tofu and tempeh
Tofu (left) and tempeh (right) are both soy-based products, though tempeh is fermented. Seitan (not pictured) is made from wheat gluten. | Eskymaks/Shutterstock
Tofu (left) and tempeh (right) are both soy-based products, though tempeh is fermented. Seitan (not pictured) is made from wheat gluten. | Eskymaks/Shutterstock

What’s The Difference Between Tempeh, Seitan, and Tofu?

Here’s everything you need to know about the most common vegetarian proteins.

There are so many options for vegetarians and vegans now that truly any dish can be made sans animal protein. These days you can get seitan “duck” noodles, vegan curries with tofu, and barbecue tempeh sandwiches. With the rise of Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, there are even burgers that “bleed” now too and caramelize like real beef.

Nevertheless, it is a bit tricky to navigate the various plant-based proteins that are available now. While there are a large number of options, most of them fit into three categories of plant-based protein: Tempeh, seitan, and tofu. So what are the differences between the three? What are the best way to prepare these proteins? How do they differ in taste? Which one should you eat? Answers below.

What are the ingredients?

What is most notable about tempeh is that it is fermented. Tempeh is made from whole soybeans that are fermented with a controlled fungus known as rhizopus oligosporus, which thrives in warm temperatures. As the fungi and mold on the soybeans grows, it solidifies the whole beans into a nutty, condensed cake. The fermentation process typically takes about 48 hours to complete.

Tofu is also made from soybeans, but doesn’t usually call for whole soybeans nor does it endure a fermentation process. Instead, tofu is made from pressed soy milk, resulting in a soy curd that can be shaped into its traditional cube form. There are tons of different variants of tofu: soft, firm, silken, tofu skins -- so as an ingredient, it is versatile. Just find the right kind you personally enjoy and add it your dish!

Unlike tofu and tempeh, seitan is derived from wheat gluten. The product is made by washing dough made from wheat flour until all the starch has been removed, resulting in a sticky mass that can be manipulated and shaped. Seitan is sometimes referred to as wheat meat; if you’ve ever ordered vegan chicken wings, and have noticed the shape is molded to look like an actual drumstick, chances are the dish was made using seitan.

mapotofu tofu
Mapo tofu is a spicy tofu stew that hails from China. | Kung Min Ju/Shutterstock

Where are they originally from?

Tempeh originates from Indonesia, and is specifically said to come from Java. It’s believed that tempeh was an accidental invention; as tofu made its way to the Indonesian islands, discarded soybeans were discovered to be edible, despite growing a layer of white mold.

Tofu, on the other hand, has been consumed for thousands of years and is believed to have originated in China, where the soybean product slowly spread throughout Asia before making its way stateside.

Like tofu, seitan also came to the states by way of China. Seitan has been made and consumed for thousands of years, allegedly due to Buddhist teachings that encouraged followers to subscribe to a plant-based diet.

seitan roll
Seitan is malleable and can be shaped into rolls or fitted into molds. | Julia Wave/Shutterstock

What do they taste like?

Of the three plant proteins, tempeh has the toughest texture that doesn’t crumble. It’s firmness makes it easy to slice into even strips or cubes. The flavor is vaguely nutty and savory, similar to mushrooms, though a lot can be done to it -- like sauces and grilling -- to coax out deeper notes.

Tofu is not quite as flavorful, but makes for a wonderful base. Depending on the type of tofu you buy, the texture can be different. Even so, the firmest tofu available is still much softer than tempeh and can crumble. Softer tofus are pudding-like, and fried cubes can be spongy.

Eating seitan is similar to eating a chicken nugget or fish ball. The texture has that springiness that you can expect from either of those items, but the flavor is mildly meaty -- comparable to mushrooms or a relatively bland, unsalted chicken.

sate kere tempeh indonesian bbq
Sate kere is an Indonesian staple made from grilled tempeh. | Ariyani Tedjo/Shutterstock

Sounds like these proteins need some seasoning. How should I prepare these?

Like most meats, these proteins do need seasoning and sauce to really make them shine. It depends on what flavor you’re trying to achieve, but because all three are generally mild in taste and absorb sauces and flavoring well, feel free to go crazy.
All three would work great in stir fries -- as long as you get firm tofu -- and adapt well to any sort of orange chicken or General Tso's sauce you want to throw at them.

Tempeh is commonly used for grilling because it won’t fall apart under heat, so consider it a decent protein replacement if you’re trying to do some backyard barbecuing. You can even grate it for an easy vegetarian taco meat.

Tofu, like Christina Aguilera, has range. Throw soft tofu in soups or spicy Chinese mapo tofu. Season silken tofu with soy sauce and eat it over rice. Tofu can even be used to make spreads, so if you’re especially craving some vegan mayo, don’t fret -- it’s possible.

Lastly seitan, the shapeshifter, can be almost anything you want it to be: chicken nuggets, ribs, meatballs. Get creative with the shaping of the wheat gluten product, and you’ll forget you were ever eating something plant-based to begin with.

How expensive are they?

Eating veggie-based protein doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have to break the bank. An 8-ounce package of tempeh will ring up at around $3.50 at your local Target, whereas blocks of tofu -- depending on their type -- can cost as low as $1.50 for a pre-portioned cube.

Seitan is probably the most expensive of the three, but even so it’s not necessarily more expensive than purchasing meat products. A 16-ounce package of seitan costs $15.50 at Walmart, but you can always opt to buy a 1-pound bag of wheat gluten -- $6.99 at The Vitamin Shoppe -- and make your own.

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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist who loves tofu and seitan. She and tempeh are still trying to understand each other better. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.