How Tempeh Works

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

This Senegalese stew is a tempting mix of black-eyed peas, cabbage, carrots, cassava and tempeh.
This Senegalese stew is a tempting mix of black-eyed peas, cabbage, carrots, cassava and tempeh.
© Harald Walker/Westend61/Corbis

They say it's the new tofu. And the latest superfood. What are we talking about? Tempeh! Tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is a fermented soybean product that's little-processed, easily digestible, and can be used like almost any meat product. It originated on Java, an island in Indonesia, which makes it the only major traditional soy food that did not come from China or Japan. To make tempeh, cooked and dehulled soybeans are infused with mold spores (Rhizopus oligosporus, to be exact), packed into containers and heated at 86-88 degrees Fahrenheit (30-31 degrees Celsius). After 24 hours, the product has hardened and is ready to ship [source: Shurtleff and Aoyagi].

Typically, tempeh is sold in cake or patty form. Consumers slice, cube or crumble it, then add it to just about any dish: salads, soups, stews and sandwiches. While tempeh's natural flavor is a bit earthy, like a nutty mushroom, it easily absorbs the flavors of the foods with which it's cooked [sources: Knutson, MDHIL Networks]. In the U.S., Asian and natural foods stores regularly carry tempeh, although it's starting to be found in traditional grocery stores as well.

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Tempeh was first made at least several centuries ago. But it's a rather new food for Western palates. The first commercial tempeh was produced in the U.S. in 1978 [source: Yonan]. In contrast, tofu, a somewhat similar soy-based food, was first commercially produced in the U.S. in 1895. It took tofu about 80 years before it really broke into Americans' consciousness [source: Shurtleff and Aoyagi]. So it's not too surprising that many Americans aren't familiar with tempeh yet.

But tempeh is slowly gaining attention because of its high nutritional value. Packed with protein, riboflavin (B-2), iron, calcium, potassium and dietary fiber (phew!), plus lacking cholesterol, it's hard to top when it comes to a nutrient-rich food [source: MDHIL Networks]. Of course, the key to getting people to try a new food is knowledge. So let's first look at why we might wish to cook with tempeh instead of another food.

Tempeh vs. Tofu

Tempeh is typically sold in cake or patty form.
Tempeh is typically sold in cake or patty form.
Herianus/iStock/Thinkstock

Tempeh may remind you of tofu, since they're both soy-based products used in all kinds of cooking. But that's where the similarities end. Tempeh has 160 calories per half-cup (113 grams) compared to just 97 for tofu and that might be its only negative. Simply put, tempeh is a healthier, more nutritious option than tofu. In that same half-cup serving, tempeh has a whopping 15.4 grams of protein compared to 10.1 for tofu, and 3.5 grams of fiber versus tofu's 0.5.

Tempeh is also fermented, while tofu is not. Why is that an important consideration? Many people's tummies aren't happy when they eat a lot of beans and other, um, gas-inducing foods, such as tofu. But the fermentation process creates enzymes that pre-digest carbohydrates, protein and fat. This makes a fermented food like tempeh very easy to digest. Tempeh is also less processed than tofu. And the less processed a food, the better [sources: Benitez-Eves, Sugar].

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So what about meat versus tempeh? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA's) 2010 dietary guidelines say the average 2,000-calorie-per-day diet should include 5.5-ounce (155-gram) equivalents of protein. Lean meats, poultry, seafood and eggs, as well as tempeh, all meet this requirement. Since the USDA also recommends we eat a variety of protein foods, you may want to alternate some tempeh with your meat and fish.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, adding tempeh to your diet is especially wise. On the micronutrient level, tempeh scores far better than meat in its manganese content. Manganese is critical for your bones, brain function and ability to heal after an injury. Four ounces (113 grams) of tempeh have 1.47 milligrams of manganese compared to a wispy 0.02 milligrams in a 4-ounce chicken breast or a 3-ounce strip steak. Meat does have a healthy dose of vitamin B-12, though, which is lacking in tempeh [sources: Tremblay].

What all this means is that if you love meat, go ahead and eat it (the lean varieties, and in moderation). But try trading it out for tempeh now and then. If you normally eat tofu, tempeh could be an excellent substitute, too.

How to Purchase, Use and Store Tempeh

It's always a little intimidating to cook with a new food for the first time. Luckily, making meals with tempeh is pretty easy. First, you've got to find it. As mentioned before, Asian and natural foods stores carry tempeh in several forms, and your own supermarket may as well. Typically, tempeh either comes pre-cooked and ready-to-eat, or uncooked. In addition, you might find tempeh made from soy-grain combinations, not just plain soy, and you may see some flavored versions as well. The tempeh should be covered with a thin, whitish bloom. You may see a few black or gray spots on it; this is fine, and does not indicate spoilage. What you don't want to see are any pink, yellow or blue colors, which mean it's too fermented. Finally, make sure the tempeh appears solid and has a dry exterior [source: The World's Healthiest Foods].

Uncooked tempeh must be cooked at least 20 minutes before eating. But even pre-cooked tempeh can benefit from a little steaming (10 to 15 minutes), which softens it a bit and enables it to better soak up the flavors of the accompanying ingredients [source: Knutson]. Most people cut or crumble tempeh into their entrée and then steam, bake or sauté it.

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If you're not ready to prepare your tempeh immediately, store it in the fridge for 10 days. Or place it in the freezer, where it will stay fresh for about three months. When you're ready to use it, take it from the freezer and defrost in the fridge overnight. If you want to use it right away, place the package in a bowl of room-temperature water until it's thawed. You can also freeze tempeh dishes after cooking, although it's best to use those within the month [sources: Knutson, The World's Healthiest Foods].

