How to Make Tempeh (With Soy-Free Options)

by Kaitlynn Fenley
home made lentil tempeh in a glass container on a white background

This recipe is easier to make than you think! The hardest part is cooking the legumes. This blog includes everything you need to know to make delicious tempeh at home with a recipe for Sprouted Lentil Tempeh. You can use this blog to make tempeh with soybeans or other legumes too. I love this recipe because it’s packed with fiber, which is fantastic for gut health, and it’s the easiest to digest legume-based food.

The History of Tempeh

Tempeh got its start in Indonesia, and it’s essentially just tender cooked legumes bound together by a dense mycelium of white Rhizopus mold. It’s suspected that in Java, Indonesia tempeh originated as a byproduct of tofu and soybean oil manufacturing. When food crafters would press oils from nuts and seeds and liquids from soybeans, the resulting waste products were fibrous and dense seed, bean and nut cakes that were to be discarded. This soybean waste is called okara. It’s speculated that the okara got contaminated with fungi used for soy sauce production. Accidentally inoculating okara waste with fungi brought about a protein-packed, fiber-rich food that is quite delicious… and quite economical. So, accident or not, if you love tempeh you can thank Indonesia for this delicious food!

hand reaching in to take the top slice of tempeh off a stack of tempeh.

Why Tempeh is FANTASTIC for Gut Health

I think that tempeh is the best way to consume soy and other legumes. The tempeh fermentation process helps to remove phytic acid from legumes making them easier to digest. The elimination of phytic acid through the fermentation process also means that the legumes will cause less gas production in the gut (aka less farting).

Tempeh is great for people transitioning to a more plant-based diet for the first time. Shifting the diet to more beans and legumes as protein sources can sometimes cause bloating and gas initially. However, these side effects are significantly less likely with tempeh since it is fermented. The Rhizopus fungi that ferment the legumes into tempeh also make nutrients and vitamins from the legumes more readily available. Things get even healthier when you can use sprouted legumes to make tempeh! I love using sprouted lentils.

Making Tempeh at Home

I have to say, that making tempeh has been quite fun. I decided to start making my own more often in 2020 in an effort to reduce plastic consumption in our home. I’ve been experimenting with various beans and grains, figuring out which flavors of legumes I enjoy the most. Pictured in this blog is my sprouted lentil tempeh. I enjoy the sprouted lentil tempeh the most, and it’s probably the only kind I will continuously make. At first, tempeh can seem like a laborious process, but it’s not so bad with a few tips and tricks.

Dehulling the Legumes

Dehulling is essential for proper tempeh fermentation and quality.

I like soaking my legumes for about 12 hours and allow them to sprout before I rinse them and boil them. A lot of the hulls naturally come off during this process! Sprouting is the most effective way to remove hulls. Once they’re sprouted, I put the legumes in a bowl of cold water. Then I just rub them between my hands in the water until a lot of the hulls float to the top. The hulls are easily poured off. You don’t have to remove every single hull, the tempeh will still come out fine. Also, I find that it’s easier to remove the hulls of bigger legumes, like chickpeas. More hulls come off when you cook the lentils too. When cooking, you want them to be tender but not mushy. The legumes should be firmer than if you were cooking them to eat right away. It’s important to not overcook.

hand reaching in to take a slice of tempeh from a plate.

Drying Out the Legumes

For this fermentation to come out delicious and safe to eat, you have to dry the legumes that you just cooked. Do NOT put them in a dehydrator or anything, you are not trying to dry them out that much. I like to spread the cooked legumes out on a clean sheet pan and let them air dry for about 2-4 hours. A trick I use to make sure they are dry enough is adding rice flour to my recipes. Tempeh ferments great with rice anyways, so it’s a great way to ensure things stay dry enough for the Rhizopus mold to thrive.

