Fun with Tempeh

raw tempeh right out of the package

What’s a Rice Krispie Treat doing on the cover?


That was my reaction to the cover photo on a recent issue of Food and Nutrition Magazine. Looking closer, I realized it was a block of tempeh, photo-shopped to saturate the color, creating the illusion of a Rice Krispie Treat. It’s a funny thought, considering these two foods are nutritionally worlds apart.

Photo-shopped or not, tempeh is rather unusual-looking. Like its cousin tofu, it’s a high protein plant food made from soy. But while tofu is made by coagulating soy milk, tempeh is prepared by fermenting whole cooked soybeans with a special strain of the Rhizopus fungus. The result is a dense cake of cooked soybeans held together by the fungal matter. So not just high protein but also high fiber from the soy beans and more of a probiotic.

per 100 gramswaterproteinfatcarbsfibercalories
tempeh60%20 g11 g7.5 g8 g167
tofu> 80%10 g5 g2.5 g1.3 g100

NOTE: tofu nutrient values will vary according to type of tofu and manufacturing practices.

As you can see, tempeh has less water content and more protein, fat, fiber and carbs than tofu. Thanks to the chewy dense texture, tempeh holds together better than tofu when sliced or crumbled. It works really well as a meat substitute in dishes with lots of flavor from the other ingredients, such as burritos, tacos and marinara sauce.

Tempeh should be cooked through before eating. I agree with recommendations to simmer the tempeh block for about 10 minutes in water or a vegetable broth before using. This softens it up. After simmering it, slice or crumble. You can marinate the tempeh pieces before frying or grilling or adding to a recipe.

tempeh after simmering

The $64 Question: What Does It Taste Like?

All this stuff about texture and nutrients is fine, but no one is going to use tempeh if they don’t like the taste. I’m here to say it tastes like…. not much. It’s described as “nutty” or “earthy” or “like mushrooms”. I’d have to agree with the mushrooms. Sort of. Despite being made of fermented soybeans. tempeh has no fermented/acidic/tangy flavor at all. Quite bland. But bland is good if you’re using tempeh in a flavorful recipe. It takes on the flavor of marinades or condiments or other seasonings.

Cooking and Serving Tempeh

Strangely one of my favorite ways to use tempeh is fried slices. After simmering the block for 10 minutes, I cut it in half, so I have 2 square pieces. Then I slice each piece through the middle (bagel-style). Now you have 4 thin squares. You can slice those in half, or just use them as squares.

fried tempeh slices

Heat some neutral oil (canola, peanut, avocado) in a frying pan. Coat the tempeh pieces all over in rice flour. Optional: coat with Panko crumbs next. Fry over medium high heat to brown on both sides. Set aside on paper towels until you’re ready to use them. Or just eat them as is, dipped in hot pepper sauce or soy sauce or perhaps a Korean, Thai, wasabi/ginger or other strongly flavored Asian condiment sauce. Sort of like eating fish sticks, except without the fish flavor. I like to fry a batch and keep the slices handy for a quick stir fry, seasoned with garlic, ginger and soy sauce.

You can also marinate tempeh in your choice of marinade and grill the slices. Use in a stir fry, or in a sandwich as a sort of burger, garnished with grilled vegetables, sliced tomato and condiments. Or crumble marinated tempeh into a sauté pan and brown in oil to use in tacos or a spaghetti sauce.

For more ideas on using tempeh, check out Food and Nutrition Magazine, or this from America’s Test Kitchen. Pinterest and Instagram will have lots more ideas. So go on, be adventurous, try tempeh!

Copyright: All content © 2021 Nutrition Strategy Advisors LLC. Photographs © Donna P Feldman, unless otherwise attributed. Reproduction or use without permission is prohibited.