How to Cook Tempeh 5 Easy Ways
Never experimented with tempeh? You'll be amazed at how easy (and delicious) it is to learn how to cook this plant-based meat.
Anyone looking to eat more plant-based meals has probably stumbled across tofu. This soy-based meat substitute takes on flavors exceptionally well and contains plenty of protein. But while we love tofu, we’re starting to fall for tempeh, its nuttier cousin.
Tempeh might look a little funky, but the fermented soybeans are blended with other ingredients to give it an earthy, tangy flavor and a chewy texture.
Is it harder to cook than tofu? We dove into the best cooking methods, and we found that learning how to cook tempeh is much easier than we thought.
Methods for Cooking with Tempeh
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This fermented soybean product is packed into a cake and can be sliced into thick “steaks,” chopped into cubes or grated and used as crumbles. No matter how you prepare it, consider using a marinade. Tempeh isn’t as bland as tofu, but it’s not as robustly flavored as meat. It also happens to soak up other flavors really well, so why not add a few extra ingredients to the mix?
To marinate tempeh, simply cut the tempeh into 1/4- to 1/2-inch thick slices or cubes and let sit in your favorite marinade for 10 to 15 minutes before proceeding. If you’re steaming the tempeh, steam it first before adding it to the marinade.
How to Steam Tempeh
If you’ve never had tempeh, or you don’t enjoy the flavor, we recommend starting with steaming. This gentle cooking technique can coax out any lingering bitterness. Steamed tempeh can be crumbled into soups, stews and sauces (we especially like it combined with tomato sauce to make sloppy joes), or it can be marinated before hitting the grill, oven or frying pan.
Start by fitting a steamer basket over a saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. Add a few inches of water to the pan and heat until it’s boiling. Slice or cube the tempeh, add it to the steamer basket and cover with a lid. Steam the tempeh for 10 to 15 minutes, until it’s soft and warmed through.
How to Grill Tempeh
Grilling tempeh creates crispy edges, a charred exterior and smoky flavor that’s perfect on a warm summer day. The slices can be turned into sandwiches, wraps, tacos or used as a filling topping for salad. We especially love using grilled tempeh as the “bacon” component of a vegetarian BLT sandwich. Don’t be afraid to cut the tempeh into half-inch cubes and use it instead of meat on your favorite skewer and kabob recipes, either.
To grill tempeh, slice it into half-inch-thick pieces or cut it into chunks and skewer it on metal skewers. Prepare a charcoal or gas grill for medium heat. When the grill is hot, clean the grill grates and add the tempeh. Cook until grill marks appear on the bottom, about five minutes, before flipping the tempeh and cooking it on the other side. Feel free to brush the tempeh with extra marinade or your favorite grilling sauce as you cook.
How to Bake Tempeh (or Make Air-Fried Tempeh)
Baked tempeh is an excellent alternative to the grill if the weather isn’t cooperating. The oven is our favorite way to create crispy tempeh chunks that are perfect for using as croutons on salad. They’re also amazing when added to rice bowls, wrapped up in a tortilla to create burritos and wraps or tossed with buffalo sauce for an easy appetizer.
Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Cut the tempeh into half-inch cubes and toss them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper and any other desired spices. Spread the cubes out into an even layer and bake for 35 to 30 minutes, until golden brown and crispy.
(Psst: If you have an air fryer, feel free to use it instead of the oven! Preheat to 380°F and bake for 10 to 15 minutes, shaking every five minutes or so to promote even cooking.)
How to Pan-Fry Tempeh
A hot frying pan is an excellent way to prepare tempeh “steaks,” but you’ll want to make sure the slices are cut very thin—quarter-inch thick should do the trick nicely. This allows the slices to cook all the way through while promoting a crispy exterior, enhancing tempeh’s nutty flavor. The best part about this method is you can prepare tempeh like your favorite meaty dishes: Season simply and serve over steamed veggies like a chicken breast, use blackened seasoning to mimic your favorite fish dishes, coat in bread crumbs and make a spicy oil to create a crispy vegan version of Nashville hot chicken or top with marinara to make a plant-based tempeh Parmesan.
Slice the tempeh into 1/4-inch slices and season it as desired. Meanwhile, heat about 1/4 cup of neutral oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet (cast iron works perfectly here). When the oil is shimmering but not quite smoking, add the tempeh slices, being careful not to overcrowd the pan. Cook the tempeh for three to five minutes a side, until it’s golden brown, before flipping it and cooking for an additional three to five minutes on the second side. Remove the slices to a paper towel to drain before serving.
How to Add Tempeh to Stews & Soups
Tempeh works with almost any cuisine because it takes on the flavors of the ingredients it’s cooked with. Add it to marinara, and it’s perfect for creating a vegetarian Bolognese. Simmer it in coconut milk, and it’s ideal for curry. Crumble it into vegan chili, and you’d never know the dish was missing meat. This cooking method is the one that allows the most experimentation, so give it a try with your favorite stews, soups and sauces to see what you think!
Start by chopping the tempeh into small cubes, grating it on a box grater or crumbling it in between your fingers to create tiny chunks. To add extra flavor, brown the tempeh pieces in oil alongside onions and other vegetables before adding the liquid to your soup or sauce. If tempeh’s bitterness bothers you, steam the tempeh first.
Other Tips for Cooking with Tempeh
Keep in mind that, although tempeh is a fermented product and contains probiotics, it’s not intended to be eaten raw. Yes, cooking the tempeh will kill off those beneficial probiotics, but it also destroys any potentially damaging microorganisms that grow during the fermentation product. So be sure to use one of the methods above before consuming this plant-based protein.
Choose the Right Shape
It’s important to keep the cooking method in mind when preparing tempeh. The oven and the grill can handle 1/2-inch slices, while a hot frying pan does best with thinner, 1/4-inch slices. Most cooking methods do well with 1/2-inch cubes, but they’ll take longer to crisp up than thin slices. When learning how to cook tempeh, it’s sometimes easiest to choose the shape you desire first before picking the cooking method that works best with that shape.
Make a Simple Marinade
Finally, let’s chat marinades. Tempeh (like tofu) does a great job at soaking up other flavors, which is what makes it so versatile. Your marinade can be as simple as soy sauce and olive oil, or you can create robust marinades made with maple syrup, dried spices, lemon juice or vinegar, barbecue sauce, yogurt, coconut milk and more. Basically, if you can dream it, you can make it! You’ll need anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 cup of marinade for an eight-ounce block of tempeh.
As far as timing goes, tempeh can be marinated in as little as 10 minutes or as long as overnight. Keep in mind that the flavors will be more concentrated the longer you marinate them.