The cooked legumes have to be more on the dry side, and the material the tempeh is wrapped in has to be breathable (either with holes or made from a porous material). The breathable material provides oxygen to the aerobic fungi, and in tandem with dryness prevents anaerobic spoilage microorganisms, like Bacillus spp. and Clostridium spp. These are the worst contaminant that we need to worry about with tempeh. These contaminants usually result from too much heat and too much moisture. You’ll know if the tempeh hasn’t fermented properly when you smell it. It’s very hard to miss.

The Ingredients

The ingredients here are pretty simple. You just need four things.

  1. 2 Cups of legumes of your choice: The only tempeh I make consistently is sprouted lentil tempeh. The flavor is mildly nutty and wonderful. I personally think the flavor of chickpea, lentil, and soybean tempehs are the best.
  2. 2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar: Always use pasteurized, filtered vinegar. Do not use raw apple cider vinegar. The microbes in raw vinegar will disrupt the Rhizopus.
  3. 2 Tablespoons Rice Flour or Chickpea Flour: This is to help keep the fermentation environment dry enough to prevent spoilage.
  4. 1 Teaspoon Rhizopus Tempeh Starter Culture: Click HERE for the tempeh starter that I’ve been using. After making your first batch of tempeh, you can dry out a piece of tempeh in a dehydrator and use it as a starter for your next batch.

Tempeh Starter Culture

Let’s talk a little bit about the fungus that makes tempeh! It’s called Rhizopus and it’s a pretty cool fungus. Rhizopus is a genus of filamentous fungi that are commonly found in nature, on food and in association with animals. Rhizopus fungi are characterized by a body of branching mycelia composed of three types of hyphae: stolons, rhizoids, and usually unbranching sporangiophores. This complex mycelium is what holds tempeh together in a uniform, dense mass. Multiple species of Rhizopus can be used to make tempeh, but the most common species used it R. oryzae.

close up of the edges of our home made tempeh.

Equipment and Supplies

You have to tightly wrap the cultured legume mixture in a bag or something similar. Honestly, I absolutely HATE using plastic to make tempeh. I think the most problems arise when plastic is used because the plastic holds too much condensation and moisture. This leads to nasty results and undesirable microbial growth.

Banana Leaves work best since they are porous and you can sometimes find these at the Asian market. Another option is bamboo leaves. You can also use a plastic bag with holes poked in it (my least favorite), or cheesecloth (but you’ll have to wrap with a few layers and discard it after). You’ll also need something heavy like a large cutting board or a textbook to press the legume mixture into a dense cake. If you need to use a plastic bag, I suggest using plastic bulk section bags from the store like the one pictured here. I have a few of these bags from grocery store trips in which I forgot to bring my reusable bulk section containers. I get really great results using these because they’re more porous than a ziplock.

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How to Make Tempeh | Sprouted Lentil Tempeh Recipe

Tempeh is easier to make than you think! The hardest part is cooking the legumes. This blog includes everything you need to know to make delicious tempeh at home with a recipe for Sprouted Lentil Tempeh. You can use this blog to make tempeh with soybeans or other legumes too. I love this recipe because it’s packed with fiber, which is fantastic for gut health, and it’s the easiest to digest legume-based food.

  • Author: Kaitlynn Fenley
  • Prep Time: 60 Minutes
  • Cook Time: 15 minutes
  • Total Time: 1 hour 15 minutes
  • Yield: 10 Servings 1x
  • Category: Fermentation Recipe
  • Method: Fermentation
  • Cuisine: Indonesian

Ingredients

Scale
  • 2 Cups Lentils
  • 2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
  • 3 Tablespoons Rice Flour
  • 1 Teaspoon Tempeh Starter

