Tempeh is one of the lesser-known meat substitutes, although we can’t figure out why.
It’s more dense and firm than tofu but is gluten-free unlike seitan. And like both tofu and seitan, it takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it in.
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In this #VeganQuickTip, we will cover what Tempeh is and how you can know if it has gone bad.
If you enjoy this article, you will also love A Field Guide to Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan.
What Is Tempeh And How Is It Made?
Tempeh, like tofu, is made from soybeans. The primary difference is that the soybeans in tempeh are fermented, making it a great source of probiotics (some other common fermented foods are kombucha, kimchi, and miso). This is part of what makes the product a little unusual but also very healthy.
It is possible to make your own tempeh, but it’s absolutely not necessary. While it’s less common than tofu, you can probably still find it at your local health food store for a reasonable price.
Tempeh is made by combining soybeans with a “tempeh starter.” The starter is a culture called “Rhizopus” mold spores. It sounds gross, but it’s perfectly safe. This culture binds with the soybeans to create the loaf of tempeh. You can read a more detailed description here.
The Aging Process: From Creation to Spoiled
Obviously with any fermented food it has to age for a period of time. But how can you tell if your tempeh is perfectly fine or has gone bad?
Tempeh is typically white when it’s freshest. It should have a smell that many people compare to yeast or mushrooms. It should also be firm.
After a few days in the refrigerator (tempeh MUST be refrigerated), it may take on a greyish tint or develop some grey spots. Don’t panic! Since tempeh contains live cultures, they are continuing to live and change even after the tempeh has been made.
Bottom line: if it smells okay, is still firm, and is white/grey, your tempeh is most likely a-okay.
If you spot black spots (Well, more realistically speaking, the spots will be a dark gray) on your tempeh, don't panic. That is a completely normal. Those black spots are spores that indicate the fermentation process is complete.
Refer to the image below and see if your dark spots are similar.
Your Tempeh Is No Good If...
My number one tip for figuring this out is to smell your tempeh. A strong, sour odor is the best indication that your tempeh has bit the dust.
The color of Tempeh can be a bit of a tricky indicator since dark-gray spots are perfectly normal. (As mentioned in the previous section.)
If you see that the beans in your tempeh are no longer white (and are very dark), then that is another indicator of spoiled tempeh. (Disregard this tip if you are using black bean tempeh.)
Another red flag is if your tempeh has slime on or around it. Store-bought tempeh may have some liquid in the packaging, but it’s usually very watery (if not it’s not actually just water). It’s also a pretty small amount.
Lastly, you should take note of the texture. If it is very mushy it is no good. Proper tempeh should be anywhere firm to slightly firm.
Bottom line: if you open your tempeh one day and it smells disgusting, has dark beans, and is covered in slimey fluid, it’s time to toss it.
If this article is your first introduction to tempeh, it may seem daunting. The good news is that tempeh is pretty cheap and easy to cook with, so you can try it out a few times with pretty low risk.
We recommend that if you’re buying tempeh for the first time to check the expiration date carefully and to use it within a day or two. That way you can get the hang of it and feel more confident next time. Pretty soon, you’ll be eating it all the time.
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