Cooking with Tempeh

By Chef Nancy Berkoff, RD, EdD

Tempeh is one of the few soy foods that does not trace its origins to China, Japan, or Korea. It's thought that tempeh was created on Java, in Indonesia, at least one thousand years ago. As with a great deal of food history, the exact details are not known, but we do know that there was trade between Indonesia and China all the way back to the tenth century and soybeans were heavily traded.

Foods were being fermented in China at that time — winter vegetables, summer fruit, rice, and coconuts, to name a few. This fermentation technique was most probably applied to soybeans to enhance the flavor and prolong the shelf life as well as increase the versatility of the very large soy crop.

Tempeh is a fermented soy product. It is fermented with a mold called Rhizopus oligosporus. Tempeh can be fermented for several days or several months, depending on the desired end product. The longer tempeh is fermented, the more chewy and flavorful it becomes.

Tempeh can be found in the refrigerated or freezer sections. It is usually tightly wrapped and resembles a flat, thin, speckled soy product. Tempeh has less moisture than tofu, but more flavor and color. It is often sold in 8-ounce packages, and so be certain to check recipes to see how much you'll need to create your tempeh dish.

Depending on your market, you should be able to locate tempeh in a variety of forms. Some tempeh is pre-cooked and ready to eat while some needs to be cooked; check the label for this information so you'll know if there will be a cooking step when preparing your tempeh dish, or whether you can launch right into a recipe or menu item. Some tempeh is made from soy and Rhizopus mold without any grains, and other varieties of tempeh are made from soy-grain combinations, such as soy and rice or barley or wheat. If you prefer gluten-free tempeh, you'll want to do some label reading. Grains are added to tempeh to enhance fermentation and to provide different flavors. Tempeh may be “plain” flavored, meaning that it will be nutty and fully-flavored, without the addition of seasonings. Flavored tempeh can be found with soy sauce, miso (another fermented soy product), or seasoning combinations, as well as teriyaki, barbecue, Southwestern, and Mediterranean spices.

You'll want to select tempeh that is covered with a thin whitish bloom or coating. You may see a few black gray spots; this is fine. Be certain to reject tempeh with pink, yellow, or blue spots, as this means that unwanted mold has gotten into the package. Be certain the tempeh you purchase is firm and intact, with the visible soybeans and grains appearing to be very tightly packed, with a dry exterior; you don't want to see accumulated moisture between the packaging and the tempeh.

When you open your tempeh, you should smell an aroma mildly reminiscent of mushrooms; there may be a very faint ammonia-like aroma. However, if your tempeh has a very strong, overpowering aroma, your tempeh is no longer fit for consumption and should be discarded.

Refrigerated tempeh is food-safe in the refrigerator for up to 10 days. To store unused tempeh, wrap it well and store it in the refrigerator. Tempeh should also keep safely for two to three months in the freezer. Once thawed (thaw in the refrigerator), the defrosted tempeh should be safe for about five days.

If you purchase “uncooked” tempeh, you'll want to steam it until it is a bit tender before using it in a recipe. Even “ready-to-eat” tempeh benefits from a fast steam, on the stove or in the microwave, before using in recipes. The steaming helps the tempeh to absorb more flavors.

Steaming, baking, grilling, and frying are popular ways to use tempeh in recipes. Tempeh can be a key ingredient in stews, soups, sandwich fillings, and grilled kebabs, as well as a main ingredient in entrée dishes.

Tempeh can be sliced, diced, crumbled, grated, or left whole, depending on the dish; it can be used as an accent or garnish in soups, salads or stews, or can be a main ingredient for “steaks,” sandwich fillings, loaves, balls, or casseroles. Tempeh can be cut into pieces, marinated, and stir-fried. It can be grated and tossed into soups, chilies, and sauces or used as a pizza topping.

