the soyfood with culture

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!

48 Responses to “the soyfood with culture”

  1. plug metal hole

    […] I became a vegetarian, because it sort of tastes like ass. These days I??m a tempeh fiend, howeverhttps://lagusta.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/the-soyfood-with-culture/Excerpt from ‘Panic in Level 4’ USA TodayPanic in Level […]

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  2. the salt mill in the sea

    […] I became a vegetarian, because it sort of tastes like ass. These days I??m a tempeh fiend, howeverhttps://lagusta.wordpress.com/2008/05/30/the-soyfood-with-culture/Recipe for Java Blend Dry Rub The Ithaca JournalIf you thought coffee was just for drinking, think […]

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  3. Angie

    Hi there…I have a dead mini-fridge that I’m trying to convert into an incubator (your website has been my inspiration and my go-to resource for this!), but I can’t seem to find a reasonably priced thermostat that will work. Can you tell me the make/model of yours, and/or where you purchased it? You mentioned that the whole setup didn’t cost a lot, and I’m trying to do the whole thing on the cheap. Thanks!!

    Reply
  4. amita

    Gday, congratulations with your blog.
    I have a Gourmet Tempeh making business in australia and apart from selling tempeh I also encourage people to make their own, for that purpose I have in my e-shop a Kit that contains all you need to make your own tempeh, I also sell different starters for tempeh, tape and rice wine.
    maybe you would be so kind to put thison your blog so people can come and look at it and maybe I can help them.
    thanks Amita

    please visit
    http://www.mrtempeh.com.au
    ( you might need to copy and paste it into your browser)

    Reply
  5. Joe

    Any chances of getting a more technical version of the connecting the thermostat to the light bulb? I’m not that mechanically inclined and the part about the lamp repair kit leaves me scratching my head. It also looks like there was some drilling to put the light in place?

    Reply
  6. lagusta

    Actually, that hole was there–no drilling. I can’t remember why, it was there, and there is a chance he had to put a little cap or something on to make it fit tighter. I’m not at the kitchen right now to check, but I’m pretty sure that connecting the thermostat to the light bulb was just a matter of plugging the thermostat plug into the light socket, which is plugged into the wall.

    Reply
  7. Steven

    Hi,
    For those wishing to hook up a thermostat, try this. You need a thermostat that is used for baseboard heaters. They should be able to handle 110 volts. Most good hardware shops have them or go to an electricians shop. You will need to also wire a light to it and wire a plug. If you’re not experienced with wiring things best to ask a friend who is. It’s very simple, but requires some experience. An alternative is to buy a reptile thermostat/heater from a good pet shop or online. This is probably a cheaper option overall. They range in price from $15-40 and some will allow higher temperature ranges for fermenting natto and other things.

    Reply
  8. philosopherdog

    I have a couple of questions. 1) when you chop in the cuisinart do you use the plastic blade or the metal one? 2) your tempeh has black mold; is it better to not have this? 3) how do you know when the tempeh is completely set? 4) do you need to pasteurize it, or steam it before using? Does this kill all of the goodness?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Sure, here are the answers: 1) I use the metal blade, it works just fine. 2) Black mold is totally OK. Green or red is bad news. I like my tempeh to be completely whitish grey, and it naturally gets some black patches, usually where the fork holes are. In Indonesia there is a delicacy called something like “overripe tempeh” that is supposedly completely black! 3) It’s ready when it’s completely covered with the mycelium. Wild Fermentation has more in depth info on this, too. 4) Nope! It’s done when it’s done. You cook it (I’ve never heard of anyone eating tempeh raw), so that kills any bacteria that might be present. Which shouldn’t be there, anyway. Cooking tempeh does kill off some of the beneficial bacteria, but what can ya do.

      Have fun!

      Reply
      • amita

        Hi Sue and hi Lagusta, i always enjoy reading your blog.Over ripe tempeh in Indonesia is called “tempe bossok” it is not neccesaraly black but rather brown and “old” looking, it has a strong smell and is used as a taste enhancer in cooking.
        I have a photo for you but dont know how and where to post it here.. pls email me if you like to have a look or put iton here for me.
        keep eating tempeh folks!
        cheers Amita

  9. ruby

    I often eat raw tempeh. Usually dipped in bbq or peanut sauce. Sometimes I am hungry and nowhere near a stove.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Wow! Well, never say never. It doesn’t give you a stomachache? I’m beginning to think you are made of steel.

