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Mimicking Meat: Tofu, Tempeh, & Seitan

While the youngsters are texting “TTYS,” we’re talkin’ about “TTS”!
That’s right – Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan – the meaty, hearty, versatile staples of any vegan diet.

When embarking on a plant-based diet, one of the biggest challenges can be wrapping your head around the “where’s the beef?” question. But you don’t need meat to have a hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meal that is worthy of the spotlight. Enter tofu, tempeh, and seitan – the marvelous, versatile, nutritious ingredients that can sub for almost any meaty treat you enjoyed in your former life. In many cases, they’re better and will knock your socks off. And we’re demystifying them and showing you how to work them in to your repertoire. 
Letting Go of the Fear of Tofu
Take Me to Your Tofu
Tofu gets a bad rap. In the world of food fights, tofu is the lily-white, slightly trembling kid with thick glasses on the playground who grows up to do great things, like start a billionaire-backed company that will change the way people think about food. It’s such a staple of many vegetarian meals, that some folks think that vegans and vegetarians subsist on tofu alone, which is not true at all, but wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Why? Because tofu is the tasty chameleon of the veg world. It’s your little helper whether you’re whipping up a cream pie or a BBQ. Let’s talk tofu, shall we?

What Is It?: Tofu is made from soybeans, water and a coagulant, or curdling agent. Due to its chameleon-like qualities and nutritional value, tofu has been a staple of Asian cuisines for hundreds of years.
How Do I Pronounce That?: Toe-Foo
Types: There are two types of tofu: Silken or soft tofu, and regular or firm tofu. Both types boast a variety of textures (firm, extra firm, etc) and can come in raw, sprouted, and/or organic formulations. Opt for organic and sprouted versions if you wish to avoid genetically modified (GMO) nasties and want to up the nutrient content.
Why It Rocks: Nutritionally, tofu is high in protein, low in fat, and naturally cholesterol-free. It also contains healthful phytochemicals,
 such as isoflavones and soy saponins. For cooking, tofu absorbs whatever flavors and marinades it is exposed to. Silken tofu lends a cream-like quality to foods and adds a soft, spongey deliciousness to soups (think those little white pearls in miso soup), while firm tofu can be used to sub for egg-like consistencies, and create rockin’ meat analogues and other dishes requiring a soft, but toothsome texture. Moreover, tofu is inexpensive and can be found practically anywhere. From health food stores, to Asian markets, to your corner store – tofu is quite possibly the easiest to procure meat substitute.
Why It Gets a Bad Rap: Tofu is a processed soy product, and the verdict is still out on unfermented, photo-estrogen rich soy products. You can read some of the research on soy, and namely tofu, here. Also, at first blush, tofu doesn’t look particularly appetizing. But with a little patience and technique, it can quickly and easily be cooked up in to some of the tastiest morsels around. Don’t judge a book by its cover.  

Bon Apetit Tofu Scramble
How To: Cooking with Tofu
With the right tools and know-how, tofu will truly rock your culinary world. I like the Savvy Vegetarian’s tips for cooking with tofu, which emphasize how to drain firm tofu, how to make raw tofu safe, and how to store unused tofu. I’ve included some of my favorite tofu recipes below, but let me just say this – if you know what’s right and good in the world, you will scramble tofu with lots of yummy spices asap. Because that’s the way the Universe, IMHO, intended tofu to be consumed. No pressure or anything.

Silken Tofu Recipes:
Spinach and Artichoke Dip
Ultimate Chocolate Fudge Pie
Berry Tofu Smoothie
Asian Flavored Chowder
Pumpkin Cheesecake with Pecan Crunch Topping

Firm/Regular Tofu Recipes:
Blackened Scrambled Tofu and Garlicky Grits
Swiss Chard Frittata
Porcini-Crusted Tofu with Shallot Gravy
Bulgogi Style Tofu
Tofu “Egg” Salad Sandwich

Five Ways to Prepare Tempeh
Tempting Tempeh

Tempeh is sort of like the sexy, more-exotic-with-less-baggage hippie cousin of tofu who shows up at a family party and totally rocks your world. It’s crunchy texture is unique and while it’s not as prevalent as tofu, it’s very versatile and, due to its fermentation, is considered to be less health-controversial. 

What Is It?: Tempeh is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds soybeans into a cake form, similar to a very firm vegetarian burger patty. Many commercially prepared brands add other grains, such as barley.
How Do I Pronounce That?: Tem-Pay
Types: Tempeh is available in many commercially-prepared varieties, including organic, sprouted, smoked, and with different grain and spice preparations, like flax and barley. Experiment to lend different flavors and textures to your recipes.

