Let’s face it, tempeh does not get much respect in this country. Unlike its bland cousin tofu, this fermented soyfood from Indonesia has a strong, yeasty flavor that intimidates most American home cooks. And yet, when cooked properly, its robust flavor and firm, chewy texture make it a great-tasting meat substitute in stir-fries, kabobs, and burgers.

What’s more, vegetarians, and especially vegans, should be eating tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay). Tempeh is a complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids found in meat or poultry. A two-ounce serving has 12 grams of protein, as much as a similar serving of beef and almost three times as much as a similar portion of tofu. In addition, tempeh contains no cholesterol, very little fat (3 grams per serving), and almost no sodium and is a good source of calcium and iron.

Unfortunately, good recipes for tempeh are hard to find. In our kitchen, we have often been disappointed by tempeh recipes that have failed to tame its fermented flavor. And we’re not the only cooks who want to tone it down. Indonesians typically match tempeh with very strong flavors: curry, soy sauce, citrus juices, ginger, and garlic. Unfortunately, many of these traditional Indonesian recipes end by deep-frying the tempeh. The results are delicious, but not necessarily the best options for fat-conscious Americans.

Our goal for this piece was simple: to come up with low-fat techniques for preparing tempeh that use bold flavors to mellow out the fermented flavor, and then develop a few recipes to illustrate each method. After a few weeks of trial and much error, we think that the seven recipes are pretty fantastic.

MARINATING IS KEY

To start, we got our hands on every tempeh recipe we could find. After narrowing the list to a couple dozen general techniques and cooking styles, we went into the kitchen. The first thing we realized was that unless tempeh was marinated before cooking it was inedible, at least to most of our tasters and colleagues. (The one exception was burgers. Tempeh can be used raw – much like chopped meat or ground turkey – in burgers as long as you chop it very fine and add potent ingredients like tahini, garlic, citrus juice, and curry paste. More on this later.)

As for marinating, unfortunately just throwing tempeh in a bowl with tamari and garlic does not work. This method takes hours to flavor the tempeh. We wanted a quicker, more potent way of flavoring tempeh, ideally something you could do after coming home from work.

THE SIMMER METHOD

Several sources suggested simmering the tempeh and marinade in a covered saucepan. When prepared this way, tempeh absorbs a great deal of marinade in a short period – twenty minutes is plenty. The tempeh can be cooled in the liquid, drained, and then sauteed and added to the dish you’re preparing.

The simmering method also works well when preparing cubes for grilling or broiling on skewers. The flavored tempeh should be lifted from its marinade and then threaded with vegetables on skewers and grilled until crisp.

If possible, it’s best to slice the slab of tempeh in half horizontally and then into one-inch cubes. This way the tempeh pieces are not terribly thick and the marinade can penetrate quickly. When skewering tempeh for grilling, however, you do not have this option. Thin pieces will fall apart on the grill. Just cut the tempeh cake into one-inch pieces. The flavor imparted by grilling compensates for the slightly reduced penetration of marinade.

From this basic technique of cooking tempeh in a marinade, we developed a variation, which we used in the Southwestern-Style Tempeh Sandwiches. Simmering tempeh in its marinade also cooks the tempeh. Although we decided to crisp up the tempeh by sauteing or grilling it in the recipes for Curried Tempeh with Brown Rice and Peas and Grilled Tempeh Kabobs this is not always necessary, especially if the tempeh is going to be used as a sandwich filling. We dike to layer tempeh pieces that have simmered in a spicy barbecue-style marinade with lettuce, tomato, avocado, and sprouts for a great sandwich. The soft texture of the tempeh is welcome in a sandwich. In addition, the leftover marinade can be simmered down into a thick sauce and spread on the sandwich bread.

SIMMER AND STIR-FRY

Simmering tempeh in a marinade works wonders but requires a bit more time than we sometimes have after work. For these nights, we came up with an even faster cooking technique. We marinate tempeh for about twenty minutes while preparing other ingredients for a stir-fry. We add the tempeh to the hot wok, and when it is crisp, we return it to the bowl with the leftover marinade. The hot tempeh soaks up even more marinade. As a final flavor boost, when all the other ingredients for our stir-fry have been cooked in the wok, we add back the stir-fried tempeh and its marinade.

