Whatever your relationship status with tempeh—adore it, distrust it, think you saw it on a menu once but now you’re not quite sure—these sweet and smoky Tempeh Tacos will sweep you off of your Tex Mex-loving feet.
A jazzy blend of southwest spices, shredded sweet potatoes (which in a pro-level veggie sneak all but disappear into the filling), and a zip of fresh lime juice give these tacos bold flavor.
They’re a bit of a sneak attack and will surprise you.
Tempeh is a mild-tasting, plant-based protein made of fermented soybeans. It’s often lumped with tofu, which is also soy-based, but the process of making the two, their textures, and their flavors are different—see below for more.
Tempeh is striking for how satisfying it is. Your brain knows it’s dealing with something that’s entirely vegan; your body will tell you that what you are eating is hearty, filling, and completely craveable.
Tempeh doesn’t have a strong flavor of its own, so it easily takes on the flavors of whatever spices you cook along with it.
When you first taste these vegan tacos, you might notice the spice (that’s the smoked paprika and chili powder).
Then, a bit of sweet relief from the sweet potatoes will arrive.
It’s intriguing and just the right flavor at just the right time. You’ll want to come back for more.
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a nutritious and versatile ingredient made from cooked and fermented soybeans. It originated in Indonesia thousands of years ago and remains popular around the world, although it is slower to take hold in the U.S. In addition to soybeans, some varieties of tempeh may also include added flavors, grains, or beans. Tempeh has a mild, slightly nutty flavor and is rich in protein, fiber, and prebiotics.
One serving of tempeh can contain as much as seven grams of fiber and 16 grams of protein. Considering the modest amount of tempeh tacos calories and fat per serving, tempeh is a wonderful way to sneak extra filling protein and fiber into your diet.
Tempeh vs. Tofu
Tofu and tempeh are often lumped together, as the two are both made of soy, but the process of creating them is quite different. They also vary in texture, flavor, and cooking methods.
- Tofu is made from coagulated soy milk pressed into solid but soft, squishy blocks. It comes in a variety of textures, such as firm, extra firm, and silken.
- Tempeh is made from soybeans that are fermented, then pressed into a firm cake. As far as I am aware, there’s just one option—the block—though it easily breaks into crumbles, which is why I love it for taco filling.
Cooking with the two is different also. If you are in a hurry, tempeh has some major advantages over tofu because you can use it right away without needing to press out any of the excess moisture. I still deeply enjoy and appreciate tofu (this Tofu Stir Fry is one of the fast, healthy dinners we make most), but pressing the water out of tofu to make sure it gets crispy can be a hassle when you are hangry.
- Tempeh is not watery like tofu, making it faster and easier to handle. Just open the package and cook.
- Tempeh also has a deeper, heartier taste than tofu, so those who are accustomed to eating meat might find it more satisfying than tofu.
As far as which is better for you, tempeh vs. tofu is a difficult battle. While tempeh is higher in protein and fiber, it also contains more calories than tofu. Tofu has more calcium, but tempeh contains valuable prebiotics.
I encourage you to try them both and see which you prefer. I know I’ll continue to make room in my diet for them both.
How to Cook Tempeh
Tempeh’s pleasantly firm texture lends itself well to a variety of cooking methods, including sautéing, grilling, and baking. I’ve even seen a few recipes for BBQ tempeh tacos, which I am adding to my list.
For today’s tempeh recipe, we’ll be cooking the tempeh in the skillet, almost as if we are sautéing ground meat. It takes fewer than 10 minutes to cook, making sautéed tempeh a speedy dinner choice.
Using Tempeh to Make Tacos
Full disclosure: I didn’t intend to cook tempeh tacos.
I spied a package of tempeh and decided to go with it and see what happened.
Destiny. We loved these tasty tacos so much, I now consider tempeh a refrigerator staple, which makes me a little hippie-ish. I’m into it.
Because tempeh is easy to crumble and sauté, it’s ideally suited for cooking taco filling. The texture is spot on—tender but not mushy, with nicely golden sautéed bits.
Tempeh crumbles mimic the texture of meat, and it easily absorbs the flavors of the spices, another win for the taco spin.
Tempeh taco “meat” lends itself well to reheating, making this filling an excellent make-ahead option for healthy weeknight meals. See below for more ideas for how to serve it.
How to Make Tempeh Tacos
Today’s recipe is loosely based on Thug Kitchen tempeh tacos, which I found a version of on Epicurious.
I made the recipe as written the first time and while it was delicious, certain steps and ingredients that the recipe demanded—pulling out my food processor to make a sauce; locating pineapple juice—put the tacos out of reach for what I’m typically looking for in a weeknight dinner: fast prep, few dishes, fantastic pay off.
After some tinkering, I ended up with a recipe that cooks in one skillet, no food processor (or any other appliance) required.
The flavors stay true to the intent of the original—a bewitching balance of sweet, smoky, and satisfying—but you are far more likely to have everything you need to make them on hand.
Well, you might need to pick up tempeh if you are new to cooking it—at least until you try these tacos, at which point you’ll be adding tempeh to your list of “refrigerator staples” too!
- Tempeh. The “meaty” base for our tacos. It’s delicious, nutritious, and definitely worth trying.