Tempeh can even be made into a cooking stock, used to build soups, or to cook vegetables or grains. To make a tempeh stock, just crumble or grate uncooked tempeh into a pot of water, about 4 ounces (½ cup) of tempeh for every quart (4 cups) of water, with a chopped small onion (about ½ cup), chopped celery and carrots (about ¼ cup each), and several sprigs of parsley. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and allow to cook for about 1 hour, until flavorful. Strain the stock and refrigerate or freeze until ready to use. The tempeh from the stock can be used in soups or some of the following recipes; the tempeh used for stock will be fairly soft, so it works best in recipes where a lot of “chew” is not needed.

Tempeh can be sliced and grilled and used to build a Reuben sandwich, along with vegan cheese, vegan Thousand Island dressing, and sauerkraut on rye bread. Tempeh can be part of a fast meal created with “rice-a-roni” type mixes or added to spaghetti sauce to provide more flavor and “chew.” Added to bean or vegetable soups (even ramen-style soups, added with the hot water to allow the tempeh to soften) it adds more protein. Tempeh can be used to create a cacciatore (sliced tempeh topped with herbed tomato sauce and grated vegan cheese or nutritional yeast and baked) or incorporated into veggie burgers or balls. The options are endless!

The following recipes are written for ready-to-use tempeh. If you have frozen tempeh, thaw prior to use in our recipes. For best results, either steam tempeh on the stovetop in a steamer for about 5 minutes or steam, covered, in a microwave for one minute on High. Allow tempeh to slightly cool. For some of the recipes, this means that you will be steaming the tempeh twice.

Breakfast Tempeh

(Serves 3)

The tempeh in this recipe can be marinated overnight and can be baked or fried, depending on your preference.

  • 2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
  • 1 Tablespoon white or red miso paste
  • 2 Tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 Tablespoon maple syrup
  • 8 ounces unflavored tempeh, thinly sliced
  • Vegetable oil spray or oil to fry

Mix ginger, miso, juice, and syrup in a medium bowl to combine. Add tempeh and mix. Cover and allow it to marinate in the refrigerator for at least one hour.

Preparation choices:

  1. Oven fry: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with vegetable oil. Place marinated tempeh on the sheet in a single layer. Pour any remaining marinade over tempeh. Spray top of tempeh lightly with oil. Allow to bake, turning once, until crispy, about 20 minutes.
  2. Deep fry: Fill a deep pot with one inch of vegetable oil. Heat oil until a drop of water “boils” in the oil. Fry tempeh in single layers until crispy on the outside, about 2-3 minutes. Drain on toweling.

Serve hot, garnished with fresh seasonal fruit.

Calculated as oven-fried.

Total calories per serving: 100 Fat: 9 grams
Carbohydrates: 14 grams Protein: 15 grams
Sodium: 221 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Tempeh Sausage

(Makes eight 3-inch patties)

Once cooked, the filling for this “sausage” can be used as part of a breakfast scramble, an ingredient in neatballs or sauce, veggie burgers, wraps or used as a pizza topping!

  • 12 ounces unflavored tempeh (1 ½ 8-ounce packages)
  • 1 Tablespoon white or red miso
  • 1 Tablespoon no-salt tomato paste
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon paprika or smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon dried fennel or fennel seed
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 1 teaspoon white pepper
  • Vegetable oil or oil for frying

Prepare stove top or microwave steamer. Steam tempeh for 10 minutes or until softened. Place in a large bowl and mash by hand or lightly process in a food processor until mashed. Add all remaining ingredients, except oil for frying. Mix to combine. If mixture is not sticking, slowly add warm water and mix until it does.

Shape mixture into 3-inch patties or balls that are about 2 Tablespoons each.

Preparation Choices:

  1. Oven fry: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a baking sheet with vegetable oil. Place patties or balls onto the sheet in single layer. Spray top of patties/balls lightly with oil. Allow to bake, turning once, until crispy, about 20 minutes.
  2. Deep fry: Fill a deep pot with one inch of vegetable oil. Heat oil until drop of water “boils” in the oil. Fry in single layers until crispy on the outside, about 2-3 minutes. Drain on toweling.

