These vegan tempeh meatballs are simple to make and incredibly versatile. They’re also packed with plant-based protein! Use them for an instant protein boost in any grain bowl or pasta dish.
There’s no easy comfort food meal that I turn to more regularly than spaghetti and meatballs.
In fact, I’ve frequently joked that my 2020 was sponsored by Gardein meatballs (it really wasn’t, but it could have been). I had more dinners of Gardein meatballs, pasta, and marinara than any other food. These meals were quick, easy, comforting, and rich in protein—my essential criteria for dinner.
There’s still a bag of Gardein meatballs in my freezer, and there will be for the forseeable future. But lately I’ve been thinking about how to make vegan meatballs from scratch. Meatballs that are, like the store-bought ones I love so much, high protein, flavorful, filling, and good for simmering in a pot of marinara.
I think I’ve found my recipe. These tempeh meatballs are deeply savory and delicious, perfect for serving with spaghetti and marinara. Best of all, they’re easy to make.
When I was resting these meatballs, my goal was ease. I wanted vegan meatballs that were simple enough to make that making them would be as appealing as heating up something store-bought.
Of course, there’s a time and a place for good, store-bought options. And these tempeh meatballs will require more work than something you defrost in minutes. But the process of making them is low-stress. Some of the perks of this recipe include:
Here are the recipe steps:
I used to be on the fence about whether it not it was necessary to steam tempeh before using it in a recipe. It felt like a lot of extra work, and I like the earthy flavor of tempeh enough that I usually skipped this step.
Lately, however, I’ve come around to steaming tempeh. I really do think that steaming removes a little bitterness from the protein. Plus, I find that tempeh soaks up marinades and their flavors better when it’s been steamed beforehand.
Sometimes, instead of steaming, I simmer tempeh in vegetable broth for 15 minutes before cooking with it. This seems to combine steaming and seasoning in a single step. It’s especially good in recipes where the tempeh is crumbled. That includes these tempeh meatballs and my chili lime tempeh tacos.
To begin making the tempeh meatballs, you’ll simmer crumbled tempeh in broth and tamari. The tempeh absorbs all of the liquid, at which point it’s seasoned and ready to be shaped into meatballs.
To prepare the meatballs, you’ll grind up walnuts, nutritional yeast, fennel, and oregano in a food processor. This mixture gives the meatballs flavor and helps to bind the tempeh together. Then, you’ll add the tempeh and pulse to combine everything well.
In the past, when I’ve made vegan meatballs, I’ve always used combinations of cooked grains as well as nuts or flour or bread crumbs for binding. That’s true for my tofu bulgur meatballs, white bean balls, my chickpea oat balls, and the quinoa meatballs from Choosing Raw.
I was pleasantly surprised when walnuts + nutritional yeast alone were enough to hold these tempeh meatballs together. It saved me the step of cooking a grain and kept the recipe simple. It also means that the recipe is easily gluten-free.
The next step is simple: just roll the mixture into meatballs! I made each of my meatballs about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. The mixture will be very sticky, but that’s OK. The tempeh meatballs will crisp up as they bake.
The prepared tempeh meatballs should be transferred to a parchment lined baking sheet, then into a 375F oven for baking.
You’ll bake the tempeh meatballs for about 35 minutes, or until they’re browning and crispy on top and bottom. I always flip the meatballs halfway through baking, so that they brown evenly.
In order to firm up properly for serving, the tempeh meatballs should ideally have 1-2 hours of cooling time. It’s OK to skip the cooling step if you really don’t have time for it. But if you do have time, it’s worthwhile.
No matter what, any leftover tempeh meatballs will firm up in the fridge.
At this point, the baked tempeh meatballs can be stored in the fridge or freezer. Or, you can start to use them in whatever recipe you have planned. They can be added to pasta, grain bowls, a vegan meatball sub, or served on their own, as an appetizer.
If you’re serving the meatballs as an appetizer or adding them to pasta, you can also simmer them in marinara sauce before serving. Unlike most store-bought vegan meatballs, they’ll fall apart a bit if you simmer them for too long. But they do hold their shape nicely if you simmer them for about five minutes. I love preparing them this way.
Tempeh is the star of this recipe. You’ll need 15 ounces of tempeh, total—that’s two 7.5-ounce blocks. You can use any variety of tempeh that you like; some are made with flax or whole grains incorporated, which is fine.
My beloved Gardein meatballs are heavy on the fennel flavor, which helped to inform my seasoning choices here. I love the taste of fennel seed and oregano in the recipe, but you can skip the fennel if it’s not for you. You could use dried basil or thyme instead. Dried rosemary would also be a nice addition.
Tamari will add saltiness and umami to the tempeh meatballs. As an alternative to umami, you can use Bragg’s Liquid Aminos or coconut aminos in the recipe.
I use raw walnuts in this recipe, but toasted walnuts will also work well. If you don’t have walnuts, you can substitute pecans or cashews.
Yes, it’s possible to make the tempeh meatballs without walnuts, or another tree nut. If you have a tree nut allergy, you can try substituting 2/3 cups of rolled oats or breadcrumbs in place of the walnuts.
I’ve made a lot of different vegan meatballs, but I’ve always used combinations of beans and grains as my base ingredients. Using tempeh in this recipe yields a higher protein vegan meatball, so it’s a nice new addition to my tempeh repertoire.
Three ounces of tempeh delivers about 18 (!) grams of vegan protein. Not surprisingly, tempeh is one of my favorite sources of plant protein, on its own or in combination with other foods. I recommend it often to my nutrition clients, especially those who are trying to maximize vegan protein in their diets.
Tempeh has other health benefits to offer in this recipe and others. It’s a great source of dietary fiber, which is associated with digestive and cardiac health. It’s a good source of iron, and—like all soy foods—a source of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
The meatballs are an easy make-ahead option for meal prep or weekend batch cooking. You can store them in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days. In fact, I tend to enjoy them even more after a day or two in the fridge. They become a little less crispy, but they also firm up and have a more toothsome texture.
You can heat the tempeh meatballs by simmering them in sauce. You can also heat them in the oven for about 10 minutes at 350F, or you can microwave them for two minutes on high, or until warmed through.
You can! The tempeh meatballs freeze and defrost really well. Freeze them in freezer-safe containers (lately I love these silicone bags) for up to six weeks.
I’m so happy to have a new, homemade vegan protein that I really love. And the meatballs are easy enough to prepare that I’m confident I’ll make them often.
Lately, my test of a recipe isn’t only how good it tastes, but whether or not I’d cook it on a high-stress or busy day. I can cook just about anything on a good day, but tough days are another story. I cook more consistently when I stop to ask myself, would this recipe feel achievable on a tough day?
The more recipes that qualify as a “yes” to that question, the better. These tempeh meatballs are one of those. Hope you’ll find them easy and tasty, too!