By: Maggie Young
If you’re looking to mix up your protein sources with plant-based powerhouses, look no further than seitan, tofu, and tempeh. All three meat-free varieties work as easy-to-cook vegan or vegetarian options and lend themselves to super easy and delicious plant-based protein dishes.
“Tofu is made from soybeans similar to how cheese is made from milk, so soy milk is curdled and then pressed into blocks,” Ariel Johnston, LD, RD, tells Lively. Tempeh is similar to tofu in that it is made from soybeans, but it can also be produced with other beans or legumes. The beans or legumes are cooked, fermented, and pressed into dense blocks. Seitan varies from tofu and tempeh in that it’s made from wheat gluten rather than soy. “Isolating the gluten from wheat bread removes the starch and bran and you are left with seitan,” adds Johnston.
Tofu is the most flexible out of the group, cooking-wise. This is because it comes in a variety of textures (depending how much water is pressed out) and is pretty bland. Because it’s relatively tasteless, it takes to other flavors well without competing with them. Tempeh offers a stronger nutty flavor and is more dense and higher in fiber and protein than tofu. It doesn’t need to be pressed before cooking and holds its shape better than tofu does. “Seitan is sneakier than tofu or tempeh because it can often pass as meat due to its savory flavor,” shares Johnston. “I’ve even heard it referred to as ‘wheat meat’.” As a bonus, it’s also higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates.
If you’re looking to go for bold flavors in your recipes, tofu is your ideal protein choice out of the three. Johnston recommends paying attention to the type of tofu as firm and extra firm varieties are best for sautéing and grilling while the silken is best for soups or dips. To sauté tofu for a stir fry, you should drain and press out any excess water first, which keeps it from falling apart while cooking. You can even crisp your tofu by tossing it in cornstarch (no deep frying needed).
When it comes to tempeh, Johnston recommends marinating. Marinade options can include soy sauce, lime or lemon juice, coconut milk, peanut butter, maple syrup, ginger, or spices. If you don’t have hours to marinate your tempeh, you can steam it with water to soften it up and make it more porous.
Seitan is the least plant-based protein that requires the least amount of prep of the three. “You can usually substitute seitan for meat in recipes using a 1:1 substitution and unlike meat, you don’t have to heat before eating.” advises Johnston. “One of my favorite ways to use it is as crumbles in a pasta sauce.”