Serve on crusty rolls as a hot sandwich or pair with cooked grains or pasta. Use for a “cacciatore,” topping with tomato sauce and melted vegan grated cheese or nutritional yeast. You can also sautéthis mixture on top of the stove in an oiled pan, mixing and crumbling; add approximately 2 cups of tomato sauce and use it as a hearty “meat” sauce.

Calculated as oven-fried.

Total calories per serving: 104 Fat: 6 grams
Carbohydrates: 5 grams Protein: 8 grams
Sodium: 86 milligrams Fiber: <1 gram

Tempeh Noodle Soup

(Serves 4)

Savory and soothing, make two batches and freeze one for a quick meal on a chilly day.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 1 cup cubed (8-ounce package) plain or teriyaki ready-to-eat tempeh
  • ½ cup matchstick-cut carrots
  • ¼ cup minced celery
  • ¼ cup minced onions
  • ½ teaspoon chili flakes or black pepper
  • 4 cups low sodium vegetable broth or stock
  • 2 cups (begin with ¾ cup uncooked noodles) cooked and drained soup noodles of your choice (wide or thin)
  • 2 Tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or dill

Spray a pot large enough to hold the prepared soup (about 8 cups or 2 quarts) with vegetable spray and heat. Add the tempeh, vegetables, and chili flakes or black pepper. Sautéquickly over high heat until the onions have wilted. Add the broth, cover, and allow it to simmer until the carrots are soft. Add noodles and stir, allowing soup to cook until the noodles are hot, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in parsley or dill and serve hot!

Total calories per serving: 254 Fat: 7 grams
Carbohydrates: 33 grams Protein: 15 grams
Sodium: 166 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Grilled Tempeh Salad with Peas and Pineapple

(Makes 8 appetizers or 4 entrées)

This “fire and ice” salad is a mix of hot and cold and makes a wonderful entrée or hearty appetizer to signal the start of an exciting meal!

  • 12 ounces unflavored tempeh (usually 1 ½ packages)
  • ¼ cup orange juice
  • 2 Tablespoons white or red miso
  • 3 Tablespoons sesame or peanut oil
  • 3 Tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon orange juice concentrate
  • 2 teaspoons fresh grated ginger
  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 8 fresh slices (about 1-inch thick) or sliced, canned, drained pineapple
  • 8 cups mixed salad greens, washed
  • 2 cups fresh or frozen, thawed snow peas

Prepare stove top or microwave steamer. Thinly slice tempeh and steam for 5 minutes (on stove top) or one minute (microwave on High) and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together all other ingredients except the spray, pineapple, salad greens, and peas. Add tempeh to the mixture and marinate for at least one hour, covered.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place tempeh on a non-stick baking sheet and allow it to heat through for 5 minutes, until thoroughly hot. Do not use any extra marinade on the baking sheet, as this will burn.

Spray a baking sheet with vegetable oil and place pineapple on baking sheet in one layer. Bake for about 3-5 minutes, until hot. If a grill or barbecue is available, you can grill or barbecue the pineapple instead of baking.

While tempeh and pineapple are cooking, arrange the salad greens on individual plates. Place 1-2 slices of the hot pineapple on top of greens and snow peas followed by a serving of the hot tempeh. Serve immediately.

Total calories per serving: 218 Fat: 10 grams
Carbohydrates: 24 grams Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 229 milligrams Fiber: 4 grams

Tempeh in a Roll

(Makes 16 with rice paper rolls or 6 with 4-inch tortillas)

The filling in this recipe can be used to create a wrap, roll, hot sandwich, and a basis for a baked casserole. When chilled it can be used in a cold salad.

