What Is Tempeh?

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 thousands of years ago in Indonesia. The first known use of the word "tempeh" was during the early 19th century when it was mentioned in a Javanese history volume. While it wasn't until about the 1970s that tempeh became readily available in the West, it has become a popular replacement for meat in vegetarian and vegan cooking. Like tofu, tempeh is made from soy—but it has a unique taste and is mildly flavorful on its own.

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. The process differs from tofu-making in that the beans are kept whole and pressed together, rather than being ground up. You can see the beans in the patty or loaf, held together by the beneficial probiotic mold used in the fermentation process.

The taste and texture of tempeh is nothing like tofu. It has a nutty flavor on its own and easily absorbs flavors from sauces or marinades. Also unlike tofu, tempeh has a very firm texture and doesn't crumble easily.

Nutritional Value

Tempeh is a high-protein, cholesterol-free food. Depending on the brand, one serving of tempeh (100 grams) provides around 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 in a serving compared with less than half of a gram for tofu.

Uses

Try adding tempeh to a stir-fry instead of tofu. As a replacement for ground beef, crumble, finely chop it, or even grate it with a cheese grater and add it to soups or meatless chili. For slabs or cubes, its firm texture requires that you slice tempeh no more than 3/4-inch thick. Tempeh will get a nice crisp edge when fried in a pan or grilled.

Many recipes call for tempeh to be softened before cooking or adding it to a dish. Typically this means simmering it for about 10 minutes.

Buying

There are many varieties of commercially branded tempeh on the market and it is sometimes flavored with vegetables and other grains, such as barley, rice or millet. Because of this, tempeh is not always gluten-free. Check labels carefully if you are avoiding gluten, or make your own tempeh. If you are avoiding soy, you can find tempeh made by the same process using other kinds of beans, such as black beans or chickpeas.

Tempeh can be found in most health food stores and in the natural foods aisle of well-stocked grocery stores. It is usually kept in the same case as tofu in the produce or dairy section. If you are not planning to cook with it right away, store it in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. Uncooked tempeh can be frozen for up to three months.