A Tempeh Tutorial

Despite multiple successes with fermented vegetables, kombucha and sourdough, the thought of having a hand at my own tempeh scared me silly for the longest time.  I figured that because I didn’t have a high-end dehydrator or incubation chamber, because it was culturing spores rather than bacteria, because it was finicky – basically, any excuse to keep from trying.  Eventually though, the price of buying tempeh is what pushed me into the wide waters of experimentation.  The math ran something like this:

  • Buying a tiny block of tempeh = 5$ a pop
  • Making 2 or 3 of those blocks = 2$ in spores to inoculate the batch + 50¢ in beans, vinegar and optional add-ins like seaweed or spices.  Excluding time and electricity, that’s roughly 25% of the cost of purchasing it.

Furthermore, when you buy tempeh, for the most part you have the choice of soy, soy and yeah – soy.  If you aren’t so much into soy, between that and the price, it means that it’s an occasional treat rather than part of the regular rotation.  Making it yourself allows you to use any hulled bean or whole grain you have on hand, alone or in combination.  This provides for a wide variety of textures although the taste will remain pretty similar whichever member of the legume or graminae family you choose to involve in your process.

What I found once I did get over my fear of failure is that making tempeh is actually more forgiving than a lot of what you read would have you believe.  Even with pretty average equipment, it’s quite simple to make if you can follow instructions.  Despite warnings that monitoring temperature with a thermometer was necessary, I’ve never used one yet had consistently positive results nonetheless.  And the flavour is so far superior to anything available for purchase that once you’ve made your first batch you just won’t ever be able to bring yourself to buy it again.

The only downside is that I have yet to find a non-plastic incubation bag that works given that banana leaves, the traditional incubation vessel, are damn near impossible to find around here (not to mention the environmental footprint of flying them up to Canada…).  If anyone has used a North American plant-based vessel with any success, please share it in the comments and collect my eternal thanks!

On the upside, if you buy tempeh commercially, they will have made it in plastic anyways.

Just before getting into the nitty gritty of making tempeh, for those who aren’t already familiar, what exactly is it?  Hailing from Indonesia, tempeh (or tem-PIK! as my young son would say) is basically moldy beans.  That sounds bad, but it really isn’t.  In more technical terms, we’re talking about a very specific type of fungus, rhizopus oligosporus that inhibits the growth of potentially health-hazardous varieties of mold and bacteria while helping to digest the substrate (beans/grains) on which it is grown, making its nutrition more bioavailable to us.  It looks like a firm cake held together by a soft white fluff – the mycelium.

The taste of fresh cooked tempeh (and you do have to cook it prior to eating) is somewhat ”mushroomy” and somewhat ”cheesy” for fail of better descriptives.  Cooking applications are many as it’s quite versatile: tempeh can be baked, fried (most traditional) and steamed (usually before doing something else like marinating it or crumbling it up rather than as a final cooking method).  Cooked pieces can be added to soups, stews or snacked on solo.

Moving on to the method in this madness, here’s the basics of tempeh-making along with some photographs of how to go about it.  The recipe here works with pre-split and hulled beans for simplicity and speed.  If you’d rather use a whole bean or pea, then after the soaking stage (step 1), just rub the beans between your hands to remove the hulls and split the beans.  The skins will tend to float to the top of the soaking water where they can be skimmed off.  From having done it with soybeans and black-eyed peas, I can tell you it’s long and time-consuming so save yourself some swearing and use a dal!

Yield: 2-3 blocks of soy-free tempeh

What you need:

  • 2 cups dried split beans of some kind (fava beans, mung dal, chana dal, toor dal, split peas, etc.); part of the beans can be replaced with a grain if desired
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon seaweed (optional but nice, I like nori flakes, crumbled dulse or small strands of aramé best)
  • A packet of tempeh starter spores (I’m just not going to get into making your own spores at this point)
  • A blow-dryer (for those who are interested, tempeh-making and shrink-wrapping are the only uses I’ve ever found for my hair-dryer: but for those alone it was worth the purchase)
  • A vegetable storage bag (the ones with the tiny holes in them) or a ziplock type baggie with small needle-holes poked through it every inch or so
  • A dehydrator of some kind (or a small insulated container and a hot water bottle to put in it to make some heat)

What you do:

  1. Soak the dry beans overnight or up to 24 hours in a generous amount of fresh water, enough to cover by 3’’-4’’. If you’re using grains as well, soak those too, but separately in another pot with lots of water.
  2. Drain the beans (and grains if using); add (each) to a (separate) pot with more fresh water to cover by an inch or two.
  3. Bring to a boil and then cover and reduce the heat.
  4. Simmer until beans are somewhat tender but not yet cooked. With something like a large fava bean that will take 5-7 minutes of simmering after a boil is reached.  For smaller dals, the water will come to a boil and likely you’ll be ready to drain without any simmering at all.  For soybeans, you may be at it up to an hour.  Watch carefully since you don’t want the beans overcooked.
  5. For grains, if using, aim for half-cooked. They should have tooth and still want to take on water.
  6. When partially cooked as described above, drain the beans well. If using grains, drain those too and mix them in with the beans.
  7. Using the hair dryer on medium strength and lowest heat setting, dry the beans (and grains) completely. Stir and mix carefully as you dry to get rid of all moisture.  The drying should have cooled the beans (and grains) to body temperature, but if they’re still too hot, wait a bit until they do reach body temperature.
  8. Add the vinegar (and the seaweed if using) the beans (and grains) and mix well.
  9. Sprinkle the spores on top and mix lots and lots to ensure that everything is properly inoculated with the latent fungal beasties.                                             DSCN8737.JPG
  10. Spoon the bean (and grain) mix into the vegetable storage bag and seal. Distribute the mixture into an even layer between 3/4” and 1-1/2” thick.         DSCN8739.JPGDSCN8741.JPG
  11. Place the bagged layer of beans on a dehydrator tray and set at the lowest possible heat (usually 35°C) and go do something else for the day.                   DSCN8745.JPG
  12. After 8-12 hours, check the bag o’beans and see if it’s generating its own heat yet. As the fungus begins to grow, the mixture will get quite warm and you may want to move it away from the heat source of the dehydrator by adding a few trays, or remove it from heat altogether if it’s going over about 40°C.  You might also start seeing some white fuzz, you might not.  Let it keep doing its thing.
  13. After 24 hours, you should definitely start seeing some white fuzz and the bean (and grain) mass will be developing some solidity. Let it keep doing its thing.DSCN8752.JPG
  14. I usually harvest after about 36 hours although it can apparently take up to double that in some cases. The cake should be firm and hold together well, covered over and through with a skin of white fuzz not unlike what you see on a wheel of Brie or Camembert (although that particular fungus is penicillium camamberti in case you’re curious).
  15. Remove the block of tempeh from the bag, cut into two pieces. It will be quite warm in your hands.  I suggest cooking some immediately as the fresh food is incomparable, although it can be refrigerated for 3-5 days at this point.  Portions which won’t be cooked within that timeframe can be bagged and frozen for up to 6 months, although it’s unlikely that they’ll remain in the freezer that long.

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