Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
Common Vegetarian Proteins Explained
My first encounter with a piece of tofu was 20 years ago. My daughter had recently become a vegetarian and, being a good supportive mom, I wanted to ensure that she was (still) eating a healthy, balanced diet—so I purchased a package of tofu.
The block of bean curd looked ugly, smelled worse (to my uninitiated nose), and felt disgusting. Honestly, that initial prod with an index finger was almost my first and last time touching the stuff.
But then I donned my big-girl bloomers and got busy researching "what to do with tofu." I found that I wasn't alone in my apprehension of the jiggly white blob on my kitchen counter. Even 20 years ago, there were almost 64 million hits on Google.
We’ve come a long way in two decades; a plant-based diet is no longer viewed as a quirky feel-good fad. Today it’s an accepted dietary choice supported by a multi-billion dollar industry. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of questions and confusion about plant proteins. Let’s take a look at three of the most common and popular meat substitutes on the market.
What Is Seitan?
Seitan (pronounced SAY-tan) has found favor with those who don’t want to eat meat but still crave the texture of animal protein. Although it’s a wheat product, seitan is not at all bread- or pasta-like.
- Origin: China
- Taste: A bland, blank canvas for a myriad of possibilities
- Texture: Springy, chewy, dense
- Ingredients: Wheat gluten
- Storage: About 1 week in the refrigerator or up to 6 months in the freezer
Where Is Seitan From?
Although the word seitan was coined in 1961 by George Ohsawa, a Japanese advocate of the macrobiotic diet, the product was produced by Buddhist monks who, more than 1,500 years ago, made a fantastic discovery. If you make a dough of water and wheat flour, and then soak that dough in water, the starches will float away and all that will remain is the gluten. They called it mien chin, or “muscle of flour”—and what an apt name that is for springy, chewy, dense, and meat-like gluten.
Seitan, which is often referred to as wheat meat, is beloved by vegans, vegetarians, or anyone who wants to eat more plant-based meals because its mouthfeel and “chew” well mimic the texture of real meat.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Seitan?
Seitan can be treated like real meat. In other words, you can use it in a stir-fry, grill it outdoors, brown it in a saute pan, or toss it into a simmering pot of soup or stew. My favorite recipe for homemade seitan sausage (in four different flavors) is at the end of this article.
What Is Tempeh?
Tempeh and firm tofu (which we’ll discuss next) have a lot in common. Both of them make excellent meat substitutes, they can be prepared in a variety of ways, and they are both derived from soybeans. But they’re manufactured in distinctly different ways.
Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing it into a solid cake. Tempeh is made from hulled soybeans that are then cracked, boiled, and mixed with a mold (Rhizopus oligosporus) that ferments and imparts that distinctive tangy, funky taste. Don’t let the thought of mold dissuade you from trying this plant-based protein—blue cheese is made in much the same way.
- Origin: Indonesia
- Taste: Nutty, tangy, mushroom-like
- Texture: Firm and dry, almost crumbly
- Ingredients: Soybeans
- Storage: 7 to 10 days in the refrigerator or frozen in a sealed container for up to 1 year
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Where Is Tempeh From?
Food historians have not been able to pinpoint when tempeh was invented. It was first mentioned in print in the early 1800s but is probably much, much older. Innovative (may I say genius?) Buddhist cooks on the island of Java (Indonesia) are credited with creating this savory, meaty cake.
What’s the Best Way to Cook Tempeh?
Tempeh can be stir-fried, sauteed, roasted, or even used “raw,” but before using any of those cooking methods it must be steamed for 20 minutes. At the end of this article, I’ve shared my favorite recipe for making faux tuna salad with tempeh.
What Is Tofu?
Tofu, also called bean curd, is a cheese-like product made from curdled soy milk. I know, that definition sounds a bit questionable (as in who would ever be brave or foolhardy enough to eat that?!), but tofu is one of the most widely used soybean products in the world . . . and it's been around for centuries.
- Origin: China
- Taste: Bland nothingness
- Texture: Varies by variety—soft tofu is creamy like a firm pudding. Medium, firm, and extra-firm tofu each become progressively more dense
- Ingredients: Varies with the method of production. Milk is extracted from soaked soybeans and coagulated with the addition of calcium chlorides, sulfates, and/or citric acid
- Storage: In the refrigerator for up to 1 week, in a sealed container covered with water (change the water every day), or in the freezer for up to 3 months
Where Is Tofu From?
It's thought that tofu “happened” 2,000 years ago in China. This part of our tale is called the “Accidental Coagulation Theory.” As the story goes, someone seasoned soybean soup with unrefined sea salt, which contains magnesium chloride, a natural coagulant (a coagulant is a substance that separates milk into curds and whey, like cottage cheese).
What’s the Best Way to Cook Tofu?
Tofu is incredibly versatile. Siken tofu is pudding-like and can be blended into desserts. Tofu with medium firmness can be crumbled and mixed with other ingredients to form faux meatballs or meatloaf (or mix it with turmeric for a very convincing scrambled “egg.” I’m sharing that recipe at the end of this article. Firm and extra-firm tofu can be diced and stir-fried or grilled.
Seitan vs. Tempeh vs. Tofu
3 oz (85 g)
3 oz (85 g)
3/4 cup (150 grams)
Is Plant Protein as Good as Meat Protein?
The simple answer is yes. Let me explain.
