If you’re on a journey toward a healthier lifestyle through a whole-food, plant-based diet, you’ve probably heard of tempeh. This protein-packed, fermented food is a staple for many vegans and vegetarians. But what is tempeh, and how do you cook with it?
In this comprehensive guide, I’ll explore the health advantages of tempeh, why it’s an excellent protein source for vegans, offer you five ways to cook tempeh, and include a few recipes.
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food and is mainly used as a meat substitute, making it popular for people wanting to get more protein on a plant-based diet.
Tempeh is made from partially cooked soybeans, formed into a cake, and fermented for about 24-48 hours at around 90°. During the fermentation process, mycelia (a white, mushroom-like fungus) grows on the cake, binding it together.
Fermentation makes the nutrients it contains, such as iron, calcium, and zinc, more bioavailable. Additionally, fermented foods contain probiotics, which we all know are instrumental in maintaining optimal digestive and immune system health.
However, the fermentation process stops when tempeh is pasteurized, which is done to make sure it’s completely safe. Commercially purchased tempeh is pasteurized, so there won’t be any live bacteria, and is safe to eat raw. However, most people like to at least steam tempeh first, as described below.
What Does Tempeh Taste Like?
Tempeh has a unique, nutty flavor that’s distinct from other soy-based foods like tofu. Its taste is often described as earthy, hearty, and somewhat mushroom-like. The fermentation process gives it a depth of flavor that can be quite pronounced, especially if you’re tasting it for the first time. And, because of this, it may take some getting used to. However, its taste can vary depending on how it’s prepared and what seasonings or marinades are used.
Tempeh also has a firm texture, making it a satisfying meat substitute in many plant-based dishes. Its robust flavor profile can stand up well to strong spices and sauces, making it a versatile ingredient in a variety of cuisines.
Many people find that steaming tempeh before using it in recipes can help mellow out its strong flavors and also make it more receptive to marinades. Pan-frying, baking, or grilling can also bring out different flavor nuances, making it crispy and even more delicious.
What are the Black Spots on Tempeh?
If you’re new to tempeh, you might be concerned when you see black or dark brown spots on its surface. Fear not—these spots are usually a natural byproduct of the fermentation process and are perfectly safe to eat. They are caused by the spores produced by the Rhizopus mold, which is the beneficial fungus responsible for fermenting the soybeans into tempeh.
However, it’s important to distinguish these harmless dark spots from signs of spoilage like an off smell, slimy texture, or mold colors other than black or dark brown. Always check the expiration date and store your tempeh properly to ensure it stays fresh.
Where to Purchase Tempeh
Buying tempeh has never been easier, thanks to its growing popularity and increasing availability. Whether you’re a tempeh aficionado or a curious first-timer, knowing where to purchase it and understanding its unique characteristics will help you make informed choices for your whole food, plant-based diet.:
- Health Food Stores: Specialty health food stores often carry tempeh, usually in the refrigerated section near the tofu and other plant-based protein options.
- Supermarkets: Many large grocery chains have started stocking tempeh in their natural foods or refrigerated sections.
- Asian Grocery Stores: Given its Indonesian origin, tempeh can often be found in Asian grocery stores.
- Online: Various online retailers and specialty food shops sell tempeh, sometimes even offering more unique types like chickpea tempeh or hemp tempeh.
- Farmers’ Markets: In some areas, local producers may sell freshly made tempeh at farmers’ markets.
Health Benefits of Cooking with Tempeh
High Protein Content
For those following a vegan diet, getting enough protein can be a concern. One of the most notable benefits of tempeh is its high protein content. A 3-ounce serving of tempeh provides about 16 grams of protein, making it an excellent alternative to animal-based proteins.
Tempeh is a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own. Because it’s plant-based, it aligns perfectly with a vegan lifestyle, offering a cruelty-free, high-protein option.
Rich in Nutrients
Tempeh is a powerhouse of nutrients, offering essential vitamins like B12, minerals like calcium and iron, and other beneficial compounds like isoflavones, which may help lower cholesterol levels.
That same serving also provides you with about 9% of the RDA of calcium, 13% of iron, 17% of magnesium, and a whopping 55% of manganese. It also contains 9 g of fiber.
