Everything you ever wanted to know about tempeh but were afraid to ask! Today we’re covering the basics: what is tempeh, how to cook it, where to buy it, and even how to make it.
I fell in love with tempeh the first time I ever ate it. This was a big surprise to me! I hadn’t had any luck with tofu at that point, so when I saw a shiny new (to me) soy product at my local health food store, I decided to bring it home and give it a go.
I cooked up that first block of tempeh very simply by pan-frying it in some olive oil, and as far as I was concerned, it was heaven. Soft but textured, somewhat nutty, and a little bit funky would be about how I’d describe it. But it was also totally different from anything I’d ever tasted.
So of course it surprised the heck out of me when I started blogging and discovered that lots of folks either (1) don’t like tempeh, or (2) don’t know what to do with it. I’m hoping this little guide can help you with all of that.
First things first:
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is an Indonesian food, and like tofu, tempeh is a soy product. It’s quite a bit different from tofu though. Tofu is made from soy curds. What’s that mean? For our purposes today, we’ll say it’s a bit more processed than tempeh. It takes some magic to turn soybeans into curds!
Tempeh on the other hand is made from whole soybeans. Or, okay, halved soybeans, and some broken ones, but close enough. This means it’s less processed than tofu, which is why lots of whole food purists prefer it. (I, for the record, love tofu and tempeh equally these days.)
In addition to soybeans, and this is the kind of freaky part, tempeh contains a type of mold. Don’t be too freaked though! Like other fermented foods, the mold used to make tempeh (it’s called Rhizopus ogliosporus) is beneficial, and actually considered to be healthy. It’s also what makes tempeh downright tasty, in my humble opinion.
The mold and soybeans are bound together into solid blocks by a fermentation process that we’ll talk more about below. You can see in the image above how the beans are held together by the mold.
Sometimes you’ll get a block of tempeh with some gray spots on it. This is nothing to worry about! It’s the same type of mold, just at a later stage of growth. Feel free to cut off any gray spots if they bother you. You may find the flavor of tempeh that’s started graying to be a bit more intense than when it’s super fresh and brilliant white.
If your tempeh is mostly gray and limp, this means it’s starting to go bad. Toss it and get a new block.
Where to Get Tempeh
Depending on where you live, there’s a good chance that your regular supermarket carries tempeh. If you can’t find it there, try health food markets like Whole Foods. Lightlife and SoyBoy are two popular brands that are available where I live. Trader Joe’s also carries tempeh, and they have their own brand.
When you shop for tempeh you might notice that it comes in different varieties — regular, multigrain, flax, and a few others. Regular tempeh is just soybeans and mold. Those other varieties just have additional ingredients mixed in and fermented along with the soybeans. You might even come across soy-free varieties of tempeh that substitute things like hemp seeds and other types of beans for soy.
If you’re new to cooking with tempeh, I recommend starting with soy and then branching out to try some other varieties.
How to Cook Tempeh
You know how I mentioned above that some people immediately hate the taste of tempeh? Well, store-bought tempeh can be a little on the bitter side. My husband, for example, really only likes it when it’s cooked in a way to hide/remove the bitter flavor. There are a couple of tricks for that!
Steaming your tempeh will remove a lot of the bitterness. Steaming is to be done before incorporating tempeh into a recipe.
The preferred method of steaming would be to place your tempeh into a steamer basket fitted in a saucepan with a few inches of water. Bring the water to a boil, cover the pan and let the tempeh steam for 15 minutes or so.
Then there’s the quick and dirty method: wrap your tempeh in a wet paper towel, put it on a plate and microwave it for 4 minutes. Be super careful not to burn yourself when removing it from the microwave! This method isn’t quite as effective as the steamer basket method, but it gets the job done in a pinch.
Crumble It In Sauces and Stews
Because tempeh is made from beans embedded in mold, it’s naturally easy to crumble. And crumbled tempeh makes a great meat substitute! Add it to a super flavorful sauce or stew, and you won’t taste much of that bitterness that so many people find off-putting.
Tempeh can either be crumbled directly into your sauce or stew, or browned first in a bit of oil.
Pan-frying is a great cooking method for people that really enjoy the taste and texture of tempeh. You’re not hiding anything when you cook tempeh using this method.
Heat some oil in a skillet and add your tempeh, in whatever form you like: strips, slabs or cubes all work. Fry each side for a few minutes until lightly browned, and then add any additional seasonings or sauces. Pan-fried tempeh slabs are great for sandwiches, strips make an awesome vegan bacon substitute, and cubes go great in a stir-fry.
