Cooking School Day 8: Tofu & Tempeh

Cooking School Day 8: Tofu & Tempeh

Emma Christensen
Oct 15, 2014
(Image credit: Emma Christensen)
(Image credit: The Kitchn)
  • Today's Topic: Tofu & Tempeh
  • The Goal: 20 lessons, 20 days to become a better cook at home
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Tofu and tempeh have moved way beyond fringe food and solidly onto mainstream menus in the past few years. So much so that we're devoting a whole day to these so-called "meat substitutes" and how both vegetarians and omnivores can transform them into tasty meals. Do you know the difference between silken and extra-firm tofu? Do you know what the heck to do with tempeh? Let's find out together!

(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

Day 8 Lesson: Tofu & Tempeh

What are Tofu and Tempeh? Tofu and tempeh are both usually made from soybeans, and they are both totally vegetarian and vegan. Tofu is made by setting soy milk with a coagulant, similar to making cheese, and then pressing it into a solid block. Tempeh is made by fermenting soy beans until they form a firm and fairly dense patty. Tempeh can also be made with any other legume or whole grain.

What Does Tofu Taste Like? Tofu has a fairly mild, milky flavor. Its texture can also range from silken (like barely-set pudding) all the way to super-firm (very dense and sliceable). Tofu can be a bit bland on its own, but it's fantastic when cook with plenty of seasonings and other rich-tasting ingredients. Tofu can be served raw or cooked.

What Does Tempeh Taste Like? The best tempeh tastes pleasantly nutty and earthy. The not-so-great tempeh can taste simply bland. It's much more dense than tofu and has an almost chewy, toothsome texture. Tempeh can be eaten raw, but most people enjoy its flavor and texture a little more when it's cooked in a recipe — try it both ways! Like tofu, tempeh is also great with plenty of spices and seasonings.

Buying Tofu and Tempeh: You'll find tofu and tempeh in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, usually near the produce. Both keep well in the fridge, making them a handy fridge-staple for quick meals, but should be used within a few days once opened. Since there are several kinds of tofu with varying textures, make sure you buy the tofu that your recipe calls for.

Preparing Tofu and Tempeh for Cooking: Tofu usually comes packaged with a bit of water; you'll need to strain it and pat it dry before proceeding with the recipe. Some recipes will also instruct you to press your tofu before cooking — this just means setting it between two plates and placing a weight (like a can of tomatoes) on top to press out some of the liquid. This makes the tofu a little denser and less likely to crumble in your recipe. Tempeh can be used straight from the package. Some recipes may instruct you to steam or boil the tempeh before continuing with the recipe in order to soften its texture and mellow the flavor. Both tofu and tempeh can be left whole, cut into slices, or cubed.

Cooking Tofu and Tempeh: Tofu and tempeh both cook fairly quickly. Be careful not to move them too much in the pan, or they can start to crumble (especially tofu; tempeh is a little sturdier). Both can be served raw, quickly sautéed or stir-fried, grilled, baked, deep-fried, and probably other cooking methods I'm forgetting! They're a truly versatile ingredient.

Pro Tip!

Tofu is a great substitute for eggs or dairy in a lot of sweet and savory recipes. It can be crumbled and cooked like scrambled eggs, whipped into chocolate mousse, or blended to make creamy dairy-free salad dressings.

A Quick Shout-Out to Seitan! There's one more member of the meat-substitute family that we want to quickly mention. Seitan is made from vital wheat gluten, which is like super-powered flour. Mixed with water, the vital wheat gluten makes a dough — seitan! — which can be shaped into small patties and baked, fried, or steamed. Its texture is dense and chewy, not unlike chicken, which is why it makes such a good substitute for meat.

(Image credit: Faith Durand)
(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Every lesson has three homework options. Maybe you've already got one down, or you just have time for a quick study session. So pick one, and show us by tagging it with #kitchnschool on Instagram or Twitter.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Study: Read through our three guides to tofu:

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Practice: Try making baked or pan-fried tofu! Both of these cooking methods transform tofu into an entirely new taste experience. It's a little bit mind-blowing.

(Image credit: Henry Chen)

Improve: Want a real challenge? Make your own tempeh. That's right — tempeh is actually pretty easy to make at home and the results will blow away anything you've had from the store. Here are your instructions: How To Make Tempeh.

The Kitchn Cookbook & Tofu and Tempeh

The Cooking School was inspired by our new book, The Kitchn Cookbook and there's plenty in the book to help your Cooking School experience.

Today's tip: See page 204 for one of Sara Kate's favorite recipes with tofu: Green Papaya Pad Thai (so delicious!).

5 Recipes to Practice Cooking Tofu & Tempeh

  1. Vegan Tofu and Vegetable Pot Pie
  2. Tofu Chickpea Stir-Fry with Tahini Sauce
  3. Southwestern Tofu Scramble
  4. Sweet Potato and Tempeh Stew
  5. Brown Rice Bowl with Maple-Glazed Tempeh & Tahini-Miso Dressing

The Kitchn's Cooking School

The Kitchn's Cooking School is 20 days, 20 lessons to become a better cook at home. Every day we'll tackle an essential cooking topic and explain what you should know. Each lesson has three different homework options, so you can choose the one that teaches you what you need. Whether you want to refresh your skills or start from scratch, come to school with us!

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