Here’s a guide to tempeh, a protein-packed plant-based soy food, with lots of info, ideas for using, and links to tasty recipes.
A staple soyfood of Indonesia, tempeh (pronounced tem-PAY) has gained popularity in western markets, much as tofu did before it. But whereas tofu is bland and soft, tempeh has a chewier texture and a flavor with a unique character all its own.
Convenient, versatile, and practically ready to use, tempeh packs a lot of nutrients, from a generous dose of protein to a plethora of B vitamins.
How to buy and store tempeh
Look for tempeh in the refrigerator section of natural food stores and in well-stocked supermarkets, where you’ll find it shelved near tofu and plant-based meat alternatives.
Packages of tempeh should be dated to indicate when they were packed. Use soon after this date; or pop the package immediately into the freezer, where it will keep for several months. Left unopened in its packaging, tempeh will keep in the fridge for several weeks.
Tempeh can be cut into large dice, strips, cutlets, and even triangles. And it can also be crumbled.
How tempeh is made
To make tempeh, cooked and hulled soybeans (or a combination of soybeans and grain) are spread out on trays and inoculated with a beneficial mold culture (Rhizopus oligosporous). A fermentation process occurs as the mold multiplies on the cooked soybeans and binds them together to form firm cakes. The 3/4-inch-thick cakes are then vacuum-packed in 8-ounce portions.
During the fermentation process, the indigestible sugars in the whole soybeans are broken down. These sugars, or oligosaccharides, can cause digestive in some people, but the fermentation makes tempeh easier to digest than whole cooked soybeans and other soy products.
Nutrition profile of tempeh
The fermentation process notwithstanding, you may need to avoid tempeh if you’re allergic or sensitive to soy. If you’re not clear on this, consult with a registered dietician.
Tempeh is prized not only for the quantity of its protein, but also for its quality. It’s a complete protein, containing the full range of essential amino acids. A 3-ounce serving contains 16 grams of protein.
It’s low in fat, high in fiber, and provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorus, vitamin A, and the B-complex vitamins, notably riboflavin and niacin.
During its fermentation process, a good quantity of vitamin B12 is formed in tempeh. Since this vitamin is rare in plant foods, this is a good trait. Here’s more about the nutritional profile of tempeh.
How does tempeh taste?
Tempeh’s flavor has been described as nutty mushroom-like, but neither of these are completely accurate. Its flavor defies comparison. It may be an acquired taste (though with creative preparation, not a difficult one to acquire). If people don’t like tempeh, its because they perceive it as slightly bitter, or don’t enjoy its mildly fermented bite, though these are the very qualities enjoyed by those who do like it.
The flavor of tempeh varies somewhat according to the brand, ranging from mildly nutty to distinctly fermented. There’s no way of telling what a particular brand tastes like until you try it, so it’s best to find one whose flavor you enjoy and stick with it.
Tempeh varieties: Tempeh combining soy with other grains are now just as commonly available as the soy-only version. Soy and brown rice, soy and barley, soy and wheat, and even soy and quinoa are available, though their flavors and textures aren’t drastically different.
The Book of Tempeh
The definitive book on the topic is The Book of Tempeh by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi* (originally published in 1974, last updated in 2014), is an invaluable source for a range of detailed information, as well as traditional Indonesian and numerous Western-style recipes. There are also instructions for making homemade tempeh, a process that is somewhat easier than making tofu.
Does tempeh need to be steamed or cooked before using?
Some recipes recommend steaming or cooking tempeh before doing anything else with it. Is this entirely necessary? Not really. But steaming briefly does mellow the fermented flavor a bit, and makes the grainy tempeh softer, so that it can better absorb the flavors around it.
To steam or cook, cut the tempeh into the shape you’ll ultimately need in your recipe, if any. place in a saucepan with about 1/2 inch of water to steam, or cover with water to cook. Either way, simmer gently for 10 minutes, then drain.
Try it both ways — use it straight from the package, and another time, steam it and see which you prefer.
