Cooking is a science, and there is no better example of this than the variety of foods that come from fermented soybeans. Variations in the soybean preparation process and fermentation timelines can create wildly different soy foods. Just look at how the fermentation process can turn soybeans into subtle miso and strong natto alike!

But of all the foods made by fermenting soybeans, tempeh (pronounced “TEM-pay”) is among the most unique. Boasting a strong, distinct flavor, an interesting texture, and a myriad of health benefits, tempeh is finding its way into both trendy and traditional recipes. Let’s delve into this sensational soy food!

What Is Tempeh Made Of?

Tempeh is a firm, dense cake made from fermented soybeans. Less processed than tofu, tempeh has a chunky texture.

Tempeh is believed to have been invented in present-day Indonesia prior to 1800, although it didn’t come to the U.S. until 1946. However, it was a few decades before a trend towards plant-based meats inspired more Americans to begin eating tempeh!

Between 1979 and 1984, the number of American tempeh production companies grew from 13 to 53. U.S. Soy experts predict today’s focus on plant-based proteins will prompt another wave of tempeh exploration that will cause tempeh to become a staple in American kitchens.

How Is Tempeh Made?

Tempeh makers begin by soaking dried, whole soybeans in water for a minimum of 12 hours. Next, they drain the soybeans and boil them in fresh water for 45 minutes. After drying and cooling, the soybeans are mixed with vinegar to balance their pH and prevent the growth of unwanted bacteria. The vinegar and soybean mixture is blended with a dried mixture of live Rhizopus spores and substrate, which can be soybeans or rice.

Though early tempeh makers are thought to have used banana leaves, today’s tempeh makers store the soybean/vinegar/culture mixture in containers or plastic bags. They incubate these containers at a temperature between 85° Fahrenheit and 90° Fahrenheit for 24 to 48 hours. This causes white mycelium to form around the soybeans and encase them. Once firm throughout, the cakelike structure is sealed in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to one week before it is ready to eat.

Watch this video to see how tempeh is made and the many ways to enjoy it!

What Are the Different Types of Tempeh?

There are seven main types of tempeh that originated in Indonesia. These include varieties made from jack beans, mung beans, and velvet beans. (Fun fact: there is also bongkrek tempeh, which is made from coconut pulp, but its production has been banned in Indonesia since 1969, due to its poisonous potential!)

For our purposes, it makes sense to focus on the two soy-based types of tempeh: gembus tempeh and soybean tempeh.

Gembus Tempeh: Also known as tempeh of okara, gembus tempeh is tempeh derived from tofu dregs fermented with Rhizopus oligosporus. Its texture is softer and thinner than soybean tempeh and it has a more pronounced umami flavor.

Soybean Tempeh: Soybean tempeh is made by fermenting whole soybeans according to the method outlined above. Soybean tempeh offers a nutty, earthy taste that has been compared to the taste of mushrooms.

The Health Benefits of Tempeh

Like many soy foods, tempeh is a significant source of key nutrients that support overall health.

  • Contains Essential Micronutrients: Soybean tempeh is chock full of micronutrients, including manganese, phosphorous, magnesium, and riboflavin. Manganese helps the body form connective tissue and regulates hormones. Manganese consumption is thought to ease symptoms of osteoporosis and premenstrual syndrome (PMS). Phosphorus regulates the normal function of nerves and muscles. Magnesium is crucial for maintaining blood pressure and a steady heart rhythm. Also known as Vitamin B2, riboflavin helps your body make use of oxygen.
  • Supports Weight Management: One cup of soybean tempeh contains a whopping 31 grams of protein. Research supports that plant and animal protein are comparable in their ability to help promote feelings of fullness, reduce appetite, and improve metabolism. Regular exercise is another important part of weight management. Tempeh’s high iron content helps boost energy levels and supports muscle growth, giving you the stamina to power through your workout and the potential to maximize results.
  • Promotes Cardiovascular Health: In addition to the heart healthy micronutrient magnesium, soybean tempeh is rich in isoflavones, which may reduce “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. One study found isoflavones also lower triglyceride levels, which measure the amount of lipids in your blood. Soybean and gembus tempeh are also, of course, made from soy, the one plant protein with the distinction of being recognized by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) for its cholesterol-lowering effects.
  • Might Prevent Certain Cancers: Consumption of soy isoflavones is also linked to lower rates of prostate and breast cancer.
  • Strengthens Gut Health: Tempeh is full of prebiotics, a type of fiber that fuels the good bacteria in your gut. A wealth of data supports the link between gut health and overall well-being. Indeed, the health of the gut microbiome has been associated with mental, cardiovascular, and immune health.
  • Improves Bone Health: Eating more tempeh can contribute to a healthier heart, a healthier gut, and beyond. Tempeh also helps strengthen the bones that protect key organs and body processes. In addition to their other benefits, phosphorus and manganese are important micronutrients for bone health. Tempeh is also rich in calcium and copper, both of which are associated with a reduced risk of osteoporosis.

How Can I Add More Tempeh to My Diet?

For its many unique qualities, tempeh is a surprisingly flexible food. Its nutty, umami flavor makes it an ideal ingredient for healthy lunch and dinner recipes that draw inspiration from around the world. Find great examples of tempeh recipes below:

Where Can I Find Tempeh?

Tempeh is easy to like and even easier to find. Tempeh is available at mainstream American supermarkets, including Publix, Trader Joe’s, and Whole Foods. Of course, if you’re purchasing ingredients for an authentic Indonesian meal, you can also find tempeh on the shelves of your local Asian specialty market.

Tempeh’s Time to Shine

It may have taken a while for tempeh to reach the U.S., but its growing influence is making up for lost time. Professional and home cooks alike are increasingly incorporating this nutty soy food into their recipes — injecting meals with protein and micronutrients that support whole-body health. Tempeh is one option in an array of nutritious, delicious, and sustainable soy foods. Want to add more soy to your diet? Explore our index of soy-based ingredients!