By Ali Lopez
MRG Contributor

There is a lot of talk these days about plant-based eating — and for good reason. Eating more plants is good for your health and good for the planet. But some of the plant-based foods can seem scary and maybe you aren’t sure what to do with them. Well, that’s where I can help. I thought I would spend a few posts talking about plant-based foods and how you can fit them into your diet, whatever that might be. As Michael Pollan, brilliant author says, “Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.” Well, unless you are a runner, then you get to eat a bit more food.

I thought I would start with one of the “scariest” plant-based items — and actually one of my favorites (when it is cooked properly), which is tempeh. My friends have actually called me the “tempeh whisperer.” Now before you run away from this post, hear me out. And for those who don’t have any idea what I am talking about, stick around and I’ll educate you. 

So, what exactly is tempeh?

Tempeh is fermented soybeans. It is jam-packed with prebiotics, which is a type of fiber that provides fuel for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Tempeh is a complete protein and maintains all the fiber of the beans and gains some digestive benefits from the enzymes created during the fermentation process. In addition to soy-based tempeh, there are several other variations of tempeh, including tempeh made from other beans, flax, barley, or wheat. When you buy tempeh in the grocery store, it will most likely be in the refrigerated section, sitting next to the tofu. 

Tempeh has a firm texture and nutty yet earthy taste. It also easily takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with and can be marinated and seasoned to help easily boost the flavor. Another helpful hint to getting the best flavor out of your tempeh is to steam or simmer it before using it in whatever recipe you have. I like to think that it opens up the pores, reduces the bitterness and more easily absorbs the flavors of whatever you are adding to it. You can sauté, roast, bake or grill it and it can be swapped in for meat or other animal products as part of a meatless meal.

Best ways to use it!

Now that we have an answer to what is tempeh, let’s discuss the very best ways to prepare it!

My favorite way to use it is in sandwiches, partly because I just LOVE sandwiches.

It makes a wonderful TLT (like BLT, but tempeh not bacon) and I love to add avocado to mine. Another great sandwich is a Tempeh Reuben with sauerkraut (another fave fermented food), Russian dressing and cheese (real or vegan). 

It is also wonderful cubed and added to a stirfry, used as a taco filling, added to salads like croutons or crumbled, added to stews or chili.

Now to the cooking part

First step in cooking tempeh is to steam or boil first. Here are two methods:

  • To steam tempeh: set up a steamer basket over a pot of boiling water and place the tempeh in the basket. Cover it and let it steam for 10-15 minutes.
  • To simmer tempeh: fill a saucepan with an inch or two of water and bring it to a boil. Place the tempeh in the saucepan, cover the pot, reduce the heat and let the tempeh simmer for 10-15 minutes.

Now you are ready to cook. It can be cooked stovetop or in the oven. I like to marinate it first for at least an hour or overnight is even better. But if you don’t have time, no worries. It will still be tasty. Here is a simple marinade that works with however you want to use the tempeh after cooking:

Balsamic Maple Glazed

1 package tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes or strips

1/4 cup balsamic or apple cider vinegar

3 Tbs maple syrup

3 Tbs tamari

3 Tbs. olive oil

¼ cup water or veggie stock

In a bowl, mix together the vinegar, maple syrup, tamari, olive oil, water.

Add the “steamed” tempeh to the mixture, stir and cover.

Let sit in the fridge for 1-24 hours, mixing occasionally.

Two ways to cook:

Method 1:

Preheat oven to 350.

Place tempeh and sauce in oven safe dish and cook covered for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven, stir around and bake for another 15 minutes.

Remove tempeh cubes from sauce and use as you like.

Method 2:

Remove tempeh from marinade. Cook on stovetop over medium heat (you may need to add a little oil) until browned and crispy. 5-7 minutes per side.

Have a fueling question for Ali? Post it below in the comments section or email MRG with your healthy-eating questions at heather [at] michiganrunnergirl [dot] com 

Ali will answer your questions in upcoming columns here on MRG. You can read her post about the Power of Smoothies, here »  She’s also written about superfoods and shares a great recipe for kale salad here »


Ali Lopez is a northern Michigan runner, chef and health coach. You can learn more about her at her web site Healthy Chef Ali. She’s also on Facebook here »

You can listen to a conversation about running and eating between Ali and Heather on a recent MRG podcast episode here »

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