Two recipes, Stir-Fried Tempeh with Bok Choy and Mushrooms and Stir-Fried Tempeh with Broccoli and Red Pepper, illustrate this method. Both can be prepared in under thirty minutes. Feel free to change the marinade (add rice vinegar, use another spice, add shallots) or use other vegetables. As long as you handle the tempeh in the same fashion, the results will be delicious.

GREAT FOR BURGERS

Because of its meaty texture, tempeh makes an especially good vegetarian burger. Tempeh Burgers with Tahini, Lemon, and Chickpeas and Tempeh Burgers with Red Lentils and Curry Paste are just two possibilities. Feel free to add other seasonings, but make sure to work the tempeh and other ingredients with your hands to make a smooth mixture and then press the burgers into compact patties. Unlike many other vegetarian burgers, tempeh burgers will not dry out in the oven and will become nice and crisp. Just place them on an oiled baking sheet and slide them into a hot 450-degree oven.

These seven recipes demonstrate how delicious tempeh can be. Even the meat eaters who passed through our kitchen during our final testing were surprised at how good we could make tempeh taste. Use a strong hand with bold seasonings, and you’ll be able to reproduce the same results in your kitchen.

STIR-FRIED TEMPEH WITH BOK CHOY AND MUSHROOMS

Serves 4

This stir-fry is remarkably quick and simple. The tempeh marinates for twenty minutes, enough time to absorb the flavors of the tamari and lemon juice and for you to prepare the other ingredients. The marinade that is not absorbed by the tempeh is used to moist en the vegetables in the wok Serve with rice.

  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut in half horizontally and then into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup tamari
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 6 scallions, white and light green parts sliced diagonally into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 12 large mushrooms, stem ends trimmed, wiped clean, and quartered
  • 6 cups chopped bok choy leaves or other leafy green such as Swiss chard or Chinese cabbage
  1. Place tempeh, tamari, and lemon juice in medium bowl. Marinate, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in large wok. When oil is very hot, but not smoking, lift tempeh from bowl with slotted spoon (leaving behind liquid) and add to wok. Stir-fry until nicely browned and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer tempeh back to bowl with marinade.
  3. Add remaining tablespoon oil to wok along with garlic and scallions. Stir-fry until garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add mushrooms and stir-fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
  4. Add bok choy and continue stir-frying until leaves have wilted, 1 to 2 minutes. Add tempeh and marinade. Stir to combine and heat through for a minute or so. Serve immediately.

STIR-FRIED TEMPEH WITH BROCCOLI AND RED PEPPER

Serves 4

This stir-fry is equally quick and relies on the same flavoring principle as the previous recipe. As the tempeh marinates, prepare the garlic, ginger, red pepper, and broccoli.

  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut in half horizontally and then into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup tamari
  • 2 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
  • 2 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh gingerroot
  • 1 large red pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into thin 2-inch-long strips
  • 4 cups broccoli florets cut into very small bite-sized pieces
  1. Place tempeh, tamari, and 1/4 cup water in medium bowl. Marinate, stirring occasionally, 20 minutes.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in large wok. When oil is very hot, but not smoking, lift tempeh from bowl with slotted spoon (leaving behind liquid) and add to wok. Stir-fry until nicely browned and crisp, 2 to 3 minutes. Transfer tempeh back to bowl with marinade.
  3. Add remaining tablespoon oil to wok along with garlic and ginger. Stir-fry until garlic and ginger are fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add red pepper and stir-fry until pieces begin to soften, about 1 minute.
  4. Add broccoli and continue stir-frying until it begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Add tempeh and marinade. Stir to combine and heat through for a minute or so. Serve immediately.

