As a fermented soy product, tempeh adds something pretty distinct to a recipe. That said, if you’re wanting to try a tempeh recipe and you don’t have any on hand… There are quite a few other foods that can step in and fill the position in a pinch.
Here are 10 tempeh substitutes to use in your recipes:
- Extra Firm Tofu
- Soy Curls
- Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
- Nuts or Seeds
- Beyond Meat
- Veggie Bacon Strips
Below, I’ll explain which substitutes are the best for which kinds of recipes, and how to choose. I’ll also mention some nutrition facts that should help you decide which to use for your recipe!
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The Best Tempeh Alternative for Each Kind of Recipe
The ideal choice of tempeh substitute will depend on what kind of recipe it is. First, let’s categorize the different kinds of typical tempeh recipes:
- Large tempeh chunks and strips: In these recipes, the tempeh is cubed or cut into long strips. Try seitan, cubed extra firm tofu, Soy Curls, mushrooms, diced mock meats, or chunks of seasoned cauliflower.
- Crumbled tempeh: In these recipes, the tempeh is broken up into small pieces, usually crumbled by hand, usually to be included in a sauce, sprinkled on top of something, or made into sloppy joes. Try beans, crumbled extra firm tofu, textured vegetable protein (TVP), nuts or seeds, or crumbled up mock meats (such as Beyond Meat).
- Tempeh steak: This is where you have a whole big slab of tempeh, potentially a whole store-bought package of tempeh, still in one piece, seasoned and cooked. Try seitan steak or cauliflower steak instead.
- Tempeh bacon: Here, the tempeh is sliced very thinly to make vegan bacon. Try a store-bought “veggie bacon” or, if you can find it, seitan bacon.
Now that we’ve covered these recommendations at a bird’s eye level, let’s look at each of the 10 recommended tempeh alternatives a little closer—and why you might choose each.
Whether it’s in chunks, strips, or big slabs, seitan is one of the best replacements for tempeh. That’s because:
- It’s firm like tempeh.
- It can be marinated like tempeh.
- It’s very high in protein, just like tempeh.
- It’s relatively unprocessed.
Of course, the texture is a little different—seitan is chewier and doesn’t have the bean chunks that tempeh has.
And the taste is a bit different, too. Seitan doesn’t have the fermented taste that tempeh has. But many tempeh dishes will be just excellent with seitan substituted in.
2. Extra Firm Tofu
- It’s high in soy protein like tempeh.
- It can be marinated like tempeh.
- It’s easy to find in stores, and many people already have it on hand.
- It’s relatively unprocessed.
For most tempeh recipes, you’ll want to use extra firm tofu, not a softer kind of tofu. In fact, even “extra firm” tofu will be much softer and moister than tempeh. But for many recipes, it’ll still work.
When will tofu not work to replace tempeh? When sliced very thin (like bacon strips), tofu will not hold together as well as tempeh. It will be much “floppier” and have more of a tendency to rip apart. So I don’t really recommend trying to make tofu bacon.
There are many kinds of beans that would make excellent replacements for tempeh, depending on the recipe. This is especially the case if the recipe calls for the tempeh to be crumbled up. Just use beans instead.
Beans are a good tempeh alternative because:
- Beans are what tempeh is made of in the first place.
- The texture of beans is pretty similar to crumbled up tempeh.
- Both are high in protein (but tempeh is higher).
- Beans are a whole food.
- Beans are affordable and easy to find.
What kinds of beans make the best tempeh substitute? Experiment! I think a mild-tasting, medium-size bean like chickpeas, pinto beans, or black beans could be a good replacement. But for many recipes, lentils or larger beans could also work.
Beans are especially good for replacing tempeh in recipes like sloppy joes or when the tempeh is supposed to be crumbled up in sauces. The beans will add an earthy taste that is quite similar to crumbled up tempeh.
Cauliflower is a bit of a superfood when it comes to all the ways you can transform it. You can make cauliflower wings, cauliflower rice, cauliflower pizza crust, cauliflower steak, cauliflower pasta, and more.
