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


Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.

Seitan, tempeh, and tofu. How do they differ?

Seitan, tempeh, and tofu. How do they differ?

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.

A delicious seitan "roast"

A delicious seitan "roast"

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.

Tempeh breaded and fried for a tasty treat

Tempeh breaded and fried for a tasty treat

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

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.

Soft and firm tofu

Soft and firm tofu

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

Percentages reflect RDA (recommended daily allowance)


Serving size

3 oz (85 g)

3 oz (85 g)

3/4 cup (150 grams)






320 g

11.8 g

17.9 g


350 mg

336.8 mg

221.4 mg


21 g

15.3 g

12.3 g









Contains soy?




Contains gluten?




Cheat sheet: tofu vs. tempeh vs. seitan

Cheat sheet: tofu vs. tempeh vs. seitan

Rare beef steak with fried potatoes. Can you get enough protein without eating meat?

Rare beef steak with fried potatoes. Can you get enough protein without eating meat?

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)




Hemp seeds


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.”

Seitan sausages four ways

Seitan sausages four ways

Seitan Sausage

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.”

"Tuna" salad sandwich with tempeh

"Tuna" salad sandwich with tempeh

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


  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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"

Tofu scrambled "eggs"

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


Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 10, 2021:

Devica I am happy to hear from you. If you do happen to try one of these I hope you'll let me know

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 10, 2021:

Manatita, there is something here for everyone, right? Yes for some gluten is a problem; my Godson is gluten-intolerant, so I understand.

I have written about quinoa and it is my favorite plant-based protein, but for those who desire something "meaty" these three can come to the rescue.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on March 10, 2021:

I have never tried any of these foods, but your explanations are interesting and makes me want to try it.

manatita44 from london on March 08, 2021:

Tofu is natural for me, but I like to mix it with other plant proteins and quorn. This is purely because so many things can cause us problems now, according to the experts, including Tofu. Seitan is gluten? Not good for those who wish to avoid wheat, but the others like Quinoa and tempeh I like.

Seems like you have a great thing going with your daughter. She'll convert you yet. Smile.

When I started eating Tofu X number of years ago, I used the white blocks, but for some time now, I have been buying the light brown pieces. They call them saute, no?

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 08, 2021:

Brenda, I knew this would not be everyone's cup of tea, but there are a growing number of people who are trying to introduce more plant-based foods into their diet. Thanks for stopping by; have a great week.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 08, 2021:

Thanks, sis. Yes, tofu is much like zucchini in that regard--no flavor of its own but plays well with others. You make an excellent point about non-GMO.

BRENDA ARLEDGE from Washington Court House on March 08, 2021:

Sorry, but I'm with Bill on this one.

No tofu for me.

Sadly I won't be trying the other two either. I love my meat.

No substitutes here.

Just the thought of these make my stomach curl. No disrepect. Your article is great.

Have a great day.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 08, 2021:

So now I know seitan and tempeh are.

Once upon a time ago, I was a vegetarian for about three years. I made tofu scrambled eggs quite often. I still occasionally cook with it. One night I made tofu tacos. Neither my son nor I could tell that it wasn't ground beef. The beauty of tofu is it takes on whatever spices/flavors you add to to.

One bit of warning though: buy certified organic, non-GMO tofu. Soy is America's number one GMO product.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 08, 2021:

Good morning Bill, and I already knew that you and tofu are not on speaking terms. I'll bet Bev will like the other two (and out of love you might even give them a try, right?)

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 08, 2021:

Thank you Ann. It's a shame that seitan is so tasty, but is (literally) a lump of gluten. If you can find tempeh (the soy bean cake) you might find that more to your liking.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 08, 2021:

I won't go near tofu, my friend. Hopefully the other two are more appealing to me. I will pass this on to Bev since she likes tofu, and probably would like the other two. So for my wife, I thank you!!!

Have a lovely, dry week ahead!

Ann Carr from SW England on March 08, 2021:

Very interesting, Linda. I've often wondered about these sort of foods (though I've never heard of Seitan) and got confused. You've set it all out clearly, as always, and now I'm tempted to try some, though I'm fairly traditional in my eating. I also have to keep to gluten and dairy free with some of my family, so it's a balance!

History, education and recipes - what more could one ask for? Great job, Linda!

Hope you're keeping well. Take care.


Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 07, 2021:

John I hope you can find seitan or tempeh. They are so un-tofu.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on March 07, 2021:

This was very interesting, Linda. I hate tofu, but the other two sound much more appetizing. I had never heard of seitan or tempeh before.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 07, 2021:

Flourish, I'm still not a huge tofu fan, but the other two are amazing. I hope you give them a try.

FlourishAnyway from USA on March 07, 2021:

Very good information. I’ve never had two out of three of these so I’d like to be adventurous and give them a try.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 07, 2021:

Janis, that makes me so happy! Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment.

Linda Lum (author) from Washington State, USA on March 07, 2021:

Hi Pamela, you're the first today. My first few attempts at cooking tofu were less than overwhelming, but I think I've improved my technique since then. I should have mentioned that the best way to "fry" tofu so that it's crispy is in a dry pan. Thanks for your kind words.

Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on March 07, 2021:

Wow, this is great information, very useful for cooking vegan and having a better understanding of what we're eating. I cook a lot of vegan meals with tofu, tempeh, seitan, and veggies for hubby. Thank you for this informative article.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 07, 2021:

I do think a vegetarian diet is very healthy, but I have tried cooking tofu in various ways and just haven't liked it. I imagine your recipes are very good and I need to be open minded.

I appreciate this article, Linda. I do like eggs, so I should probably try your recipes. Thank you for sharing this wealth of information, Linda.

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