How to Make Your Own Tempeh Starter

Updated on April 18, 2020
lady rain profile image

Lady Rain has been making her own tempeh for years, because she knows that the freshly made kind is irresistible!

This guide will show you how to make your own tempeh starter and also provide recipes and tips for how to incorporate the versatile meat substitute into your cooking.
This guide will show you how to make your own tempeh starter and also provide recipes and tips for how to incorporate the versatile meat substitute into your cooking. | Source

Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. It originated from Indonesia, where soy is a staple source of protein for the people and where consumption of meat is considered a luxury. It is a popular vegan food as a substitute for meat and is gluten free.

The production of tempeh involves soaking soybeans for several hours and cooking them, before letting them ferment. Fermentation is complete within 48 hours, when the soybeans are bound together by layers of white mycelium from a species of white fungus called Rhizopus oligosporus. The solid mass of tempeh can then be cut into slices or chunks and added as an ingredient for other recipes.

This guide will show you how to make your own tempeh starter, as well as provide recipes for how to work this versatile meat substitute into your cooking.

Soybeans are the main ingredient of traditional tempeh.
Soybeans are the main ingredient of traditional tempeh. | Source

What Is Tempeh Starter?

It is a fermentation starter for fermenting the soybeans and binding them into a cake. Basically, the tempeh starter contains spores of Rhizopus oligosporus and some rice flour—it is very easy to make. It costs almost next to nothing to make, other than paying for a packet of commercially made tempeh, plus your time and effort.

So, you will need to buy a small packet of tempeh to make more of it. It is similar to making homemade yogurt—if you want to make yogurt, you need to buy a small tub of it with live culture as a starter.

Where to Find Tempeh Starter

If you do not live in Indonesia, finding the tempeh starter can potentially be quite difficult. Although starters can be ordered online, they often come at a rather costly price. If you have never made tempeh before and just want to experiment with making it, however, you won't want to buy a packet of starter good enough to make 10 kilograms of tempeh. And you don't even know if you are going to end up with something that's edible or an epic fail!

Luckily, you can find packets of tempeh in the refrigerated or frozen section of most Asian stores and some supermarkets. I would give the supermarkets a miss, because they tend to stock marinated tempeh. We need plain tempeh to make the starter.

What to Look for in Store-Bought Tempeh

A packet of store-bought tempeh should have traces of spores that are invisible to the naked eye. A milky white tempeh will have a lower spore count as compared to one that has tiny black dots on it. So, if you are after some spores, try to choose one that looks a little "dirty" or has traces of black dots. If you can't find one with black spores, you can make the white tempeh "mature" and sporulate (grow spores).

Note: Avoid tempeh that show signs of any other colors. They are probably not fresh.

Not All Brands Will Work

Some commercially produced tempehs might have been subjected to heat to kill off the fungus and prevent them from sporulating. Look for a different supplier if the previous batch of tempeh does not produce any black spores after incubating.

Setting Up the Incubator

If you live in a cold or cool temperate area below 25°C, an incubator is a must for making tempeh—otherwise, you will never be able to produce a successful batch. When you are ready to make the starter, you will at the very least need to improvise an incubator. Your homemade incubator must be able to maintain a temperature of 32°C. Test the incubator to see if it can provide a stable temperature for making tempeh later.

If you happen to have an old bar fridge or a big insulated container waiting to be discarded, don't throw it out just yet. It is perfect for incubating tempeh, because the thick, insulated walls minimizes heat loss (especially in winter), and it does not require more than 10W to operate.

How I Set Up My Homemade Incubator

My homemade incubator has a small 10W heating mat (for pets), a hot water bottle, and an aquarium thermometer. The heating mat rests on a rack in the centre of the bar fridge and is covered with some tea towels and another metal rack over it. This prevents direct contact of the tempeh with the heating mat, which may cause overheating and uneven heat distribution.

The hot water bottle is placed at the bottom of the fridge and the thermometer at the top of the fridge. Heat from the hot water bottle at the bottom will rise and get distributed all over the fridge, and the temperature is recorded by the thermometer near the freezer at the top of the fridge.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Here is my old bar fridge with heating mat and thermometer.I set up layers of cloth and a metal baking rack to prevent the tempeh from direct contact with the heating mat.
Here is my old bar fridge with heating mat and thermometer.
Here is my old bar fridge with heating mat and thermometer. | Source
I set up layers of cloth and a metal baking rack to prevent the tempeh from direct contact with the heating mat.
I set up layers of cloth and a metal baking rack to prevent the tempeh from direct contact with the heating mat. | Source

Approximate Fermentation Time

Prep time: 36 hours 50 min
Cook time: 45 min
Ready in: 37 hours 35 min
Yields: 1 slab of tempeh, 4 servings

Making the Tempeh Starter

Cut out a chunk from your store-bought tempeh and eat the rest. Hopefully, this will be the last time you have to eat commercially manufactured tempeh! The small chunk will become the starter for all your homemade tempeh later.