This means that cauliflower is fully capable of replacing tempeh in quite a few recipes. You’ll just want to make sure your cauliflower is slathered with plenty of BBQ sauce or whatever other seasonings the recipe suggests.
The benefits of choosing cauliflower as your tempeh substitute:
- It’s very nutritious.
- It’s kind of hip right now.
- It’s a low-carb and low-calorie option.
- Cauliflower is easy to find in any grocery store.
The downsides of using cauliflower: It’s very light, so it could leave you less full and satisfied compared to higher-protein, higher-calorie options. Also, if you don’t use enough sauce or seasoning, then you can tell it’s cauliflower, which is not everyone’s favorite taste.
5. Soy Curls
Have you ever heard of Soy Curls? Made by Butler Foods, these dehydrated strips are made from whole soybeans.
You have to soak them in water before you can season and cook them. Soy Curls make a good tempeh alternative because:
- They’re high in soy protein, just like tempeh.
- The texture is phenomenal, though a bit chewier than tempeh.
- They can be marinated.
- They’re relatively unprocessed.
When are Soy Curls not a good choice? If the tempeh recipe calls for “crumbled up” tempeh, then Soy Curls may be too big. And Soy Curls are a bit chewy, so they won’t crumble apart that easily. Also if you’re looking for something similar to tempeh bacon, you won’t get it with Soy Curls.
Keep in mind, you probably won’t find Soy Curls at most grocery stores. They’re not even at most health food stores. But you can order them online here.
6. Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP)
TVP is one of those old-school vegetarian protein sources that vegans used 20+ years ago, but a lot of people have forgotten about it. It’s still just as good as before, though.
Like Soy Curls (above), TVP is dehydrated soy, so it needs to be rehydrated before cooking. However, TVP is “de-fatted,” so it’s a bit more processed than Soy Curls in a way. But it’s a very simple product—there are no crazy additives or anything.
TVP is great for replacing tempeh when the recipe calls for crumbling the tempeh into small chunks. (TVP usually comes in very small chunks.) For example, TVP is the original favorite way to make vegan sloppy joes!
Mushrooms are another one of the earthy whole foods you can use to replace tempeh in some recipes. Honestly, I’m not as familiar with cooking with mushrooms myself, but I’ve seen a lot of people use mushroom in recipes this way.
Mushrooms will generally be chewier and lighter than tempeh. But you can use a big mushroom as a meaty patty, and you can also use smaller mushroom chunks to replace medium-sized tempeh chunks in a soup, salad, or pasta dish.
8. Nuts or Seeds
The texture of tempeh can be a little nutty sometimes, as it often contains chunks of soybeans. So if that’s what you’re trying to get from tempeh in the recipe, why not replace it with actual nuts?
You could throw in walnuts, peanuts, cashews, almonds, or any number of other nuts. You could also consider hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds, but they will be a bit smaller, so the texture may be a little further away from tempeh.
Still, nuts and seeds are great healthy, low-glycemic food groups that often get overlooked when putting meals together. I especially recommend adding walnuts if the dish contains brown rice—the combination is incredible.
9. Beyond Meat
I’m including Beyond Meat here as a stand-in for any brand of mock meats, really.
If you get a Beyond Burger or other veggie burger patty, those can be sliced, diced, or crumbled up for most of the textures you might be looking to replace.
There’s also the option of buying some “vegan ground beef” or “crumbles“—these are often used for things like taco filling or adding a meaty flavor and texture to sauces.
If you’re trying to avoid tempeh because of the soy, then check out these five soy-free vegan burgers.
10. Veggie Bacon Strips
If you’re trying to make a vegan bacon recipe, you may want to consider one of the store-bought veggie bacon products out there. Some of them are actually made of seasoned tempeh. Others are made of seitan, or just isolated soy protein or other recipes.
This is really only a recommended tempeh replacement for bacon recipes. If you’re going for something like tempeh strips on a salad or tempeh crumbles in sauce, I would not get store-bought veggie bacon for that.
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