Meet Tempeh: Tofu’s Meaty Cousin

When it comes to plant-based alternatives to meat, many producers try to duplicate its taste and texture. To do this, they often use synthetic additives. Yet, tempeh achieves similar results through a healthy means — controlled fermentation. Plus, unlike some meat substitutes, tempeh is cholesterol-free!

In this Question and Answer article, you’ll learn about tempeh’s nutritional value, ways to cook with it, including where to find tempeh in the grocery store. You’ll also find a link to scrumptious recipes. Here’s why it ranks high with vegetarians and meat-lovers alike.

1. What is tempeh, and how is it made?

Tempeh, pronounced “tem-pay,” is a cultured product made from soybeans. Indonesians first created it thousands of years ago. Since the 1970s, it has gained worldwide favor as a nutritious, satisfying food.

Making tempeh involves cooking soybeans and inoculating them with a food-safe fungus. As the beans ferment, the fungus knits them into a solid loaf. Culturing time runs about two days, producing a dense white cake.

Fermentation renders astounding changes in soybeans! You reap the benefits of improved flavor, mineral absorption, and digestibility. Culturing also concentrates soybean protein and fiber.

What is Tempeh made of?
Boiled soybeans used for tempeh fermentation

Some retailers enhance their products with vegetables and grains, such as wheat, millet, barley, or rice. New on the market is soy-free tempeh, made of fermented seeds or other types of beans.

2. What does tempeh taste like?

Tempeh has a tangy, earthy flavor, resembling mushrooms. The Japanese have an apt word for the taste — “umami,” translated as savory and meaty. This is one reason why it’s an ideal meat substitute.

Yet, tempeh offers a culinary bonus! If you serve it with marinades, sauces, and dressings, it absorbs their flavors. In this regard, tempeh behaves like tofu. However, since it consists of whole soybeans, its texture is chunky rather than smooth.

3. What are tempeh’s nutritional benefits?

On average, a three-ounce portion of tempeh has a whopping 16 grams of protein! Such ample protein is rare in plant foods. Moreover, the protein is “complete,” supplying all the amino acids your cells need to thrive.

A three-ounce serving also yields five grams of fat, mostly the heart-healthy kind. Meanwhile, you get seven grams of fiber, meeting one-fourth of your daily need. The roughage in tempeh is “prebiotic.” This type of fiber nourishes the beneficial bacteria residing in your digestive tract. These mighty microbes boost your digestion, nutrient absorption, immune power, and brain function.

Tempeh is a good source of iron and B vitamins, nutrients that give you energy. Your bones will value the hefty amounts of fortifying minerals, including manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium. Plus, the zinc in this cultured product helps you fight off illness.

4. Is raw tempeh safe to eat?

Some Internet articles advise that consuming raw tempeh is fine. However, health authorities warn that eating uncooked tempeh puts you at risk for food poisoning. This is because the conditions used to culture tempeh can also breed harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella.

Let me explain further. For the tempeh fungus to grow, it needs a temperature range of 85 to 90 degrees. Additionally, it requires a relative humidity between 50 and 75 percent. Illness-causing bacteria love the high heat and moisture, by which they flourish.

Therefore, to avoid getting sick, never eat raw tempeh. Also, if you buy unpasteurized tempeh, be sure to cook it for at least 20 minutes.

5. How do you prepare tempeh?

The key to releasing tempeh’s nutty flavor is steaming it. If you don’t, it will taste somewhat bitter. Steaming has other advantages, too! It plumps the beans, deepens their flavor, moistens them, and kills all bacteria. Plus, tempeh absorbs sauces, marinades, and seasonings better if you steam it first.

An easy way to prep this cultured product is with a steamer basket. Place the metal basket inside a saucepan, and set it on your stove. Using a cutting board and sharp knife, cut the tempeh block into bite-sized cubes and transfer them to the basket. Next, add enough water to the saucepan to barely touch the cubes.

After bringing the water to boiling, cover the pot with a lid, keeping it angled versus flat. Angling the lid lets some vapor escape, preventing boil-over. Then, simmer the tempeh at a low boil for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes.

6. How can you cook with tempeh?

How can you cook with tempeh?
Cubed tempeh soy sauce with green chili

Baking

Before oven-baking tempeh, consider marinating it for a least one hour in your fridge. Or, steep it in a sauce for 10 minutes. Next, preheat your oven to 350 degrees, followed by baking the tempeh in an oven-safe dish for 20 minutes.

Grinding

To give tempeh a beefy texture, slice it into cubes and place them in a food processor. Pulse the pieces until they’re chunky like beef. Then, cook them for at least 20 minutes.

Crumbling

This method is ideal for adding tempeh to a stew, chili, or sauce. If you steam the tempeh first, it will crumble easily. Holding each cube above your stove pot, rub it between your fingers.

Sautéing

Use this technique to brown tempeh and intensify its nutty taste. Cut the tempeh loaf into cubes, strips, or slabs. For even crisping, slice them no thicker than a half-inch.

