Plant-Based Bacon Bits

Tempeh bacon takes me right back to my teenage years, when my older brother went vegan and got our whole family on board with this plant-based protein. Back then, we bought pre-marinated tempeh bacon, but I’ve discovered that it’s easy to make it at home.

Tempeh bacon is a smoky, salty, and slightly sweet plant-based alternative to bacon. It’s easy to make at home and doesn’t require much hands-on time.

Marinate the tempeh one day ahead, then bake or fry it just before serving. I make a batch on Sunday mornings, then I get to enjoy a few slices for breakfast over the next few days. A little goes a long way since it is highly flavorful and well-seasoned.

Tempeh is made with fermented soybeans (sometimes with other beans or grains) and a culture of Rhizopus oligosporus, making it easy to digest. It is bound into a solid, firm cake that’s sliceable and ready to cook.

It has a nutty and mushroom-like flavor and can sometimes be a little bitter. For the mildest flavor, use it when it’s nice and fresh, before it has a chance to over-ferment in the fridge.

More fermented tempeh does exist and they have their applications, but for the purpose of this recipe, you’ll want a mild flavor that doesn’t compete with the marinade.

Overhead view of vegetarian bacon on a piece of bread with avocado underneath it.
Coco Morante

Tempeh is not a perfect replacement for bacon. If you try to slice it as thin as bacon, it tends to fall apart—I find that 1/4-inch slices are the easiest to work with. It’s also not as fatty or crispy as bacon, but it’s delicious in its own right.

Sometimes tempeh is steamed or boiled to remove any bitter flavors. That is not necessary for this recipe since the marinade is strongly flavored. Tempeh bacon gets its smokiness from an old-fashioned ingredient, liquid smoke, which is typically used for homemade barbecue sauce, baked beans, split pea soup, or any dish that could use a dash of smoky, savory flavor.

This marinade is easily adaptable, whether you want to make it gluten-free, use a different sweetener or oil, or even add a little hot sauce for some heat:

  • For the salty notes in the marinade, soy sauce is my go-to, but you can use tamari or coconut aminos instead. Substitute with low sodium soy sauce if you want it to be less salty.
  • Agave nectar, honey, brown rice syrup, or brown sugar can be used instead of maple syrup.
  • A dash of hot sauce and a good amount of black pepper add just enough kick, but leave them out and add a little apple cider vinegar for a milder flavor.
  • I use olive oil because it’s what I have on hand, but any cooking oil, like vegetable, canola, or grapeseed oil that is not strongly flavored works.
  • If you prefer not to use liquid smoke, use an equal amount of smoked paprika.
Overhead view of smoky tempeh bacon on a baking sheet and brushed with marinade and a plate of tempeh bacon topping a piece of bread next to the baking sheet.
Coco Morante

For the easiest, most hands-off method, I like to bake tempeh bacon. In the last five minutes of cooking, and again after it’s out of the oven, I brush a little bit of the marinade on the tempeh so that it gets a nice shiny glaze.

If you want extra crispy tempeh bacon, use an air fryer. Simply spray the tempeh with a little oil and cook at 400ºF until nicely browned, about 8 minutes. Another option: sear it in a skillet with a little olive oil, about 3 minutes per side.

Serve tempeh bacon just like bacon: alongside scrambled eggs or tofu for breakfast, top an avocado toast, or make a vegetarian BLT. It’s also great tucked into breakfast burritos or chopped and sprinkled on a salad. I wouldn’t recommend using it in soups or stews, because tempeh is too lean, it can crumble, and becomes mushy.

Overhead view of smoky tempeh bacon on a baking sheet and brushed with marinade.
Coco Morante

Once the tempeh bacon is cooked, serve it right away or store it in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. It will soften a bit in the refrigerator—revive its texture by frying it in a dry skillet for about 2 minutes, just until warmed through.

  • 1 (8-ounce) package tempeh
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon Frank’s RedHot sauce or apple cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon liquid smoke or smoked paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  1. Slice the tempeh:

    Slice the tempeh into 1/4-inch strips crosswise or lengthwise, depending on how long you’d like your “bacon” strips. Place the sliced tempeh in a wide shallow dish.

    Thinly sliced tempeh for Smoky Tempeh Bacon.
    Coco Morante
  2. Make the marinade:

    In a small bowl, stir the soy sauce, maple syrup, olive oil, Frank’s RedHot sauce, liquid smoke, and black pepper until combined. Pour the marinade over the tempeh, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or up to 24 hours.

    Marinade in a bowl to make vegan bacon
    Coco Morante
    Tempeh marinading in a glass dish to make vegan bacon.
    Coco Morante
  3. Bake the tempeh:

    Preheat the oven to 425ºF and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lay the marinated tempeh in a single layer. Bake for 15 minutes. Reserve the marinade.

    When there are 5 minutes left, brush the tempeh with the marinade. Once baked, brush it again and serve warm.

    Vegetarian Bacon on a baking sheet and ready to be baked.
    Coco Morante
    Vegetarian Bacon on a baking sheet.
    Coco Morante

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