Diet and Nutrition

What Is Tempeh?

What Is Tempeh?

Key Takeaways

  • Tempeh is made from soybeans.
  • Due to fermentation, tempeh provides many nutrients, including proteins, in a more easily absorbed and digested form.
  • Tempeh can now be easily bought in Asian grocery stores, health food stores, and even supermarkets.

What is tempeh?

Tempeh is similar to tofu in that they are both made from soybeans, but their similarities may just end there. Tempeh and tofu are as different as two sisters are. Unlike its cousins tofu and other soybean products which came from Chinese cuisines, tempeh originated in Indonesia, particularly in the island of Java, where it is especially popular.

It is often used as a stand-in for meat due to its low fat and high protein content. Any health-conscious person would be easy to convince to replace a few meats or tofu dishes with tempeh. In fact, this Indonesian favorite is now growing in popularity all over the world, specifically in vegetarian and vegan circles. Its high protein content makes it a great addition to anyone’s vegan or vegetarian diet. It is now widely available, not just in Asian grocery stores, but also in supermarkets and health food stores.

Naturally cultured, cooked soybeans undergo a controlled fermentation process using the Rhizopus oligosporus mold. Unlike tofu which you have to season or dip in vinegar, tempeh has flavor of its own naturally. It has a rich smoky flavor, reminiscent of nuts and mushrooms.

Tempeh vs. tofu

Tempeh and tofu can be considered cousins, seeing as they both come from soybeans. But they have very few similarities. We are all familiar with tofu. It is almost flavorless but it does a good job of absorbing the flavors it is cooked with. It comes in varieties ranging from silky and soft to extra firm, with its signature white color and spongy texture.

On the other hand, tempeh is flavorful, although it is also good in blending with the flavors it is prepared with. But unlike tofu, tempeh is firm, dry, chewy and brown.

The biggest difference between these two, however, is the fermentation process. Tofu is unfermented while tempeh is fermented. This difference may just be the ruin of tofu. Its lack of processing makes tofu potentially dangerous. It contains anti-nutrients, goitrogens, and phytoestrogens. Anti-nutrients are compounds that hamper the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. Two main categories of such present in tofu are phytic acid and trypsin inhibitors. Phytic acid gives the body a hard time absorbing magnesium, copper, calcium, iron, and zinc. Trypsin inhibitors prevent the body’s ability to digest proteins. Goitrogens inhibit the thyroid function. The last one, phytoestrogens, mimic estrogen in the body, causing a hormonal imbalance. Ultimately, it affects fertility and sexual development and behavior.

Tempeh nutrition

Due to fermentation, tempeh provides many nutrients, including proteins, in a more easily absorbed and digested form.

Here is the percent daily value (%DV) of cooked tempeh in 4.0 oz. or 113.40 grams: calories 222.26 (12%), carbohydrates 10.60g (5%), protein 20.63g (41%), total fat 12.90g, fiber 12.00g (48%), vitamin B2 (31%), manganese (73%), magnesium (22%), copper (68%), phosphorus (41%), calcium (11%).

Where to buy tempeh

In today’s globalized world, one country’s flavors are now easily shared with the rest of the world. Due to the wealth of health benefits and nutrition of tempeh, it is fast growing in popularity in the West.

It can now be easily bought in Asian grocery stores, health food stores, and even supermarkets. Commercially-prepared brands would often enhance tempeh with grains like barley, spices, and other flavors. 

How to cook tempeh

Interested in making your own tempeh? It is absolutely possible!

  • STEP 1: PREPARE. Soak hulled soybeans overnight. (Tip: Pick and purchase already-hulled soybeans to make your life easier!)
  • STEP 2: COOK. Boil the softened soybeans for about 30 minutes. If you are unable to soak the beans overnight, you can just increase the cooking time to one hour.
  • STEP 3: DRY. There are two options for this step. First, drain the cooking water and pat the beans dry by using a towel. Or, still on the stove, turn the heat low and allow the water to evaporate. Make sure that the beans are dry when you touch them. Excess moisture can ruin your tempeh.
  • STEP 4: COOL. Transfer the soybeans in a dry bowl and allow them to cool to lukewarm or room temperature.
  • STEP 5: MIX. Add two tablespoons of vinegar and mix well. Add 3/4 teaspoon or one packet of tempeh starter culture. Mix well to make sure the beans are evenly coated. Afterwards, place the mixture in two vented containers. The mixture should only be 1- to 1½-inch thick. If you don’t have vented containers, you can use quart-size plastic bags. To create ventilation, just poke needle-sized holes, half an inch apart.
  • STEP 6: INCUBATE. Insert a thermometer and keep the temperature at 85 to 91 degrees Fahrenheit or 29.5 to 32.8 degrees Celsius for 24 to 48 hours. To do this, you can use an oven with a low-temperature setting or with only the light turned on, a cupboard with a high-wattage light bulb or other low-level heat source, outdoor warm climate, or a Styrofoam or plastic cooler stuffed with warm water bottles or hand warmers.
  • STEP 7: TEMP CHECK. After 12 hours of fermentation, the soybeans typically generate heat on their own. Remember to check the thermometer. You may have to reduce or remove external heat sources.
  • STEP 8: ALMOST THERE. After 24 hours, white mycelium will start to appear and cover the beans’ surface. Soon, the white mycelium with grow through the beans and begin smelling nutty.
  • STEP 8: REFRIGERATE. After another 24 to 48 hours, the beans will have become a single mass, held together by white spores. Congratulations! You have tempeh. This can now be refrigerated.

Fresh and homemade tempeh tastes a thousand times better than ready-made, store-bought ones. As it is stored in the fridge or freezer longer, it tends to lose its flavor and firmness. So, when you can, choose to make and eat fresh tempeh! Once you taste it, all your hard work will pay off.