CURRIED TEMPEH WITH BROWN RICE AND PEAS

Serves 4

This hearty Indian-inspired recipe adds curry-flavored tempeh cubes to a simple spiced rice and green pea casserole. The tempeh is especially flavorful because it IS simmered in a mixture of tamari, curry powder, and ginger before being sauteed. Although we like the combination of curry powder with turmeric and coriander, other ground spices such as cumin, ginger, and cardamom may be used instead. With rice, peas, and tempeh, this dish makes a complete meal.

  • 1/4 cup tamari
  • 1 tablespoon curry powder
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh gingerroot
  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut in half horizontally and then into finch cubes
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 large onion, cut into thin rings
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 cup long-grain brown rice
  • 2 cups thawed frozen peas
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh cilantro leaves
  • Salt
  1. Combine 1 cup water, tamari, curry powder, and ginger in medium saucepan. Add tempeh, bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, uncover, and allow tempeh to cool to room temperature in liquid. Drain tempeh and discard liquid.
  2. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in large saute pan. Add tempeh and saute over me-dium heat until nicely browned and crisp, about 7 minutes. Transfer tempeh to bowl and set aside.
  3. Add remaining tablespoon oil to pan along with onion, turmeric, and coriander. Cook, stirring often, until onion has softened, about 5 minutes. Add rice and stir-cook 1 minute.
  4. Add 2 3/4 cups water to pan, reduce heat. cover, and simmer until rice is done, 40 to 45 minutes. Stir in peas, cilantro, and tempeh and heat through for several minutes. Add salt to taste. Serve immediately.

GRILLED TEMPEH KABOBS

Serves 4

Pineapple juice, soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, garlic, and jalapeno chile make a potent marinade for tempeh pieces. The flavored tempeh cubes are then threaded on skewers with mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and shallots and grilled or broiled. Other quick-cooking vegetables such as zucchini, eggplant, bell pepper, or onion may also be used Serve the kabobs with rice or couscous.

  • 1/2 cup pineapple juice
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 4 thin slices fresh gingerroot
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 medium jalapeno chile, stemmed and minced
  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 16 large mushrooms, stem ends trimmed and wiped clean
  • 16 cherry tomatoes, stemmed
  • 8 medium shallots, peeled
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
  • Salt
  1. Combine pineapple juice, soy sauce, lime juice, ginger, garlic, and chile in medium saucepan. Add tempeh, bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, uncover, and allow tempeh to cool to room temperature in liquid.
  2. Light grill fire or preheat broiler. Place mushrooms, tomatoes, and shallots in large bowl. Combine oil and basil in small bowl and drizzle over vegetables. Toss gently with hands to make sure vegetables are well coated with oil mixture. Season lightly with salt to taste.
  3. Drain tempeh arid thread on eight skewers along with mushrooms, tomatoes, and shallots. Grill or broil, turning once, until tempeh and vegetables are marked with dark stripes, about 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

SOUTHWESTERN-STYLE TEMPEH SANDWICHES

Serves 4

Here the tempeh is not sauteed or stir-fried as with many other recipes. The tempeh slices are simply removed from the marinade and layered into sandwiches with romaine lettuce, avocado, tomato, and sprouts. The remaining marinade is reduced slightly to make a sauce for the sandwiches themselves.

  • 1 cup apple juice
  • 1/4 cup natural barbecue sauce
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 8 ounces tempeh, cut in half horizontally and then crosswise into 2-inch-wide strips
  • 8 thick slices country bread, toasted
  • 4 large romaine lettuce leaves, folded in half
  • 1 large avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into thin strips
  • 1 large ripe tomato, cored and cut parallel to stem end into thin slices
  • 1 cup alfalfa sprouts
  1. Combine apple juice, barbecue sauce, lime juice, cumin, chili powder, and salt in medium saucepan. Add tempeh, bring to boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer 20 minutes. Remove pan from heat, uncover, and allow tempeh to cool to room temperature in liquid. (Tempeh can be left in liquid for several hours.)
  2. Lift tempeh from liquid and return pan to heat. Simmer briskly until reduced to thick sauce, 1 to 2 minutes. Cool sauce to room temperature and adjust seasonings.
  3. Spread 1 tablespoon sauce each over four slices of bread. Pile lettuce, tempeh, avocado, tomato, and alfalfa sprouts on top of bread. Cover with remaining bread slices to make four sandwiches. Serve immediately.

