Tempeh straight from the package is often dry and has a mild, earthy, and somewhat bitter flavor. It can be eaten at this stage, but we don’t recommend it.
The secret to mouthwatering tempeh is all in the S’s: steaming and soaking. Steaming tempeh replenishes the shrink-wrapped soy with moisture, producing a juicier bite and less bitter flavor. Steamed tempeh is also more absorbent, which leads us to the next most important step: soaking.
Like other soy products, tempeh’s flavor on its own isn’t much to write home about. But it’s that bland, neutral base that makes tempeh so perfect for soaking in marinades, sauces, and various blends of herbs and spices. This step is where the magic happens.
And because we’re always down for a “work smarter, not harder” hack, we present the ultimate tempeh trick: steam and soak simultaneously.
Cut your cooking time and dirty dishes in half by steaming tempeh in your marinade of choice. The process is as simple as it sounds. First, slice your tempeh. Thick or thin, it’s up to you, but the more surface area exposed to the marinade, the bolder the flavor.
Add the tempeh to a deep skillet or wok with the burner turned off. Next, add enough marinade to just cover the tempeh in the pan. Select the marinade based on the meal you’re preparing or experiment with international cuisine flavors by using specific herbs and spices.
For a typical eight ounce package of tempeh, our favorite throw-the-sink-at-it marinade is:
Allow the tempeh to soak in this marinade for about five minutes. Then, turn the burner on to medium or medium-high heat. Cover with a tight-fitting lid. As the marinade heats up, the lid will trap the steam, further softening and flavoring the tempeh. Keep on heat and let simmer for 10 minutes.
Next, uncover the skillet and let the tempeh soak for about five more minutes. You might notice there’s less marinade in the skillet—that’s a good thing! It means the tempeh has absorbed all of that delicious flavor. Yum.
Once the tempeh is soaked and steamed, it’s ready to be cooked or added to pasta, stir-fries, and curries. One of the quickest and easiest options is to pan-fry tempeh strips for a delicious, golden-brown finish.
Heat olive oil in a second skillet (this can be shallow, cast-iron, etc.) while the tempeh is in its last stage of soaking. Use tongs to carefully transfer the tempeh strips to the hot skillet. Cook for three to four minutes on either side or until golden brown.
Pair your pan-fried tempeh with a bed of jasmine rice (check out this helpful guide for cooking rice perfectly every time), au gratin potatoes, or change your initial marinade with a few ingredients to make this mouthwatering, juicy, and completely vegan tempeh bacon.
If you’re short on stovetop space or are preparing more than one package of tempeh, consider baking the tempeh instead. Baked tempeh is slightly crispier and drier than pan-fried tempeh. Here's how to bake tempeh:
Bring out the earthy, umami flavors of Asian cuisine with Thai-inspired peanut tempeh, or keep it American with this classic BBQ baked tempeh recipe. Baked tempeh also makes a great plant-based entree for holiday dinners.
Breaded and fried tempeh takes on a texture almost indistinguishable from frozen fish sticks, meaning this is a great way to trick even the pickiest of eaters into enjoying a nutritious, plant-based meal. Here's how to bread and fry tempeh:
Tempeh is flexible enough to be sliced, diced, boiled, and baked without losing its shape, but it's also crumbly enough to be broken down into small, ground beef-like morsels and added to pasta, tacos, and more.
Transfer soaked and steamed tempeh strips onto a plate and let cool for a few minutes. Carefully use your hands or a fork to break the tempeh up into small crumbles.
Tempeh’s neutral flavor profile means you have complete control over the dish’s overall taste, so go with your gut (literally — stick with ingredients and spices that you like to eat). A marinade with seven ingredients you don’t like isn’t going to make the tempeh taste any better to you.
Once you have the hang of cooking tempeh to perfection, consider making your own! All you need to make your own deliciously nutty and earthy loaf of tempeh are soybeans, a tempeh starter, and a warm spot in your house.