Instructions

  1. Soak the lentils in water for about 8- 12 hours. 
  2. After soaking, rinse the lentils a few times, then add then place them in a colander. Leave the colander on top of a towel on the counter for 12 hours. 
  3. Rinse the lentils. At this point, you should see small sprouts starting to form on the sides of the lentils. Then add to a bowl of cold water. Rub the lentils in between your hands to remove the hulls. You do not need to remove every single hull.
  4. Add the lentils to a stockpot.  
  5. Cover with water so that the water level is about an inch above the lentils. 
  6. Bring the water and lentils to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.
  7. Cook over medium heat, uncovered, for about 3 to 5 minutes. Check the lentils continuously to see when they’re just tender. You want them to be tender, but not as soft as canned beans.  Using a slotted spoon, remove any hulls that float to the top while boiling.
  8. Drain the lentils in a colander. 
  9. Spread the cooked lentils out on a clean sheet pan lined with a clean towel to dry out for about two hours. You want the legumes to be dry to the touch, but still tender.
  10. In a clean mixing bowl add the cooked lentils, vinegar, rice flour, and tempeh starter. Mix well.
  11. Place the lentil mixture on a banana leaf, in a plastic bag (see photo above), or on some cheesecloth. If using a plastic bag, press all of the air out of the bag  to create a tightly packed, rectangular mass. Poke holes in the bag with a toothpick because the tempeh mixture needs oxygen. If you are using a banana leaf or cheesecloth arrange the mixture into a rectangle on top of the leaf or cloth, then fold over the leaf or cheesecloth to wrap it like a package around the mixture. It should be a tightly secured rectangular shape. Secure closed with twine. If using cheesecloth, make sure to wrap it in a few layers of cloth so that it’s “breathable”, but not too much. 
  12. Place the wrapped tempeh mixture between two small cutting boards, or place on a cutting board and set a slightly heavy book on top. Keep it in a warm place for 12 hours. Ideally, tempeh should be at 85 to 91° F for 24 hours, then at 60-75° F for 24 more hours.
  13. After 12 hours the tempeh should be generating its own heat. This is part of the fermentation process. Remove from the warm location and set at room temperature for another 24-36 hours.
  14. Unwrap the tempeh, and you have a few options for storage. 
    1. You can vacuum seal, boil, then store in the fridge or freezer. This is how you get store-bought level tempeh. 
    2. You can just refrigerate and eat within 7 days. 
    3. You can cook and season it all, and store it as a meal-prep in the fridge for 7 days. This is best for keeping the flavor nice. 

Notes

1. You can use any legume for this recipe. Simply skip the sprouting step to make regular tempeh with any type of bean or legume.

2. Do NOT ferment tempeh for over 72 hours. After 48-72 hours, the Rhizopus fungi start to produce too many spores and thus really funky, sometimes off-putting, soil flavors.

3. If you have an instant pot with a yogurt setting, you can set it to the low temperature for 91° F and place the tempeh on a rack in the instant pot for the first 24 hours, then move to room temperature for the last 24-48 hours. 

Keywords: tempeh,soy free

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17 comments

robin doermann May 23, 2020 - 1:16 am

Hi! I just tried my first batch of tempeh with sprouted lentils. You’re right – cooking them is the hardest part. I soaked, rinsed, and sprouted the lentils successfully. I brought them to a boil in a pot and reduced heat to medium. After about 10 minutes I checked on them and was disappointed to find that half of them were already complete mush and the other half were intact but way too soft. Did I do something wrong?

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley May 25, 2020 - 12:17 pm

Hey there, cooking legumes to the proper firmness can be complicated. Many different things could have happened. Your lentils may have been more sprouted than mine, so they cooked faster. I just adjusted the recipe instructions to cook uncovered and check the lentils every five minutes, instead of 10. Thank you for your feedback!

Reply
Jane June 17, 2020 - 3:33 pm

Hi there! Just wondering why you say the cheesecloth has to be discarded after?

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley June 18, 2020 - 12:05 am

Since we’re dealing with a fungus for this fermentation, removing the tempeh culture fungal spores from the cheesecloth is nearly impossible. Reusing the cheesecloth for other foods will cause contamination.

Reply
Eldwin July 3, 2020 - 4:57 pm

but either way its ‘contaminated’ with tempeh spores, which arent bad in itself.