The fermentation process of making tempeh breaks down complex sugars and proteins into simpler forms, making the nutrients more bioavailable and potentially easier to digest compared to tofu. In addition, tempeh is made from whole soybeans. This means it retains more of the fiber found in soy, which aids in digestion and provides a fuller nutrient profile.
Individual digestive systems are different, and some people may find they tolerate tofu better than tempeh or vice versa. If you have specific digestive concerns, consult a healthcare provider for personalized advice.
Low in Saturated Fats
Compared to animal proteins, tempeh is low in saturated fats, making it a heart-healthy choice for those looking to manage cholesterol levels.
Experts Agree: Tempeh is a Healthy Protein Source
Aside from the previously mentioned benefits, one of the biggest pros of eating tempeh is that you can reap the health benefits of soy without the downsides of more highly processed soy products. Non-organic soy processing can involve hexane, a chemical solvent used to extract oil from soy.
Of course, if you buy organic, you can avoid this solvent, as well as other genetically modified ingredients that are common in non-organic soy products. You may have heard there are other potential health concerns that go with eating soy. If you’re concerned about the safety of soy, read my article on that topic here.
Many experts tout the virtues of whole-food forms of soy. A 2015 study by Robert Sorge, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, found that tempeh contains “a decent amount of genistein.” Genistein is an isoflavone known to have anti-inflammatory and even anti-tumoral effects when consumed in moderate amounts.
Additionally, a scientific review published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that soy contains other isoflavones that have been shown to decrease serum total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels significantly.
Five Ways to Cook Tempeh
1. Crumbled Tempeh
One of the simplest ways to use tempeh is to crumble it. Crumbled tempeh offers endless possibilities, and its versatility allows it to easily replace less healthy protein options in traditional recipes, making it a staple for those on a whole food, plant-based diet.
How to Crumble Tempeh
Crumbling tempeh is straightforward. For this method, you can use it straight from the package or can steam it first.
Steam First: As with most tempeh applications, steaming your tempeh first can help remove any bitterness and make it more absorbent. Simply steam for about 10 minutes.
Cool and Crumble: Once the tempeh is cool to the touch, use your hands or a fork to crumble it into smaller pieces. The size of the crumbles will depend on your personal preference and the recipe you’re following.
Tips for Cooking with Crumbled Tempeh
- Marinating Matters: Consider marinating the crumbled tempeh for at least 30 minutes to infuse it with flavor.
- Texture Tricks: For a more textured bite, you can pan-fry the crumbles until they are crispy before adding them to your dishes.
- Bulk Preparation: Crumbled tempeh can be made in bulk and frozen for future use, making it a convenient option for meal prep.
Other Ideas for Crumbled Tempeh
Vegan Bolognese Sauce: Simmer crumbled tempeh in a tomato-based sauce with onions, garlic, and herbs for a satisfying plant-based bolognese. Serve it over whole-grain spaghetti or zucchini noodles for a nutritious twist.
Plant-Based Breakfast Scramble: For a morning protein boost, use crumbled tempeh in a breakfast scramble. Sauté it with vegetables like bell peppers, onions, and spinach, then spice it up with turmeric, black salt, and a dash of nutritional yeast.
Tempeh “Sausage” Crumbles: Infuse crumbled tempeh with spices like fennel, garlic powder, and a touch of maple syrup to mimic the flavors of sausage. These crumbles can be used in pizza toppings, pasta, or as a filling for vegan stuffed peppers.
Stir-Fries and Buddha Bowls: Crumbled tempeh works beautifully in stir-fries and Buddha bowls. Just sauté it with your favorite vegetables and sauce for a quick, nutritious
You can also add it to soups or sauces where one would traditionally use meat. Tempeh takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in, so it’s easily added to things like chili and stew, in addition to soup and sauce.
2. Steaming & Marinating
Steaming: Steming tempeh is often the first step in many recipes. Some people like to steam their tempeh before adding it to food or other ingredients to soften it. And some say raw tempeh can have a slightly bitter taste, which steaming can eliminate. This process also helps in making tempeh more absorbent, allowing it to soak up marinades and sauces for richer flavor.
