My, what a tight mycelium you have!
You know how tempeh kind of sucks?
Admit it, it kind of does. I didn’t eat tempeh for about 10 years after I became a vegetarian, because it sort of tastes like ass.
These days I’m a tempeh fiend, however, because I make my own tempeh. Homemade tempeh is nothing like store bought, which has usually been frozen and defrosted and is super old. It’s an industrial product. Homemade tempeh, on the other hand, is full of umami and light mushroomy depth. Fried up homemade tempeh with sea salt is a delight, worthy of getting seriously excited about.
So: today is the day you learn how to make your own tempeh. Not your own tempeh reuben, not your own tempeh with mushroom scaloppine, your own tempeh. From beans and spore. From soy and culture. One legume plus a kickstarter starter plus time equals alchemy.
Homemade tempeh is at once harder and easier than you think. It’s hard because we’ve been inculcated (inoculated, even) to believe that tempeh is inherently weird, that fermentation is a dirty word, and that any recipe longer than 10 minutes is a waste of time.
This is a three day recipe for rotting soybeans. This might make things hard for some of you. For those of us free of those prejudices, tempeh is easy.
Once you know a few general principles and have figured out your incubator situation you can get a batch going in literally minutes. I make five or so pounds a week in less than half an hour for less than two dollars.
The first step to making great tempeh is buying the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz. I know I’ve mentioned Sandor a bunch on this blog, but it never hurts to plug awesome people one more time. (In fact I just got an email from him the other day plugging a live fermentation intensive “webinar” he’ll be hosting soon – check it out, yo). Sandor is one of those people you’re just plain glad exist.
Wild Fermentation opened up a whole new world to me, and my tempeh recipe is taken directly from his, so first buy his book for more in-depth info on making tempeh. (Another great, though slightly more bizarre, resource is The Book of Tempeh.) If you want some hilarious fun, read the 1-star and 2-star negative Amazon reviews of Wild Fermentation – of course, the reasons these nuts disliked WF are the reasons I loved it. My favorite is the one that calls him an “Amish homosexual hippie.” YES!!
The second step is making an incubator. Sandor put up all the info on how my pal Aaron and I (OK, mostly Aaron) built my incubator on his website, so you might want to check that out (click on “tempeh incubator” on the little drop-down menu on the right, scroll over the picture to read the text so you understand what you’re looking at). All the info is repasted below as well.
Let’s say for now that you have your incubator. Now you need to order some tempeh spore (also called tempeh starter). I get mine from GEM cultures, so does everyone else I’ve ever heard of who makes tempeh. Let’s hope the good GEM cultures people never get tired of providing us with high-quality starters!
Now you’re ready to go.
Here is my recipe for tempeh – it makes a lot, five or so pounds. Roughly one-third of this recipe will make a nice-sized amount to start.
I usually start soaking the beans Friday night, cook them Saturday in the early afternoon, let them sit for a few hours to dry, then start fermentation on Saturday PM. I have great tempeh by late night on Sunday, or I turn the temperature down to about 85 degrees so it will be ready by Monday AM, depending on my schedule.
1. Soak 7.5 cups of soybeans overnight. Have you ever seen black soybeans? They are fun to use for tempeh. I’ve also had success mixing in smaller amounts of other grains and beans, sea veggies, and spices. Actually, don’t do the spices – the flavor gets lost. And NEVER toss in some leftover unsweetened toasted coconut. (Now that I think about it, most people probably don’t make coconut truffles and thus don’t have leftover coconut always hanging around. Don’t toss in ANY coconut, let’s put it that way.) I adore tempeh and I am madly in love with coconut, but that tempeh had an oily cooked coconut flavor that no one liked. (Have you ever used unrefined coconut oil – the kind they sell in the body care aisle – to make a cake or fry something? It was that kind of flavor. Remember to always buy the refined coconut oil!)
If you can’t soak the beans overnight, just do a quick soak by bringing them to a boil and turning off the heat. Let sit for one hour.
2. Ideally, you now want to chop up each bean into 3 or 4 pieces. I just do a quick chop in the food processor – not too fine, not too chunky. If you have a grain mill by all means use it. I used to skip soaking the beans and would chop dry beans in my Vita Mix Insanity Blender (I think it’s really just called a Vita Mix Blender, but as every Vita Mixer will tell you, the Vita Mixer is insane – I truly think you could make sawdust by tossing chopsticks into it). This works, but I think soaking them then chopping them in the Cuisinart works better.
3. Cook the beans just until done. Not completely soft. The fermentation will finish the cooking.
4. Drain the beans. Sandor tells you to swaddle them with a towel and dry them until they are barely warm and fairly dry. I am way too impatient for this and just spread my beans out on a baking sheet until they are pretty dry.
5. In a couple of hours I toss them with 1 heaping tablespoon of spore and a nice drizzle (5 or so tablespoons) of apple cider vinegar. You can use any vinegar or no vinegar. Sandor’s recipe says to use some, but he recently told me that he doesn’t use it anymore. It’s just there to give the good bacteria more of a jump start over the bad bacteria. Because I do commercial cooking and you can never be too careful, I use it. You’re never in danger of eating tempeh that has gone bad without knowing it, however – you will always know it is bad because it will truly stink and will be slimy and gross and you won’t want to eat it. Fermentation is all about using your instincts – do you want to eat it? If so, it’s fermented enough and good. If not, not. I’ll talk about that more below.
