Making tempeh

When I first started making tofu last year, I included a tempeh starter with my first order of tofu coagulants. Unfortunately, although making tofu came naturally to me and I considered the result perfect on the first attempt, I had a lot of trouble when I tried to make tempeh. The first problem is you have to crack and hull the soy beans, a process I found tedious and annoying. Most instructions I’ve found say that after soaking the soy beans for 8 hours, you should rub them, squeezing each one between your thumb and forefinger in order to remove the skin and break the soybean in half. If you do this under water, the skins should float to the top of the container and you can just push them out. Not only did I have problems with the skins magically floating away on their own, but my hand ached after nearly an hour of soybean rubbing. I attempted to incubate the tempeh using a food dehydrator, but despite my best efforts to keep the temperature as close to 88 degrees Fahrenheit as possible, I think it got too hot and the tempeh didn’t look right. I threw it away.

The horrible process of dealing with the soybeans made me shy away from further tempeh attempts, until last weekend when I was looking at my favorite kitchen appliance and I realized I could use the mixie to crack the soy beans when dry. If I didn’t have to rub every individual soy bean, I was willing to try to deal with the hulls again.

So I fitted the mixie with the dry grinder attachment (which is not the attachment shown in the photo) and put some dry soy beans in it …

… and pulsed it several times until most of the soy beans had been cracked.

I was then very happy to find that the hulls actually floated better this time around and I was able to simply float most of them off this time:

After removing as many of the hulls as I could (but not driving myself crazy over removing every last one of them), I drained the water …

… then soaked them overnight. In the morning, I rubbed them a little bit to force any remaining hulls to float up, and skimmed off the few that I found.

Then I drained them again, put them into a pot, covered them with water and a tablespoon of vinegar and cooked them for half an hour. While they were cooking, I prepared a ziploc bag by piercing it all over with a thick needle at 1/2″ intervals, which is probably next to impossible to see in the photo.

After cooking, I drained them a final time and returned them to the pot, where I put them over medium-low heat and stirred for about 5 minutes, to thoroughly dry them. It seems that trying to incubate wet beans is a recipe for disaster. I’ve also seen it suggested to dry them in a towel. Heating in the pot seemed a lot easier.

Next I mixed in the tempeh starter. Tempeh starter is a mold called Rhizopus oligosporus. I purchased it from GEM Cultures, the same people I recommended for tofu coagulants. (And yes, I’ve been eyeing up those miso and soy sauce starters because I’m just crazy enough to make my own miso and soy sauce.) If you are interested in making tempeh, I don’t think there are any easy-to-find substitutes for the tempeh starter, like Epsom salts and vinegar for tofu coagulants. Here’s what the starter looks like:

The amount to use is one teaspoon per pound of dry soybeans. Because I failed the first few times I tried to make tempeh, I started using only 4 ounces of soy beans per attempt, so I used 1/4 teaspoon. This resulted in about the same amount of tempeh found in a commercial package (12 ounces), which is a good amount for Mark and me. I’ll probably use 8 ounces next time and freeze half after it’s made. Anyway, stir the starter in very well to ensure it is equally distributed.

Place the soy beans into the prepared Ziploc bag. You can fit 8 ounces of dry soy beans (after cooking) into each standard-sized Ziploc bag. Lay the bag flat and make sure the soy beans are equally distributed, and that the layer is not thicker than 3/4″.

Your next challenge is to keep the soy beans at about 88 degrees Fahrenheit for about 24 hours. This was something else I struggled with. I thought about leaving them outside yesterday but at 100 degrees, it may actually have been too hot! Plus I wanted to come up with a method I can use no matter the weather. What finally worked for me was putting the soy beans on a wok steamer nestled into a yogurt maker, the lid of which I kept partially on for the first 12 hours then removed. After 12 hours, the tempeh will begin generating its own heat, which you’ll want to compensate for. Here’s my contraption:

When the tempeh is done, it will have congealed together and somewhat disconcertingly be covered in white and black mold:

Here’s a cutaway picture:

My next goal is to think of an alternative to the Ziploc bag. I had to cut it away in order to remove the tempeh without breaking it, so I won’t be able to re-use it as I’d hoped. Although it’s still less packaging than buying tempeh, I’d really like to devise a more Earth-friendly method. I believe banana leaves were traditionally used in Indonesia, from whence tempeh originates, so I may see what kind of leaves I can find at the Asian market.