Why It Rocks: Tempeh boasts 18.2 grams of protein (that’s even more protein per gram than tofu!) per serving, 10% of the RDA of both calcium and iron, and is a naturally cholesterol-free food.  Moreover, the soy carbohydrates and B12 (in some versions) in tempeh are more readily available and easily digestible as a result of the fermentation process. Tempeh has a naturally nutty flavor that is unlike tofu, but assimilates spices and marinades well like tofu.
Why It Gets a Bad Rap: Tempeh’s reputation is pretty squeaky-clean, with the exception of unpasteurized versions occasionally falling prey to Salmonella outbreaks. This is very rare, however, so eat with confidence. You can even make your own, and if you do, please send photos of your wizardry. We heart the Kitchn’s Guide to preparing tempeh five exciting ways.
Olive Tapenade Tempeh Vegan Sandwiches
How To: Cooking with Tempeh
Tempeh may seem a little odd to work with at first, but the texture makes for delicious sammies, taco filling, and grilled goodies. Here are some of my favorite tempeh recipes that will bring all the meat-eaters to your yard.

Tempeh Helper (like Hamburger Helper, minus the cruelty, nastiness, and this)
Chesapeake Tempeh Cakes (like crab cakes, but no pinchy pinchy)
Tempeh Burgers
Black Bean, Sweet Potato Tempeh Burgers
Phyllo Tempeh Reubens
Orange and Ancho Tempeh Tacos with Grapefruit Slaw
Tempeh “Fish n’ Chips” (YES. Fish and freakin’ chips. So good.)

Pecan-Crusted Seitan
Praise Seitan

Seitan makes me wild with desire. It’s my very favorite meat substitute, because it boasts so many different textures. Seitan can be soft for slicing like gyro or lunchmeat, or it can be made firmer for a consistency that works with skewers and steaks. It’s also a cinch to make. Read on and see why seitan has so many dedicated followers. 

What Is It?: Also called “wheat meat,” “wheat gluten,” or simply “gluten,” seitan becomes surprisingly similar to the look and texture of meat when cooked, making it a popular meat substitute. Seitan can be prepared by hand using either whole wheat flour or vital wheat gluten and is made by rinsing away the starch in the wheat, leaving a high-protein gluten behind. According to Barbara and Leonard Jacobs of the book, Cooking with Seitan, The Complete Vegetarian “Wheat-Meat” Cookbook, seitan has been a staple food among vegetarian monks of China, Russian wheat farmers, peasants of Southeast Asia, and Mormons. So, that’s quite a few people who love the stuff.
How Do I Pronounce That?: Say-Tan
Types: Seitan comes in so many varieties, your head will spin. You can buy already prepared seitan in a variety of flavors and firmness. There are also commercially-available seitan mixes that require only some liquid, stirring, and cooking to create a masterful loaf, and many are geared toward replicating a certain kind of meat. And, among the meat subs, seitan is the easiest to customize and make at home. Seitan blends often feature tofu or tempeh to create different textures and levels of chewiness.

Why It Rocks: Because it is comprised of pure gluten, seitan is protein- and calorie-dense. A single serving of seitan blows tempeh and tofu away with a whopping 36 grams of protein. It is also incredibly versatile and fantastic for mimicking the many textures of meat.
Why It Gets a Bad Rap: You can’t be made of wheat gluten and appeal to the Celiacs and gluten-sensitive folks of the world. And, for the carb-conscious among us, seitan has the highest composition of carbohydrates of the three.
Sundried Tomato Pine Nut Seitan Sausages
How To: Cooking with Seitan
Seitan is so versatile that you will see recipes mixing it with beans, grains, tofu, and tempeh to achieve different textures. I’ve included recipes for dynamite make-at-home seitan, as well as tasty dishes featuring seitan as a key ingredient. This list barely scratches the surface, so be sure to explore the internet and many cookbooks out there for your favorite recipes.

Homemade Seitan
Potato-Crusted Seitan Cutlets
Seitan Roast Stuffed with Shiitakes and Leeks
Simple Italian Sausages and Smoky Maple Sausages
BBQ Seitan Ribz
Seitan Gyros
Hickory Smoked Veggie Turkey Lunchmeat
Bolognese Sauce with Seitan Crumbles

Cauliflower Steak
Other Meaty Mimickers
Nowadays, you can make meaty meals out of almost anything. Here are just a few of our favorite staple and up-and-coming meat substitutes with corresponding recipes that we think are the cat’s pajamas. If you end up making something meaty from seaweed, I want you to call me pronto.

Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP): Vegan White Bean and TVP Meatballs
Cauliflower: Vegan Cauliflower “Steak” with Basil Oil
Portobello Mushrooms: Miso-Marinated Portobello Mushroom Carpaccio
Jackfruit: Jackfruit Carnitas
Coconut: Coconut Bacon
Lentils: Gluten-free Vegan Lentil “Meatloaf”
Eggplant: Eggplant Bacon and Scalloped Potatoes and Eggplant Bacon

Have a favorite meaty vegan recipe you’d like to share?  Spill in the Vegucated Schoolhouse Community Forum!

Ashlee Piper

Ashlee Piper is Writer & Community Manager at GetVegucated.  She is a social worker and AADP-certified Holistic Health Counselor who shepherds people toward a more compassionate, cruelty-free, and joyful lifestyle.  Her no-nonsense tips and insights for a happy veg life can also be found via her mischievous blog, The Little Foxes, and her writing can be found at Ecorazzi
  • Tyrone Jackson

    Very tasty and time to intergrate in to working-class life.

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  • Kristie Dixon-Scott

    Loved the article, very informative

  • Empaleo

    Good article, thanks for taking the time to break it down.

  • RowlieB

    Very nice, found your site while googling.
    Long term vegetarian here with just a fresh hint of veganism.
    I think this list shows everyone that there’s more to the meat-mimickers then you think.
    It’s just important to take the time to create a flavourfull alternative to meat.
    And quite honestly I’m probably one of the few people that actually loves the taste of straight-up tofu.

  • Vic

    Very informative.

  • mehgit

    I, too, found you on Google. Fun article to read. Lots of useful tips. Thanks, Ashley!

  • Ryan A.

    Hi Ashlee — nice article. One thing that might be worth mentioning under the two soy-based entries is that soy is not ideal for men, given its phytoestrogens and their estrogren-mimicking qualities in the human body. Some researches will claim that “it does, yes, but not in sufficient strength to really make a difference in humans”, but that is unproven. Also, soybeans contain phytic acid in significantly larger quantities than most other legumes, which inhibit the body’s ability to absorb certain key minerals (magnesium and zinc, off top of my head).

    Everything in moderation, as always, but for someone wanting to regularly enjoy a meat substitute, it isn’t clear that tofu is really the way to roll. I’m neither vegan nor vegetarian, so not entirely sure where this site stands on fish, but I’d suggest that focusing protein intake on things like salmon, swai, and sardines as much healthier protein sources for those looking to avoid poultry for whatever reason. Can’t go wrong with lentils either, and they’re such a versatile legume. Red lentil stew is amazing, as are any number of lentil crisps out there — Calbee’s Harvest Snaps lentil chips (especially the tomato/basil ones!) are my favourite, and have 5g of protein per single oz of crisps. Enjoy Life’s Plentils are also tasty, although a bit lower in the protein dept.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Ashlee, for this article and breaking down different aspects of each of the three.

    My question is, with tofu, tempeh and seitan, these are all processed foods.
    Are there no whole foods that vegetarians can eat instead of these 3 processed foods for similar nutrient profile?

    I’m not vegan (Years ago, I was one for 9 mos- but felt awful, got sick and gained weight), so went back to my normal diet.I (Eating a bit of fish with tons of veggies, (love fresh green juices) as well as fruits, spices, fresh herbs, nuts, seeds. Lots of water/green tea.) I don’t eat most grains, including wheat and avoid all types of sugar unless inherent in the fruit/veggie.

    Anyway, I was curious if there are any vegans of vegetarians who eat mostly all whole foods and what they eat instead of these 3 processed foods.

    Thanks Again!

  • Anonymous

    None of these 3 are similar in nutritive values… try garbanzo beans, lentils or quinoa instead. They can all be used as great meat substitutes. I also agree, foods with the least amount of processing are the best!

  • Susan M. Risk

    I’m vegetarian but I include dairy. For those who can- I know bacon tastes and smells good, but yuk. I found a great alternative to the bacon bits I’ve used for so many years and it’s smoked Gouda. I used a smoked Goud a in a Dairy potato cake recipe and decided that the taste and texture of this wonderful little cheese was more than satisfying. The second time I made the potato cakes I whizzed bacon bits with thyme and black pepper in my spice mill, mixed them with flour, and used te mixture to bread the cakes before frying. Another idea is to place slices of the smoked Gouda onto a cookie sheet (silicon on a baking sheet, so the cheese will slide off) and heat in the oven until each is a crisp wafer. Cool and crunch.

  • Robin

    “Tempeh is sort of like the sexy, more-exotic-with-less-baggage hippie cousin of tofu who shows up at a family party and totally rocks your world.” Love it!! Thanks for all the great info. 🙂

  • EDIE