6. Pack the tempeh into bags or trays, following the Wild Fermentation guidelines. I use square Pyrex 9″x9″ glass dishes and spread the tempeh-to-be in a nice even layer, then close it with a clean (never worn, obviously) shower cap with holes poked in it with a fork. (Look at this neato blog post talking about wrapping it in grape leaves!)
When you make tempeh in a Pyrex baking dish, the top and bottom are a little different, since they get exposed to different amounts of air and heat. The top is the darker side, on the right.
I also make it in plastic bags with fork holes poked in them. Because the holes are more exposed to air they get darker:
Once I tried to make round tempeh rolls and was pretty successful. Once I made tempeh in a ceramic pie plate and made a shepherd’s pie in it afterwards, so the tempeh was the crust. It was nice, but not as nice as it would have been with tempeh crumbled and fried up in the filling and a nice flaky pastry crust on the outside. I was really excited about it at the time.
You can also make tempeh in shapes using metal cookie cutters on a baking sheet (if the baking sheet will fit in your incubator). I don’t know exactly why you would do this, but isn’t it fun to not have to make tempeh in the standard 8 oz. slab? Make whatever shapes you want. Try to make the shapes even, however, so the tempeh will ferment evenly. A square is not as good as a rectangle.
7. Pop your tempeh in the incubator, set the temperature, and you’re basically done.
Check it every once in a while. I try to rotate my tempeh once throughout the process, because the tempeh closest to the light bulb obviously gets more hot. I set my incubator at 90 degrees and keep the door open after twelve or so hours. After the first 12 or so hours of fermenting the tempeh’s internal heat will bring the temperature up too high, so I open the door to keep the heat in check. The tempeh is finished in about 24 hours, when it has a tight, even mycelium (network of whitish strands) with some gray and black marks.
Look – magic! You started with beans and a magical powder and added time and a little care, and look what you made! I’m always a little stunned.
8. As Sandor directs, take your tempeh out of the forms and either use it right away or refrigerate it in one layer (not stacked, or it will continue to ferment!) or wrap it in plastic and freeze it.
In the beginning you will constantly be wondering if your tempeh is edible or rotten. It’s edible. Sandor says that your tempeh should smell like a baby or button mushroom. Mushroomy I understand, but I don’t want to smell no babies. If he means that it should smell like my sweet white cat Noodle who keeps herself so clean that she always inexplicably smells of talcum powder, then I see his thinking. Mushroomy and alive and clean is the kind of smell you’re looking for. Your tempeh should be whitish streaked with grey and some black. Red or pink or green tempeh should be thrown out. The Book of Tempeh talks about “overfermented” tempeh, completely black tempeh sold on the streets of Indonesia – it’s just a little more funky, and perfectly fine.
One of the most interesting lessons I learned from Sandor is that the line between fermented and rotten is culturally drawn – isn’t that fascinating? It’s kind of like a weed – a weed is a plant out of place. A rotten ferment is one you don’t feel good about eating. Someone else might eat it and be fine. Someone else might also like dandelions all over their lawn. (I put my dandelions in kimchi, and have the best of both worlds – a pretty lawn and yummy pickles).
Sometimes I am lazy and don’t rotate the tempeh, or I try to jam too much into the incubator and everyone is cramped. Here is some tempeh that didn’t have enough space.
The top corner didn’t really tempeh-ify. I just cut that part off and tossed it into the compost – what could make compost happier than a nice piece of live-culture tempeh?
So, that’s tempeh.
Let’s go back and talk about how to make your incubator. There are many ways of incubating tempeh – in a oven with just the pilot light; in a hot greenhouse; in Phoenix, Arizona. The only tricky thing is that you need to sustain a certain temperature for 24-30 or so hours. That’s why I like the incubator. Here is how my friend Aaron made mine – thanks Aaron!
Get an auto-thermostat thingie kit and a light bulb (not a compact fluorescent, since those don’t get hot), as well as a smallish refrigerator – it doesn’t need to work. If you have a large refrigerator, hook up a fan to circulate the heat. If it’s a small fridge, the light bulb will heat it just fine with no fan. With the auto-thermostat kit, the light bulb turns off automatically when it gets to a certain temperature (I set mine at 88-90 degrees – ideal tempeh fermenting temperatures are 85-90).
Controller with temperature probe that is poking through an existing hole (the probe is the white thing right in front of the cord). The controller is in the freezer section of the fridge.
Shelves made with wooden planks, and the light bulb which is the heating element.
An extension cord runs through the back of the fridge and the temperature controller plugs into the extension cord. Aaron used a lamp repair kit for the light socket, which plugs into the temp controller. The light turns on when temp drops below the selected temperature, and then shuts off when temp is reached.
The cord for the temperature probe was able to be threaded through an existing hole in the back of the fridge, then it was just plugged into the wall. I leave it plugged in all the time and turn the incubator on and off by using the switch on the light bulb.
I painted my fridge orange so it would fit in with my new yellowy and orangey commercial kitchen (pictures coming soon!). This is optional.
Fuckin’ A. Tempeh!