Place the chunk in a small bowl and cover with cling wrap. Pierce holes all over the cling wrap with a toothpick, and place the bowl in the incubator for at least two days.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Begin with a small chunk of tempeh from a commercial product.The piece of tempeh for making the starter is in the incubator. A hot water bottle is placed on the lower rack.The temperature dropped 2°C when I opened the door of the fridge. It is now around 30°C. Try not to open the door too often if the room temperature is only 15°C like in my house!
Begin with a small chunk of tempeh from a commercial product.
Begin with a small chunk of tempeh from a commercial product. | Source
The piece of tempeh for making the starter is in the incubator. A hot water bottle is placed on the lower rack.
The piece of tempeh for making the starter is in the incubator. A hot water bottle is placed on the lower rack. | Source
The temperature dropped 2°C when I opened the door of the fridge. It is now around 30°C. Try not to open the door too often if the room temperature is only 15°C like in my house!
The temperature dropped 2°C when I opened the door of the fridge. It is now around 30°C. Try not to open the door too often if the room temperature is only 15°C like in my house! | Source

Check the temperature every five hours or so to be sure it does not go below 28°C or above 35°C.

After 24 hours, you should be able to see some changes on the piece of tempeh. It will either have fluffy white mycelia growing on it, or it will have started to turn grey. If it is white and fluffy, the starter is not ready yet.

Note: If it turns slimy and smells foul, it is no good and should be discarded immediately. Start with another fresh chunk of tempeh, that is, if you haven't already eaten the remainder!

White fluff starts to appear on the piece of tempeh after 12 hours in the incubator. That means the fungus is alive and growing!
White fluff starts to appear on the piece of tempeh after 12 hours in the incubator. That means the fungus is alive and growing! | Source

Leave it in the incubator until traces of black appear. Black means the culture has started to sporulate, producing the black spores we are after.

When there is enough grey or black stuff on the piece of tempeh, remove it from the incubator and cut it into thin slices or very small chunks. Leave the chunks to air dry for a couple of days.

Blend the dry chunks with double the amount of rice flour until they are in powder form.

This will be your starter, and it is enough to make at least 10 batches of tempeh. The homemade tempeh starter needs to be stored in an airtight container in the fridge. It can stay in the fridge for about a week. For longer storage, put it in the freezer.

Black and grey spores are starting to appear. They are ready to be harvested for making the tempeh starter.
Black and grey spores are starting to appear. They are ready to be harvested for making the tempeh starter. | Source

In the containers below, the starter on the left was made from a fresh piece of tempeh without visible black spores. Fermentation of tempeh with this starter tends to take longer as compared to fermenting with the black spores starter in the container on the right. In conclusion, if there are black dots all over the tempeh, the spore count is definitely higher. The more black dots in the starter, the better!

Black or white? Both jars have enough spores to make several kilos of homemade tempeh.
Black or white? Both jars have enough spores to make several kilos of homemade tempeh. | Source

How to Start Making Your Own Homemade Tempeh

At last, you can start making some tempeh. Now that you have already made your own starter, making your own homemade tempeh will be a breeze, believe me!

Ingredients

  • 1 cup soybeans, soaked and cooked
  • 1–2 tablespoons vinegar
  • 0.5–1 teaspoon homemade tempeh starter

Instructions

  1. Measure one cup of soybeans and soak them for at least eight hours or overnight. Pour away the water used for soaking and top up with clean water. Boil the soybeans for at least 30 minutes or until they are soft. Another way for softening the soybeans is to boil them for 10 minutes and then transfer them to the thermal cooker to continue cooking for another hour or so.
  2. Drain the water and dehull the soybeans. I find that leaving some hulls with the beans does not affect the taste or quality of the tempeh.
  3. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the beans. Place the pot of beans over the stove and stir. This process helps to remove the excess water quicker. The beans should not be soaking wet or too dry for making into tempeh.
  4. Set aside the soybeans to cool to room temperature.
  5. Add in 0.5–1 teaspoon of the homemade tempeh starter and mix well. Transfer the beans to a glass bowl and cover with cling wrap. Prick holes 1–2 centimeters apart on the cling wrap with a toothpick. The bowl of beans is ready for incubation.
  6. Put the bowl in the incubator. Check the temperature every five to six hours. Some white stuff should be visible after 12 hours if the temperature is correct. Maintaining the temperature at around 32°C is very important, otherwise the tempeh will not turn out well.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Small clumps of fluffy white mycelium are growing after at least 12 hours.More white fluff after another half a day.
Small clumps of fluffy white mycelium are growing after at least 12 hours.
Small clumps of fluffy white mycelium are growing after at least 12 hours. | Source
More white fluff after another half a day.
More white fluff after another half a day. | Source

A white fluffy layer of mycelium will eventually cover the beans, after around 30–36 hours. At this stage, black spores might start to appear in some areas. If not, leave the tempeh a little longer in the incubator.

The tempeh should not smell foul. If it does, discard it because it is not edible anymore. The fermentation normally does not take more than two days, and the mycelium should be distributed all over the beans.