Simply slice the tempeh, place it in a saucepan, and steam over water or vegetable broth for about 10 minutes. From there, you can prepare it in many different ways, which we will go over later in this article.
Marinating: Although many enjoy tempeh as it is, with a nutty, earthy flavor, others like to marinate it, depending on the recipe. Marinating it can add depth and complexity to its naturally nutty flavor.
The process is similar to marinating any protein: Place 1/4” sliced tempeh in a dish and cover it with your choice of marinade—this could be anything from a simple mix of garlic and herbs to something more exotic like a soy-ginger combination—and let it sit for at least 10-20 minutes, or longer for more robust flavor.
Experiment with spices like ginger, cayenne, garlic powder, or onion powder, to name a few. If you want a thicker sauce, mix in a nut butter of your choice. The possibilities here are truly endless.
3. Grilling Tempeh
Grilling is a fantastic way to bring out the rich, nutty flavors of tempeh while adding a smoky, grilled aroma that’s irresistible. By following these tips and techniques, you can elevate your tempeh dishes and become a true grill master on your whole food, plant-based journey.
Steaming: Before grilling, steaming your tempeh for about 10 minutes is a good idea. This helps remove any natural bitterness and opens up the pores of the tempeh, making it more receptive to marinades.
Marinating: If you’d like to marinate after steaming, let your tempeh sit in your chosen marinade for at least 30 minutes or overnight for maximum flavor. Popular marinade choices include BBQ sauce, soy-ginger mixes, or a simple blend of garlic and herbs.
The Grilling Process
Placement: Directly place your marinated tempeh slices or cubes on the preheated grill. You may need to use some non-stick spray to keep them from sticking. Make sure there’s enough space between each piece to allow for even cooking.
Timing: Grill each side for about 5-7 minutes. The exact time will depend on your grill’s heat and the thickness of your tempeh slices. You’re looking for nice grill marks and a slight crispiness on the edges.
Basting: You can baste the tempeh with additional marinade or sauce while grilling to keep it moist and enhance its flavor.
Checking for Doneness: You’ll know your tempeh is done when it has prominent grill marks and a smoky aroma. A little charring is okay, but be cautious not to overcook, as tempeh can dry out.
Optional: For added flair, you can place some lemon slices, herbs, or even smoky wood chips on the grill for additional flavor.
Serving Suggestions for Grilled Tempeh
Once off the grill, your tempeh is ready to shine in various dishes:
- Place it on a bun with all the fixings for a vegan “burger.”
- Slice it into thin strips and serve it over a salad.
- Cube it and add it to a vegetable skewer.
Pan-frying is a quick and straightforward method for preparing tempeh, offering the added bonus of a crispy texture that pairs wonderfully with a variety of dishes. Here’s a comprehensive guide to pan-frying tempeh that fits perfectly within a whole-food, plant-based diet.
Pan-Frying Essentials: Getting Started
Select Your Pan: A non-stick skillet or a well-seasoned cast-iron pan works best for pan-frying tempeh.
Heat It Up: Place the pan on medium heat, adding only a small amount of oil if needed to keep it from sticking. If you’d like to avoid oil, use a small amount of vegetable broth, although the likelihood of sticking may go up. Make sure to regulate the temperature. If the pan gets too hot, the tempeh may burn.
Add the Tempeh: Place your marinated tempeh slices or cubes in the hot pan. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan to allow for even cooking.
Stir or Flip Frequently: This ensures all sides of the tempeh get evenly cooked and crispy.
Season While Frying: For an extra flavor boost, consider sprinkling some spices or herbs on the tempeh as it fries.
Batch Cooking: You can pan-fry large batches of tempeh and store them in the refrigerator for 3-5 days, making it easier to add protein to your meals throughout the week.
Tempting Pan-Fried Tempeh Recipe Ideas
Spicy Tempeh Stir-Fry: Pan-fry crumbled or cubed tempeh until golden, then toss it with vegetables and your favorite spicy sauce for a quick stir-fry.
