Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Tempeh Demystified

1. What is tempeh?

Tempeh is a whole, natural food, traditional to Indonesia, where it has been eaten for many, many hundreds of years. It is an excellent source of protein and is often eaten as the main protein in a meal.

Tempeh is often made from soybeans. It can also be made from other beans or from various grains, or from a mixture of grains, a mixture of beans, or a mixture of both beans and grains.

All the tempeh I have ever seen for sale (in the USA) is shaped in a rectangle, about 8" long by 4" wide by about 0.5" thick (I just measured a package of tempeh). It weighs 8 ounces.

All the tempeh I have ever seen for sale in the USA is organic. The word 'organic' is strictly regulated by law in the USA, and specifically excludes any genetically modified organisms (GMOs). You don't need to worry about chemicals or GMOs in organic tempeh.

I have tasted various types of tempeh, and their tastes vary. Personally, I prefer the taste of soy tempeh. But I like them all. I've read that 'tempeh is an acquired taste'. I can only say that it wasn't an acquired taste for me; the very first time I ever tasted it, I said 'Hey, this is really good stuff!' (or words to that effect). Now that I know more about cooking it, I like it even better.

2. Is tempeh expensive?

The tempeh I most recently bought (8 oz - or two realistic servings as the protein component of a meal) cost $2.19 in a very small town, in a very rural area - it's probably a bit less expensive elsewhere; it has the status of an oddity here.

3. What is tempeh's nutritional profile and cost?

Tempeh is roughly the nutritional equivalent of boneless, skinless chicken breast. Let's compare (I'm using soy tempeh for the comparison because that's the kind I had available when I wrote this):

Soy tempeh: Based on 4 oz/serving (two servings per package)
Cost per serving - $1.10
Calories - 200
Total Fat - 7.5 gm
Saturated Fat - 1 gm
Trans Fat - none
Sodium - 31 mg
Total Carbohydrate - 11 gm
Fiber - 3 gm
Protein - 21 gm

Boneless skinless chicken breast - Based on a 4 oz serving:
Cost per 4 oz serving (based on the price I paid for them last, they were on sale at $1.99/lb) - $0.50
Calories - 110
Total Fat - 2.5 gm
Saturated Fat - 0.5 gm
Trans Fat - none
Sodium - 120 mg
Total Carbohydrate - 0 gm
Fiber - 0 gm
Protein - 23 gm

So, yes, the two foods are approximately nutritionally equivalent, with the tempeh having more calories and fat but not significantly more.

The tempeh costs more, but I don't think that $1.10 per serving of the protein component of a dinner is exorbitant or expensive. When boneless, skinless chicken breasts are not on sale, they cost more than this and often a lot more. I've often seen them at $3.99/lb, sometimes even higher.

The sodium content of all the chicken breasts that we can buy in our town is really much higher than the analysis above indicates; they are injected with a solution of sodium-whatever (I forget the chemical name) to make them absorb more water. Then they are injected with water too; the purpose of this is to raise the profits for the giant corporation growing the chicken and selling it. They are selling - you guessed it - water for a minimum of $1.99/lb and often much more. But never mind; that's another issue.

Maybe you can buy free-range, healthy chicken in your town. If you can, however, I'll bet it costs a lot more than $2.19/lb (the price of tempeh). If you make tempeh yourself, it costs a great deal less (see below).

4. Why would you want to eat tempeh if it costs more than boneless, skinless chicken breast?

a. You might like tempeh better than chicken.
b. You might be a vegetarian or vegan for ethical or health reasons, or you might live with a vegan or vegetarian, or just be cooking a meal for a vegetarian or vegan.
c. You might just want variety.

5. How is tempeh made?

Tempeh is made by the introduction of a certain bacteria to (simmered or soaked) beans or grains that have been rubbed to remove most of the hulls and then boiled. (I'll say just 'beans' henceforth for the sake of brevity, but please read it as 'beans or grains or a mixture thereof'.) The introduction of a bacteria is exactly analogous to the process by which yogurt is made from milk.

The inoculated beans are then incubated at a temperature of approximately 86 to 88 F (30-31 C) for 22 to 28 hours during which time the bacteria change the beans into tempeh. (Details are available in References 1 or 2 below.)

3. Can I make tempeh at home?

Yes, you can. You will need starter - the correct strain of bacteria - (see Reference 3 for a source for the starter) and you may need to first construct an incubator box to keep the incubating tempeh at a steady temperature. Such a box can be rather easily constructed from a foam picnic cooler, a light bulb and fixture, and a thermostat (see References 1 or 2). Such a box can also be used for starting seeds, incubating yogurt, and letting bread rise. The thermostat we found that keeps the right temperature is intended for use with pet reptiles, by the way [4].

4. How is tempeh stored?

I've only seen it for sale frozen, and we keep it in the freezer unless we intend to eat it in a couple of days. Then we put it in the refrigerator to thaw, and keep it refrigerated until use. Frozen tempeh will keep about six months. Refrigerated tempeh will keep about a week, possibly less. Don't stack packets of tempeh up in the fridge; they give off a small degree of heat and stacking up together them is not a good idea.

5. I see that the tempeh I bought has a few black and gray spots? Is that OK?

Yes, it's OK, it's normal. However, if the tempeh is covered with black or gray spots, then it's overripe and will have an unpleasant flavor. If it smells like ammonia or alcohol, or has red mold on it, then throw it away.

6. Does tempeh need to be cooked before eating?

Unlike tofu, tempeh needs to be cooked before eating. It is often steamed or simmered, and then grilled or baked or sauteed. However, sometimes it is just grilled or baked or sauteed; sometimes it is crumbled and used in recipes in that form.

7. Could you give me a simple tempeh recipe to start with?

One simple, but good, way to cook tempeh is to cut it into serving-sized pieces, then marinate it in a mixture of tamari and sherry, with lots of shredded fresh gingerroot. After marinating for at least half an hour, put the tempeh on a non-stick cookie sheet that has been sprayed with cooking spray or oiled. Don't remove the bits of ginger which cling to the tempeh. Bake at 400 F (~200 C) for ten minutes, turn the tempeh over, and bake another 10 minutes.

Another simple way is to mix one clove of crushed garlic and about 1/2 teaspoon of ground coriander into one half cup of water. Cut the tempeh into serving-sized pieces and dip them into the water. Then shallow-fry them about 1/2 an inch of oil, which should be bubbling gently when you put the tempeh into it. Cook about 2-3 minutes, turn the tempeh over, and cook another 2-3 minutes until golden brown on both sides. Drain the tempeh on a paper towel, and serve.

Or you can use the garlic and coriander, but deep fry the tempeh in oil that has been heated to about 350 F (175 C). Deep fry for 3-4 minutes or until crisp and golden brown.

Tempeh can be used to make a vegetarian substitute for 'bacon' or 'sausage' too.

There are many other ways to cook tempeh, and many excellent recipes using tempeh in vegetarian and vegan cookbooks.


1. 'The Book of Tempeh', William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Harper and Row Publishers, NY, NY, 1979.

2. 'The New Farm Vegetarian Cookbook', Louise Hagler and Dorothy R. Bates (Eds.), Book Publishing Company, Summertown, TN, 1988.

3. Tempeh starter is available from:

4. Thermostats suitable for use in a tempeh incubator box can be ordered from or many other online reptile supply houses.