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.