Tell me about tempeh

Your quick-reference guide to using this plant-based powerhouse.
Published September 24, 2018

If your self-care goals include eating more plant-based foods, you may have already had the opportunity to try tempeh, a soy-based protein source with a loyal following and plenty of personality. If tempeh isn’t on your culinary radar yet, be prepared to be wowed by its funky taste and versatility. 


What is tempeh?


Like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans that have been soaked and pressed into compact cakes. Unlike tofu, which has a very mild flavour, tempeh is considered a “mold-modified” fermented product which gives it a pronounced nutty and earthy taste. This strong, mushroomy flavour is due to the fact that soaked soybeans are inoculated with a mold from the Rhizopus family before being pressed into cakes and aged.


The nutritional benefits of tempeh


The nutritional benefits of eating tempeh are well-documented, beginning with the fact that tempeh is a plant-based source of complete protein (meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids, an impressive feat considering almost all complete proteins come from animal-based proteins.) Like many other fermented foods, tempeh is easily digested and contains a large number of important probiotics which promote healthy gut flora. Tempeh is high in soluble dietary fibre, calcium, B vitamins, folic acid, isoflavones (a type of plant compound that has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties), and is also low in saturated fat and cholesterol free.


Where to buy tempeh


A decade ago finding tempeh in Canada was considered a difficult feat, but thanks to a growing interest in plant-based ingredients, it’s become a regular item in many well-stocked grocery stores, specialty health food stores and community co-ops. Most tempeh is vacuum-sealed in plastic and can be found in the refrigerated deli section alongside tofu, veggie burgers, and other meat-analog products. It’s unlikely that you’ll come across unpasteurized tempeh in Canada (which needs to be boiled or steamed for at least 20 minutes before it’s prepared) but it’s always wise to give the package a quick scan to check that it’s been pasteurized before purchasing.


How to prepare tempeh


If you’re trying tempeh out for the first time, you may find some experimentation is needed to figure out your preferred method. Tempeh will sometimes have a residual bitterness, even when prepared according to recipe instructions; this is easily remedied by boiling or steaming the entire block of tempeh in water or vegetable broth for 10-15 minutes. It can then be removed from the cooking liquid and prepared as instructed. Tempeh benefits from boldly flavoured marinades using ingredients such as soy sauce or tamari, ginger, garlic, nut or seed butters, nutritional yeast, chili paste, mirin, and rice wine vinegar. Cut the tempeh into thick slices or fingers and marinate for up to 30 minutes at room temperature, up to 2 days in the fridge or up to 3 months in the freezer (the tempeh will develop a pleasantly chewy texture if frozen and then defrosted in the fridge.) Marinated tempeh can be baked, broiled, grilled, and pan-fried.


Ideas for serving tempeh


Tempeh’s hearty texture makes it a truly versatile plant-based ingredient and you’ll discover that it can be used in many vegetarian and vegan recipes with great success.


  • Marinate thin strips of tempeh in lime juice, chili powder, minced garlic, and avocado oil before cooking in a large skillet. Use the lime-marinated tempeh in place of meat in tacos along with all your other favourite Tex-Mex toppings.
  • Marinate slices of tempeh in liquid smoke and tamari and grill or pan-fry until crispy. Use in place of bacon next time you’re craving a plant-based BLT or club sandwich.
  • Pan-fry diced tempeh in a small amount of olive oil and garlic salt in place of traditional croutons next time Caesar salad is on the menu (or any other salad that calls for some crunch.)
  • For a tempeh recipe the whole family will love, lightly coat slices of tempeh with a neutral-tasting oil (or plain yogurt if you aren’t strictly vegan) and dredge in nutritional yeast and a light sprinkling of smoked paprika. Bake on parchment paper in a moderately hot oven for 40 minutes or until nice and crunchy, serve with your favourite dipping sauce. You can also tuck this tempeh into pita bread and add tahini, romaine lettuce, cucumbers, and tomato slices.