Maybe you’ve had some bad kitchen experiences with bitter, dry tempeh. The kind that drains the joy out of even the best of days. If these problems are your problems, then there is one small step you can add to your favourite tempeh recipes to remove that bitter edge and to practically guarantee that your tempeh is delicious every time.
That step is steaming, and here are three explanations of how to steam your tempeh.
All you need for this step is a pot big enough for the tempeh you’re going to cook, some water, and a way to boil that water.
A) If you have a steamer basket that you can use, simply set 1/2 to 1 inch of water in the bottom of the pot you’re putting the steamer basket into. Then put the tempeh into the basket and turn the heat to high. Once you’ve got a good steam going, turn the heat down to medium and let the tempeh sit and steam for 15 to 20 minutes.
B) Or, if you’re in a hurry and have an Instant Pot you can also use its “steam” function on high pressure for 4 to 5 minutes with the same amount of water. Hat tip to Lifehacker for these methods!
C) For a simpler version of the same, but without the steamer basket (one less dish for the dishwasher!), place your tempeh in a pot that it lies flat in and add enough water to just cover it. Then cook it uncovered on high until the water boils. At that point turn the heat down to low and let the tempeh simmer for 10 minutes. For the record, this is my method of choice.
The Science of Steaming Tempeh
So what exactly is happening to make this change with steamed tempeh?
Simply put, gently heating it helps to reawaken the tempeh’s flavours while also removing that bitter taste. It’s like how spices gain a livelier flavour if they are gently warmed before being added to a dish, or how toasted sesame seeds taste more intense than raw sesame seeds.
But where does the bitter taste that can ruin tempeh recipes come from?
According to Home Kitchen Talk, bitterness may build up in tempeh because of too much fermentation or how vinegar was used during tempeh production. As they point out, if tempeh ferments for even just a little too long the bitter flavours of lactic acid bacteria and acetobacter (a microbial companion to vinegar) overwhelm the mushroomy flavour of the rhizopus oligosporus used to make tempeh. Lactic acid bacteria are a natural part of most fermented foods (including kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, and more). Likewise, acetobacter is common in vinegar fermentation (it’s even used as a starter culture). Neither of these microbes are harmful to humans. But both of them can create bitter tastes in fermented foods.
Luckily, throwing tempeh into a steam bath before cooking with it helps to purge the flavours these food-fermenting organisms can leave behind. Which means that your steamed tempeh will be ready to take on whatever flavours you want to give it through marinades, rubs, or sauces!