Incidentally, I read somewhere that although Indonesian tempeh contains the elusive vitamin B-12, pre-packaged Western-made tempeh is too “pure” to contain it (unless it is artificially added). However, the article further stated that people who make homemade tempeh probably end up “contaminating” it enough that it will contain B-12. I’ll have to see if I can back that up, although even if it’s true, you’ll never be able to control the amount of B-12 and should not consider homemade tempeh a reliable source of B-12. You can, however, consider it delicious.

35 Comments »

  1. Mark Said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

    I am impressed, you are so incredible, this is simply amazing stuff. I say this because I know how hard you have been working on this technique.

  2. renae Said,

    June 8, 2008 @ 11:32 pm

    Why, thank you!

  3. Barbara Said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 4:47 pm

    Ok this is probably going to make you laugh but I’m new with the whole tempeh thing and as of right now I can’t even find it where I live, hoping to find it in toronto when I visit there in the summer.
    The black and white mold thing is kind of creeping me out.. I know many many people eat it etc so it must be safe but how does it taste?
    I’m having a hard time imagining that in my mouth at this moment ~grin~
    I have tempeh starter mix but I have no way to incubate it like you have done so I haven’t made it yet. You make it sound so easy!!!

  4. renae Said,

    June 10, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    Hi Barbara! Actually, I completely understand the mold creeping you out. I’ve been eating tempeh for years and I still had to get over the whole mold thing when making my own. For some reason, eating mold I grew seemed a little more creepy than eating mold I bought. That and packaged tempeh usually looks a little different.

    The important thing to remember is the “good” mold will only be black or white; if it is any other color, throw it away. It also shouldn’t smell bad. Mine barely had a smell at all.

    It has more of a taste than tofu – sort of nutty – although it is probably more the texture than the taste that makes it so great. Like tofu, its versatility is more a feature than a distinctive flavor. It doesn’t taste moldy, fermented, or “off” at all (at least it shouldn’t; if it does, it’s probably bad), just sort of pleasantly, mildly nutty.

    I’ve seen a lot of suggestions for incubating it, from leaving it in the oven with the oven light on to constructing an incubator from a styrofoam cooler and a light bulb, and even more elaborate devices. One thing I may have tried if the yogurt maker didn’t work out was an electric heating pad, probably with the tempeh on a low trivet so air can circulate under it. It’s a good idea to use a thermometer to test the temperature and make sure it is around 88 degrees F, instead of guessing and wasting your time. I threw away my first four batches because I think they got too hot, and how I determined that was the tempeh looked sort of shiny, without the mold, in places. Strange how I decided it was bad because it wasn’t moldy!

    I hope I made it sound easy enough that you do try it, but I have to be honest, I did fail and get discouraged a few times before I was successful. I think it’s harder than making tofu, although now that I got it right once, it doesn’t seem so hard after all. Finding a way to automate cracking the soy beans also greatly cut down on my reluctance to keep trying. If you have a grain mill, you can use that to crack the dry soy beans. I’m not sure about a regular food processor or blender; maybe I’ll whirl a few soy beans around in the blender and see what happens. Apparently in some parts of the world you can buy pre-hulled, pre-cracked soybeans, but I’ve never seen them in here in the US.

  5. Barbara Said,

    June 11, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    Excellent! Thanks for the advice. I’ve just found your blog now and You have alot of amazing things and its awesome how you lay everything out so there is no mistakes to be made.
    I look forward to reading so much more!! thank you!!

    by the way, my cat licks plastic.. any and all of it, loves it, she is orange and white as well.

  6. Destiny Said,

    June 14, 2008 @ 1:25 am

    That is so cool! I’ve always wanted to try making tempeh, using the recipe in The New Farm cookbook. Very impressive.

  7. amanda Said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 9:39 pm

    cool post, thanks! i’ve never made tempeh myself and had no idea it was such an involved process, but i love the stuff and want to try now!

