When I started eating plant-based, I tried a lot of new foods. Some were more straightforward than others. Tempeh was a bit of a puzzle to me. It looked easy enough (once it was out of the wrapper) and I thought I could just cut it up and use it as I did meat. Trying to make a veg version of chicken parmigiana, I did just that. I cut it up into pieces, topped it with marinara sauce and cheese and baked it. It was horrible and I stayed away from tempeh for a long time after that. Years later (yes, YEARS) I decided I needed to learn how to properly prepare and cook tempeh. Once I did, it became one of my favorite foods. I’ve noticed that many people share the same problem with tempeh – they aren’t quite sure what it is and don’t really know what to do with it. The result is that they don’t buy it or they have that one block in the back of the fridge, pushing its expiration date. Well, dig it out (make sure it hasn’t expired) and get ready for a tempeh tutorial. Once you know the facts, you’ll see that it’s easy to cook with tempeh (even easier than tofu) and you’ll be enjoying this healthy source of plant-based protein in your own cooking.
1. What is Tempeh Anyway?
Tempeh is an Indonesian soy product that is made by a fermentation process that binds soybeans into the block that you see in the store. The soybeans are soaked, dehulled and partially cooked. Tempeh has more fiber and vitamins than other more processed soy products. Tempeh is eaten worldwide as a meat substitute or just because it is so healthy and delicious.
2. Could It Be Wrapped Any Tighter?
I know you that you know the tempeh needs to be unwrapped but honestly, that’s the hardest part of cooking with it. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Marinades, Dry Rubs and Flavor Pairings
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.
Tempeh is like a blank canvas so you can pair pretty much any flavors with it. Prepare it in any ethnic style you like – Chinese, Indian, Mexican or Italian. Use your favorite herbs and spices. Tempeh is extremely versatile so your options are unlimited.
6. Ways to Cook with 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, Balsamic BBQ Tempeh Ribs or The Magical Tempeh Reuben.
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 tempeh: 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.
7. Recipes To Use Tempeh In:
Orange Glazed Sweet and Spicy Tempeh
Relationships take a lot of compromise and this tempeh recipe is a good example of this. It combines my love for spicy Cajun seasoning with my husband’s love of sweet, fruity marmalade. The balance of spice and sweet are a marriage made in heaven. To make my Orange Glazed Sweet and Spicy Tempeh: Combine 1 ¾ tsp. paprika, 1 ½ tsp. kosher salt, 1 ½ tsp. garlic powder, 1 tsp. dried oregano, 1 tsp. dried thyme, ¾ tsp. ground black pepper, ¾ tsp. onion powder, ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes in a small bowl and stir until evenly blended. Add 1 tsp. brown sugar and blend. If you tend to find tempeh bitter, you can steam it first and then wait for the tempeh to cool off so you can continue with the recipe. Cut the block of tempeh in half so you have two squares. Then slice each half so you have a total of 4 thin slices. The way I do this is to lay the tempeh on a cutting board, hold the top steady with the palm of my hand and with a knife, and slice through it like I am splitting open a bagel. Press the slices of tempeh into the spice blend and cover both sides with it.
Heat 2 Tbs. vegetable oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Cook the tempeh in the skillet for about 4 minutes. Flip the slices and cook until both sides are browned, about another 3 minutes. The brown sugar in the spice mix will caramelize. Meanwhile, mix ¼ cup orange marmalade and 2 Tbs. fresh lime juice in a bowl. When the tempeh is browned, pour the marmalade mixture into the pan and stir it around until it melts. Carefully turn the tempeh slices in the pan so that both sides get covered in the orange glaze. Serve while hot. Garnish with extra lime wedges.
Soy Maple Tempeh Bowl
At the end of a long day, bowls are comforting. Everything is in one dish that you can hold and it just feels good. I decided to make a soy maple tempeh. The saltiness of the soy balances the sweet of the maple syrup with a bit of red pepper flakes for spice and mirin or vinegar for the acid. It has a very subtle Asian flavor but not enough to make you feel you are eating Chinese food. This is a dish that tastes like an elegant dinner mixed into one bowl, delicious and comforting. To make my Soy Maple Tempeh Bowl: Start with the tempeh. Steam 2 8-oz. blocks of tempeh for 3-4 minutes if you want it softer. In a bowl or container, combine 1/3 cup tamari, 1/3 cup maple syrup, 2 Tbs. mirin or brown rice vinegar, 1/3 cup water, 1-inch fresh grated ginger, 3 minced cloves of garlic, ½ tsp. black pepper and ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes. Cut the tempeh into 1/4-inch slices and add them to the marinade. Cover and let marinate for at least 30 minutes. When you are ready to cook the tempeh, remove it from the marinade and pat it dry. Reserve the marinade for later in the recipe. Heat 1 Tbs. olive oil in a large skillet or saute pan over medium-high heat. Cook the tempeh until it is tender and browned on both sides. You will have to do this is batches. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
Next, make the rice and veggies: While the tempeh is marinating, make the rice. Add 1 ½ cups rice to a saucepan along with a sprinkle of salt and 2 2/3 cups water. Cover the pot and bring to a rapid boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes or until the water has been absorbed. Remove from the heat and let sit, covered for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning adjustments and set aside. In the same pan that you cooked the tempeh in, heat another spoon of oil. Saute 1 red onion sliced into half-moons, 4 thinly sliced scallions, 3 minced garlic cloves and 1-inch fresh grated ginger over medium-high heat for 4 minutes. Add 4 diagonally sliced carrots, 3 thinly sliced celery stalks and 2 thinly sliced bell peppers and cook, tossing often, until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 8 minutes. Stir in 2 Tbs. of the reserved marinade and cook another minute. Transfer the veggies to a bowl and add a large bunch of chopped greens to the pot. Add another few spoons of marinade to braise the greens a bit. Don’t let them cook too long or they will lose their color. Add a pinch of nutmeg and then check for seasoning adjustments. Remove from the heat. Assemble the bowls: In each bowl, add a scoop of rice and some greens. Layer vegetables on top and then add the tempeh. Serve while warm.
Follow these tips and try some recipes. Once you get acquainted with tempeh and how to use it, it’s guaranteed to become a favorite in your own recipes.
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All Image Source: Rhea Parsons