There isn’t a lot I remember about the first time I bought tempeh; I think I have repressed the experience. Unfortunately, I do remember my first time cooking it and even more unfortunately, eating it. It was six years ago and I was newly veg. I had bought this block of tempeh and decided to make a veg version of baked chicken parmigiana, a dish I had made plenty of times before. I figured all I had to do was swap out the chicken with the tempeh and make the dish exactly the same way I always did. So I unwrapped the rectangle of fermented soy, cut it into thick rectangles which I pan-fried. Then I put them in a baking dish, covered them with marinara sauce and mozzarella and baked it. Let’s just say that if I had covered my sneakers with marinara and mozzarella, they would have been tenderer and tasted better. Epic fail!
Sadly, I let that experience define my relationship with tempeh. I declared that I didn’t like it and refused to eat it or try making it again. Instead, I spent the time learning how to properly cook tofu and seitan. Yes, tempeh had hurt me so on the rebound, I turned to tempeh’s buddies. Then I had a tempeh dish at a restaurant and guess what? It was delicious. I decided I should give tempeh another chance and maybe, we could work it out. I’m so glad I did because once I learned how to properly prepare and cook tempeh, I was making incredible vegan dishes with it. A lot of people I know seem to be in the same situation that I was in – disliking tempeh and not really being sure what to do with it. That’s a shame because tempeh, besides being delicious, is an excellent plant-based source of protein that undergoes very little processing and contains a lot of nutrients. Perhaps, with these tips, I can help you improve your relationship with tempeh.
1. Remove It from the Package
I know you’re probably rolling your eyes and saying, “No kidding” but when I first used tempeh, getting it out of the wrapper was half the battle. I’m sure everyone has their own way of getting the tempeh out of the package (and I’d love to hear about them in the comments section) but here is how I do it: I use my chef’s knife to cut the whole package in half, width-wise. Then I use kitchen shears to cut length-wise down the wrapper on each half until I can slide the half-block of tempeh out. Sure, it’s a bit time-consuming but it works for me.
2. Steam or Simmer It First
When you buy tempeh in the grocery store, it will most likely be in the refrigerated section, sitting next to the tofu. It is vacuum sealed and ready-to-eat BUT it is a good idea to steam or simmer the tempeh first. Sometimes tempeh has a slightly bitter flavor and steaming and simmering help remove that. It also makes the tempeh softer, easier to work with and sort of opens its “pores” so it can more readily absorb any marinades and seasonings.
To steam tempeh: set up a steamer basket over a pot of boiling water and place the tempeh in the basket. Cover it and let it steam for 10-15 minutes.
To simmer tempeh: fill a saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring it to a boil. Place the tempeh in the saucepan, cover the pot, reduce the heat and let the tempeh simmer for 10-15 minutes.
Remove the tempeh from the water and pat it dry. Let it cool so you can handle it. Note: fresh tempeh is not pre-cooked and needs to be cooked before using, either by steaming or simmering it for about 25 minutes.
3. Choose a Shape
Tempeh gives you lots of options for shapes. It can be sliced, chopped, cubed, shredded or crumbled. It all depends on the dish you are making and what role the tempeh will play in it. Shredding or crumbling the tempeh into the shape of pebbles gives it the texture of ground meat. This works well in chilis, soups, sauces, tacos, sloppy joes, burgers and veggie meatballs. Slicing the tempeh into long strips works well for making barbecued tempeh, “fish” sticks or slices for salads and sandwiches. Cutting the tempeh into thin rectangles is also good for sandwiches and for making cutlet shapes. Cubes work well in salads and stir-fries.
When I slice tempeh into rectangles or long strips, I always first slice the entire block of tempeh in half the way you would a bagel. Here’s how I do it: I have the two halves of tempeh from when I cut it to get it out of the wrapper. I lay one half on the cutting board and place my palm on the top of the tempeh. I use my knife to slice into the block, sliding the knife through the tempeh parallel to my palm until I have two thin rectangles. Then I repeat with the other half. I do this so I end up with thinner slices. This method gives you a milder flavor and texture which may be preferred if you are still getting used to tempeh.
4. Marinades and Dry Rubs
On its own, tempeh has a mild, nutty flavor but just like you would prepare any type of meat, tofu or seitan, liberal seasoning is a must. Tempeh is porous and that means you can get lots of flavor into it through marinades and dry rubs. You can even simmer the tempeh in a marinade and get two steps done at once.
To marinate the tempeh: make a tasty marinade by combining your favorite ingredients such as tamari or soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, ginger and spices. The marinade you use depends on the flavor profile you are going for. Place the chopped, crumbled or sliced tempeh in a baking dish and pour the marinade over the tempeh so that it covers it. Cover the dish and let the tempeh marinate for at least half an hour and up to overnight, if possible. Drain off the marinade and pat the tempeh dry before cooking it.
To use a dry rub: a dry rub can be used instead of or in addition to a marinade. Prepare a spice blend according to the flavor profile you are trying to achieve. My article “How to Add Ethnic Flavor to Dishes” may help you create an assortment of tasty spice blends. Lay the tempeh on a plate (or bowl if it’s crumbled) and sprinkle the spice blend liberally over the tempeh. Flip the pieces (or toss to coat the crumbles) and season all sides. Gently rub the spices into the tempeh to make sure they penetrate. Let the tempeh sit for 5-10 minutes to absorb the spices.
Look at “10 Ways to Make Awesome BBQ Sauces, Marinades, and Dry Rubs” for inspiration and ideas.
5. Time to Cook the Tempeh
After tempeh is marinated and seasoned, it can be prepared in a multitude of ways. Here are some recipe ideas:
Baked: tempeh can be baked by laying the pieces on a baking sheet or in a baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for 15-20 minutes, until lightly browned and crisp. Bake some tempeh slices and make this beautiful Tempeh Tomato Herb Sandwich.
Sauteed: heat some oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Place tempeh in the oil and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Flip and cook on the other side, about another 3 minutes. Use this method to make this amazing Tempeh Piccata and Tempeh Gyros.
Fried: similar to sautéing, heat some oil in a pan and cook the tempeh until golden brown. This can be done with breaded or battered tempeh to get a crispy crust. I rarely deep-fry; just an inch of oil is enough to pan-fry the tempeh. Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain any excess oil. This is how I make my Tempeh “Fish” and Chips.
Grilled: place sliced tempeh on a greased grill or grill pan and cook until golden and crisp around the edges. Flip and cook the other side.
Ground/chopped/cubed: add chopped, crumbled, cubed or grated tempeh into sauces, curries, stews, and chilis. It will take on the flavors of the dish. You can add it cooked or cook it in the sauce. Try making Tempeh in Spicy Onion Curry, Vegan Bolognese Sauce and Pomegranate Sweet and Sour Tempeh.
Ground tempeh can also be turned into vegan burgers, meatballs, sloppy joes and meatloaves. Indulge in some Tempeh Meatballs, Meatless No-Fu Love Loaf, vegan Sloppy Joes and Tempeh “Crab” Cakes. Tempeh can also be crumbled into salads like this Vegan Chik’n Salad with Cranberries and Pistachios and this Tempeh “Tuna” Salad.
I have to say I am so glad that I gave tempeh another chance. It’s tasty, nutritious and unlike tofu, you don’t have to press it. For more delicious tempeh recipes, check out “25 Super-Rad Recipes Made with Tempeh.”
Lead image source: Gingery Maple Glazed Tempeh on Baby Greens Salad