TEMPEH BURGERS WITH TAHINI, LEMON, AND CHICKPEAS

Serves 6

Tempeh does not need to be marinated if paired with very strong ingredients and turned into burgers. Here, raw tempeh is mixed with mashed chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and parsley and shaped into Middle Eastern burgers. The burgers are baked until crisp and then slid into pita breads that have already been filled with a simple salad of romaine lettuce and tomatoes dressed with lemon juice and olive oil.

Tempeh Burgers

  • 1 cup canned chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 1/2 cup tahini
  • 1/4 cup lemon juice ounces tempeh, chopped fine
  • 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • Salt

Salad

  • 3 cups shredded romaine lettuce
  • 3 cups chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and ground black pepper
  • 6 pita breads, heated and opened at the top
  1. Use potato masher to blend chickpeas, tahini, and lemon juice into fairly smooth puree. Work in tempeh, parsley, and cumin, as well as salt to taste, with hands until mixture is fairly smooth. Shape tempeh mixture into six burgers, making sure they are quite firm and well compacted. Set burgers aside. (The burgers can be covered and refrigerated for 1 day.)
  2. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place burgers on lightly oiled baking sheet and slide into oven. Bake, turning once, until nicely browned and crisp on both sides, 25 to 30 minutes.
  3. While burgers are in oven, combine lettuce, tomatoes, lemon juice, and oil, as well as salt and pepper to taste, in large bowl. Divide salad among heated pita breads. Slide one burger into each pita and serve immediately.

BUYING AND STORING TEMPEH

There are a number of types of tempeh on the market.

* Basic tempeh is made from soybeans, water, and some sort of culture to get the fermentation started. “Flavored” tempehs add grains and vegetables. These taste less cheesy although the difference is not dramatic. What can change is the nutritional profile. Tempeh made with wild rice, barley, quinoa, millet, brown rice, or vegetables contains less protein than all-soy tempeh. In fact, some of these ingredients can cut the protein count in half, so read labels closely if protein is important to you. On the plus side, tempeh made with grains is usually a little lower in fat and higher in fiber than all-soy tempeh.

* Tempeh can be sold frozen or refrigerated and usually comes in rectangular eight-ounce slabs. If the product is refrigerated (as is usually the case), it will keep for several weeks at home. If frozen, it should last for months. When shopping, check the expiration date on the package and look for tempeh that is mostly white and resembles the rind on a piece of Brie.

* Small gray areas are normal and do not need to be cut away. These gray patches are the result of the culturing process and indicate that the tempeh may be slightly stronger-tasting a slab that is completely white. In any case, do not purchase or eat tempeh that is mostly covered with gray or black patches or shows mold of any other color. When tempeh spoils, it becomes slimy and smells like ammonia.

WHERE DOES TEMPEH COME FROM?

Although it is possible to make tempeh at home (Indonesians have done it for centuries), Americans are more likely to purchase tempeh. Tempeh starts with soybeans that have been soaked, split, hulled, and cooked. Water is added along with a culture, which begins a fermentation process similar to what happens when milk is made into yogurt.

In this case, the microorganism is Rhizopus oligosporus, and it transforms the beans into a firm cake. After about twenty-four hours, a cottony, grayish white matrix of fine threads (called mycelium) binds the soybeans into firm slabs, called tempeh. The slabs are blanched or frozen to prevent further fermentation and packaged for sale.

Unlike tofu, tempeh is a whole food; neither the pulp nor whey is discarded. This accounts for its higher amount of nutrients. Fermentation reduces the flatulence problem that many people experience when they eat ether soyfoods. Fermenting also makes the soy proteins more easily digested and utilized by the human body.