What Is Tempeh and How Do I Use It
Whether deep fried for Indonesian tempeh goreng, cubed and baked as a grain bowl topper, or turned into meat-free "bacon" for a round of BLTs, tempeh deserves a spot in your kitchen — especially if you're curious about cooking with more plant-based proteins.
Keep reading to learn about how the soy protein (pronounced "tem-pay") is made, how to shop for it, and plenty of recipe inspiration to get you started on cooking with tempeh.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian soy product made with fermented soybeans. The firm, cake-like substance has a naturally nutty, earthy flavor and originated several centuries ago on the island of Java.
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Tempeh is made by taking soaked and cooked soybeans and mixing them with a Rhizopus fungus (a.k.a. a mold, to kick off the fermentation process). The soybeans (and possibly other beans, grains, or flavorings) and the starter are wrapped and left to ferment for 48 hours — and out comes a firm and solid block of tempeh.
The resulting ingredient boasts a nutty, earthy flavor with tons of health benefits (cholesterol-free, low in fat, contains essential vitamins and minerals) and the same high protein content as beef (yes, you read that right). Plus, you get the digestive and gut benefits of eating fermented food.
How to buy tempeh
You can shop for tempeh in health food stores and most major grocery stores. Keep an eye out for it near the produce in the refrigerated section, right next to tofu and other plant-based proteins. You'll likely see it in packages of tall rectangular blocks of a pre-cooked block (but we recommend cooking it in some form or fashion before eating it — more on that in a sec). You can keep unopened tempeh in the fridge for up to 7 days: for leftovers, no more than 3 days.
How to cook with tempeh
If you're super new to tempeh, here's one way you can think about it: Many of the places you can add in tofu, you can also add in tempeh. (And if you're new to tofu, check this out then hop back over).
The nutty, earthy tempeh can be deep fried, pan fried, stir fried, grilled, baked, or simmered— just make sure to steam it beforehand for about 10 minutes, as this minimizes any bitterness and makes for easier seasoning and sauce absorption.
To pan sauté tempeh, slice it into steak-like slabs (cut the block in half short ways, then horizontally into two thinner slices) and cook in a bit of oil over medium-high heat until golden brown (4 to 5 minutes per side). Try this technique out with a crowd-pleasing tempeh and broccolini stir fry or a sophisticated lemon risotto.
Deep-fried tempeh, replete with plenty of crispiness, highlights the ingredient's unique umami flavor. Plus, this is how tempeh is traditionally eaten as a snack in Indonesia. But you can always throw them in the air fryer for a quick and crunchy version.
Deep frying is also the method of choice in the traditional Indonesian dish tempeh goreng. Check out this recipe from Indonesian and Australian chef Laura Lee, where tempeh is marinated in ground coriander and garlic, deep-fried, and served with sambal (a chile condiment).
You can also add tempeh to sandwiches for a hearty (and meat-free) option at lunchtime, such as a BLT with tempeh bacon or tempeh Reubens. Or let it sit in a marinade overnight, bake it, and toss it on top of your go-to grain and veggie bowl for a super satisfying lunch. And if you're looking for an excuse to fire up the grill, look no further than these BBQ tempeh kebabs or these loaded tempeh fajitas.