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What is tempeh, and how do you cook it? A guide to the plant protein

By Becky Krystal Washington Post

Over the past few years, grocery stores have been awash in new plant-based proteins. But some of the most reliable, nutritious options have been around for hundreds, even thousands, of years. I’m talking about beans, tofu and tempeh.

Of those three, tempeh probably gets the least amount of love in the United States. And while it’s often mentioned in the same breath as tofu, this vegan staple deserves to stand on its own merits.

Here’s what you need to know about tempeh, including how to cook with it.

1. What is tempeh?

Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake, says Lara Lee, author of “Coconut & Sambal,” an exploration of the cuisine of Indonesia. Tempeh originated at least several hundred years ago in Java, part of present-day Indonesia. “Tempeh has that really nutty, slightly bitter, sour flavor, but it’s really, really compelling when you eat it,” Lee says.

It is most often made with soy, though versions may star rice, cassava, coconut and other types of beans, according to Lee.

To make tempeh, whole soybeans are inoculated with a starter fungus, and the whole thing is left to ferment for 24 hours, though it can be stretched to two or three days for particularly funky, umami-rich results. The fungus causes a mycelium, the thread- and root-like portion of a mushroom, to grow over the soy, forming a firm cake. Because of the way it’s made, tempeh, particularly when fresh, is often described as having a mushroomy flavor.

Soft, fresh tempeh is widely available in Indonesia and from some smaller producers in the States. In American supermarkets, you’re likely to find pasteurized tempeh, which is firmer, drier, tan in color and a little more sour, Lee says.

2. What are tempeh’s nutritional benefits?

“Fermentation makes tempeh quite possibly the most nutritious, digestible form of soy around. It’s also one of the least-processed, using the whole bean (as opposed to tofu, made from soy milk),” Washington Post Food editor Joe Yonan wrote.

Also of note to vegans, Lee says, is that tempeh can be a source of vitamin B12, which occurs naturally in some animal-based foods. It is also high in protein, approaching, but not quite equal to, what you’d find in beef (3½ ounces of cooked tempeh has about 20 grams of protein, while the same amount of roasted chuck has about 25 grams of protein, according to data from the Agriculture Department’s FoodData Central). It is cholesterol-free. And, it’s high in fiber and probiotics as well, Yonan says.

3. How to buy and store tempeh

You’ll typically find tempeh in the refrigerated case along with tofu and other plant-based products. Lightlife is a popular supermarket brand. Franklin Farms and Tofurky are more brands you may see. Some sell tempeh “bacon” or other flavored options.

According to “The New Food Lover’s Companion” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, tempeh can be refrigerated for up to two weeks or frozen for three months. Lightlife notes that you may notice some diminished quality with frozen tempeh, especially the longer it’s been on ice and the closer to the “best by” date it was put in the freezer.

If you see black spots on your packaged tempeh, don’t be put off. These are a natural byproduct of fermentation, according to Lightlife. “The dark areas are purely cosmetic and will not affect the flavor, texture or shelf life of the product,” the company says.

4. How to cook with tempeh

“I think people classify it as a meat substitute,” Lee says of tempeh, but it’s so much more. “It’s considered a really celebrated source of food for Indonesians,” who often rely on tempeh as their main source of protein, along with fish. So let tempeh be tempeh. Don’t just consider it as a one-for-one swap for, say, a steak or piece of chicken. Look for recipes that call for it and play to its strengths.

Tempeh works well in a variety of dishes, including soups, stews, stir-fries, sauces, kebabs and sandwiches, whether it’s treated the same way as meat or not. Tempeh can be cut into strips, cubes or steaks. It can be grated or crumbled.

Among the preparations to consider, Lee recommends baking, steaming, boiling and frying. Overall, the more surface area that is browned, especially in frying (whether deep or shallow), the better it tastes, giving that “lovely crunch that’s super moreish,” Lee says. What she does not recommend: eating raw pasteurized tempeh, which will not be appealing in flavor or texture and might turn you off it for good.

Tempeh acts like a sponge, meaning it’s ideal for marinating, which can be done in as little as 15 minutes, though longer is also fine. Marinating works well if you plan to deep- or pan-fry, Lee says, because it allows the ingredients to penetrate the interior before the exterior is sealed in browning. But marinating is not mandatory, especially if you’re planning to simmer tempeh in a broth or stew, when flavors will be absorbed during the cooking process. Another option is to glaze, which can be done at the end of cooking after, say, pan-frying. You can also glaze during cooking. Lee likes to baste tempeh with kecap manis, an Indonesian sweet soy sauce, every few minutes as it bakes.

5. Best dishes to use tempeh

“Tempeh works really well with bold seasonings,” Lee says. Look for recipes with punchy, zingy flavors, knowing that those in the quintessential Asian and Indonesian pantries are natural pairings. Think chiles, ginger, garlic, shallot and makrut lime leaf.