A Note of Caution
Whatever you do, make sure you actually cook your tempeh. Never eat raw tempeh. Remember that tempeh is a fermented food, meaning it’s been sitting around in warm temperatures growing stuff for a few days, so there’s a chance it could’ve grown some bad stuff in addition to the Rhizopus oligosporus. (And honestly, I’m not even sure if Rhizopus oligosporus itself is safe to eat raw.)
Unless you’re using tempeh from a package that specifies it’s been precooked, don’t chance it — cook it up!
Here are a few more fun tempeh recipes to try out!
- Tempeh Ribs
- Tempeh Bacon BLT Sandwiches – Hey Nutrition Lady
- Chipotle Tempeh Tacos
- Marinated Peanut Tempeh – Minimalist Baker
- Korean Barbecue Tempeh Wraps
- Tempeh Bacon Stuffed Mushrooms
- Smoky Vegan Broccoli Soup with Crispy Tempeh Croutons – Veggie Inspired
- Savory Tempeh Breakfast Sandwiches
- Vegan Curry Noodles with Tempeh – Delish Knowledge
- Sweet, Spicy & Sticky Stir-Fry with Tempeh and Brussels Sprouts – Hello Veggie
- Ginger Sesame Tempeh Lettuce Wraps
- Teriyaki Tempeh Meatballs
How to Make Tempeh
Making tempeh is a bit of work, but in my opinion, totally worth it. I’m going to go through the steps in some detail with photos, but scroll to the bottom of this post if you just want the recipe.
Homemade tempeh, unlike lots of the store-bought stuff, has absolutely no bitterness to it. Just a mild, nutty, slightly yeasty flavor.
Having said that, making tempeh can be a bit labor intensive and it takes a few days. I generally recommend it for people like me, who love tempeh to begin with and want to enjoy it at it’s best.
Here’s what you’ll need to make your tempeh:
Rice vinegar is easy — find it in your supermarket’s international foods section. I’ve included links above to where you can buy starter and beans on Amazon. Most Asian markets will carry the beans as well.
Once you’ve made a batch of tempeh, you can make your own starter as well. I’ll talk about that a bit below!
Measure out 2 cups of soybeans. Place them in a large pot and cover them with water. Make sure there’s plenty of room in the pot and that the water comes up at least twice as high as the beans — they’ll expand a lot as they soak.
Soak the beans overnight. 12 hours is the perfect amount of time.
Hull the Beans
Now for the work.
Your tempeh starter may include instructions to do this by massaging the beans or pressing on them with a potato masher. If you go this route, plan to spend at least 30 minutes, and up to an hour, removing the hulls.
What’s worked better for me is spreading out the beans on a tea towel and smashing them with a rolling-pin. Ten minutes and the job is done! Alternate folding the towel over the beans and using lots of pressure, and then rolling the beans without the towel and using more pressure.
I’ve read other tips to try using a stand mixer or food processor with a dough kneading attachment. I tried both and pretty much got nowhere. But feel free to experiment and see what works best for you!
In any event, your goal is to split the beans in half. Once they split, the skins will slip right off. and when you can see that the beans are split, it’s easy to confirm that they’ve been hulled.
Separate the hulls and discard as many as you can as they come off the beans, but don’t get too hung up on this step. I find putting them into a fine mesh strainer and hitting them with high pressure water pushes many of the hulls to the bottom and sides of the colander.
Boil the Beans
Place the beans back into a pot, cover them with a few inches of water, and boil them. Let them cook at a rolling boil for 1 hour. You’ll notice some of the remaining hulls floating to the top of the water while they cook. Skim them from the top and discard them as this happens.
Dry the Beans
Once the beans are finished boiling, drain them into a mesh colander. They need to be cool and dry to the tough before proceeding with the next step.
Your starter may instruct you to physically dry them with a towel or hair dryer. I found toweling them off to be pretty ineffective, so I dry them with my hair dryer on low. Keep them in the colander or in a bowl when you do this (don’t arrange them on a flat surface or anything like that — they’ll fly everywhere!).
Place the dry beans into a large mixing bowl and add 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar (or white vinegar). Stir well, then add the starter. Stir everything up again until thoroughly mixed.
Shape the Tempeh
Tempeh needs to ferment in a container with just a bit of ventilation. A large freezer bag with lots of pinholes works great. Place the beans into the bag and arrange them in a 1-inch (approximately) thick layer.
Incubate the Tempeh
Tempeh is fussy! It needs to ferment at between 85°F and 90°F. Much cooler and the mycelium won’t grow (giving rise for undesirable microorganisms to grow instead). Much hotter will kill it.
