What Is Tempeh?

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We all know tofu, but what about tempeh? This plant-based, protein-packed food is loaded with healthy nutrients. And don't worry if you're thinking, "What is tempeh?"—we have the answer!

Looking for a new plant-based protein for your meatless Monday meals? Try tofu’s cooler cousin, tempeh. It’s firm and flavorful while adding vitamins, minerals and prebiotics to your healthy diet. Once you try it, you’ll want to add it to your plant-based grocery list.

What Is Tempeh?

Tempeh is a vegetarian substitute made from whole soybeans. Unlike tofu, tempeh is fermented. The fermentation process may help your body to digest it and pull more nutrients from it. It also gives tempeh a firmer, more meat-like texture.

So how does the fermentation process work? Well, as gross as it sounds, you need a controlled fungus to ferment your food. Over 48 hours, the fungus and mold grow on the soybeans, firming the mixture into a nutty-tasting cake. Tempeh has a subtle nutty flavor, and the taste can be compared to mild, but earthy, mushrooms.

Tempeh is higher in protein than tofu and is a rich source of calcium, iron and manganese. It’s sometimes confused with seitan, but the two meat alternatives are quite different. Seitan is made from wheat gluten and is not fermented.

It’s believed that tempeh originated in Indonesia, and though it’s been around for a very long time, it’s a relatively new discovery for many in the U.S.

Is Tempeh Healthy?

Tempeh can be part of your healthy eating plan. Studies show that replacing meat with plant-based foods lowers your risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions. And unlike meat, tempeh is a good source of fiber and antioxidants. A 4-ounce serving of tempeh has 20 grams of protein, 12 grams of fiber and 222 calories.

You may have heard concerns about a possible link between soy products and cancer. Soybeans have a high concentration of phytoestrogen, which functions like human estrogen in the body (with much weaker effects). According to the experts at Harvard School of Public Health, the research is mixed, and soy products like tempeh can be safely eaten several times per week.

Where to Buy Tempeh

Tempeh can be found at health food stores and even most grocery stores now. Check out Whole Foods, Target and Amazon for a wide selection. Look for tempeh near the refrigerated section of the store alongside other meat substitutes like tofu and seitan. Tempeh is relatively inexpensive and ranges from $3 to $6 per pack. Here are a few varieties to look for:

How to Cook Tempeh

Unlike some plant-based meat alternatives, tempeh cannot be eaten raw. It needs to be cooked in order to cook off the culture that fermented it. This means that the cooking process removes any probiotic benefits from fermentation. Many tempeh lovers start by steaming the tempeh to remove the culture and add moisture.

Tempeh has a tough texture, so it can stand up to most heating methods. It shouldn’t crumble even when sliced or cut into cubes. It’s hearty enough for the grill, stovetop or oven. Blackened tempeh makes a great addition to salads and pasta.

What to Cook with Tempeh

Because tempeh can stand up to most cooking methods, the recipe options are endless. Try slicing it and pan-frying it in your favorite seasonings or stir fry to get a nice crunchy bite. To really pump up the flavor, marinate it overnight, then bake it in the oven. Baked tempeh is a great addition to sandwiches or pasta, or eat it on its own.

Tempeh can be used in place of ground beef in recipes like chili, tacos and burgers. Simply place cubed tempeh in the food processor until you get a grated consistency.

Here’s some recipe inspiration to get you started:

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Carrie Madormo, RN
Now a freelance health and food writer, Carrie worked as a nurse for over a decade. When she isn't hunched over her laptop with a baby in hand, you will find her cooking her grandmother’s recipes, lacing up her running shoes or sipping coffee in the bathroom to hide from her three young children.