What is Tempeh? + How to Cook It

Are you on the tempeh train yet? Not sure what it is? Already love it and looking for some new recipes? I’ve got you covered. First let me tell you all about this versatile, delicious, and nutritious fermented bean cake and how to cook it, then I’ll share some of my favorite tempeh recipes. Whether you’re experienced with this trendy fermented patty or not, I hope you will be inspired by this tasty tempeh recipe round-up!

What is Tempeh?

So what is this weird thing and where does it come from? (By the way it’s pronounced TEH-M-PAY). Ummmm… well you might not want to know, the same way people don’t really like to know what blue cheese or kombucha is made of. Personally, I think the tempeh making process is awesome. Someday I’ll learn to make it myself. But anyway, Tempeh happens when a mushroom-like fungus and a legume love each other very much, and they produce a yummy, fermented bean cake called tempeh.

Tempeh is a fermented food with a firm, pleasant texture and a subtle nutty flavor. It is high in protein, fiber, and contains active enzymes that aid in digestion, just like other fermented and cultured foods such as yogurt or sauerkraut. The FDA considers tempeh a converted food, meaning that after fermentation the legume and the fungi are no longer recognized, it becomes a new whole food!

Much less processed than tofu and other meat alternatives, tempeh is quickly becoming a trendy and widely available superfood. It can be used in a wide variety of dishes and types of cuisine. Tempeh originated in Indonesia where it is a protein staple, but it is becoming more and more popular in the U.S, with local tempeh shops popping up all over the place. If you’re ever in the Portland or Seattle area, be sure to check out Squirrel and Crow, my favorite local tempeh guy.

How to Cut Tempeh

You can slice and dice your plant protein into lots of different shapes, depending on what you want to do with it. Tempeh has a mild flavor and an absorbent texture that will happily take on whatever flavors you put on it. You can find four of my favorite marinade recipes here.

How to Marinate Tempeh

To marinate tempeh, add all ingredients to a small container with a lid. Cut the tempeh into desired pieces or strips and submerge them into the marinade.

Shake gently and turn upside down (with the lid on, obviously) to coat. Store in the fridge to marinate. The longer you marinate it the stronger the flavor. Experiment with the amount of time you like. I usually marinate overnight, but I can get away with just a few hours too. Often I put my protein in marinade right after I bring it home from the grocery store, and let it sit for a day or two marinating in the fridge until I’m ready to eat it.

You don’t need to marinated tempeh for hours ahead of time to make it taste delicious. Actually, you don’t really need to marinate it at all. My favorite way to cook tempeh is to toss plain, lightly browned tempeh with sauce in a pan minutes before eating it (see my step-by-step instructions below).

Steaming Tempeh Before Cooking

Tempeh is very versatile, and lends itself well to a variety of cooking methods, including pan frying, grilling, and baking. But before you do whatever you’re gonna do with it, it’s best to steam it first.

If you’ve tried tempeh before and not liked it, you might have neglected to steam it before cooking. Steaming is a quick and easy step that makes a big difference in removing bitterness and helping the tempeh absorb sauce. Steaming it also helps to make it more meaty and savory tasting.

To steam your tempeh, you can either steam it in a pot in a steamer basket just like vegetables. Or, you can use my favorite combo-method, steaming it first in the same pan you then fry it up in (see below). If you want to use a steamer basket, first cut your plain tempeh into your desired sized pieces and place them in the basket inside a pot with a few cups of water on the bottom. Steam the tempeh with a lid over the pot for about 10 minutes.

After steaming your tempeh, marinate it, pan fry, it, bake it, grill it, or proceed to do whatever you want to do with it. (See all the delicious ideas below)

How to Cook Tempeh

My favorite method for how to cook tempeh is to steam it briefly first in the same pan that I will use to stir-fry it. See the step-by-step directions and photos below.

Step 1: Add plain tempeh to a hot skillet

Place your plain tempeh cubes or pieces in your skillet over medium heat.

Step 2: Add a splash of water and cover with a lid

Into the hot pan, pour a cup of water and immediately place a lid over the skillet.

Step 3: Flip or toss the tempeh and add another splash of water

When the water has evaporated (keep an eye on it!) stir or flip the tempeh and add one more cup of water. The idea is to steam it but not to completely submerge it, that’s why I like to do it in two steps.

Step 4: Add a splash of oil to brown the tempeh

When the water has evaporated a second time, add a splash of oil to your dry pan and fry up the tempeh until nicely browned. Add your desired sauce or marinades partway through cooking.

Step 5: Add sauce or seasonings

If using a thick creamy sauce like my favorite easy peanut sauce, I recommend removing the lightly browned tempeh from the heat and tossing it with the sauce in the warm pan. This technique warms the sauce, helps it easily absorb into the tempeh, and retains the beautiful creaminess and flavor.

If using a thinner marinade type of sauce or a simmer sauce, add it to the pan after the tempeh is lightly browned and continue cooking it for a few minutes over low heat until well seasoned and absorbed.

Alright, enough tempeh talk, let’s get to a delicious recipe roundup.

My 5 Favorite Tempeh Recipes

#1: Tempeh Bowls

This is what I do with tempeh 80% of the time. Some of my favorite combos are this Tempeh Reuben Bowl, Spring Buddha Bowl, or check out my Buddha Bowl Template for pairing cubed and pan fried tempeh with whatever you’ve got!

#2: BBQ Tempeh

If you’re craving some BBQ tempeh action but it’s not grilling season, slather BBQ sauce on your tempeh and bake it in the oven. Pair it with some summer slaw and vegan potato salad and you’ve got yourself a kick-ass dinner. Or, try a BBQ ranch bowl with my easy homemade vegan ranch. YUM.

#3: Tempeh Bolognese

The first time someone told me to grate tempeh I was a little confused. But it really does work great! Take your brick of tempeh and just grate it with a big cheese grater, just like with cheese. Sauté those tempeh shreds in a nonstick pan with some oil and seasonings, and treat it like ground meat. I love making this Tempeh Bolognese with fragrant fennel seeds. It’s delicious over spaghetti squash, spiralized noodles, or your pasta of choice.

#4: Tempeh Tacos

In a similar spirit to the tempeh spaghetti sauce above, you can also crumble your tempeh with your hands and brown it in a pan with some oil and taco seasonings, just as you would any ground meat. I love to pair tempeh taco “meat” with some bright mango & pineapple salsa, tangy cabbage slaw, and some avocado or guacamole.

#5: Tempeh Breakfast Hash

I love tossing my tempeh into a breakfast hash with leftover roasted potatoes and sheet pan veggies. Top it with my favorite Creamy Herb Sauce and you’ll be crushing it at vegan brunch. You can find my hash recipe here.

What’s your favorite way to cook and eat tempeh?

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