As we become ever-more conscious of greenhouse gasses, emissions, our carbon footprint, food waste, and more, the plant-based protein market has exploded like so many bovine stink bombs. People are creating more and more options every day to do their parts.
But did you know a pretty great solution already exists, and has been in existence for a good long time already? It’s called tempeh!
- Fermented soy-based vegan meat substitute native to Indonesia
- Made with whole soybeans and sometimes grains, so it’s nutrient-dense but may not be gluten-free
- Will keep unopened for up 5 – 7 days past sell-by date and 3 days after opening/use
Tempeh is food that checks off a lot of boxes. It’s vegan. It’s soy-based, which means it yields more protein per hectare than many other crops. It’s fermented, which means it’s rich in prebiotics, provided it’s not heated all the way through. The fermentation also breaks down the beans’ natural phytic acid making it easier to digest. It’s sold cooked and often seasoned, which makes it convenient, too. For even more flavor variety and nutrient density, it can include beans, grains, and legumes (besides soy). And most importantly, its firm texture, earthy flavor, and versatility make it a very easy swap for meats.
But before we resign its identity to an original plant-based “meat,” it’s important to note that it has historically been a hearty main in its own right. Enjoyed by the Indonesians who invented it sometime during the 17th century, you’ll find it in a variety of flavors in Asia, and therefore with an even wider range of application. If you get a chance, try tempeh gembus, funky tempeh semangit, or just grilled on skewers at a night market. After all, they’ve had centuries to play around with this intriguing ingredient!
What Does Tempeh Taste Like?
Tempeh’s natural flavor profile is nutty and robust—mildly savory, slightly earthy, and spongy in much the same way some mushrooms can be. It’s also slightly briny, so make sure to account for that when you’re cooking. What’s nice, though, is that it happily absorbs the flavors of food or sauce to which it’s added, remaining spongey even as it sucks up marinade or smoke.
Varieties of Tempeh
Tempeh can come in a medley of flavors and ingredients. It can be gluten-free, or enriched with grains and seeds such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, flax, and others. Legumes and beans are not uncommon, either. All of these can enhance the natural nutty flavor of tempeh as well as create stronger binds for a more toothsome bite.
You can also marinate or smoke tempeh more for specific flavors. Some manufacturers sell smoky-flavored tempeh in strips to use as a bacon substitute.
Tempeh is often a substitute for other ingredients, so it’s rather a turn of events to wonder what could be swapped in its place! Firm or extra-firm tofu, pressed super dry could work, but you’ll lose the flavor and savoriness of the tempeh.
Tempeh vs. Tofu
Although tempeh and tofu are both soy-based foods, there are significant differences between the two. Tofu is made with coagulated milk from rehydrated, boiled, and crushed soybeans, pressed to various levels of firmness. Tempeh is made from fermented whole cooked soybeans (and sometimes grains as well) and fermented.
Because of this, the texture and appearance is wildly different. While firm tofu is a smooth white brick that can crumble under pressure, tempeh is a chunky, spongey block with patchy coloring that resembles a hugely magnified Rice Krispie treat. Cut one in the middle and you can see how the individual beans are held together by the probiotic mold used in fermentation!
Because of this, tempeh is actually healthier than tofu since it contains more protein, fiber and vitamins, plus the probiotics present in any fermented food. However, tofu is a safer choice for those who are gluten-free, as tempeh may contain grains for flavor, nutrition, or just filler. Those additions also make tofu a more neutral-tasting product than tempeh.
Where to Buy Tempeh
Tempeh has been a mainstay at health food stores for quite some time and is now fairly common in limited variety at major grocery stores. Find it sitting quietly among the tofu, seitan, and things like wonton wrappers in the refrigerated produce aisle. Sometimes, they’re hidden among the dairy products with other vegan or vegetarian refrigerated substitutes. For more flavors and varying compositions, look to your local Asian market for this Indonesian staple food.
Unless you’re in Asia, where you’ll see it wrapped in banana, waru, or teak leaves, they’ll be in tidy plastic shrink-wrapped, vacuum-sealed blocks, cut to portions typically around 8 ounces. Brands you can look for are Lightlife, which is the mainstream market leader in the U.S. for this product; Tofurky; and white labels at stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.
How to Store Tempeh
Tempeh at various stages is stored differently. Fresh-made tempeh is not common here, but if you should encounter it on your travels, know that it will keep for about 48 hours in its incubation material at mild room temperature in the shade. Fresh refrigerated tempeh should be sealed in polyethylene and kept below 40°F, where it will remain in its state for up to seven days. However, if it’s blanched or steamed prior to chilling, it’ll stay good for up to three weeks!
Dehydrated tempeh can stay preserved at room temperature for several months if packaged in moisture-proof Pliofilm bags, but if you’re making the switch to tempeh for nutritional impact, know that hot air drying can cause significant loss of nutrients. On the other hand, freeze-dried tempeh offers the benefits of both, but is typically pricey.
The pre-cooked tempeh you’re more likely to encounter in mainstream markets will keep in their original packaging for 5 to 7 days after the sell-by date if properly stored and unopened. Once you open it or cook with it, you have about three days to use it up, provided you keep it in an airtight container. Freeze it unopened, though, and you’ll buy yourself 10 to 12 months.
Lastly, don’t be too alarmed if your tempeh has some black or white spots! These are developed during the incubation process when it’s made—a natural characteristic of tempeh and not indicative of spoilage. After all, most of the tempeh you’ll get at American stores are pasteurized for your safety, after it is sealed, allowing no new bacteria to get in.
How to Prep and Cook With Tempeh
Tempeh is flexible ingredient, as its firm composition lends a lot of possibilities. Some find tempeh slightly bitter when they use it right out of the package; steaming it before incorporating it into your recipe can help to mellow it out, soften it slightly, and make it more receptive to absorbing seasonings or sauces. You can also marinate it before cooking with it if you’d like it to take on a specific flavor profile.
Otherwise, to break it up from the pressed cake shape and use it immediately, use a cheese grater to emulate the texture of ground meat; slice or dice it for stir-fries, braises, pan-frying, sautés; or cut it horizontally into slabs like you would with halloumi for grilling, baking, frying, or searing. This will give you a crispier edge.
Recipes That Use Tempeh
There are endless ways you can use tempeh in lieu of other proteins, as some of these recipes prove. But while it is a chameleon food, but that doesn’t mean its uniqueness is not to be celebrated.