Satisfying tempeh tacos make a delicious weeknight dinner. They are so tasty & easy to prepare.
Crispy hard taco shells are stuffed with flavorful tempeh taco filling and colorful toppings. You get enticing crunch with every bite.
Nothing satisfies quite like a taco.
Especially when it’s stuffed with toothsome & savory tempeh. It’s the kind of vegan taco meat you can really sink your teeth into.
Loaded high with crunchy cabbage and pickled vegetables, you get so much flavor with every bite.
My fondness for tempeh tacos goes back to when I first went vegan in 2007.
At that time there were a few vegan meat brands like Tofurky and Field Roast. But for the most part, plant based cooking focused on beans, lentils, tofu, and tempeh.
On the rare break from their reuben, I’d drive out to Follow Your Heart in Canoga Park, California for tempeh tacos. They had a crunchy, old school healthy vibe that really appealed to me.
(They’re still on the menu, FYI!)
So while I have a lot more options now for taco fillings and vegan ground meat, sometimes you’ve got to return to the coziness of the classics.
What is tempeh?
Protein-packed tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is made with whole fermented soybeans that are pressed into firm cakes.
They are often fermented with some type of grain or seed.
Tempeh originated in today’s Indonesia in the 1700’s. The exact timeline is murky, but it’s possible tempeh goes back as far as the year 1000.
Tempeh is lauded for its protein, fiber, and prebiotics.
It’s also enjoyed for its satisfying chewy texture and versatility.
It can be sautéed, baked, grilled, or fried in crumbles, strips, triangles, or squares.
Depending on how it’s seasoned, it can take on an endless array of flavors.
For the most part, tempeh is beige colored. But you’ll occasionally see dark gray or black spots.
That is a natural part of the fermenting process and nothing to worry about.
What does tempeh taste like?
Tempeh has a nutty, earthy, tangy flavor that is sometimes compared to mushrooms.
Because it is fermented, when you smell it right out of the package, it smells vaguely like yeast.
Some people find tempeh to have a bitter aftertaste.
To mitigate that, you can either briefly steam tempeh before using it, boil it, or do as I’ve done in this recipe and cook it in liquid.
During the end of its cooking time, I cook the tempeh in water, spices, and tamari until it has absorbed all of the flavor & cooked off any bitter edge.
Here are the ingredients you will need to make this recipe.
For the taco filling
Oil: Use your favorite neutral flavored cooking oil like avocado oil.
Tempeh: Look for this fermented soybean cake in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, near the tofu.
Onions: I like yellow onions for their mild flavor, but any color will work here. They can also be replaced with an equal amount of shallots.
Garlic: Freshly minced garlic is best.
It can be replaced with ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder. (If using powder, add it with the other spices.)
Ancho chili powder: Ancho chili powder is made with just one ingredient: ancho chili peppers (dried poblanos). It has a wonderful round flavor but little heat.
You can replace it with standard chili powder. But be aware that chili powder is a blend that may include varying amounts of cayenne.
Other dried seasonings: Cumin, paprika, granulated onion.
Tamari: This Japanese soy sauce adds umami and salt. It can be replaced with the soy sauce of your choice, coconut aminos, or Bragg’s liquid aminos.
Lime juice: Freshly squeezed is best.
Hot sauce: A few dashes of hot sauce adds heat & tang. I especially like red jalapeño hot sauce here.
For the toppings
Taco shells: I particularly like the crunch of crispy corn shells. But they can be replaced with any tortilla you enjoy.
Shredded cabbage: Shredded cabbage mix is especially convenient. It’s often packaged with shredded carrots as well. It can be replaced with chopped romaine.
Pickled red onions: Pickled red onions add vibrant color and tang. They can be replaced with non-pickled chopped yellow or green onions.
Pickled jalapeños: They add heat. I especially like quick pickled jalapeño peppers for maximum crunch.
Tomatoes: Use freshly chopped tomatoes. Or replace with an equal amount of salsa.
Guacamole: Use homemade guacamole. Or replace with sliced avocado or vegan sour cream.
Chopped cilantro: This optional garnish adds color and freshness.
Step by step instructions
Here’s how to make this recipe at a glance. For complete ingredient amounts & instructions, keep scrolling to the recipe card below.
Start by making the tempeh taco filling.
1. Bring a large skillet to a medium heat with oil.
Use your hands to break tempeh apart into small pieces as you add it to the skillet. Add a pinch of salt. Let it brown for several minutes.
2. Push the tempeh to the side of the pan, and add more oil. Add onions to the skillet. Sauté for a few minutes. Then add garlic & sauté.