- Sweet Potatoes. The spicy flavors in this dish are complemented by a touch of sweetness from sweet potatoes. They’re a hearty, filling addition that brings both flavor and nutritional value to the recipe. Sweet potatoes are packed with fiber, vitamins, and antioxidants.
- Maple Syrup. To take the light sweetness one step further and keep the spices balanced, I added a touch of maple syrup. And if sweet potatoes are involved, maple syrup is always a good idea.
- Liquid Smoke. While optional, liquid smoke takes these tacos to the next level.
- Spices. A combination of chili powder, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder give the tacos a rich complexity and subtle kick.
- Soy Sauce. A little bit of salty, umami flavor to further deepen the filling’s flavor.
- Lime. Lime zest and juice add freshness and make the flavors pop.
- Tortillas. My favorite way to serve these tempeh tacos (with oodles of toppings, of course)!
- Whisk the sauce ingredients together in a bowl. Shred the sweet potato and keep in handy.
- Cook the tempeh in a large skillet, breaking it into small pieces. Add the shredded sweet potato and soy sauce.
- Warm the tortillas (if using).
- Pour the sauce into the skillet, cooking until thickened. Serve as desired with toppings. DIG IN!
Make Ahead and Storage Tips
- To Make Ahead. Shred the sweet potato up to 1 day in advance, storing it in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator.
- To Store. Place leftover taco filling in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Store tortillas and toppings separately.
- To Reheat. Gently rewarm tempeh filling in a large nonstick skillet on the stovetop over medium-low heat. You can also reheat this dish in the microwave. Pile into tortillas just before serving.
- To Freeze. Let your tempeh filling cool completely, then store it in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
Serving Ideas for Tempeh Taco Filling
In addition to using this tempeh filling for tacos, I’ve served it a variety of tasty ways:
- Tempeh Taco Bowl. Serve the filling over rice, with all the fixin’s. I like to add a runny egg on top, because that is my way, and I think you’ll like it if you join me.
- Tempeh Tacos with Black Beans. Stretch your filling even further by adding a can of rinsed, drained black beans.
- Tempeh Nachos. Sprinkle it over chips, warm it in the oven, and add all of your favorite toppings.
- Tempeh Power Bowl. Mix with roasted vegetables and rice or cauliflower rice. Add an avocado and a drizzle of the tahini dressing from these Whole30 Vegetarian Power Bowls.
More Hearty Meatless Meals
- Vegetarian Pot Pie
- Instant Pot Lentil Soup
- Tofu Tikka Masala
- Portobello Mushroom Burger
- Vegan Enchiladas
Recommended Tools to Make This Recipe
- Cheese Grater. Both a box grater or a microplane grater are great for shredding your sweet potato.
- Nonstick Skillet. This set is an investment, but they’ll last a lifetime.
- Citrus Juicer. Makes light work of juicing lemons and limes.
Ready to try this tempeh recipe? I’d love to hear what you think!
As always, if you make these tacos please let me know how they turn out for you. Your comments and ratings keep me going and are so helpful to others also.
- ¼ cup water
- 1 medium lime, zest and juice (about 2 tablespoons juice and ¾ teaspoon zest)
- 1 tablespoon pure maple syrup
- 2 ½ tablespoons ground chili powder
- 2 teaspoons liquid smoke optional—if not using consider adding ½ teaspoon chipotle chili powder, which is spicy and smoky
- 2 teaspoons smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 small sweet potato scrubbed
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 8 ounces tempeh I used Lightlife Original
- 3 tablespoons low sodium soy sauce
- Corn or flour tortillas
- Toppings: diced avocado, thinly sliced jalapeño, chopped fresh cilantro, salsa
- In a small mixing bowl or larger liquid measuring cup, whisk together the water, lime zest, lime juice, maple syrup, chili powder, liquid smoke, smoked paprika, cumin, garlic powder, and onion powder. Set aside.
- With a box grater, plane-style grater, or the shredding blade of a food process, shred the sweet potato (no need to peel it). You should have about 2 heaping cups. Set aside.
- Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Break the tempeh into small pieces. Cook, continuing to break it up, for 2 minutes until just turning golden. Fold in the sweet potato, dispersing it evenly with the tempeh. Stir in the soy sauce. Cook until the sweet potato begins to soften, about 4 minutes more.
- While the sweet potato cooks, warm the tortillas. I like to spread them on a baking sheet and pop them into a 300 degree oven for a few minutes. You also can warm them in an ungreased skillet, cooking them for a minute or two on each side. If you'd like to keep them warm for a longer period, stack them, then wrap them in foil until ready to serve or keep them wrapped in a 200 degree F oven.
- Add the sauce. Let cook until the sauce has thickened slightly, about 3 more minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Pile inside the warm tortillas, add any and all toppings, and enjoy!
- TO STORE: Place leftover taco filling in an airtight storage container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Store tortillas and toppings separately.
- TO REHEAT: Gently rewarm tempeh filling in a large nonstick skillet on the stovetop over medium-low heat. You can also reheat this dish in the microwave. Pile into tortillas just before serving.
- TO FREEZE: Let your tempeh filling cool completely, then store it in an airtight freezer-safe storage container in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let thaw overnight in the refrigerator before reheating.
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