Even if you lust for a bloody burger once in a while, you’ve likely dipped a toe into the world of meat alternatives and plant-based protein, including these two popular soy products. But what is the difference between tofu and tempeh? The most obvious is texture, but they’re different nutritionally too. If we had to give them personalities, we’d say tofu is like the popular kid in school with many trendy outfits and the ability to blend into any crowd, and tempeh is the nuttier kid on the fringe who doesn’t change for anyone.
What is tofu?
Tofu, which originated in China and is also known as soybean curd or bean curd, 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-making process. The firmness of the tofu depends on how much whey is extracted, but it’s usually always at least somewhat custard-like and a shade of pale white.
“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.
When using firmer types of tofu, it’s best to press it so the liquid it soaked in makes way for it absorb more flavors from sauces and seasonings, and help it cook up with a better texture too.
EZ Tofu Press, $21.99 on Amazon
Put the screws to your tofu and press all the water out.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh, which originated in Indonesia, 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 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 too, so tempeh is considered healthier than tofu.
While fermented foods in general are prized for probiotic powers, tempeh may not actually count; it’s fermented via fungus instead of that famous gut-healthy bacteria, and then it’s usually pasteurized and cooked. Still, it’s definitely healthy, high in prebiotics and the aforementioned vitamins, protein, and fiber, plus calcium and soy isoflavones that may help reduce oxidative stress on the body.
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. You can also find (or make) tempeh with other beans, like this black bean tempeh (great for those with soy allergies).
If you need to avoid gluten, double-check that the brand of tempeh you’re buying is gluten-free; it often is, but depending on the specific grains used, it’s not always. (Tofu, on the other hand, should always be gluten-free if it’s plain; if it comes in a sauce, it may contain wheat, so still good to check your labels.)
Tempeh and Tofu Recipes
Both tempeh and tofu are great additions to a plant-based diet, or put in rotation for omnivores too. Check out some recipes below, which use mostly tofu and a little tempeh. (It always seems to be the case that tempeh stays farther under the radar; going back to that popular kid analogy, tofu gets invited to all the parties, while tempeh only occasionally makes an appearance. But they’re both great.)
Normally made with ground pork (or sometimes even ground beef), our healthier take on mapo tofu substitutes ground turkey, and brown rice for the usual white rice. The tofu still soaks up a delicious spicy sauce with a little lip-numbing tingle from Sichuan peppercorns. Get our Turkey Mapo Tofu recipe.
2. 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 (or a mix of them, like ours, with tofu and shrimp). 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.
3. Saag Tofu
Saag feels decadent and creamy, but it’s rich while still being healthy. Ours has Greek yogurt, spinach, grape tomatoes, onions, garlic, and spices in this quick recipe that swaps in tofu for the usual paneer, and could take you as few as 30 minutes (for real) to pull together. Weeknight meal, anyone? Get our Saag Tofu recipe.
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.
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.
Silken tofu can also be a good substitute for dairy products in certain places, smoothies included. With bananas, strawberries, apple juice, vanilla yogurt, and a touch of honey, this smoothie makes for a tasty breakfast or snack. The tofu not only makes it thick and creamy, but adds nutrition too. Get our Fruity Smoothie recipe.
On to tempeh, it’s firmness makes it a great sandwich filling, and you can flavor it any way you like. Here, it gets slathered in spicy buffalo sauce and paired with creamy avocado and crunchy, tangy ranch-dressed slaw. Get the Buffalo Tempeh Sandwiches recipe.
A healthier take on a fast food fave, this stir-fry of crisp and pleasantly chewy tempeh plus crisp-tender peppers and onions in a tangy-sweet sauce is perfect for spooning over white, brown, or cauliflower rice. Get the Vegan Beijing Tempeh recipe.
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.
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.
Related Reading: The Best Vegan Cheese You Can Buy, The Vegan Trader Joe’s Items You Have to Try, & Vegan Cookbooks for Delicious Plant-Based Eating
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