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • ½ cup minced green onions (white and green portion)
  • ¼ cup minced carrots
  • 1 cup small-diced teriyaki or plain-flavored tempeh
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
  • 2 teaspoons hot sauce or soy sauce
  • 1 cup cooked, drained green peas
  • 3 cups (start with 1 ½ cups uncooked rice) cooked white, brown, red, or a mixture rice
  • 2 cups cooked or canned, drained lentils
  • 16 rice paper wrappers or six 4-inch tortillas

Spray a large frying pan with vegetable oil and allow to heat. Add onions, carrots, tempeh, and garlic and sautéquickly, until garlic is soft, but not browned. Lower heat and stir in remaining ingredients, except wrappers, and cook and stir until warm, about 5 minutes. If the mixture is very dry, add ½ cup water or broth while stirring; the mixture will be rolled, so you don't want it falling apart, but don't want it soupy, either. Cover and set aside.

Place wrappers on a cutting board or clean surface. Depending on the size of the wrapper, top wrapper with 2-5 Tablespoons of filling and roll to close.

You have several options for finishing your rolls:

  1. If you used tortillas, you may just want to heat the rolls in the microwave for 1-2 minutes on High or in a 300-degree oven for about 5 minutes; then serve.
  2. If you used rice paper or other Asian-style wrappers, you may want to steam the rolls for about 5 minutes in a stove-top steamer. Serve hot or cold.
  3. If frying is an option for you, heat a deep frying pan with about an inch of vegetable oil. Carefully fry each roll until golden brown, turning if necessary; this may take 2-3 minutes. Serve hot.

Calculated as 16 servings using rice paper wrappers:

Total calories per serving: 152 Fat: 1 gram
Carbohydrates: 28 grams Protein: 6 grams
Sodium: 112 milligrams Fiber: 3 grams

Tempeh on Toast

(Serves 4)

Serve this savory menu item for a hearty breakfast or breakfast buffet, for a hot lunch, or as a dinner entrée!

  • Vegetable oil spray
  • 8 ounces tempeh, sliced thinly
  • 2 Tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
  • ½ cup thinly sliced sweet onion
  • ¼ cup sliced, seeded fresh chili or green bell pepper
  • 4 slices whole wheat bread or sandwich bread of choice
  • 2 Tablespoons vegan mayonnaise
  • 4 slices vegan cheese

Spray frying pan with vegetable oil and heat on medium. Add the tempeh slices and cook until they start to brown, about 2 minutes. Pour in half of soy sauce and cook for 1 minute. Turn the slices and cook until very hot, about 3 more minutes. Pour in remaining soy sauce and cook for 1 minute. Remove the slices from the pan, and set aside.

Re-spray the same frying pan with oil and allow to heat. Add onion, and chili or green pepper and cook and stir until softened, about 3 minutes. On a cutting board or clean surface, spread each bread slice half with vegan mayonnaise, top with tempeh, then vegetable mixture, and then with a slice of vegan cheese.

Either place toasts on a nonstick baking pan and bake at 425 degrees until cheese is melted (about 3 minutes), or toast in a toaster oven. Serve hot.


  1. Sauté2 cups of thinly sliced onions until brown. When assembling, add additional onions with the vegetable mixture to create a “smothered” tempeh sandwich.
  2. Thinly slice 1 cup of seeded, but not peeled apples. Assemble toasts by topping tempeh with vegetable mixture, then apples, then cheese. Bake or toast.
Total calories per serving: 280 Fat: 14 grams
Carbohydrates: 27 grams Protein: 16 grams
Sodium: 629 milligrams Fiber: 2 grams

Tempeh Brands

Here are some brands of tempeh you can purchase in stores:

  • Lightlife Organic Soy, Flax, Soy/Wild Rice, Garden Veggie, or Three Grain Tempeh and Smoky Tempeh Strips

  • Rhapsody Organic Tempeh and Teriyaki or BBQ Tempeh

  • SoyBoy Organic Soy and Five Grain Tempeh

  • Surata Soyfoods Organic and Multi Grain Tempeh

  • Trader Joe's Organic 3 Grain Tempeh

  • Turtle Island Foods Organic Soy, Five Grain, Sesame Garlic Marinated, Coconut Curry, and Smoky Maple Bacon Tempeh

  • Westsoy Original and Five Grain Tempeh

Chef Nancy Berkoff is VRG's Foodservice Advisor.