Several companies make tempeh-based bacon alternative. Does it really taste like bacon? Probably not, but the smoky-sweet flavor is a good stand-in, and if you crisp-cook it, it’s delicious in its own right. There are so many reasons to use it, rather than the real thing.
Some popular brands include Lightlife Smoky Tempeh Strips, Fakin’ Bacon, Tofurky Treehouse Tempeh Smoky Maple Tempeh Marinated Strips.
It’s easy to make your own bacon-y tempeh strips. Scroll down to the first entry in the Tempeh Recipes section for an easy way to DIY.
Learn more about tempeh
Here are a few more excellent resources on the web:
- 5 Tips for Making Amazing Tempeh Dishes
- 5 Ways to Prepare Tempeh
- What is Tempeh and How Do I Cook With it?
Simple ideas for using tempeh
Sautéed or roasted croutons: First, cut the block of tempeh into dice.
To sauté: Heat about a tablespoon of neutral vegetable oil in a large skillet, along with 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Add the tempeh dice and sauté over medium heat, stirring frequently, until lightly browned on most sides.
To roast: In a bowl, toss the tempeh dice with 1 tablespoon of neutral vegetable oil and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Arrange on a parchment-lined roasting pan and bake at 425º F for about 15 minutes, stirring after a few minutes, or until the dice are touched with golden brown.
Either way, once the tempeh is done, sprinkle with spices if you’d like. Ground coriander is a traditional flavoring; a touch of garlic powder, chili powder, and or curry powder are also good. Use the croutons as a topping for stir-fried vegetables, noodle dishes, soups, stews, and green or grain salads.
Crispy cutlets: Cut the block of tempeh into 3 sections crosswise. Then, cut them through the thickness to get 6 pieces. Dip the pieces in aquafaba (the liquid from canned chickpeas), then in seasoned dry bread crumbs. Sauté in natural vegetable oil until golden brown and crisp on both sides.
Serve with vegan tartar sauce (simply combine 1/2 cup vegan mayo, 1 tablespoon yellow mustard, and 1 tablespoon pickle relish) or sweet chili sauce.
Fries: Simple cut the tempeh cake crosswise into fry shapes, about 1/2 inch thick. Sauté over medium-high heat in a small amount of neutral vegetable oil until nicely browned and crisp on both sides. Serve hot with ketchup or vegan blue cheese or ranch dressing.
Sloppy Joe or taco filling: Sauté 1 finely chopped onion in a small amount of oil in a skillet until it is golden. Add 8 ounces finely crumbled tempeh and about 1/2 cup finely diced bell pepper, and sauté until the tempeh is lightly browned.
Add a cup or so of thick tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon each soy sauce and agave or maple syrup, and season to taste with chili powder, cumin, and garlic powder. Cook over low heat for 10 minutes. Serve on a whole-grain roll or in a taco shell with shredded lettuce. For a more formal recipe, scroll down to the Tempeh Recipes section.
Ground meat substitute: Tempeh may be pan-browned and used as a meat substitute in spaghetti sauce, chili, vegetable stews, or as a topping for pizza. Simply crumble tempeh, heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of a skillet, and sauté it, stirring frequently, until lightly browned.
Tempeh, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches or wraps: Spread fresh bread or wraps with vegan mayonnaise. Use a packaged tempeh bacon to swap in for the animal product to make the classic sandwiches or wraps.
Tuna or chicken salad substitute: Mash a package of tempeh well, straight out of the package or steamed (see instructions before this section). Add a generous amount of vegan mayo, a spoonful of yellow mustard, chopped celery, and scallions to make a quick and satisfying spread for sandwiches or to dollop onto green salads.
Marinated: To make tempeh extra-flavorful, take the time to marinate it. Simply cut into the shape you want, then place in a small shallow container. Toss with a generous amount of a favorite marinade — Teriyaki Marinade is a great one for this purpose (if using a bottled teriyaki, thin with a little water, as otherwise, it may turn out too salty. Cover and let stand for several hours or overnight, refrigerated. Then sauté or roast and use as desired.
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