  8. irma Said,

    August 23, 2008 @ 12:46 pm

    a great starting point for making tempeh get good quality starters first, a good start is this website for ordering tempehstarter and instructions and recipies

    irma
    tempehonline.com

  9. Robin Said,

    December 18, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    Another good source of tempeh starter is Topcultures. They ship worldwide. http://www.tempeh.com

  10. Scott Said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 8:25 pm

    Thanks for the info. I’ve wanted to make tempeh for years, but was put off by the styrofoam-light bulb idea, and our stove light trick never worked either. I’m off to buy a yogurt maker this weekend!

  11. kibbles Said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 11:58 am

    I’m making my own tempeh right now! I’m so excited. I’ve had this post in my favorites forever and never had the time or courage to do it. I ordered a sample tempeh starter from the same place and it finally got here… three months later. Perfect timing though, since I just got back from college.
    And I found the perfect incubator! So far it’s worked, it’s been about 30 minutes and I’m going to give in another 30 before I trust it (but I’ll be checking every hour just in case). It’s my toaster oven! I have a thermometer in it right now and it’s steady at about 86 degrees.
    B-but how does this work?! I think I know why. There’s a little light on the front of the oven that turns on when the coils are hot, supposedly, and the first temperature at which the light turns on is 200 degrees. Well, I figured out that if you bring the dial just halfway between off and 200 it still heats up, but the light just doesn’t come on. And tada, a tiny 85 degree oven ready to grow some tasty mold. I hope it keeps working, it seems too good to be true! :)

  12. renae Said,

    May 14, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    Kibbles, wow, I never even thought of the toaster oven – that’s ingenious! I hope it turns out. I’ll have to look at my toaster oven and see if I can do something similar. That’d be even easier than the yogurt maker!

  13. kibbles Said,

    June 20, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    Well the toaster oven worked fine, keeping temperature like I wanted it to between 80 and 90, the sample starter I got was a dud I think. It got it about 3 months after I ordered it, maybe it got lost, so I think it was old, absolutely nothing grew even after two days. Oh well. The toaster oven does work though!

  14. Laura Said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 5:45 am

    This is so unbelievably interesting! I’m a transitioning vegan and I’ve been researching how to make tofu, tempeh, and seitan. Seitan’s a piece of cake compared to the process of tempeh but I think it would be so worth it and ten times more enjoyable to say that you made tempeh yourself. I see that the process of making tempeh takes several hours – how many hours/days would you say the entire process took? It looks like I could do everything but the first step. I don’t have a neat contraption to hull the soybeans, and standing over them to rub and squeeze them doesn’t sound too appealing. Do you have any ideas? Thanks for the great post!

  15. renae Said,

    June 29, 2009 @ 10:05 pm

    Ugh, Kibbles, I’m sorry your tempeh didn’t work out! From where did you order the starter? If it was powdered, it should be good for longer than 3 months, so if it didn’t work, I would try talking to whomever you ordered it from.

    Laura, it takes about 24 hours to make tempeh from start to finish, though of course about 23 of the hours are unsupervised. Seitan is definitely the easiest of the three products to make and tempeh the trickiest and most time-consuming! Do you have a blender? You can crack the soybeans in that with no problem; it’s what I have been using. Homemade tempeh is worth the effort, but honestly I wouldn’t bother doing it myself if I didn’t have a blender or some other contraption to crack the soybeans because doing it by hand was miserable.

  16. Sharon Said,

    January 9, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

    I’ve been making tempeh for a few months now. It is so fresh and wonderful. I’ve tried making it without a plastic baggie, just in a glass container, and it worked great. Is there any reason not to? The fluffy white mold growing on it is a bit disconcerting at first, but I am now accustomed to it. Why must it be made in a baggie, and why not just is an open dish? Thanks!

  17. renae Said,

    January 10, 2010 @ 1:48 pm

    Hi Sharon, the reason I used the plastic baggie instead of a dish is so I could pierce the holes in it that allowed for even circulation of air; also it’s the only thing I could easily fit in the incubator I set up. If a glass dish is working for you, definitely continue using it; that’d be much better than plastic. How are you incubating yours?