After 30–36 hours, the tempeh is ready when the soybeans are covered with white mycelium.
After 30–36 hours, the tempeh is ready when the soybeans are covered with white mycelium. | Source

When the soy beans are all covered with white mycelium, remove the tempeh from the incubator. It can then be used for cooking right away—freshly made tempeh is irresistible!

Please Rate This Article on Making Tempeh Starter and Fermenting Tempeh at Home

4.6 stars from 17 ratings of Homemade Tempeh from Scratch
This homemade milky white tempeh is ready. The mycelium is evenly distributed, and the bottom of the tempeh should be all white as well.
This homemade milky white tempeh is ready. The mycelium is evenly distributed, and the bottom of the tempeh should be all white as well. | Source

Experiment With Different Tempeh Varieties

Commercially, you might not be able to find tempeh made from other types of beans, since soybean tempeh are the most common in the market. It can also be made, however, with other legumes like chickpeas, adzuki beans, black beans, barley, and mung beans.

These beans can be made into tempeh by following the instructions above and placing them in Ziploc bags for fermenting. Always remember to pierce holes in the bags before putting them in the incubator. The bags can be stored in the freezer for many months, and you'll never run out of tempeh again!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Here is some tempeh made with different types of legumes in Ziploc bags for storing in the freezer.Red bean and barley tempeh has great flavor and is one of my favorites!This black bean tempeh took about 48 hours to ferment with a weaker starter.
Here is some tempeh made with different types of legumes in Ziploc bags for storing in the freezer.
Here is some tempeh made with different types of legumes in Ziploc bags for storing in the freezer. | Source
Red bean and barley tempeh has great flavor and is one of my favorites!
Red bean and barley tempeh has great flavor and is one of my favorites! | Source
This black bean tempeh took about 48 hours to ferment with a weaker starter.
This black bean tempeh took about 48 hours to ferment with a weaker starter. | Source

Tips for Cooking Tempeh

  • Slice and pan fry each side for a few minutes until a little brown.
  • Add pan-fried tempeh to curry dishes and stews; use them in soups; simmer tempeh in tomato sauce or sweet and sour sauce; or dip them in chili sauce.
  • Slices of tempeh can also be marinated and then deep fried until crispy. It makes a good snack.
  • Side dishes that can be served with tempeh are white radish cakes, deep fried curry puffs, and salted duck eggs.

Tempeh is indeed a very versatile ingredient for cooking!

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Soy tempeh simmering in tomato and chili sauce.Here's some pan-fried red bean tempeh.Coconut rice served with tempeh and other ingredients.
Soy tempeh simmering in tomato and chili sauce.
Soy tempeh simmering in tomato and chili sauce. | Source
Here's some pan-fried red bean tempeh.
Here's some pan-fried red bean tempeh. | Source
Coconut rice served with tempeh and other ingredients.
Coconut rice served with tempeh and other ingredients. | Source

Tempeh Nutritional Facts

Nutrition Facts
Serving size: 100g
Calories 193
Calories from Fat99
% Daily Value *
Fat 11 g17%
Saturated fat 2 g10%
Unsaturated fat 4 g
Carbohydrates 9 g3%
Sugar 9 g
Protein 19 g38%
Cholesterol 9 mg3%
Sodium 9 mg
* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.

What do you know about tempeh?

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

    © 2015 lady rain

    Comments

    Submit a Comment
    • lady rain profile imageAUTHOR

      lady rain 

      22 months ago from Australia

      Linda, yes, put the chunk of tempeh and rice flour in the blender. The whole idea here is to make a tempeh starter in powder form so that it can be used to sprinkle all over the soybeans later.

    • profile image

      linda 

      22 months ago

      Great article about making your own tempeh starter! However, could you please clarify, in your article:

      "Blend the dry chunks with double amount of rice flour until they are in powder form."

      Please tell me how to "blend" the dry chunks? Do you use a blender to make it into a powder, then add rice flour to it?

      Please reply.

      Thanks very much,

      linda

    • profile image

      Andrew 

      2 years ago

      Wow! Most complete article on tempeh on the internet. Thanks so much for taking the time to put in all the detail.

    • lady rain profile imageAUTHOR

      lady rain 

      4 years ago from Australia

      Carb Diva, I'm glad you like this hub on tempeh. I hope you'll be able to make your own tempeh one day. Thank you for the lovely feedback.

    • lady rain profile imageAUTHOR

      lady rain 

      4 years ago from Australia

      peachpurple, tempeh is originally made from soy but you can use chickpeas, mung beans, barley and other legumes if you make your own tempehs.

    • Carb Diva profile image

      Linda Lum 

      4 years ago from Washington State, USA

      Wow, this is a very impressive hub on tempeh. I had no idea that you could make your own. My younger daughter is vegetarian--we enjoy the taste of tempeh but it is quite expensive. I'm not sure I am brave enough to attempt this. Luckily, there is an Asian market not very far from our town and we can obtain good-quality tempeh whenever we want it. Thank you also for the recipes. Have a wonderful day.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 

      4 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      oh now i know that tempeh is made from soy beans and vinegar. Taste delicious with chillies

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