One question we get a lot from clients looking to transition to a meat-free diet or just to eat a little less meat is about meat analogues, plant-based foods that are generally thought of as analogous (comparable) to meat in the plant-based diet. Some of our clients have never tasted tofu, tempeh or seitan and don’t know what they’re made of. Many have heard of them from friends or perhaps have had them in a restaurant meal but aren’t sure how to prepare them at home. We’re here, as always, to provide some clarity in what we hope is a simple, straightforward way.
In the last post, we were talking about tofu, which is made from soybeans. Our favorite of the meatless triumvirate, tempeh, is also made from soybeans but by a markedly different and fascinating process: fermentation. (For more on fermentation, go to our store, click on “cookbooks” and choose The Art of Fermentation—great book!) The beans are soaked and the outer layer, or hull, is removed. The beans are lightly cooked just to start the breakdown process and then inoculated with the fungus that will ferment them over the next day or two. In some varieties of tempeh, the beans are mixed with various grains, seeds or other ingredients. Rice, flax seed and barley are common additions.
Because tempeh is only very minimally processed, even less so than tofu, it retains a lot of the nutritional profile of its whole ingredients. More of the bean is left intact, so tempeh contains a lot more fiber than tofu. It also contains roughly twice the protein of tofu, more iron and is chock full of phytonutrients (very beneficial nutrients specific to plants). But many of its nutritional advantages come from fermentation, which makes the soy more digestible, reduces phytic acid content allowing for better mineral absorption, and, like many fermented foods, is supportive of the gut biome (the living world of microorganisms in your gut that scientists are just now beginning to realize may play a much larger part than previously understood in such important things as one’s immune system function). Besides, with the toothsome texture of a soaked nut and a dense structure, it’s just plain satisfying!
You’ll find tempeh in a variety of forms in the grocery store, but we’ll concentrate on the most basic, most readily available form in the U.S.: the refrigerated cake. These cakes come in all sorts of different dimensions, but are usually vacuum-sealed. The tempeh itself looks like large grains of rice or very small, halved peanuts pressed tightly together. Sometimes you’ll see a white substance in between the bean pieces and sometimes there may be small dark spots on the tempeh. Both of these are very normal outcomes of the fermentation process and perfectly safe to eat.
It bears repeating that, like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans. And since, at least in the U.S., 94 percent of soybeans grown are genetically modified, we recommend choosing organic tofu or tofu with the Non-GMO Project Verified label if you’re trying to avoid GMOs (which you can read more about here). The Non-GMO Project Verified label looks like this:
Now, what to do with that cake of tempeh? Most tempeh commercially available in the U.S. is technically ready to eat out of the package. (If you do see a product labeled “fresh,” know that it probably needs to be cooked thoroughly before eating. Refer to the package instructions.) That means no draining or additional prep before you start working with it. Tempeh is every bit as versatile as tofu as far as the flavor profile it can take on and the preparations it can be used in. It has a very mild mushroom or chestnut aroma and tastes just slightly nuttier than tofu. Because of its density and crumbliness, it’s a natural in any dish that calls for ground meat. Its density also works well in dishes that call for the patty to remain intact such as burgers or steaks. We forgot to photograph the tempeh out of the package before simmering it with liquid aminos for the chili! You can still see the nutty, dense texture though. And tempeh doesn’t really change color as it cooks unless you’ve used a marinade that might darken it slightly, so the photo reflects its packaged color as well.
One of our favorite tempeh dishes, especially in the winter, is a nice, hearty chili. This recipe came from the perennial plant-based kitchen companion, Isa Chandra Moskowitz of The Post Punk Kitchen. It goes great with this cornbread! Breaking up the tempeh as in the picture below gives it the look of ground beef (or turkey because of the color) and makes it work very well for recipes that call for ground meats.
Add water to the chili during cooking only as needed. If you like a thick chili, you’ll find that the amount of water called for in the recipe makes it too soupy. Also, the recipe calls for pinto beans, but it’s great with red kidney beans or black beans too.
For the cornbread, instead of cooking the flax and water mixture (which works like an egg to bind the batter) you can just put it in the fridge to thicken for about 15-20 minutes. We also always add a cup of corn kernels to the batter for that “something special.”
Grilled tempeh burgers (or go bunless and call them steaks!) make for a great summer dish. The tempeh holds up really well on the grill and gets nice char marks. We paired these juicy beauties with packet-grilled leeks and a cool quinoa and chickpea tabbouleh. Sadly, we can’t remember where the recipe for the marinade for these tempeh steaks came from, but Googling “tempeh steaks” brings up some tasty-sounding options.
Finally, here’s a family-friendly Quick and Easy Sloppy Joes with Tempeh and Black Beans recipe from Florida Coastal Cooking. It’s tasty and so quick that it makes for a great weeknight meal. Plus, it won Mr. TOA’s “Man-Food Seal of Approval,” so it went in the favorite recipes notebook long ago! Again, you won’t miss meat at all with the toothsome tempeh in this hearty sandwich. For fewer calories, make it open-faced.
Other easy ways to introduce yourself and your family to tempeh are to use it in tacos, in the “meat” sauce for your spaghetti dinner nights, or to use smoky tempeh bacon in your BLT for lunch—a TLT! As you practice cooking with tempeh, though, branch out and explore: maple grilled tempeh, tempeh and wild mushroom fricassee, tequila tempeh (¡Olé!)—there are so many things you can do with tempeh, you’ll never get bored!
We’d love to hear your tempeh tales! If you’re less familiar with tempeh, what else would you like to know about it? What other questions do you have? If you’ve used tempeh before, what are some of your favorite recipes? What tips do you have for preparing and cooking with it? Let us know in the comments or send us a message through the contact page!
Next up: Seitan, the sinful not-meat! So let us know what questions you have about seitan as well.