The human body needs 20 amino acids, the building blocks of protein that are vital for cell structure and muscle development. Our bodies create 11 of these amino acids; that means that the other nine need to come from the foods we eat.
The good news is that we can get those nine missing amino acids when we eat animal proteins. But that’s not the end of the story. Animal proteins come with a price—a health risk. Studies have linked the consumption of meat (especially red meat) with an increased incidence of heart disease and stroke.
Do seitan, tempeh, and tofu provide all nine of those essential amino acids? I was concerned that by eliminating animal products from her diet my daughter would not be getting all the nutrients she needs to stay healthy. With some research, I found that not only do seitan, tempeh, and soy provide those much-needed amino acids, but there are other plant foods that she could add to her diet, as well. Here’s what I found.
6 Plant Foods That Are Complete Proteins
Soy (tempeh, tofu, miso, edamame)
6 Complete Protein Combos
Chickpeas (hummus) + wheat pita
Peanut butter + wheat bread
Pinto beans + wheat tortillas
Bean soup + wheat crackers
Green peas + whole wheat pasta
Black beans + brown rice
Is Soy Safe? Does It Affect Hormones?
Yes, soy is safe—but some people have wondered about it because it contains compounds that resemble the human hormone estrogen.
These phytoestrogens (phyto is Greek for plant) have been the subject of much study, as well as an almost equal amount of unfounded controversy. Some scientists have made the assumption that phytoestrogens can disrupt the body’s natural hormonal balance.
In 2008 researchers at the University of Southern California found that women who consumed just one cup of soy milk or half a cup of tofu each day had 30% less risk of developing breast cancer than their non-soy eating counterparts. Similar studies in countries in which soybeans are a staple food (China and Japan) showed significantly lower rates of hysterectomy, suggesting that fibroids occurred less frequently. Dr. Neal Barnard, adjunct associate professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C., explained it this way:
“Think of the estrogens in a woman’s body as a fleet of jumbo jets. They land at an airport and pull up to Jetways where they discharge passengers and baggage. But what if small private plans already occupied the Jetways? The jumbo gets wouldn’t be able to dock and would sit idle on the tarmac. When phytoestrogens attach to estrogen receptors on cells, they are like little private planes. They block a woman’s natural estrogens from attaching. Healthwise, that’s good. Since estrogens tend to fuel the growth of cancer cells, anything that blocks them helps cut cancer risk.”
My daughter and I have made these seitan sausages many times. I love this particular recipe, by Melanie Sorrentino at One Green Planet, because it’s so versatile—four flavors of sausage in one handy recipe. The texture is very convincing; in fact, I sauteed some slices and added them to a penne pasta dish with marinara. My husband thought it was the “real thing.”
Tempeh "Tuna" Salad
My daughter is a devout (I'm not exaggerating) vegetarian, but she still pines for the taste of foods she enjoyed in her childhood. There are many manufacturers of protein substitutes that mimic the taste and texture of beef or chicken, and most are very good. However, there are few if any products that reproduce the taste of seafood.
Canned tuna is one of those foods my daughter still craves, and so I set out to find a way to replicate the taste and texture of tuna salad without killing a fish.
Utensils You Will Need
- Steamer basket (not mandatory, but helpful)
- Box grater (not mandatory, but helpful)
- Large mixing bowl
- 8 ounces tempeh
- 1/2 cup celery, finely minced
- 1/4 cup onion, finely minced
- 2 tablespoons dill pickle, finely minced
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed and drained
- 1 sheet nori, crumbled (optional)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon dill pickle relish
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Place the tempeh in a steamer basket. Steam over simmering water for 20 minutes. Remove from basket and set aside to cool (about 30 minutes).
- Grate tempeh on the large hole side of a box grater or chop finely. Place in a mixing bowl. Add remaining ingredients and toss lightly. Taste for seasoning and add salt and/or ground pepper if desired.
- You may use this immediately, but I think this "tuna salad" tastes better if the flavors are allowed to meld for 1 hour or more in the refrigerator.
Sweet and salty option: My daughter and l like the combination of sweet and salty, so we like to add dried cranberries to our “tuna” salad and serve it on honey oat bread.
Tofu Scrambled "Eggs"
If you are a vegan and miss eggs, have an egg allergy, want to reduce your cholesterol intake, or simply want to add more plant-based foods to your diet, this tofu scramble, by Alison Andrews at Loving It Vegan, is for you. I often make this for my daughter; it’s richly satisfying and “eggy” without cracking a shell.
The recipe, as written, calls for kala namak (black salt). Also known as Himalayan salt, this seasoning has a sulfurous smell which is exactly what helps this scramble mimic real eggs. It’s not mandatory but certainly helps take this dish over the top.
- Are Animal Proteins Better for You Than Plant Proteins? Cedars Sinai. Jan. 16, 2019.
- Asbell, Robin. What Is Tempeh, and How Do You Cook With It? The Kitchn. Jan. 17, 2020.
- Barnard, Neal. Settling the Soy Controversy. HuffPost. Apr. 26, 2010.
- 11 Complete Protein Sources That Every Vegan Should Know About. PETA. July 26, 2017.
- McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. Scribner, 2004.
- Petre, Alina. The 17 Best Protein Sources for Vegans and Vegetarians. Healthline. Aug. 16, 2016.
- Spark Nutrition Calculator
- Tofu. Britannica.
- What Is a Complete Protein? Piedmont Healthcare.
© 2021 Linda Lum