Soy: Tempeh or Tofu?

Soy: Tempeh or Tofu?

Soy Tempeh or tofu? That is a question that you might be hearing more and more as interest grows in using soy protein products, including tempeh and tofu, as sources of protein. As nutritious substitutes for high-cholesterol meat and dairy products, tempeh and tofu are both ideal, but they are two different products in several ways. Which of the two is a better choice? Here are the some facts to help you decide.

Tempeh for Protein

Both tempeh and tofu are derived from the soybean plant, but they differ in protein content. Both are good sources of protein, but tempeh wins by a few grams. A half-cup of tempeh (four ounces) has 15 to 20 grams of protein, while a half-cup of firm tofu has about 10 grams of protein, depending on the brand.  

Tempeh for Meat

In the manufacturing process of tempeh, soybeans are put through a process of fermentation. This process transforms the soybeans into a gray-brown, dry, hardened cake. The texture is very different from tofu, which is moist and softer. Besides texture, the other real difference between tempeh and tofu is in the taste.

Depending on your tastebuds, you might find that you prefer the distinctly meaty taste of tempeh to tofu, since tofu is tasteless. When you eat tempeh for the first time, you are likely to use words like "salty, meaty, spicy, nutty and mushroom-like" to describe its flavor. For breakfast, for example, you can use tempeh as a sausage or bacon replacement to accompany scrambled eggs and toast.

Tofu for Versatility

The fact that tofu is tasteless is in many ways a cooking advantage. While tempeh has its own distinct taste and texture, tofu can be applied to a wide variety of dishes--from sweet puddings and creamy whips, to egg extenders and soup thickeners, to chunks of "meatless meats" in stir-fry dishes. The unique advantage of tofu as an ingredient is that it takes on the character and flavor of all the other ingredients in a recipe.

Tofu's versatility is due in large part to how it is made. Tofu is made by curdling soy milk with a coagulant The curds are pressed into a brick-like block. You are able to choose from different types of tofu "blocks" at the store, and each package tells you how it is ideally applied:

  • light and silky tofu is designed for whipped desserts and shakes
  • soft tofu is good for stews and soups
  • firm tofu is recommended for stir-fry platters and barbecue-like appetizers

Tofu for Convenience

Tempeh requires a bit more preparation than does tofu. The popular method for preparing tempeh is to steam it first for about 20 minutes and then place it in a marinade for at least 30 minutes, before finally baking it. Tofu, in contrast, can be used straight from the package and into the pot or saute pan or can be tossed instantly into the blender or mixing bowl for frothy, creamy desserts.  

With all these differences, you might assume you can never substitute tofu for tempeh, but you can. You can use tofu for a delicious stir-fry. For a meatier, baked dish, you can place your extra-firm cubes of tofu into a marinade, as you would with tempeh, and then bake the tofu and serve it (which is delicious with brown rice and salad).