What Is Tempeh? All About This Hearty Plant Protein

It's quickly climbing the ranks of our favorite vegan ingredients.

December  4, 2020
Photo by Yossy Arefi

Looking for a new way to perk up your meat-free meals? Tempeh is a plant-based protein made from fermented soybeans that's easy to find, easy to cook, and well-worth a spot on your weekly shopping list. Nutritious, flavorful, and versatile, tempeh is on a steady rise in popularity, giving tofu a run for its money. Plus it's vegetarian (vegan, actually!) and gluten-free, meaning just about anyone can fall in love with it.

What Is Tempeh

Tempeh is made by cooking, hulling, and fermenting dried soybeans with a yeast starter—similar to sourdough starter but made with rice flour instead of wheat. The resulting mixture is drained and compressed into slabs that are typically sliced, cubed, or crumbled. What may appear to be white mold on the outside of tempeh actually is white mold: remnants of the fermentation (like the rind on Brie), and a natural, harmless, flavorless part of the process. Thanks, helpful white mold!

What Does Tempeh Taste Like?

More savory on its own than tofu or seitan, tempeh has a pronounced nutty, slightly tangy flavor—with plenty of umami notes, courtesy of the fermentation process—and readily takes on the essence of whatever it's prepared with. It may prove a little bland just raw straight from the package, so it's best to cook it before eating (and the possibilities are boundless!).


A rich source of nutrients (particularly B vitamins and calcium), tempeh has more calories and healthy fats than other popular plant-based proteins. It's high in carbohydrates and fiber for sustained energy release, and it ranks low on the glycemic index.

Where to Buy Tempeh

Supermarkets that sell tofu and vegan-meat substitutes will usually carry packaged tempeh in the same refrigerated case. Health-food and specialty markets may carry several brands, as well as variations like marinated tempeh or frozen crumbles. Store tempeh for up to a week in the refrigerator, or freeze for up to three months.

How to Use Tempeh

Owing to its chewy texture and sturdy composition, tempeh is well-suited for frying, grilling, baking, stewing, and crumbling for a texture similar to animal protein in chilis, pasta sauce, and grain bowls. Other flavor-packed ways to use tempeh:

*Sliced and grilled for tacos

*Cubed and used to top vegetarian pizza

*Marinated and air-fried for a hearty sandwich

*Seasoned, seared, and served on a colorful salad

*Infused with smoky umami flavors and cooked like bacon for a tofu scramble

*Sauteed with sausage seasonings and served over polenta with tomato sauce

What's your favorite way to use tempeh? Let us know in the comments!
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Jess Kapadia

Written by: Jess Kapadia

Jess is a food and travel writer/editor who grew up in her mom's Indian-Jewish hybrid kitchen. She's written for publications including Edible Los Angeles, Saveur, The Daily Meal, Food Republic, The Spruce Eats, and Food52. Jess lives in Brooklyn with her cats, Frasier and Niles.

1 Comment

breanne December 7, 2020
I enjoy tempeh in many forms, but one of my favourite ways to prepare it at home is the Spicy Tempeh Crumble from, which references Andrea Nguyen's book, Vietnamese Food Any Day. Simple ingredients, straightforward process, and easily riff-able, it's great to make a larger batch of earlier in the week, then sprinkle over, toss with, or crumble on top of meals later in the week!
Can't wait for more Food52 tempeh ideas!