You know about tofu, but have you tried tempeh? Both are soy-based foods that hail from East Asia, but that’s about all they have in common. While tofu is a soft, flavorless block of pressed soy milk curds that can be used in both sweet and savory dishes, tempeh is a firm, savory fermented soy bean product that has been used as a high-protein substitute for meat for centuries. Let’s learn a little bit more about what tempeh is and the different ways we can prepare it.
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a highly nutritious soy-based food that originated in Indonesia over 2,000 years ago. Like sourdough, it is fermented, so the process for making tempeh can take a day or two. It is made by soaking, hulling, then cooking raw soybeans until tender. They are then dried, combined with vinegar and a fermenting agent, and pressed into a cake, which is incubated overnight so the tempeh can ferment. Pure soybean tempeh has a distinct, nutty flavor and firm texture, but many modern companies add additional ingredients to tempeh that change the taste and texture, such as flax seeds, adzuki beans, chickpeas, brown rice, or other grains and beans. Some tempeh brands forego soybeans entirely and make it with these beans and grains instead.
In terms of benefits, tempeh is a much less processed food than other soy-based products, such as tofu. The nutritional value of tempeh may vary depending on the brand you buy or the type of tempeh you make. But generally, tempeh is a good source of manganese, copper, fiber, protein, phosphorous, and vitamin B2. Studies have linked the consumption of soy-based products like tempeh to lower cholesterol levels and stronger bones. Because tempeh is a fermented food, eating it is also linked to maintaining good gut health.
Like tofu, tempeh absorbs flavor well, making it a great option for replacing meat. For tips on the types of marinades you can make for tempeh, read The Ultimate Guide to Making Flavor-Packed Marinades. When working with tempeh, always remember to cook it first by frying or steaming it, as raw tempeh can have a bitter, unpleasant flavor.
In traditional Indonesian cuisine, tempeh is treated like a meat substitute, as in this Tempe Tumis Cabe Gendot, where tempeh is fried and then stir-fried with aromatics, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and a sticky, sweet, and spicy sauce. In these Tempeh Steak Patties, tempeh is steamed, mashed with vegan shrimp, then shaped into patties and fried. It is served with a spicy Indonesian tomato sauce.
Outside of Indonesian cuisine, tempeh is a very versatile food that can substitute for meat in a variety of dishes. Cooked tempeh breaks apart easily and can be used in place of ground meat, as in ihis Country “Meatloaf” With Gravy is made from a combination of crumbled tempeh and brown rice while these Tempeh Meatballs are made from soy-based tempeh, bread crumbs, and savory seasoning. In these Tempeh Sloppy Joes, crumbled tempeh is combined with chopped bell peppers and onions served in a sweet, spicy sauce. And in this Tempeh Pot Pie, it is mixed with traditional pot pie veggies in a rich gravy. You could also swap the crumbled tempeh in that recipe for these Tempeh Mushroom Walnut Crumbles, which can also be used as a filling for tacos, burritos, or any recipe that calls for ground meat.
Crumbled tempeh can also be used to make burgers, like these Black Bean, Tempeh, and Oat Burgers, these Buffalo Tempeh Burgers made from mashed kidney beans and tempeh, or these Pizza Burgers made from tempeh, vital wheat gluten, and bread crumbs. Or, you can just marinate, cook, and serve the tempeh whole in a sandwich, as in these Sriracha Tempeh Sliders, this Tempeh Reuben, or this Maple Tempeh Sandwich.
Tempeh also makes a great substitute for bacon! Try this recipe for Tempeh Bacon and then use it to make this Tempeh Bacon and Leek Quiche, this Maple Sriracha Tempeh Bacon BLT, and crumble it on top of these Loaded Smashed Potatoes.
Tempeh can also replace meat in a lot of classic dishes, as in this Tempeh Picatta, this Tempeh a L’Orange, these Tempeh “Fish” N’ Chips, or these Sticky Baked BBQ Tempeh Strips. If you like Chinese food, then you will love this General Tso’s Tempeh, where cubed tempeh is stir-fried in a homemade General Tso’s sauce.
For even more ideas on how to use tempeh, see our vegan tempeh recipes page.
Tempeh is so popular now that it can be found at almost any grocery store. Typically, it is stocked close to the tofu in the refrigerated section. If you are lucky enough to live near an Asian grocery store that carries a lot of Indonesian specialty items, you may even find freshly made tempeh.
Because tempeh should be refrigerated, it is tough to ship online, but you can purchase the basic ingredients to make your own tempeh. You will need dry soybeans, such as these non-GMO Laura Soybeans by SoyaJoy. One 5-pound bag costs about $17. You will also need a tempeh starter, like this Tempeh Starter Culture by Cultures For Health. One box of four starters costs about $8 and teaches you everything you need to know about making your own tempeh. You will also need unpasteurized apple cider vinegar, like this Viva Naturals Unfiltered Undiluted Organic Apple Cider Vinegar.
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