      Reply
  10. john

    I stumbled across your blog after searching ‘why does tempeh stink’, and this post made me laugh so hard, and also become intrigued about making my own tempeh. I love the stuff, but I absolutely hate the smell of it. Maybe homemade doesn’t smell so bad as the store bought stuff. Here in the UK it’s always frozen and, like you say, probably old. I’m gona bookmark your blog, and try out some of your recipes :)

    Reply
  11. amita

    Hi John, welcome to the wonderful world of making your own tempeh!
    I sell starter and kits to make it so easy for you to get started. it comes with step by step instructions and a video link ,any questions just fire away. pls visit my website http://www.mrtempeh.com.au
    cheers amita

    Reply
  12. philosopherdog

    Hi John,
    I think you will find that homemade tempeh is a whole different thing. It shouldn’t smell unpleasant unless something has gone wrong. The big problem is too much heat, especially after the first 12 hours. Keep it around 30 degrees C and you should be good. I just put mine in the oven with an oven light for the first 12 hours and then turn the light off after that. It should smell like mushrooms. The frozen stuff is a very poor representation of tempeh.

    Reply
  13. Paul

    I enjoyed your post, though I have to say that I never thought that tempeh smelled like ass before. You might have ruined it for me.

    I made my first batch using my food dehydrator about a year ago. It worked, but it was basically too hot, and I had to keep a close watch over it, and the part of the tempeh that was near the fan of the dehydrator wasn’t really right.

    I just finished making an incubator that is basically a wooden box, (made with wood scavenged from a bed my daughter had that broke when she jumped on it too vigorously), with a reptile thermostat, (Zilla 1000 watt), and a terrarium heater.

    My tempeh starter should be here next week. I’m looking forward to a second round of tempeh making without the worry of it overheating. Right now, I have my kombucha culture in there. It usually lives on a heating pad in the kitchen. We keep the house pretty cold in the winter.

    I’ll blog about it on carfreefamily once I get my first batch done.

    Thanks for your post.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      A reptile thermostat! What a great idea! I will be sure to check out your tempeh posts, thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  14. jerly

    do you ever have problems with condensation? Every time I make tempeh it starts to sweat and the end result is good but kinda wet so i pat it off with a towel. It could be that things are getting too hot or i don’t have enough holes in my shower cap for the tempeh to breath. What do you think?

    Reply
    • lagusta

      That’s happened to me when I made it in a Pyrex dish (now I make it in baggies and it’s a lot better). Do you have a fan in your incubator? I bet that would help a lot.

      Reply
  15. Morri

    Hello! I’ve been looking into making SOY-free (and gluten free, as I am both) tempeh and wanted to see if you have had any luck in that department.

    Is there something about the soy bean that makes it tempeh-rrific, something within it’s very DNA that turns tempeh into tempeh? I’d like to make black bean tempeh and chickpea tempeh and buckwheat tempeh, but alas… I know not the logistics. I DO, however, have my mom’s copy of “Wild Fermentation,” so we’ll just have to see.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hello! Yep, I actually make 100% chickpea tempeh these days–it works just fine!

      Reply
  16. lia

    Any special instructions for going soy-free?

    If i use plastic baggies can i put these in my dehydrator? It has temperature control and air but no light. I have a timer.

    Reply
  17. Paul Atwood

    So glad I found your site, I’m fairly new to tempeh and learning a lot:

    1) So far my favorite is white bean, I’m okay with soy but want to explore all the possibilities.

    2) I use a food dryer (basic Nessco – american harvest) with a plug-in dimmer switch which allows me to adjust the temp and airflow – great results so far.

    3) I always sample it raw when I think it’s ready, yumm.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    Paul

    Reply
  18. Time to Make the Yogurt | Mostly Food

    […] or almond milk or tempeh. (Ok, making tempeh isn’t really easy at all but you should read this post by Lagusta if you want to learn how.) Herein lies the key: start with good milk. I’m probably […]

    Reply
  19. Dee

    Im glad you like it, but your tempeh in the picture is over ripened or exposed to too many elements. It should have very little black which are spores. just trying to help improve your product- Im a food scientist

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Hi Dee! Thanks for the comment. Actually that’s from when I first started making tempeh and yeah, it’s definitely a lil weird–I actually love it that way though. In Indonesia, over-fermented tempeh is super beloved, it’s so funky and weird. But yeah, American (hippie) style tempeh is a lot cleaner, less spore-y.

      Reply
  20. eliteapproved@blackmoldcleanuputah.com

    Interesting read. I am kind of a nerd but love to read anything that has to do with mold. Maybe because I’ve made it my profession to do so. Thanks for the informative post keep it up

    Reply
  21. Ronald

    Lagusta,ihave somequestions about your tempehdehydrator, what is the wattage of the light bulb and can the auto thermostat device run uninterrupted for 24 hours or does one have to keep activating it once the tempeh incubation been started? Thanks.

    Ronald

    Reply

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