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Tempeh’s Many Culinary Uses

By Sharon Palmer, RDN

From tempeh bacon to tempeh bowls, this traditional plant-based protein is basking in newfound appreciation thanks to today’s rising interest in plant-based eating. You can find tempeh in most supermarkets and even some restaurants across the country. Tempeh is a traditional, fermented Indonesian soy and grain food that comes in a neatly pressed block, perfect for slicing into dishes as a meat replacement. It has a tangy (thanks to fermentation), mild, nutty taste and firm texture. Tempeh is an excellent addition to stir-fries, casseroles, stews, pizza, sandwiches, wraps, and pasta dishes. It’s especially good in a dish that has a vibrant sauce, where it can absorb the flavors of the recipe. You also can marinate and roast or grill tempeh into a delicious entrée all its own, which can then be sliced into sandwiches, salads, bowls, or wraps.

More food companies are creating excellent tempeh products, such as tempeh bacon, seasoned tempeh, and tempeh-based entrées. Made of whole, real plant foods (soy and grains), tempeh is nutrient rich and should be an important part of a well-planned plant-based diet, from a flexitarian diet to a vegan diet. One of the beauties of tempeh is its nutritional profile: One 1/2-cup serving has 160 kcal, 15 g protein, and 9 g total fat, not to mention vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals, and live, active cultures due to fermentation. In fact, tempeh is “real” enough that you could make it at home. But if one doesn’t want to go to all that trouble, tempeh can be found in most supermarkets in the refrigerated case near tofu.

Tips for Using Tempeh

Dietitians offer the following top tips for cooking with tempeh.

Marinate it. “Tempeh is best marinated,” says Tina Marinaccio, MS, RD, CPT, an integrative dietitian based in Morristown, New Jersey. “It is very dense, so steaming it first in a little water or white wine helps it to open and absorb the marinade. Garlic, ginger, and a little barbecue or soy sauce are great flavors for marinades. Tempeh comes in a rectangular block. I like to cut it in half, marinate it, bake it, then use it for tempeh reuben sandwiches topped with soy cheese, good quality sauerkraut, and Russian dressing made with silken tofu, on toasted rye bread. Tempeh stands up well to the grill and can be lightly grilled and cubed to put on salads, or cut into strips and dipped in sauces, like harissa red pepper sauce or tzatziki sauce. It’s a delicious and very satisfying protein.”

Don’t treat it like tofu. “Aside from not knowing what tempeh is exactly, I’ve found most consumers make the mistake of treating tempeh like tofu,” says Catherine Brown, CDM/CFPP, a plant-based chef, culinary nutritionist, and founder of the blog A Seat at My Table who’s based in New Hampshire. “It is very different in texture and structure. The whole bean fermentation process results in a dense, slightly earthy, rectangular block. The first step in making it delicious is to soften the texture and open the pores a bit so it has a nicer mouthfeel and can more readily absorb flavors. The easiest way to do this is to cut the rectangle in half and give them a five-minute steam in plain water, flipping halfway through. Remove, blot the excess water; cut into rectangular strips, small cubes, or triangles; and get them into a flavorful marinade while still warm. Two hours up to overnight is ideal for optimal flavor absorption. They can then be baked or sautéed. My favorite use is in noodle bowls, using a coconut ginger lime marinade. After marinating, I bake the triangles or cubes until dark brown. They stand up well to the soup broth and release some of their delicious flavor into the entire bowl. Leftovers are even better the next day!”

Crumble it. “I find that many people, even those who don’t eat much meat, aren’t familiar with tempeh,” says Anne Danahy, MS, RD, Scottsdale, Arizona–based blogger at Craving Something Healthy. I think it’s easier to use than tofu because there’s no pressing or draining required. I often recommend just crumbling it into a saucy dish like chili or soup for an extra protein boost. It takes on the flavors of the liquid and provides a nice, chewy texture.”

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, is an award-winning author and blogger who serves as nutrition editor for Today’s Dietitian. She’s a plant-based and sustainable foods expert based in Los Angeles.


Sesame Tempeh Buddha Bowl

Serves 4

Sesame Roasted Tempeh
1 8-oz package plain tempeh, cubed
2 T reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 T sesame oil
1/2 tsp sriracha sauce
1/2 tsp agave syrup
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp grated fresh ginger

Tahini Ginger Dressing
2 T tahini
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 T reduced-sodium soy sauce
1/2 tsp agave syrup
1 tsp grated fresh ginger

Buddha Bowl
2 cups baby kale
8 radishes, thinly sliced
2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
2 cups fresh asparagus, blanched* (may use frozen, thawed)
2 cups sliced red bell peppers
1 cup sliced mushrooms (eg, enoki, brown, or white)
4 tsp sesame seeds


Sesame Roasted Tempeh

  1. Place cubed tempeh in a medium dish. Add soy sauce, sesame oil, sriracha sauce, agave syrup, garlic, and ginger. Stir well, cover, and marinate in refrigerator for at least 1 hour.
  2. Preheat oven to 400° F. Place tempeh on a baking sheet, spreading out evenly. Place on top rack of oven and roast for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden and crisp on the outside. Remove from oven and cool.

Tahini Ginger Dressing
Mix together all ingredients until smooth and creamy.

Buddha Bowls

  1. In 4 large individual-sized serving bowls, arrange each with 1/2 cup baby kale, 2 sliced radishes, 1/2 cup brown rice, 1/2 cup asparagus, 1/2 cup bell peppers, 1/4 cup mushrooms, and 2 oz sesame roasted tempeh.
  2. Drizzle each bowl with 2 T of the tahini ginger dressing. Garnish each with 1 tsp sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

* To blanch asparagus, place fresh asparagus in boiling water for 3 minutes, remove from water, place in ice bath, and drain immediately.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 376; Total fat: 17 g; Sat fat: 3.5 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 456 mg; Total carbohydrate: 44 g; Dietary fiber: 6 g; Sugars: 4 g; Protein: 19 g

Thai Tempeh Noodle Skillet

Serves 6

1 tsp sesame oil
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
8 oz tempeh, cubed
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T minced fresh ginger
1 cup canned light coconut milk (stir well before measuring)
1 T Thai red curry paste
1/4 tsp red chili flakes
3 T reduced-sodium soy sauce
3 T peanut butter
1 T agave syrup
1 lime, juiced
4 cups water
8 oz uncooked Asian brown rice noodles (eg, pad Thai noodles)
1 bunch greens, chopped (eg, mustard, spinach, or chard)
3 green onions, chopped
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/4 cup peanuts, chopped


  1. Heat sesame oil in a large skillet or wok and sauté pepper, mushrooms, tempeh, garlic, and ginger for 8 minutes.
  2. While the vegetables are cooking, make the sauce by mixing together coconut milk, Thai red curry paste, red chili flakes, soy sauce, peanut butter, agave syrup, and lime juice in a bowl until smooth and set aside.
  3. Bring the water to a boil and add brown rice noodles, cooking according to package directions (about 2 minutes). Do not overcook.
  4. Rinse and drain noodles and immediately add to the skillet along with the sauce and chopped greens.
  5. Stir together gently, until heated through and greens are wilted (about 1 to 2 minutes).
  6. Garnish with chopped green onions, cilantro, and peanuts, and serve.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 324; Total fat: 21 g; Sat fat: 10 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 377 mg; Total carbohydrate: 25 g; Dietary fiber: 4 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 15 g

— Recipes and photos by Sharon Palmer, RDN, The Plant-Powered Dietitian, www.sharonpalmer.com