What is Tempeh?

This seems to be one of the most common questions new veg*ns seem to ask.  They’ve seen tempeh at the store, it looks a little weird, and they aren’t sure what to do with it.  This article is intended to provide you with as much information as you need to begin using this delicious and highly nutritious protein.

Tempeh is a soyfood made by controlled fermentation of cooked soybeans with a Rhizopus molds (tempeh starter). This fermentation binds the soybeans into a compact white cake.   It is thought to have originated in Indonesia, probably on Java, and first referenced in 1815.

Tempeh begins with whole soybeans, which are softened by soaking, and dehulled, then partly cooked. Specialty tempehs may be made from other types of beans, wheat, or may include a mixture of beans and whole grains.

A mild acid, such as vinegar, may be added to lower the pH and create a selective environment that favors the growth of the tempeh mold. A fermentation starter containing the spores of fungus Rhizopus oligosporus is then mixed in. The beans are spread into a thin layer and are allowed to ferment for 24 to 36 hours at a temperature around 86°F.  In good tempeh, the beans are knitted together by a mat of white mycelia.

Under conditions of lower temperature, or higher ventilation, gray or black patches of spores may form on the surface—this is not harmful, and should not affect the flavor or quality of the tempeh.  This sporulation is normal on fully mature tempeh.  A mild ammonia smell may also accompany good tempeh as it ferments, but it should not be overpowering.

Tempeh’s complex flavor has been described as nutty, meaty, and mushroom-like.

Tempeh is highly nutritious!

Compared to regular soy, very little processing is involved in manufacturing tempeh.   As well, the soy carbohydrates in tempeh become more digestible as a result of the fermentation process.  The fermentation process also reduces the phytic acid in soy, which in turn allows the body to absorb the minerals that soy provides.

Tempeh fermentation produces natural antibiotic agents but leaves the desirable soy isoflavones and most of the saponins intact. Tempeh is a complete protein food that contains all the essential amino acids. Isoflavones have many health benefits: they strengthen our bones, help to ease menopausal symptoms, reduce risk of coronary hearth disease and some cancers. Tempeh has all the fiber of the soybeans and gains some digestive benefits from the enzymes formed during the fermentation process.

Soybeans are regarded as equal in protein quality to animal foods. Just 4 ounces of tempeh provides 41% of the Daily Value (DV) for protein for less than 225 calories and only 3.9 grams of saturated fat. Plus, the soy protein in tempeh tends to lower cholesterol levels, while consuming protein from animal sources tends to raise them, since they also include saturated fat and cholesterol.   In addition to healthy protein, some of tempeh’s nutritional high points include:

Riboflavin: 4 ounces of tempeh provides 24% of the DV for this B-vitamin. A nutrient essential for the transfer reactions that occur to produce energy in the mitochondria, riboflavin is also a cofactor in the regeneration of one of the liver’s most important detoxification enzymes, glutathione.

Magnesium: Tempeh also provides 22% of the DV for Nature’s blood vessel relaxant, magnesium, in just 4 ounces. In addition to its beneficial role in the cardiovascular system, magnesium plays an essential role in more than 300 enzymatic reactions, including those that control protein synthesis and energy production.

Manganese and Copper: That same 4 ounces of tempeh will give you 73% of the DV for manganese and 31% of the DV for copper. These two trace minerals serve numerous physiological functions including being cofactors for the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase.

For a more indepth look at tempeh’s benefits, please visit WholeFoods.com

Buying Tempeh (please buy organic)

You can find tempeh pre-packaged in the refrigerated section of most natural foods stores. Unlike tofu, it hasn’t made it to most mainstream groceries just yet.  It can be found in the USVI at Fruit Bowl and sometimes just past the vegetable section at Plaza Extra.  Lightlife brand seems to be the most commonly found.  It comes in many varieties:  Organic Soy, Three Grain (with brown rice, barley and millet), and Flax.  Litelife also makes a packaged Fakin’ Bacon from Smoky Tempeh Strips which make fabulous Vegan BLTs.

Because soy bean crops are almost always grown with GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms =  Gastly Monsterous Stuff!), your soy products – and corn products – should always, always, always be made with organic soy.  And this is no exception. So be sure to check your labels to be sure it’s organic.  Even better, look for companies who are part of the Non-GMO project.