This sounds tricky, but it’s really not. First off, stick a thermometer into your beans. Poke a hole through the bag and stick it right in there.
During the summer, you may find that room temperature is warm enough. During the cooler months, I simply place everything on a plate, turn on my oven light, and set the plate near the back of the oven, close to the light. An hour or so later, I’ll take a peek at the temperature. If it’s too cool, I’ll take the plate out of the oven, heat up the oven just for a minute or two, then put the plate back. If it’s too hot, I’ll move the plate away from the light.
Keep an eye on the temperature, but don’t lose sleep over it. My temperature usually dips a bit below 85°F or jumps above 90°F for an hour or so here and there, and my tempeh turns out fine. Just do your best to keep it from staying consistently out of range.
After about a day, you might notice the temperature of your tempeh climbing. This is good! Once the fermentation really gets going, the mycelium starts to generate its own heat. Move the tempeh away from your heat source, or remove it completely. My tempeh’s temperature often climbs up near 100°F, without an additional heat source, during this time.
Soon you’ll start to see some white fuzz growing on your beans. This is the mycelium. And over the next day or so, the mycelium will start to completely cover the beans. Once the beans are embedded in a solid block of white mold, your tempeh is done.
Seal it up and refrigerate it for up to a week, or freeze it for up to 3 months.
Harvest Some Tempeh Starter
If you’d like some more starter for future batches, you can get some from your new tempeh. Just cut off a small piece (a 1-inch cube is more than enough) and return it to incubation. Again, you’ll want a vented container and a temperature between 85°F and 90°F. I use a small bowl covered with plastic wrap with pin holes poked in it.
Let the tempeh continue to incubate. The mycelium will continue to grow. It might get really fuzzy, and it should start to turn gray or black. Mine usually ends up looking like dryer lint.
When you see lots of gray and/or black fuzz, remove the temeph from the incubator and let it sit out at room temperature to dry out. This can take 3 to 7 days, depending on the temperature and humidity.
Once the tempeh is dry, grind it up. You can use a mortar & pestle or a small blending device like a coffee grinder. Add 2 parts rice flour, by weight. Seal up the tempeh in a storage container or plastic bag, and refrigerate until you’re ready to use it. You’ll need 1 teaspoon for future batches of tempeh.
Ready to make some tempeh and then start cooking with it? Here’s your printable recipe, below. And be sure to refer to the details above for guidance.
Everything you ever wanted to know about tempeh but were afraid to ask! Today we're covering the basics: what is tempeh, how to cook it, where to buy it, and even how to make it.
Place the beans into a large saucepan or bowl and cover them with several inches of water. Let the beans soak for about 12 hours.
Split the beans in half and remove the hulls. To do this you can either massage the beans vigorously by hand, hit them with a potato masher, or arrange them on a towel-lined flat surface and roll them with a rolling pin.
Transfer the beans to a fine mesh colander and rinse them under high pressure water. The hulls should begin to settle to the bottom or be forced to the sides. Pick out as many of the hulls as you can.
Transfer the beans to a large saucepan and cover them with several inches of water.
Place the pot over high heat and bring the water to a boil.
Lower the heat and allow the beans to boil for 1 hour. Skim any loose hulls from the surface of the water as they float there.
Drain the beans into the mesh colander.
With the beans still in the colander, dry them gently with a hair-dryer on low power. Allow the beans to cool if they've heated up too much.
Once the beans are cool and dry to the touch, transfer them to a large mixing bowl.
Add the vinegar and mix well.
Add the starter and mix well. Stir for a few minutes to ensure even distribution of the starter.
Gather a gallon sized plastic zip bag and use a pin to poke holes, separated by about 1/2-inch, in both sides of the bag.
Transfer the beans to the bag. Set the bag on a plate and distribute the beans in a 1-inch thick layer. Fold the bag over the beans.
Use a meat thermometer to poke a hole through the bag, into the beans.
Place the beans in a warm (not hot) location, such as at the back of your oven with the light turned on.
Check the beans after 1-hour. The temperature needs to be between 85°F and 90°F. Move or make any adjustments if needed to raise or lower the temperature.
Check the beans every few hours. After about 24 hours, the temperature may begin to climb and you may be able to remove the beans from the oven.
White mycelium will begin to grow on the beans. Continue checking the beans until they are completely embedded in a block of mold (1-4 days).
Your tempeh is finished. Cook it right away, or seal and refrigerate for up to 7 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.
This recipe makes about 18 ounces of tempeh.