3. Then add the taco seasonings:
Combine the seasonings with the tempeh mixture. Let the spices toast for about a minute.
4. Add water & tamari to the tempeh taco meat, and bring to a simmer. Let the liquid cook down.
5. Once the tempeh is mostly dry, add lime juice and a few dashes of hot sauce. Cook a couple minutes more.
6. Put the tempeh taco meat into warmed taco shells along with your preferred toppings:
Make it your own
You can make this dish your own by varying or omitting certain ingredients.
- Instead of ancho chili powder, use a chili powder mix (It may be spicier if it includes cayenne)
- If you don’t like spicy food, omit the hot sauce
- Instead of crunchy taco shells, use soft corn or flour tortillas
- Instead of shredded cabbage, use chopped romaine
- If large tomatoes are out of season, use cherry tomatoes (They’re sweeter year ‘round)
- Instead of pickled onions, use yellow or green onions
- Instead of guacamole, use chopped avocado or shredded non-dairy cheese
- Omit cilantro if you’re not a fan
- Add a drizzle of vegan sriracha mayo or chipotle crema to the finished tacos
- Instead of tacos, put this tempeh taco filling into a taco salad, burrito bowl, burrito, nachos, or use it as a topping on vegan corn cakes
Can it be made gluten free?
To make these tacos gluten free, buy gluten free tempeh.
(Note that the Trader Joe’s tempeh pictured in this post is not gluten free.)
Tempeh is made with fermented soybeans and often some type of grain. Either look for tempeh that uses only soybeans, or for tempeh that includes gluten free grains/seeds like rice, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, millet, or quinoa.
Tofurky and Soyboy make multiple gluten free tempeh products.
After that, be sure to use gluten free tamari soy sauce in this recipe, as well as corn taco shells or corn tortillas (not flour).
Can I make this recipe ahead of time?
Like many highly seasoned foods, tempeh really gets a chance to have flavors meld when made ahead of time, and then refrigerated until later use.
Store the tempeh taco meat in its own container in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.
You can also shred cabbage (if you’re not buying it pre-shredded), chop tomatoes, and quick pickle jalapeños and red onions.
The only two things I’d wait on are making the guacamole, as well as washing and chopping the cilantro, if using.
Guacamole is prone to browning when made too far in advance. And wet cilantro can quickly wilt and brown.
Keep any tempeh taco meat leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator. It will keep for about four days.
Tempeh also freezes well. Simply put it in a freezer-proof container.
When you’re ready to use it, move it to the refrigerator to thaw before reheating. Or use the defrost function on the microwave.
Reheat leftover tempeh in the microwave until warm or in a non-stick skillet with a little oil.
If it seems dry, add a splash of water, tamari, and/or lime juice to bring it back to life.
Tempeh taco meat
- 1 teaspoon avocado oil or your preferred oil, divided
- 8 ounces tempeh
- Pinch of salt plus more to taste
- ½ cup chopped onions
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 teaspoon ancho chili powder
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- 1 teaspoon granulated onion
- ¾ cup water
- 2 teaspoons tamari
- 2 teaspoons lime juice
- Few dashes hot sauce
To make tempeh taco meat
- Bring large skillet to a medium heat with ½ teaspoon avocado oil (or your preferred oil). Use your hands to break the tempeh apart and crumble it into the pan in very small pieces. Spread the tempeh across the pan, so that it has as much contact with it as possible. Add a pinch of salt.
- Let the tempeh cook for about 4 minutes, rarely moving it, until it becomes nutty brown in spots.
- Push the tempeh to one side of the skillet. Put the remaining ½ teaspoon of organic canola oil on the empty part of the skillet. Top it with chopped onions. Saute for a couple minutes. Then add the minced garlic & saute for a minute more, until fragrant. (If the garlic or onions start to burn, lower the heat.)Incorporate the onions and garlic with the tempeh in the pan.
- Add ancho chili powder, cumin, paprika, and granulated onion to the tempeh. Stir to evenly combine. Let the spices toast for about a minute.
- Add water and tamari to the pan. Stir to combine. Bring the skillet to a low simmer, and allow the excess liquid to cook off. This will take about 7 minutes.
- Once the tempeh taco meat mixture is mostly dry, add lime juice and a few dashes of hot sauce. Stir to incorporate, and cook for another two minutes. If needed, add salt to taste.
To prepare tacos with fixings
- Divide the tempeh taco meat into warmed taco shells.
- Top with your choice of shredded cabbage, chopped tomatoes, red pickled onions, jalapenos, guacamole, and cilantro.