Reply
Eldwin July 3, 2020 - 5:05 pm

does the tempeh fungi prefer an acidic, moist, anaerobic environment? love to nerdoptimize this stuff 8)

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley July 3, 2020 - 6:19 pm

yes to the acidic condition, and no to the moist and anaerobic conditions.

The slightly acidic condition is provided by the addition of the rice vinegar. As stated in the body of this blog post, the cooked legumes have to be more on the dry side, and the material the tempeh is wrapped in has to be breathable (either with holes or made from a porous material) to provide oxygen to the aerobic fungi and prevent anaerobic spoilage microorganisms, like clostridium spp.

Reply
Eldwin July 3, 2020 - 9:14 pm

interesting, natto fungi seem to enjoy the same conditions. what’s your take on the tempeh recipes that mix in grains like rice or millet (mixed grain tempeh)? would the tempeh fungi be able to feed on the grains or would another fungi take care of it?

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley July 3, 2020 - 9:24 pm

Natto is fermented predominately by bacteria. Not fungi. The “spores” used to innoculate natto are Bacillus subtilis endospores, which are bacteria, not fungi.

Rice and grains are great in tempeh. As stated in the blog, I suggest adding rice flour to the mixture to eliminate the excess moisture in the legumes before adding the tempeh culture. Rhizopus fungi are definitely able to metabolize grains in the same way they metabolize legumes.

Reply
Eldwin July 4, 2020 - 3:54 am

nice, thank you. itd be awesome to see a natto post when u get the chance

Reply
liz September 8, 2020 - 7:50 pm

hello – is it possible to eliminate the flour or use a different kind? i dont have rice flour on hand at the mment.

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley September 8, 2020 - 8:04 pm

Hey! You can eliminate the rice flour, you just need to ensure that the beans are very dry to the touch before adding in the cultures. You can also sub the rice flour for chickpea flour.

Reply
Agus Buendía January 20, 2021 - 1:47 pm

Hi Kaitlynn
Thanks for such an awesome, detailed recipe. I have been making tempeh for a little over 3 months, mostly successfully. However, I am still looking for some tips, since I’ve always frozen half of my batches and it just so happened that when I leave a piece of tempeh to defrost in the fridge it quickly starts to create some black fungus. Any idea why this happens?
Take care,
Agus

Reply
Vardit Peer October 25, 2021 - 6:21 am

Hi Kaitlynn,
Thank you for the very detailed recipe. I just put my bags of lentil in the oven for their 12 hour initial fermentation. I hope I dried the lentils enough. Crossing my fingers. One question, I noticed other recipes say to mix the vinegar in while cooking the beans or lentils. Have you found better results mixing vinegar at the end with the starter and rice flour. Oh, another question, I used brown rice flour. Is that ok? Is white rice flour better? Does is matter? Thank you! I’ll let you know how it turned out.

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley October 28, 2021 - 11:30 am

Glad you enjoyed the recipe! I never cook my beans with vinegar added, so I can’t really compare the results. Adding vinegar in while the beans cook can alter the cooking time. Brown rice flour should work out fine and the same as white rice flour. Hope your tempeh turned out!

Reply
Karen Engelsen November 23, 2021 - 11:30 pm

Hi, Kaitlynn!
I’m on a low-FODMAP diet for SIBO, however I have found that soy tempeh is digestible. My question is if you have any information on the FODMAP levels of lentil tempeh and how comparable that is to the levels in soy tempeh? Thanks!

Reply
Kaitlynn Fenley November 28, 2021 - 11:48 am

Hey there,

I’m sorry, I don’t have any exact nutritional analysis or analysis of fermentable saccharide levels in lentil tempeh. I know cooked lentils are considered low FODMAP, so I’d think that following this recipe, sprouting, cooking then fermenting the lentils into tempeh results in even lower in FODMAPs.

Reply

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