Next, warm a skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat for one minute. Add a small amount of oil to coat the pan thinly. Be sure to use an oil that tolerates high heat without smoking. Examples are peanut, canola, sesame, safflower, and regular olive oil, not extra-virgin.

After adding the oil, swirl it around the pan. Heat the oil for 30 seconds maximum until it shimmers. Next, place the tempeh pieces in the pan, ensuring at least a half-inch between them. If you crowd the pieces, they’ll steam rather than browning.

Then, cook the tempeh at medium-high heat, until it acquires a light crust. For cubed tempeh, stir the chunks frequently, but not constantly. For slabs and strips, turn them once or twice.

7. How to use tempeh in meals?

How to use tempeh in meals?
Fried tempeh meal with rice and broccoli, traditional Indonesian cuisine

Tempeh complements all types of savory foods. Below are the perfect ways to serve it.

  • Breakfast – vegetarian bacon and sausage patties
  • Lunch – sandwiches, fajitas, sloppy joes, gyros, and salad croutons
  • Supper – casseroles, vegetarian meatballs, tacos, ratatouille, kabobs, stews, chili, and stuffed peppers

Here’s an array of yummy tempeh recipes, including tips and mouthwatering photos.

8. Are there any dietary or drug precautions for tempeh?

Soy Allergy

If your body reacts to soy products, you can buy soy-free tempeh. One novel type is hemp tempeh, made with fermented hemp seeds. Hemp is another fabulous source of complete plant protein! If you’ve never eaten hemp seeds, this article explains what they are and their widespread appeal.

Gluten Sensitivity

If gluten doesn’t agree with you, scrutinize food labels when shopping for tempeh. Most brands are either made with grains or come in contact with grains during the processing phase.

To date, I’ve found two sellers of gluten-free soy tempeh — Lightlife and SoyBoy. Note that these retailers also make grain-based tempeh. Therefore, only buy products specifically labeled “gluten-free.”

Another option is purchasing tempeh made of gluten-free hemp seeds. Smiling Hara sells several flavors, marketing them as “hempeh.”

Hypothyroidism

Do you take medication for an underactive thyroid? If so, consult with your prescribing doctor before eating tempeh. Research suggests that eating soy can reduce the effectiveness of thyroid hormone medication.

9. What are the signs of spoiled tempeh?

Typically, fresh tempeh is white and firm with an earthy aroma like mushrooms. When you remove the loaf from the package, it stays intact.

Trustworthy producers, such as SoyBoy, pasteurize their tempeh after culturing it. The heating process kills any bacteria, along with the starter fungus. Still, its spores may persist on the food surface, present as small gray or black spots. Such spores are harmless, provided they’re not furry. However, if tempeh has any of these characteristics, discard it:

  • hairy spots
  • dark-colored beans or seeds
  • blue, yellow, or pink sections
  • sour odor, like ammonia
  • slimy surface
  • mushy or crumbly texture

10. How do you store tempeh?

Since it’s perishable, after buying it, keep the package in your fridge or freezer. When shopping, choose tempeh stamped with a long-range expiration date.

To maximize longevity, you can freeze tempeh, encased in a zipper-lock freezer bag. If stored this way, it will stay fresh for three months. Once you thaw frozen tempeh, be sure to cook and eat it within five days.

Likewise, after opening a package of refrigerated tempeh, consume the contents within five days. If you have leftover portions of cooked tempeh, refrigerate them in airtight containers. Then, eat the remaining servings within three days. Another option is freezing leftover tempeh and eating it within a month.

11. Where to buy tempeh?

Generally, large grocery chains sell tempeh, such as Whole Foods, Winn-Dixie, Kroger, ShopRite, and Publix. Currently, you’ll find it at Target and Walmart stores that have grocery departments. Asian markets are a sure bet, along with natural food stores.

Popular tempeh brands include Lightlife, WestSoy, Tofurky, and SoyBoy. Choose organic products, if available.

Usually, supermarkets keep tempeh in their produce departments, near the tofu and nondairy cheese. You may also find it in the freezer cases. Common varieties are original, pre-baked, marinated, and tempeh bacon.

Regarding price, on average, you’ll pay $2.75 for an 8-ounce package of original, organic tempeh. Eight ounces yields roughly two servings.

Befriending Tempeh

Although tofu and tempeh are both made from soy, their textures are quite different. Tofu is smooth, while tempeh is chunky. Each food is high in protein, the complete kind. Still, if you have a yen for something filling, tempeh is ideal.

Is meat a staple of your diet? If so, consider swapping it with tempeh once weekly. Your arteries will cheer, not having to cope with cholesterol. Meanwhile, your money will go farther than it does when buying meat.

Remember — never eat raw tempeh. Also, to unleash its nutty taste, steam it before use in recipes.

Advance your health with tempeh!

NOTE – This information is for educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice. If you have any health concerns involving food, speak with your primary care doctor before including this cultured product in your diet.

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