“Bacon” Tempeh BLT: Thinly slice and marinate tempeh in a mixture of soy sauce, liquid smoke, and maple syrup. Pan-fry until crispy and use as the “bacon” in a BLT sandwich.
Tempeh Fajitas: Pan-fry tempeh strips with sliced onions and bell peppers. Season with fajita spices and serve in tortillas with vegan sour cream and guacamole.
Crispy Tempeh Salad Toppers: Cut tempeh into small cubes, pan-fry them until crispy, and use them as protein-packed crouton substitutes in salads.
Baking tempeh is a flavorful and nutritious way to enjoy this plant-based protein. The method is simple yet versatile, allowing you to create a variety of dishes that are not only delicious but also aligned with a whole food, plant-based diet.
Preliminary Steps: Prepping Your Tempeh for Baking
Just like with grilling or frying, tempeh benefits from a little prep work:
Steaming: Begin by steaming your tempeh for 10 minutes to remove any bitterness and make it more absorbent for marinades or sauces.
Marinating: Soak the tempeh in your favorite marinade for at least 30 minutes or even overnight to infuse it with flavor. Marinating will elevate the final dish, whether it’s a tangy BBQ sauce, a savory soy-ginger mix, or a simple olive oil and herb infusion.
Baking Basics: Oven Settings and Times
Preheat the Oven: Preheat your oven to 375°F (190°C).
Line and Oil: Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and lightly oil it to prevent the tempeh from sticking.
Placement: Arrange your marinated tempeh slices or cubes on the baking sheet in a single layer, making sure there is some space between each piece for even cooking.
Baking Time: Bake the tempeh for 20-30 minutes, flipping halfway through. When done, the tempeh should be golden brown and slightly crispy around the edges.
Recipes and Ideas for Baked Tempeh
Tempeh “Bacon”: In addition to pan-fried tempeh bacon, you can also oven-bake it. Slice the tempeh thinly and marinate it in a smoky-sweet sauce made from liquid smoke, maple syrup, and soy sauce. Bake until crispy for a delicious, plant-based bacon alternative.
Baked Tempeh “Buffalo Wings”: Marinate tempeh cubes in a spicy buffalo sauce and bake until golden. Serve with vegan ranch dressing and celery sticks.
Asian-Inspired Tempeh: Marinate tempeh slices in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and a touch of sesame oil. Bake and serve over steamed vegetables and brown rice.
Herb-Crusted Tempeh: Marinate your tempeh in a simple olive oil and herb mixture, then coat with breadcrumbs mixed with more herbs before baking. This creates a crispy, flavorful crust perfect for serving over salads or pasta.
5 More Delicious Tempeh Recipes
- Cut tempeh into small cubes and marinate them in soy sauce, garlic, and ginger.
- Sauté the tempeh cubes with vegetables like bell peppers, broccoli, and carrots.
- Serve over brown rice or quinoa for a balanced meal.
- Crumble tempeh and cook it in a skillet with taco seasoning.
- Assemble tacos with cooked tempeh, avocado slices, lettuce, and salsa.
- Optional: Add a dollop of dairy-free sour cream for extra flavor.
BBQ Tempeh Sandwich
- Slice tempeh and marinate it in your favorite vegan BBQ sauce.
- Grill or broil until crispy.
- Serve on whole-grain bread with lettuce, tomato, and vegan mayo.
- Cube tempeh and pan-fry it until golden brown.
- Toss the cooked tempeh with mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, and a tangy vinaigrette.
- Optional: Add nuts or seeds for extra crunch.
- Cube tempeh and sauté it with onions, garlic, and spices like turmeric and cumin.
- Add coconut milk and simmer until flavors meld.
- Serve over rice or with whole-grain naan.
Tempeh is not just a versatile ingredient; it’s also a powerhouse of nutrients ideal for anyone on a whole food, plant-based diet. Its high protein content and richness in other essential nutrients make it a staple for those looking to maintain a balanced, vegan lifestyle. So why not try one of these delicious tempeh recipes today and make your transition to plant-based eating both easy and delightful?
Hopefully, I’ve piqued your interest in giving Tempeh a try.
I’d love to hear about your experience cooking with tempeh, and if I missed any suggestions, please leave a comment below.