Mysteries of Tempeh Revealed

Turtle Island Foods Tempeh

By: Turtle Island Foods Inc.

Suggested Retail Price: $2.29 for an 8-ounce package

Taste: 3stars


Marketing: 2stars

If you’re not 100 percent sure what tempeh is, join the club; unlike tofu, tempeh’s still fairly “out there” for your typical omnivore. It doesn’t help that it takes a rather involved process (culturing and a controlled fermentation) to bind its soybeans into a dense cake that is often discolored by—perfectly harmless, mind you—spots of mold.

Cooking with tempeh is a little fussy but ultimately not too hard to pull off. A marinade helps loosen the stuff up and adds a bit of salty zest.

When used as a pork substitute in a flavorful meal like a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich, Turtle Island’s tempeh performed well, fighting back against the powerful seasonings native to the mayo-and-vinegar-slaw dish.

The three varieties I sampled—Spicy Veggie, Organic Soy, and Organic Five Grain—were all acceptable in terms of taste. Spicy Veggie had more bite, although the soy sauce rang out a bit too strongly; it might work quite well in a dish like tacos where the protein needs to stand up against a heavy starch or three. Five Grain was almost reminiscent of the mellow Gardenburger, and it absorbed and played well with the bright, spicy flavors of the banh mi. Soy was the mildest of the three, nutty and retiring almost to a fault. All had a texture that was some combination of crunchy, crumbly, and mealy, which wasn’t ideal but could be addressed by thin slicing as per the packaging’s instructions.

Nutrition-wise, tempeh is low in fat and calories and wicked high in fiber, making it a nice arrow to have in one’s healthy-eating quiver. It’s going too far to suggest that this stuff is gourmet eating—at least when prepared by this modestly talented home cook—but it ain’t bad. Just pretend the mold is … flavor crystals.

Betty Crocker Yukon Gold and Sweet Potato Mashed Potatoes

By: Betty Crocker

Suggested Retail Price: $1.89 for two 3-serving pouches

Taste: 2stars


Marketing: 4stars

Of the two newest items in the Betty Crocker line of flavored mashed potatoes, the Yukon Gold variety somewhat surprisingly delivers a rich, buttery taste and creamy texture, although the two tablespoons of butter that the home cook is instructed to add to the mix must certainly share some of the credit. A flurry of ultralight potato flakes blends almost instantly with water, butter, and milk to produce a modest batch of mashers that boasts a smooth texture, a not-too-heavy density, and a balanced amount of salt. This is chased by an indefinable but vaguely chemical flavor. All in all, however, almost no effort is required to yield mashed potatoes that are reasonable in quality.

The sweet potato variety is a comparative disaster, which makes little sense: The package contains what appears to be some of the same Yukon Gold flakes, with some hazardous material—that is, orange powder—sprinkled amongst the flakes. The texture and density are fine, but the flavor is sickly sweet and, for lack of a better or more nuanced expression, fake-tasting.

You’ve got to applaud the food science wizards who produced this new, more sophisticated incarnation of Potato Buds, but not the guys who massacred the sweet potato variety. Too much of a bad flavor is most assuredly a bad thing.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow CHOW on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.