Even if you lust for a meaty burger once in a while, you’ve likely dipped your toes into the world of meat alternatives and plant-based protein, including these two popular soy products. But what’s the difference between tofu and tempeh?
The most obvious is texture, but they’re nutritionally different, 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 kid on the fringe who doesn’t change for anyone.
Are tofu and tempeh different?
Soybeans are the common denominator between these two plant-based protein sources. Both can be added to all kinds of dishes, but they do differ in some key ways in texture and nutrition.
Tofu is also known as soybean curd or bean curd. It 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, similar to the process used to make cheese. The firmness of the tofu depends on how much whey is extracted, but it’s usually at least somewhat custard-like and a shade of pale white.
Tofu comes as in blocks 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 to keep it fresh. It’s easy to digest and low in calories, calcium, and sodium and high in protein.
You can slice, dice, or mash it up in all kinds of vehicles:
- stir-fry dishes
- salad dressings
When using firmer types of tofu, it’s best to press it to remove the liquid it’s soaked in. This allows the tofu to absorb more flavors from sauces and seasonings, giving it a better texture. If there’s anything tofu is great at, it’s taking on other flavors.
You often see tempeh in the store in flat, rectangular pieces that look brownish with bits of soybean showing through. Like tofu, tempeh absorbs the flavors in which it’s cooked. Tempeh is a great substitute for meat, like burgers, because it can hold its shape when cooked and has a meaty texture.
Similar to tofu, you can crumble it and add it to casseroles and sauces, and you store it in the fridge (but without water). You can also find (or make) tempeh with other beans, which is great for people 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 it’s a good idea to check the label.
Both tempeh and tofu are great additions to a plant-based diet, or as an additional source of protein for omnivores. Check out the recipes below for some tasty ways to incorporate tofu and tempeh into your diet.
These recipes mostly use tofu, but a few use 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.)
1. Ma po tofu
For a different take on ma po tofu, you can substitute ground turkey for pork and brown rice for the usual white rice. The tofu soaks up a delicious spicy sauce with a little lip-numbing tingle from Sichuan peppercorns.
Check out this ma po tofu recipe.
2. Pad Thai
One of the most popular items at Thai restaurants, pad Thai can be served with your choice of protein, including tofu, shrimp, chicken, or beef. It is an easy but fast-moving dish, so have everything chopped and ready to go before you begin.
This iconic dish uses an ingredient and technique — noodles and stir-fry — tossed in its four flavors: Salty, sweet, sour, and spicy.
Snag this pad Thai recipe to make it at home.
3. Saag tofu
Saag is a spinach-based dish that feels decadent and creamy while still feeling pretty light. This one has Greek yogurt, spinach, shallot, and spices. It’s a quick recipe that swaps tofu for the usual paneer and takes as few as 30 minutes (for real) to pull together. Weeknight meal, anyone?
Try this saag tofu recipe.
4. Grilled tofu torta
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 inside a soft bun.
Add this grilled tofu torta recipe to your meal plan.
5. Chilled tofu salad with miso-ginger vinaigrette
Peanuts, carrots, and scallions 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.
6. Silken tofu and kimchi soup
Time to try this silken tofu and kimchi soup recipe.
7. Fruity smoothie
Silken tofu can also be a good substitute for dairy products, including in smoothies. With mixed berries, pomegranate juice, flaxseed, ginger, 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 some additional nutrition, too.
Have this fruity smoothie recipe for brekky sometime.
8. Buffalo tempeh sandwiches
On to tempeh! Tempeh’s firmness makes it a great sandwich filling, and you can flavor it any way you like. Here, it’s slathered in spicy buffalo sauce and paired with creamy avocado and crunchy, tangy ranch-dressed slaw.
Get our buffalo tempeh sandwiches recipe.
9. Vegan Beijing tempeh
For a homemade take on a fast food fave, try a stir-fry of crisp and pleasantly chewy tempeh with tender peppers and onions in a tangy-sweet sauce spooned over white, brown, or cauliflower rice.
Try this vegan Beijing tempeh recipe.
10. Cajun-spiced tempeh po’ boy
Let the good times roll, vegetarian-style. Bell peppers, onion, tomato paste, and tons of spices go into this Brooklyn, New York version of the Southern sandwich particularly popular in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Grab the recipe for this Cajun-spiced tempeh po’ boy recipe.
11. Tempeh and white bean sausage patties
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, and add some mashed white beans along with fennel, sage, garlic, thyme, cayenne, and nutmeg.
Give this tempeh and white bean sausage patties recipe a try.
We get it: Dipping your toes into a new kind of texture and flavor can be daunting. But remember, these two protein sources are made for adaptation. Try it stir-fried, and if that doesn’t cut it, maybe try some silken tofu blended into a smoothie for a subtle texture upgrade.
And if you’re already a soy-based food fan, expand your recipe list in ways you may have never thought possible.