What is Tempeh? A Guide to This Popular Meat Alternative

Chances are if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, you probably don’t know much about tempeh. We had never heard of tempeh before we cut back on meat, but it’s become a favorite of ours since it’s nutritious, economical, and tastes good too. Alex and I typically don’t like eating foods pretending to be other foods, but tempeh is an exception. If you’re new to the world of meat alternatives and are asking yourself, “what is tempeh anyways?” I’ve laid out everything you need to know about this soy product below.

what is tempeh

What Is Tempeh?

Though it’s fairly new to America, tempeh has been around since the 1500s and originated in Indonesia. Essentially, tempeh is a compressed cake of whole soybeans (and sometime grains like wheat or barley). To make tempeh, the soybeans must first be soaked to soften them, then they’re cooked and slightly fermented before being formed into a firm patty or block. Because tempeh is made from whole soybeans, it has a hearty texture and slightly nutty flavor that makes it an ideal meat substitute.

Because tempeh is so firm, it can withstand being fried or grilled without crumbling. It’s bland enough that it soaks up the flavor of marinades, dressings, and sauces perfectly, making it suitable for a variety of recipes. However, because it is so firm I recommend slicing it thinly before digging in, otherwise the chewy texture can be slightly off-putting.

Besides tasting phenomenal, tempeh is very high in protein – around 15 grams per serving (enough to satisfy your mom!). It also has lots of vitamins and minerals, fiber, and is free of cholesterol. It can be purchased at most grocery stores, including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and Kroger. If you follow a gluten-free diet, make sure to read the ingredients list before purchasing tempeh to ensure no wheat byproducts snuck in. And if you’re soy-free, I’ve seen some chickpea and black bean tempeh on the market (but soy-based tempeh is the easiest to find).

Tempeh vs Tofu

Although both are made from soy, tofu and tempeh are completely different. Tofu is made by curdling fresh soymilk and is unfermented. It’s also smooth in texture and often quite creamy, which makes it ideal for adding into soups and stews, and blending into smoothies and sauces. Although tofu contains slightly less protein than tempeh, it’s still quite nutritious. Another key thing to remember when cooking with tofu is that it contains a lot of water, so you’ll likely need to press the tofu between two towels before adding it to your recipe.

Easy Tempeh Recipes

This smoky tempeh bacon recipe is a good place to start if you’ve never worked with tempeh before. This recipe uses pre-packaged tempeh and some choice seasonings to create a vegan bacon that’s perfect on sandwiches and salads (might I recommend this tempeh, lettuce, and tomato sandwich?). For something a little different, try this baked tempeh salad with honey chipotle dressing. The tempeh is coated in cornmeal and baked, which makes it taste vaguely like croutons (although not nearly as crunchy!). The salad dressing has a yogurt base, which makes it super creamy.

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

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