What is Tempeh and How Do I Cook With It?

what is tempeh and how do I cook with it?

What is Tempeh?

Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake. Admittedly it is not much to look at, but it is loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients which are plant compounds which are thought to have health-protecting qualities. It has an earthy, nutty taste similar to mushrooms; it has a firm meaty texture and thanks to fermentation is easy to digest. In this post I’ll explain more about what it is, and some steps on how to cook tempeh.


Where do I find Tempeh?

Tempeh is easy to find at Whole Foods, Earth Fare, Trader Joes and other such natural foods grocery stores. It is also appearing more frequently in many mainstream markets like my local Harris Teeter—usually in the produce section or in the natural foods section if there is one. Some popular name brands to look for are West Soy & Light Life. Light life offers up some tempeh variety: original soy, tempeh with flax seeds, three-grain tempeh, soy tempeh with wild rice. The variety I use most seems to be the flax or the three grain for no particular reason, I like them both a lot.


Package of three grain organic tempeh

But be open to some other brands that may be available in your local area. In my quest to support small business I have found some very tasty products that I include in my regular menu rotation (Twin Oaks Tofu for example…. hands down the best!) In curating some recipe suggestions for this article I ran across a small tempeh company in Texas called Hearty Vegan. They make a Black Eyed Pea Tempeh! Yum! But alas, I live far outside their distribution zone—maybe you don’t? Give it a try and tell me what I am missing!!

If you are feeling really ambitious, you could make your own tempeh. I have never made it myself so if you do please let me know how it goes.


What to look for in tempeh

As I said before, tempeh is not much to look at. It will be a square or rectangular block or cake with a whitish bloom and some gray or black areas. Tasty, right? This is how it is supposed to look. The cake should be well compacted or tightly bound. It will smell earthy kind of like mushrooms.


Block of Tempeh

How to store tempeh

In the original packaging, tempeh will keep in the refrigerator until the expiration date on the package.

If you do not use an entire package of tempeh at one time, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to ten days.

Uncooked tempeh freezes well in its original packaging or tightly wrapped in plastic wrap. Once thawed, store it in the refrigerator and use within 10 days.


Are there any special preparation steps required?

The tempeh you will buy at the grocery store is usually “pre-cooked” or “ready-to-eat” so you may go straight to the recipe and get started. However, if you steam tempeh for about 15 minutes first, when you are ready to cook tempeh, it will be a softer texture, a bit milder in taste and it will absorb sauce or marinade flavors more easily.


How to cook with tempeh

You are limited only by your imagination here but generally tempeh recipes fall into two loose categories: sliced or crumbled. Sliced tempeh recipes typically feature tempeh as the main character of your dish while crumbled tempeh often takes on a supporting role in terms of flavor.

Sliced tempeh

Slice tempeh into ¼ inch slices; marinate it and then grill or sauté until the edges get crispy to enhance the flavors.

Give these recipes a try:

Italian Flavored Tempeh Nuggets: use low sodium soy sauce or tamari here

Dijon Mustard-Marinated Tempeh

Tempeh Chimichurri :consider using ½ of the salt in this recipe all of the other ingredients are so flavorful!


Crumbled tempeh

Tempeh, especially steamed tempeh, will take on the flavor of whatever it is cooked in. This makes it a perfect supporting cast member of your favorite stew, chili or spaghetti sauce. It can even be used along with meat and thought of as a meat extender—one that adds a lot of valuable plant phytonutrients. Crumbled tempeh work nicely in recipes for “meatballs”, “loaves” or “cakes” as well.

Give these these recipes a try:

Tempeh Crab Cakes with Horseradish Dill Mayo :this is a gluten-free vegan recipe but you could certainly use whatever mayo and or breadcrumbs you like.

Tempeh Sloppy Joes: Hearty comfort food made healthy and easy

Tempeh Sloppy Joes

Another tempeh sloppy joe recipe….Veggie and Tempeh Sloppy Joes: consider using no salt added tomato products in this recipe

Tempeh Bolognese: This flavor packed sauce features tempeh, mushrooms, tomatoes, fresh herbs, red wine, garlic and reappear flakes. What else could you ask for in a pasta sauce? Consider using no salt added tomato products when making this recipe. 

Tempeh Bolognese

And yes, there is even tempeh pub food to serve at your next sports gathering… Super Bowl, World Series etc.

Ranch Salad with Buffalo Tempeh


A word about sodium for people watching sodium intake

Tempeh is a low sodium food but because people often marinate it as part of a recipe, it is important to use low sodium or no salt added products when possible; the sodium can add up pretty fast! This will allow you to have these delicious foods without eating more sodium than is necessary.

Tempeh Nutrition Facts


I hope that this takes some of the mystery and guesswork out of how to cook tempeh. Let me know how you have found success with tempeh!

Do you have any favorite tempeh recipes?



I am a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist living in Greensboro, North Carolina. I help people overcome nutrition obstacles and help them meet their nutrition and wellness goals.

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Hi, I’m Mona. I have been living with Relapsing Remitting Multiple Sclerosis (RRMS) for over ten years. As a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) I help others with MS to navigate the nutrition superhighway and make sustainable progress toward their unique wellness goals.

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