It doesn’t matter if you lust for a bloody burger once in a while. Soybeans can satisfy a different kind of craving when you need some protein, and you want it fast and cheap with no remorse. And two soybean products don’t have to be mystery meat to you. Tofu is like the popular kid in school with many trendy outfits, and tempeh is the nuttier kid on the fringe who doesn’t change for anyone.
Tofu’s friends also call her soybean curd or bean curd. Custard-like and white (the analogy is over now), tofu is made from curdled soy milk, an iron-rich liquid extracted from ground, cooked soybeans. The resulting curds are drained and pressed into a block, sort of like the cheese process. The firmness of the tofu depends on how much whey was extracted.
“Tofu has a bland, nutty-like flavor that gives it a chameleon-like capability to take on the flavor of the food with which it’s cooked,” according to The New Food Lovers’s Companion, the fifth edition of the classic food bible. “Its texture is smooth and creamy, yet it’s firm enough to slice.” It’s kinda spongy too.
Tofu comes as a 5-inch block in regular, low-fat and nonfat varieties, as well as extra firm, firm, soft, and silken (which is more like a liquid and comes in soft, regular, and firm styles). You store it in the refrigerator covered in water. You can slice, dice, or mash it up for soups, stir-fry dishes, casseroles, sandwiches, salads, salad dressings, and sauces. It’s easy to digest, low in calories, calcium, and sodium, and high in protein and cholesterol.
Tempeh is a soybean cake with a much different texture and nutritional profile. Cooked, whole soybeans are fermented into a firm, dense, chewy cake that tastes nuttier and more earthy. It’s cholesterol-free and possesses more protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins compared to tofu, as well as a firmer texture and stronger flavor. It has less fat and is less processed, so tempeh is considered healthier than tofu.
You often see it in the store in flat, 8-inch rectangular pieces that look brownish with bits of soybean showing through. Like tofu, tempeh absorbs the flavors with which it’s cooked. Tempeh is a great meat substitute for things like burgers because it can hold its shape when cooked. You can also crumble it and add it to casseroles and sauces, like tofu. You store it in the fridge as well, but without water.
Regardless, you’ll see that tofu gets invited to all the parties, while tempeh only occasionally makes an appearance. Check our recipes, which use mostly tofu and a little tempeh.
1. Pad Thai
One of the most-ordered items at Thai restaurants, Pad Thai can be served with tofu, shrimp, chicken, beef, or whatever protein is your choice. It is an easy but fast-moving dish, so have everything chopped and ready to go before you begin. The iconic dish of Thailand uses an ingredient and technique — noodles and stir-fry — brought over from China. Then Thailand tosses in its four flavors: salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Get our Pad Thai recipe.
2. Saag Tofu
Saag feels decadent and creamy, but it’s rich while still being healthy. It’s got Greek yogurt, spinach, grape tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices in this quick recipe that could take you about 30 minutes (for real) to pull together. Weeknight meal, anyone? Get our Saag Tofu recipe.
3. Grilled Tofu Torta
Mexican hot sauce has just the right amount of vinegar and spice to transform tofu into a spicy, tangy filling for this vegetarian version of the classic Mexican sandwich. Grill the marinated tofu, then top it with smashed black beans, salty crumbles of Cotija cheese, pickled jalapeños, creamy avocado, and shredded lettuce, all inside a soft bun. Get our Grilled Tofu Torta recipe.
4. Chilled Tofu Salad with Miso-Ginger Vinaigrette
Peanuts, carrots, scallions really add some great flavor and texture in this chilled tofu salad, brimming with crunchy cucumbers and green beans and tossed in a tangy miso-ginger vinaigrette. Get our Chilled Tofu Salad with Miso-Ginger Vinaigrette recipe.
5. Fruity Smoothie
With bananas, strawberries, apple juice, vanilla yogurt, and a touch of honey, this smoothie makes for a tasty breakfast or snack. The tofu adds a heftier texture and more health. Get our Fruity Smoothie recipe.
6. Cajun-Spiced Tempeh Po’ Boys (Undressed)
Let the good times roll, vegetarian-style. Bell peppers, onion, tomato paste, and all sorts of spices go into this Brooklyn version of this Southern sandwich, particularly popular in New Orleans. Get our Cajun-Spiced Tempeh Po’ Boy recipe.
7. Tempeh and White Bean Sausage Patties
How do you make vegan sausage patties better than the ones you can buy in a store? Crumble up some tempeh, cook it in a little water, mash it white beans, and add it in all the flavor of fennel, sage, garlic, thyme, cayenne, and nutmeg. This is the stuff of good flavor. Get our Tempeh and White Bean Sausage Patties recipe.
— Head Photo: The Simple Veganista
Amy Sowder is a NYC-based food and fitness freelance writer who’s also on Chowhound’s editorial staff. She loves gooey things, especially cheesy toasties and puns. Ice cream is a strong motivation for her running habit.