If it doesn’t work out well, don’t despair. Much like the first pancake that burns or pretty much anything done the first time, cut yourself some slack if it doesn’t work out too well. Remember that the most important thing is to keep trying!

Tempeh recipes

Tempeh goes great in many dishes. From tempeh meatballs to tempeh chimichurri, BBQ tempeh and tempeh tacos, the possibilities are endless. Go on a food adventure and start out with these favorite recipes.

Tempeh Stir Fry

Ingredients: 4 ounces soy tempeh, sliced ● 1/4 cup light soy sauce ● 1 tablespoon rice vinegar ● 3 garlic cloves, minced ● 2 teaspoons peeled and minced fresh ginger ● 1/8 teaspoon crushed dried red pepper ● 12 ounces broccoli florets and stems, peeled and cut ● 2 tablespoons water ● 1 teaspoon honey ● 1 teaspoon cornstarch ● 1 tablespoon vegetable oil ● 1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper ● 2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion

STEP 1: MARINATE. In a medium bowl, combine tempeh, soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, ginger, and crushed red pepper. Set aside to marinate for one hour in room temperature.

STEP 2: PREP. Steam the broccoli florets and stems for about three minutes, or until tender yet crisp. Set aside. Take out the tempeh from the marinade and set aside in a plate. In the marinade mixture, add cornstarch, honey, and water.

STEP 3: COOK. Place a large skillet over high heat and heat the oil. Take out the tempeh from the marinade and add to the skillet, along with the bell peppers. Sauté for four minutes. Add the broccoli and marinade mixture and sauté until the sauce thickens, approximately three minutes.

STEP 4: CHOW. Serve hot and garnish with green onions, if desired.

Grilled Tempeh Skewers

Ingredients: 5 teaspoons rice vinegar, divided ● 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce ● 2 teaspoons sesame oil ● 2 teaspoons sambal oelek (ground fresh chili paste) ● 1/4 teaspoon black pepper ● 8 ounces tempeh, cut into 16 pieces ● 2 tablespoons honey ● 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice ● 1 tablespoon canola oil ● 1/2 teaspoon salt ● 1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper ● 16 pieces cherry tomatoes ● 16 pieces button mushrooms ● 1 large yellow bell pepper, sliced into 16 pieces ● 2 tablespoons green onions, diagonally sliced

STEP 1: MARINATE. In a zipped bag, combine one teaspoon rice vinegar, soy sauce, sesame oil, sambal oelek, black pepper and tempeh. Marinate in the refrigerator for 2 hours, turning occasionally.

STEP 2: PREP SAUCE. Combine 2 teaspoons of vinegar, honey, lime juice, canola oil, salt, and red pepper in a small saucepan. Boil over medium-high heat. Cook for 2 more minutes or until the mixture is slightly thickened.

STEP 3: MORE PREP WORK. Preheat grill to high heat. Thread tempeh, mushrooms, tomatoes, and bell pepper alternately onto 6-inch skewers.

STEP 4: GRILL. Place skewers on the grill; cook for 10 minutes or until browned. Be sure to turn after the first 5 minutes and basting occasionally with the honey mixture.

STEP 5: SERVE. Drizzle with the remaining honey mixture and sprinkle with green onions.

Tempeh Chili

INGREDIENTS: 2 tablespoons olive oil ● 1 medium yellow or white onion, diced ● 8 ounces of tempeh, crumbled finely ● 1 large green bell pepper, diced ● 1 large stalk celery, diced ● 2 cloves garlic ● 1/2 cup pureed tomato sauce ● 1-1/2 cups kidney beans, cooked ● 1-1/2 cups pinto beans, cooked ● 1 teaspoon cumin ● 2 teaspoons chili powder ● 1/2 teaspoon salt ● 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes ● 1/2 cup green onions, chopped

STEP 1: COOK. Pour olive oil into a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the onions. Sauté until soft, then add the tempeh. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes until the tempeh begins to brown. Add green peppers and celery and cook until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and continue cooking for another two minutes.

STEP 2: COOK SOME MORE. Add the rest of the ingredients, and half a cup of water. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the chili is fragrant and warm. This allows the flavors to come together. This step will take 25 to 30 minutes.

Note: Add more water if the chili becomes too thick.

STEP 3: EAT. Sprinkle with green onion and serve while hot!

Tempeh Bacon

Crispy tempeh bacon is just as good as meat bacon, but it is definitely packed with more nutrients.

Here are the ingredients: 18 ounces of tempeh ● ¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce ● 1 teaspoon light brown sugar ● 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar ● ½ teaspoon ground cumin ● ½ teaspoon ancho chile powder ● 2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional) ● 1 tablespoon canola oil

Like bacon, you can store tempeh bacon in the fridge until you’re ready to use it. Prepare it in advance, allow it to marinate overnight or store it in the fridge for up to 2 to 3 days.

Here is how to make some scrumptious tempeh bacon!

STEP 1: SLICE. Take the tempeh and slice into 24 thin and even strips. Place the slices in two 13x9-inch baking pans.

STEP 2: BOIL. Combine the soy sauce, brown sugar, vinegar, cumin, and ancho chile powder in a small saucepan with ½ cup of water. Boil for a minute before removing from heat. At this point, you can add liquid smoke if you are using it.

STEP 3: MARINATE. Pour the mixture over the tempeh slices. Allow it to cool and chill in the fridge overnight.

STEP 4: BAKE. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and transfer the tempeh bacon slices onto the baking sheets. Discard the marinade. Brush the slices with canola oil. Bake until the strips begin to brown, for approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Flip the strips, brush with oil again and bake for another 5 to 7 minutes, or until crisp and dark brown.

For maximum crispiness, serve and consume as soon as the tempeh bacon is cooked.