Meat-free Mondays are about to get much tastier.
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two tempeh vegetarian tacos
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We're living in a golden age of plant-based proteins. There are strictly vegan companies with noteworthy IPOs, and fast-food chains are rapidly veganizing some of their most popular menu items. But let's not forget where so much of this came from: Soy. 

Often used in Western cuisine as a meat and dairy replacement (think tofu burgers, soy milk, and frozen ice cream alternatives), soy has been a staple in Eastern cuisines for thousands of years. 

Tempeh, a type of fermented tofu, first appeared hundreds of years ago, invented in the region now known as Indonesia. More recently, tempeh has become popular in America as a meat substitute that is easy to flavor and cook with.

As we look past some of the new meat-free inventions, many are eager to go back to classics. Tempeh is more affordable, versatile, and, well, delicious, than some of the newer meat-free choices. Here's what you need to know to break into the world of tempeh.

What Is Tempeh?

Not to be confused with seitan (wheat gluten), tempeh is yet another plant-based vegan protein often used as a meat substitute. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans, which are then formed into a plank or cake. In contrast, tofu is made from condensed soy milk. Since tempeh is fermented, it often has a nuttier flavor than tofu, which tends to be mild and almost flavorless.

"Tempeh is very light, and you can get it in different flavors or season it to the flavor you want," explains Debonette Wyatt, owner of My Mama's Vegan, a plant-based takeout spot in Baltimore. Having given up meat in recent years, Wyatt was surprised by how much she likes tempeh. "It's really good, I wasn't expecting this," she thought when she first tried it in 2020. 

Is Tempeh Gluten-Free?

Tempeh can also be made with additional types of beans, grains, and flavors. In fact, gluten-free tempeh even exists! Tempeh is naturally gluten-free, however, it's always important to check the label if you're looking for a gluten-free option. Some store-bought brands use a vinegar to ferment the tempeh that isn't gluten-free, while others contain additional grains (along with the soybeans) that often have gluten.

Nutritional Benefits of Tempeh

Tempeh sounds healthy, because it is! A serving of tempeh is packed with protein, fiber, iron, and potassium. As a fermented food, tempeh is also a good source of probiotics, which help with gut health. 

Part of nutrition science is also understanding what you're not eating: A slice of tempeh, instead of a steak, is free of potentially artery-clogging fats, and offers a range of vitamins not typically found in red meat. 

How Long Does Tempeh Stay Good For?

An unopened package of tempeh likely stays fresh well past the sell-by date, assuming it's sealed thoroughly. An opened package of tempeh can stay in the fridge for up to a week, though it may get a bit funkier in flavor thanks to the living probiotics in the fermented soy. If it smells off or looks slimy, toss it. 

Tempeh can also be kept in the freezer for a year, and some prefer the texture of previously frozen and defrosted tempeh to the fresh stuff! It gets chewier and loses some water in the process. Try freezing both uncooked and cooked tempeh to see which variety you prefer.

How to Cook With Tempeh

"You can make tempeh with anything," notes Wyatt. "It's a great meat substitute." Strips of tempeh work well as bacon or meat substitutes, whereas cubes of tempeh can easily be used in tacos solo or instead of pieces of chicken. 

Wyatt recommends grilling or sautéing tempeh in a skillet for three to four minutes to make sure it is fully cooked. If you're new to tofu or tempeh, add your favorite sauce, be it sweet and sour or marinara, and if it doesn't hit the spot, try another preparation or even a different brand or shape. Frying tempeh (or tofu) may not be the healthiest option, but it's certainly the quickest way to understand its flavor and texture, because who doesn't like fried food!

Meat eaters or former omnivores can also play around with substituting various shapes and flavors of tempeh in their favorite recipes. If a recipe calls for a fried egg on top, consider substituting crumbled tempeh! Think your tempeh is bland? Add a sprinkle of your favorite finishing salt to help enhance the flavor. 

Tempeh Recipes

As Wyatt pointed out, tempeh is easy to cook and works well in just about any recipe that typically calls for a different protein. To really lock in the flavor, try marinating uncooked tempeh for at least 30 minutes before you cook it. If you like to plan ahead, you can also let tempeh marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Some tempeh fans steam or simmer their tempeh first to soften it and ensure that it's able to more readily absorb any marinades and seasonings, but this isn't a necessary step.

The below recipes use other protein sources, but feel free to substitute tempeh if you're eager to start cooking with the meat-free alternative!

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Since tofu and tempeh are so similar, you can easily use tempeh in this vegetarian dish instead. Like tofu, tempeh should be patted dry with paper towels to absorb any excess liquid that may be present, especially if you're frying it. You can cut it into cubes or slices yourself, or purchase tempeh that is pre-cut. The flavorful marinade pairs well with tempeh's nutty flavor, and the cabbage-carrot slaw is a refreshing side.

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Instead of ground turkey, try this recipe with crumbled tempeh. The tempeh will absorb the flavors from the tomato paste, ground cumin, ground chipotle chili pepper, and other ingredients, proving that it's a worthy meat substitute.

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If seasoned correctly, crumbled tempeh also makes an excellent taco filling. Here, replace chorizo with tempeh for a vegetarian dish that you can make in less than 30 minutes. Since tempeh doesn't have chorizo's naturally smoky flavor, consider seasoning it with some chili powder, paprika, garlic powder, and other popular taco-friendly spices. A pre-made taco seasoning blend will work well too. 

When seasoning tempeh with a dry rub, place it flat on a plate and sprinkle the spice blend over it. Be sure to flip or toss the pieces so they are thoroughly seasoned on all sides, and gently rub the spices into the tempeh to make sure they penetrate it. Let the tempeh sit for approximately 10 minutes to fully absorb the flavors.

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As is, this recipe calls for leftover rotisserie chicken to be tossed with pesto, but tempeh will work well too. Simply slice the tempeh into thin strips (or cubes) and let it marinate in the pesto for at least 30 minutes.

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Believe it or not, sliced tempeh makes a great bacon substitute and could easily replace real bacon on this classic sandwich. To get your tempeh bacon to taste like the real deal, thinly slice it and marinade it with a combination of tamari, liquid smoke, black pepper, and maple syrup. If you like your bacon spicy, feel free to add a dash of cayenne pepper. Then bake the slices in the oven for about 20 minutes.