Have you ever wondered how to cook tempeh, or stared at a brick of the funky fermented soybeans and wondered what the heck it is and what the heck to do with it? Well wonder no more!
I'm going to break down everything you need to know about How to Cook Tempeh, including steaming, marinating, baking, frying, and grilling. I've also included several links to delicious tempeh recipes for each technique, and if you're looking for more, check out these Vegan Tempeh Recipes you can try.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh is fermented soy food originally from Indonesia.
It is fermented with the mold Rhizopus oligosporus in a process similar to cheese making. The fermentation process makes digestion easier and nutrients like zinc, calcium, and iron are more bio available than in non-fermented soy products like tofu.
Tempeh is a great source of plant-based protein. Also, because the soy beans in tempeh are still in their whole form, all of the dietary fiber is still intact. Think of tofu as the white bread of the soy world and tempeh as its healthier whole grain cousin.
Tempeh has a nutty flavor that's richer and more complex than tofu thanks to the fermentation process. It's a great vehicle for soaking up all kinds of sauces and seasonings, so use your imagination with your ingredients!
If you want to do a deep dive into tempeh including how to make your own tempeh at home, check out Everything You Need to Know About Tempeh from Connoisseurus Veg. I’m pretty sure it’s the most comprehensive post about tempeh on the web!
What does tempeh look like?
Tempeh is usually purchased in a cake-like form and can be sliced or crumbled, and is often steamed, seared, or stir-fried. Look for tempeh that is covered with a thin whitish bloom.
Sometimes it has a few black or grayish spots, which is totally normal, but it should have no evidence of pink, yellow, or blue colouration – a sign that it has become overly fermented.
Where can you buy tempeh?
Look for fresh tempeh in the refrigerated section of your local grocery store. It’s usually together with the tofu and meat-replacement products. If your local grocery store doesn’t carry tempeh, try a natural foods store instead.
You may also find tempeh in the freezer section. I like to bulk-buy tempeh when it’s on sale and toss it right into the freezer, where it’ll keep for about six months.
How to cook tempeh
Tempeh can be steamed, fried, marinated, grilled, stir-fried… you name it. The only thing you *can’t* do with tempeh is eat it raw
Since tempeh is a fermented food, it’s been sitting around in warm temperatures growing bacterial culture for a few days, so there’s a chance it could’ve grown some harmful bacteria spores in addition to the Rhizopus oligosporus.
Cooking the tempeh makes it perfectly safe to eat, but don’t be tempted to taste-test an uncooked tempeh mix. Let's get into how to cook tempeh!
1. Steaming Tempeh
Some people find that tempeh has a slightly bitter flavour. The good news is that this can easily be removed by gently steaming your tempeh. Steaming has the added benefit of allowing the tempeh to better absorb the flavours of any marinades or sauces you are using.
Note - I personally never bother with steaming my tempeh. I either don't notice or am not bothered by the bitter flavour. But many people swear by steaming and never skip this step!
To steam your tempeh: Bring an inch or two pot of water to a boil. Place tempeh slices into a steamer basket, and steam, covered, for about 10 minutes.
Drain the tempeh, pat it dry with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, and proceed to use it in your recipe.
2. Marinating Tempeh
Tempeh is super thirsty and loves to suck up a good marinade. You can use a variety of marinades, like my homemade Vegan Teriyaki Sauce for example. Simmer together with the marinade for a few minutes, or simply pour it over top.
I recommend marinating tempeh for a minimum of 30 minutes, but you can leave it for as long as overnight. This is what I prefer to do when I'm making a really flavourful recipe like my Tempeh Bacon recipe.
Once your tempeh is marinated, you can proceed to bake, fry, or stir-fry as your recipe requires.
3. Baked Tempeh
Baking tempeh is a great way to get a nice crisp exterior and a chewy texture.
You can bake either marinated tempeh, or plain tempeh that has been brushed with oil. I find lining the baking sheets with parchment paper is essential to prevent sticking.
The advantages of baked tempeh are that it uses less oil than frying, and you don't need to babysit it as much. It typically takes only around 20 minutes for perfectly crisp baked tempeh.
I use this technique for making Tempeh Bacon, together with a flavourful marinade made with liquid smoke, soy sauce, and paprika, or my (very ancient)Tempeh Reuben Bowls.
4. Fried Tempeh
Fried tempeh is great because it's quick, easy, and flavourful. It's as simple as heating some oil in a heavy-bottomed skillet and frying the tempeh until browned and crispy on all sides. Be warned though, tempeh tends to suck up a LOT of oil - not just a tablespoon or two - when you pan fry it.
My favourite way to make fried tempeh is to pan fry it unseasoned, and then add the sauce and seasoning AFTER it has been fried. I find that this allows more of the sauce (and therefore flavour) to cling to the surface of the tempeh.
I use this technique in my Tempeh Teriyaki recipe.
5. Crumbled Tempeh
Since tempeh is made of whole soybeans that have been pressed together, you can crumble a block of tempeh apart with your hands to replicate the "meaty" texture of ground beef.
Just crumble the tempeh with your hands, add to a hot frying pan with a touch of oil, and proceed with your recipe once the tempeh is browned.
I use crumbled tempeh to make amazing Tempeh Tacos, and also as the base for my Vegan Bolognese with Tempeh. It's a great vehicle for mixing with spices, and works in just about any dish!
6. Grilled Tempeh
Since tempeh is nice and firm, it holds up well on the grill and does not fall apart. I also find that it doesn't stick to the grill the same way as tofu tends to.
I love to grill marinated tempeh for about five minutes on each side, which leaves nice grill marks and is long enough to heat the tempeh through (depending on thickness). Medium heat is typically perfect for this. You can even grill an entire block of tempeh, and then slice it up later.
BBQ tempeh is great to use in burgers, sliced up in salads, or as part of a meal bowl over rice.
7. Air Fryer Tempeh
If you have an Air Fryer, it's a fantastic tool for making crisp, delicious tempeh in record time.
I keep my Air Fryer Tempeh recipe pretty basic, because I find that it does such a great job of soaking up a sauce or marinade after it has been air fried and the edges are crisp. Just a little bit of oil, salt, and pepper, and about 10 minutes in the Air Fryer is all you need.
Make sure your tempeh pieces or strips are in a single layer in your air fryer basket for optimal crispness.
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