What Is Tempeh?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Close up of grilled tempeh served over greens

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Tempeh, a soy food with high protein content, is thought to have originated in Indonesia thousands of years ago. The first known use of the word "tempeh" was during the early 19th century when it was mentioned in a Javanese history volume. Since the 1970s, when it became readily available in the West, tempeh has become a common replacement for meat in vegetarian and vegan cooking. 

What Is Tempeh?

Tempeh is a cake-like substance made from cooked and slightly fermented soybeans. This fermentation helps to break down the phytic acid in soybeans, making the starches in tempeh easier to digest. After fermentation, the soybeans are formed into a patty similar to a very firm veggie burger or a block.

How to Cook Tempeh

Try adding tempeh to a stir-fry instead of tofu. As a replacement for ground beef, crumble it, finely chop it, or even grate it with a cheese grater and add it to soups or meatless chili. You can bake it in a casserole or give it a nice crisp edge when you fry it or cook it on the grill. For slabs or cubes, its firm texture requires that you slice tempeh no more than 3/4-inch thick.

Many recipes recommend softening the tempeh before you cook with it or add it to a dish. Typically this means steaming or simmering it for about 10 minutes. Although you can technically eat it straight from the package, this process makes it more palatable and better able to absorb seasonings and sauces.

What Does It Taste Like?

Tempeh is mildly savory with a nutty, earthy flavor that sometimes gets described as similar to mushrooms. It provides a neutral base for nearly any dish, readily taking on the flavor of a sauce or condiments. You can even make tempeh taste like bacon or sausage.

Tempeh Recipes

Tempeh can stand in for meat in nearly any dish, and even with its Asian origins, works well in most any cuisine, from Mexican to Chinese to Southern American.

Where to Buy Tempeh

Tempeh can be found in most health food stores and well-stocked grocery stores. It is usually kept in the same case as tofu in the produce or dairy section.

Storage

You can keep store-bought tempeh in the original packaging in your refrigerator for up to 10 days. Uncooked tempeh can be frozen for up to three months. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Nutrition and Benefits

Tempeh is a high-protein, cholesterol-free food. Depending on the brand, a 3.5-ounce serving of tempeh (100 grams) provides approximately 200 calories, 20 grams of protein, 11 percent of the RDA for calcium, and 15 percent of the RDA for iron. It is an excellent source of vitamin B2, B3, B6, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. It also tops tofu for fiber content, with more than 4 grams per serving compared with less than half of a gram for tofu.

Tempeh products may contain other grains, such as barley, rice, or millet, so it may not be gluten-free. Check labels carefully if you are avoiding gluten, or make your own tempeh.

Tempeh vs. Tofu vs. Seitan

Like tofu, tempeh is made from soy, but unlike tofu, tempeh is mildly flavorful on its own. The production process differs from tofu-making in that it starts with whole soybeans, rather than soy milk as for tofu, making tempeh less processed than tofu. You can see the beans in the patty or block, which are held together by the beneficial probiotic mold used in the fermentation process. Also unlike soft tofu, tempeh has a very firm texture and doesn't crumble easily. But both of these soy products easily absorb flavors from sauces or marinades.

Often called "wheat meat," seitan is essentially processed wheat gluten, so it contains more protein than tempeh but can never be gluten-free. Seitan starts as a flavorless dough, but producers add spices and seasonings before forming it into loaves for sale. It's the main ingredient in many fake meat products.

Varieties

There are many commercial brands of tempeh on the market; it is sometimes flavored with vegetables and other grains. If you are avoiding soy or just like to experiment, you can find tempeh made by the same process using other types of beans, such as black beans or chickpeas, and lentils.