The vacuum-sealed tempehs, which one finds in the refrigerated section of your store, are pasteurized.  The pasteurization ensures that all the bacteria is killed off (including, unfortunately, beneficial bacteria) so it can be packaged and sold in stores under FDA regulations. These are ready-to-eat and usually do not have to be pre-cooked, although I prefer to do so.

Fresh tempeh, which I have never seen sold commercially, but which one could make at home, has all of the live cultures and  fantastic nutritional qualities still intact.  Fresh tempeh must be pre-cooked for at least 20 minutes before eating.

Make your own tempeh!

It’s easy to make tempeh at home: dehulled soybeans are soaked overnight, cooked for about 30 min and mixed with tempeh starter. After 36 to 48 hours incubation you have delicious fresh tempeh. And you will save a lot of money: Homemade tempeh is about 5 times cheaper than store bought tempeh.

To learn to make your own tempeh – which as of the time of this post, I still have not done, but hope to soon! – please check out the Link Below:

Learn More ….

The holy-grail of Tempeh is “Tempeh Production:  A Craft and Technical Manual”.  One could start a tempeh production shop using this book.  It is available for preview via Google at

Tempeh Preparation & A Few Recipe Suggestions:

Remove tempeh from it’s packaging, which is usually double-layered vacuum-sealed plastic.

Steaming or Parboiling First:
While not absolutely necessary for store bought brands, parboiling your tempeh will remove some of the bitterness, and it will also make it swell up a bit, allowing your tempeh to absorb more flavors added to your recipe.  I will only skip this step if I am planning on using it in a slow-simmer stew.

Depending on your recipe, either halve or coursely crumble your tempeh into a small pot or skillet.  Add enough water to cover (1+ cups).  Add in 1 tablespoon of soy sauce.  You can also parboil in vegetable broth.  Bring to a boil, and gently simmer for 10-15 minutes, turning midway through, until the liquids are mostly evaporated.  Drain off any excess liquids and allow to cool.

To steam, simply remove tempeh from package, place in your favorite steamer, and steam as you would rice.

In her cookbook “American Vegan Kitchen” Tamasin Noyes marinates in vegetable broth, red wine, olive oil, soy sauce, cider vinegar, agave, dried mustard and seasoning salt.  She bakes her tempeh in the broth for 30 minutes.  She then uses the marinated tempeh in a stroganoff-stuffed baked potato for a stick-to-the-ribs meal.  I’ll be marinating my tempeh later this week as a base for a vegan reuben sandwich.

Grate or Crumble:
Tempeh performs well in a cheese grater, or simply finely crumbled by hand, fork or pulsing with a mini food prep.  The uses here are almost limitless.  It can be used like ground beef in tomato sauces, sloppy joes, stews or tacos.  Use it as a hash for breakfast scrambles.  It can be made into a hearty sandwich spread or dip that has the consistency of a pate.  It can also be formed into patties and fried.

Sliced Thin, Cubed then Fried:
Add a thin layer of oil to a non-stick skillet (I prefer cast iron), and pan fry over medium high heat, turning until all sides are a beautiful, golden brown.  The insides will remain nice and tender.  At the end of sauteing, I will usually deglaze my pan with a dash of liquid aminos to season the tempeh.

Dried tempeh provides an excellent stew base for backpackers.  You can find an easy recipe for dehydrated tempeh jerky bacon over at CookBakeNibble.com

Once removed from it’s packaging, extra tempeh can be frozen and thawed as needed, and will keep for months.

Recipes to get you started:

For more than 100 tempeh recipes, visit:

Some of my own favorite Tempeh recipes include:

Tempeh Buffalo Wings from28 Cooks

Jamaican Curried Tempeh Tacos from Veg Times

Tempeh and Green Bean Stir Fry with Peanut Sauce from Cooking Light

Chili con Tempeh from Veg Times

Tempeh and Root Vegetable Stew from Whole Foods

West Indian Rice & Peas w/ Tempeh by Light Life

Look for additional recipes under my Tempeh Recipe Section here at The Twisted Vegan:

Any additional questions on tempeh or to share your favorite tempeh recipes, please comment or email.


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