What Goes Well With Tempeh?

You can even add tempeh to a salad.
You can even add tempeh to a salad.
John Block/Blend Images/Getty Images

It might be easier to ask, what doesn't? Much like tofu, tempeh takes on the flavors of the ingredients with which it's cooked. Yet it also has a nutty, mushroom-like flavor of its own (tofu, on the other hand, has almost no flavor). Despite its earthy taste, tempeh goes well with pretty much everything because, in the end, it will mimic the flavor of its companion ingredients.

Tempeh fans often marinate the product overnight, because the process softens it, allowing it to accept more flavors. Marinades can be as simple as vegetable stock or a mixture of soy sauce, garlic and water. Of course, you can add in peppercorns, ginger, Liquid Smoke -- whatever flavors you like or will correspond to the dish you're cooking. To marinate the tempeh, spread the chopped/crumbled/sliced pieces on a baking dish and top with the marinade. Cover the dish and let it sit for 30 minutes minimum to as long as overnight. When you're ready to use it, drain off the marinade, pat the tempeh dry and you're ready to roll. Another alternative is to dry-rub your tempeh with your favorite spice blend, just as you would a steak. Simply rub the spices over both sides of sliced tempeh, or toss crumbled tempeh with the spice blend, and let sit for five to 10 minutes [source: Parsons].

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Once your tempeh is ready, you can crumble and toss it into chili or spaghetti sauces, add to your favorite stir-fry dish or breakfast burrito, or pan fry and substitute for sandwich meat, topping it with spinach, onions, tomato slices and ranch dressing, for example. A lot of vegan restaurants have tempeh Reuben sandwiches on the menu. (Because tempeh has a somewhat firm, chewy texture similar to meat, it works much better as a sandwich meat substitute than tofu.) You can also cube it and use in a hearty salad.

Not a creative cook? These foods definitely work well with tempeh [source: Knutson]:

  • Barbecue sauce
  • Caraway seeds
  • Cayenne
  • Celery
  • Cinnamon
  • Dijon mustard
  • Green onions
  • Lemon and lime juice
  • Maple syrup
  • Mayonnaise
  • Pasta
  • Peanut butter
  • Peppers
  • Sauerkraut
  • Vinegar

As you can see, tempeh can work for just about any type of American or international cooking. And it's very nutritious. too. Why not give it a try?

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Author's Note: How Tempeh Works

I ate my first (and only) serving of tempeh a few months before I wrote this piece, as part of a Mexican-style side dish in Arizona. I wondered what the mystery ingredient was and learned it was tempeh. I liked it, but didn't rush out and buy some to prepare myself. After writing this piece, though, I'm going to go for it. Wish me luck!

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More Great Links

  • Andrews, James. "Tempeh Salmonella Case Highlights Illnesses that Fall through the Cracks." Food Safety News. June 28, 2012. (April 20, 2015) http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/06/tempeh-salmonella-case-highlights-illnesses-that-fall-through-the-cracks/#.VTVuDPCGNCA
  • Benitez-Eves, Tina. "MF Super Food: Tempeh." Men's Fitness. (April 20, 2015) http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-eat/mf-super-food-tempeh
  • Knutson, Patty. "Let's Take The Mystery Out Of Cooking with Tempeh." Vegan Coach. (April 20, 2015) http://www.vegancoach.com/tempeh.html
  • MDHIL Networks. "Super foods you may not have heard of (yet) -- Tempeh." (April 21, 2015) http://www.mdhil.com/super-foods-you-may-not-have-heard-of-yet-tempeh/
  • Parsons, Rhea. "How to Use Tempeh and What It's Best Paired With." One Green Planet. Dec. 18, 2014. (April 22, 2015) http://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/how-to-use-tempeh-and-what-its-best-paired-with/
  • Shurtleff, William and Akiko Aoyagi. "Chronology of Tofu Worldwide: 965 A.D. to 1929." SoyInfo Center. (April 21, 2015) http://www.soyinfocenter.com/chronologies_of_soyfoods-tofu.php
  • Shurtleff, William and Akiko Aoyagi. "History of Tempeh - Page 1." SoyInfo Center. (April 21, 2015) http://www.soyinfocenter.com/HSS/tempeh1.php
  • Sugar, Jenny. "Which is Healthier: Tofu or Tempeh?" PopSugar. Feb. 21, 2015. (April 20, 2015) http://www.popsugar.com/fitness/Difference-Between-Tofu-Tempeh-1034188
  • The World's Healthiest Foods. "Tempeh." (April 20, 2015) http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=126
  • Tremblay, Sylvie. "Tempeh vs. Meat." SFGate. (April 21, 2015) http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/tempeh-vs-meat-4276.html
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010: Executive Summary." Jan. 31, 2011. (April 21, 2015) http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/sites/default/files/dietary_guidelines_for_americans/ExecSumm.pdf
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "Asheville Company Recalls Tempeh After Tests Detect Presence of Salmonella." May 1, 2012. (April 20, 2015) http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm302591.htm
  • U.S. Food and Drug Administration FDA). "IndonesianFoodMart.com Recalls 'Tempeh Starter Yeast' because of Health Risk of Salmonella." May 23, 2012. (April 20, 2015) http://www.fda.gov/Safety/Recalls/ucm305247.htm
  • Yonan, Joe. "Weeknight Vegetarian: Make 2015 the Year of Tempeh." The Washington Post. Jan. 6, 2015. (April 21, 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/weeknight-vegetarian-make-2015-the-year-of-tempeh/2015/01/05/c34d4292-8e05-11e4-a085-34e9b9f09a58_story.html