Tempeh: What it is and how to use it

Tempeh fries

Tempeh (pronounced tem-pay), a traditional Indonesian food, is made of cooked and coagulated soybeans. Sold in cellophane-wrapped packages, it’s even higher in protein than tofu. Tempeh is also quite versatile, but has a more distinct flavor and a dense, chewy texture. Though somewhat of an acquired taste, once you do, you’ll be a fan for life. Pictured above, Tempeh Fries with Horseradish-Dill Mayonnaise.

To make tempeh, cooked and hulled soybeans (or a combination of soybeans and grain) are spread out on trays and inoculated with a beneficial mold culture (Rhizopus oligosporous). A fermentation process occurs as the mold multiples on the cooked soybeans and binds them together to form firm cakes. The 3/4-inch-thick cakes are sold in 8- to 12-ounce plastic-wrapped portions. Look for them in the refrigerator sections of natural-food stores and co-ops. 

Tempeh is prized not only for the quantity of its protein, which is 20 percent, but also for its quality. It is a complete protein, containing the full range of essential amino acids. In addition, tempeh is low in fat, high in fiber, and provides significant amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin A, and the B-complex vitamins, notably riboflavin and niacin. 

How does tempeh taste? It has been described as tasting like chicken or mushrooms, but in fact, the flavor of tempeh defies comparison. It may be an acquired taste (though with creative preparation, not a difficult one to acquire). The flavor of tempeh varies somewhat according to the manufacturer, ranging from mildly nutty to distinctly fermented. Some people relish the more fermented flavor, whereas others prefer a milder tempeh. There’s no way of telling what a particular brand tastes like until you buy it, so it’s best to find a brand whose flavor you enjoy and stick with it. 

Tempeh combining soy with other grains are just as common as the soy-only version. Soy and brown rice, soy and barley, soy and wheat, and even soy and quinoa are available, though their flavors and textures are not drastically different. 

Tempeh is a convenient, practically ready-to-use food, and only a little imagination is required to appreciate its versatility.                                                                                                   

  • tempeh, uncookedTempeh may be crumbled and used as a ground meat substitute. To make “burgers,” crumble an 8-ounce package finely and combine it in a mixing bowl with 1 small minced onion, 1 crushed garlic clove, natural soy sauce to taste, and seasonings (curry spices are nice, or a pinch of mixed dried herbs). Shallow-fry in oil or broil until both sides are golden brown. Try tempeh burgers in pita bread with sprouts, tomato, and tahini mayonnaise (recipe on site? – link if it). Tempeh may also be pan-browned and used as meat substitute in spaghetti sauce, chili, vegetable stews, or as a topping for pizza. Simply crumble tempeh, heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of a skillet, and sauté it, stirring frequently, until lightly browned.  
  • Diced and sautéed, it can be tossed into grain, noodle or vegetable dishes.
  • Mash it with vegan mayonnaise, add some finely diced celery and minced scallion, and use as a sandwich spread or wrap filling. For a sandwich spread or filling, mash tempeh, straight out of the package, to a fine texture and add vegan mayonnaise, mustard, chopped celery, and scallions to make a quick and satisfying spread for sandwiches and crackers.
  • Tempeh may also be sliced and sautéed like cutlets, and served with a barbecue sauce.

Though it might be argued that tempeh is not quite as versatile as tofu, there are many tempting ways to use it. Here are some of those you’ll find on VegKitchen:

Tempeh, Brussels Sprouts, and Sweet Potato Stew recipe

Tempeh Stew with Brussels Sprouts, Sweet Potatoes, and Shiitakes; photo by Hannah Kaminsky

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