  18. Ginette Callaway Said,

    June 28, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    Being a relatively new Vegan I had Tempe for the first time today at home. I had it in restaurants. I am sold. The mold thing kept me from opening up the package I had for two months in the fridge. I was afraid of the experience. But then I though about it. I used to eat cheese all the time before that has tons of mold, blue, black gray and white mold comes on cheese all the time. This is no different. It’s a good mold. As soon as you understand the facts, it’s not bad at all. It’s all in the head. Anyway you boil it and the mold is gone, then you use it for whaterver recipe you like. AMAZING!
    I so love it that I am going to learn how to make it myself. Either way I will have this as a staple becasue I can see all that I can do with it and it tastes great, I also love the firm texture. All that and super source for plant protein. Definably a miracle food!

  19. John Said,

    October 5, 2010 @ 5:09 am

    Instead of plastic bags you can make nice reusable culturing containers from the perforated plastic sheets crafters use to make stitched Kleenex covers and bookmarks and the like. Just cut and sew with natural thread the size you want. Make sure the top “lid” is only stitched on one side so you can take the tempeh out. Also, you can use the flat bamboo rice strainers from Asian markets or even two (top and bottom) bamboo paper plate holders held together with two crossed rubber bands. For incubators it is a lot easier to get a “Ranco” duel temperature control (about $75) and a large plastic storage chest or ice chest. All the heat you need is generated by a light bulb (you can use the lamp kits–socket and cord etc..from any large store) affixed through a hole inside. Plug the light bulb cord into the temp control, put the temp control probe in the “incubator,” then plug the temp control in and set the temperature to the desired range. The temp control will automatically turn the bulb on and off to keep the temp in the right range (no less deviation than 2 degrees). I love this incubator set-up because you can set it at any temp between 20f-220f which means you can make rice koji in it (86f) and then use the rice koji mixed with steamed cooked brown rice to make amazake (130f) and even from that sake if you wish. You can use it to make natto (119f) and even to make the fermented Chinese tofu “cheese.” For that you inoculate firm tofu cubes with tempeh starter then when done (covered with the white “mold” mycelleum) you thread them on bamboo skewers and let dry in the sun then pack in well washed clean jars with brine to ferment (age) for several weeks or months to taste. The result is a creamy very very very strong “cheese.” If you plan to make these wonderful cultured soy foods do yourself a favor and get an automatic temp control that has duel hot/cold settings. They are kind of pricey but worth it. The superior quality tempeh and other fermented soy and rice foods you will make is worth it-in my humble opinion. Good luck.

  20. Mark Gailmor Said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

    Use Banana Leaves. This is the conventional way of making tempeh and I think it tastes better this way. It’s certainly a more organic way of making it so to speak.

  21. jerlina Said,

    April 11, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

    try glass pyrex dishes. That’s what I use and it turns out great.

  22. Ting Liu Said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

    Nice post. I was inspired by it and made my first batch of tempeh with a yogurt maker. I’ve noticed there are black spots where the needle punch through. Do you know if these parts are safe to eat?

  23. renae Said,

    July 5, 2011 @ 1:13 pm

    Hi Ting Liu, it’s normal for there to be black spots among the white mold. As long as the block of tempeh smells okay (you’ll know if it doesn’t) and isn’t slimy, it’s safe to eat it.

  24. Mark Gailmor Said,

    October 25, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    Two things, first, if you have a dehydrator with a temperature gauge, like an excalibur, you can set the temp at around 70 degrees but the tip is not to place the tempeh into the dehydrator. Place the tempeh on top and cover with a towel.

    Second, is this. Traditional tempeh is not made with plastic bags but with banana leaves. You can buy them in the frozen section of most asian markets and they’re very affordable. I find them much greener than using plastic bags and they are compostable, which is even better.

  25. Seth Hickling Said,

    February 23, 2012 @ 5:01 pm

    Hi there

    I want to make tempeh using the culture from an existing block of tempeh rather than from powdered tempeh stater culture. I know this can be done but I’m looking for advice on how. Would be much appreciated.

    Cheers, Seth

  26. Chiara Said,

    February 28, 2012 @ 4:34 am

    Hi! I did everything you did except for the steamer placed inside the yogurt maker (I didn’t have one) so I think maybe the problem was the temperature (too hot?) and the air circulation. I’m gonna try again :-(

  27. Nancy Said,

    July 1, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    I bought a stainless steel perforated steam table pan at a restaurant supply house. They’re available in different sizes. It works way better than the plastic bag.

  28. Vince Said,

    July 5, 2012 @ 11:04 am

    Tempeh has a maximum temperature that it can handle during the tempeature rise of the mold generation of about 115F. Thus you need to take the excess generated heat out (the pores are self destructing). Don’t use a fan as molds do not like air flows. Betsy’s and Gunter’s solution is to use water to remove excess heat by floating a steel pan in an 8″ deep, S-series Cambro food server. Steel is a better heat conductor to drain the excess heat into the water.Their tempeh comes out perfect. Their web site is http://www.makethebesttempeh.org/how-to-make-a-tempeh-incuba.html. This is their incubator, and they also have the procedure to make tempeh in this incubator.

  29. Shelley Said,

    September 30, 2012 @ 8:13 pm

    I am boiling my soybeans right now, going to try out making tempeh tonight. I made my incubator from a 99 cent store Styrofoam ice chest, turned upside down, an old lamp, also turned upside down and cut a hole in the bottom of the chest for the fixture to fit through. I found that an energy saver light bulb that uses 7 W of power came to 88.3 degrees at the one hour mark, and so I think will work perfectly. I am excited to try this out and hope it works the first time, since I read all your great advice.

  30. Gunter Pfaff Said,

    January 19, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    There are at least two suppliers I know of that sell non GMO soybean halves (see “Notes” at makethebesttempeh.org) – this makes it so easy.
    Also for the person who bought the standard steam table pan – keep your eye out for an insulated food carrier like the Cambro we use – then the tempeh comes out perfect every time ( about 3 lb each time)

  31. Karen Parker Said,

    July 16, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    You can “modify” the ziploc bags quite easily so that they are reusable.

    * Find a cardboard package that will cover the length of one side of the ziploc bag. (or longer) Something like a cereal box would be perfect.

    * Collapse it (IOW take out the bottom so that it lies flat).

    * Cut a quarter inch strip into a corner; include both sides of the corner, so front plane and side plane. The length should equal the length of the side of the baggie.

    * Take 2 or 3 bulldog clips, depending on size, and clip the cardboard corner to the corner of the baggie. This will “resize” the baggie so that once the tempeh is firm, you merely have to remove the clips, loosen the tempeh and it should slide right out.

    The bag can be washed, turned inside out to dry and reused as needed.

    The other option is to use small plastic or aluminum trays and cover the top with foil.

    Good luck.

  32. Bob Fuller Said,

    July 31, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    On Jan 19, 2013 Gunter Pfaff mentioned two sources of soybean halves, info he got from the makethebesttempeh.org website. However, those sources have only dry roasted soybeans. Gunter, have you liked the results from dry roasted beans? There is no need to boil them, just rehydrate?

  33. Caleb Said,

    September 21, 2013 @ 11:29 am

    Using glass? I watched a guy on youtube make his tempeh using a glass container while covering it with holey plastic. Has anyone tried using glass. I know tempeh was originally discovered when they wrapped up beans in banana leaves for a few days – I can’t think of any leaves here in Nova Scotia that would be durable like that, and I hate the idea of using plastic. Any info would be appreciated :)

  34. mdavid Said,

    November 15, 2013 @ 8:00 pm

    Use Banana leaves. They are available in most asian markets in the frozen food section. Just ask if you don’t see them. Banana leaves are what Indonesian people have always used. They are better and more organic. Plastic contains chemicals and we don’t need to contaminate tempeh.

  35. Tristan Said,

    May 8, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    Re: plastic packaging, I have considered using corn husks. Like the ones you’d use for tamales. Haven’t made tempeh since I had the idea though. I too, grew tired of the wet hull rubbing. I’ll have to give your technique a try! Thanks.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment