Hearty vegan baked mac and cheese, made with elbow pasta drenched in a creamy homemade roasted red pepper “cheese” sauce, topped with breadcrumbs and baked to perfection.
Vegan cheese analogs. A highly contentious topic on the internet and a food that gets seriously mixed reactions from taste testers. I’ve come up with a version of baked mac and cheese that I think is really lovely, so I’m throwing my hat into the ring. I think you’ll be surprised by how much you like this vegan version, which is delicious in its own right and made with some unexpected nutritious ingredients! Sorry for the picture overload today. I went a little overboard photographing this cheezy goodness!
I’ve said it here many times before, but I’m so picky about cheese substitutes. I really can’t stand the store-bought shreds, despite having gamely tried all of the brands I could find. I actually still think my homemade cashew cream cheese tastes better than anything I’ve bought at the store.
Basically, I’m hard to please when it comes to cheeze. If it’s going to be mimicked directly, it needs to be super convincing with no aftertaste, strange texture or try-hard amount of nutritional yeast. On the other hand, I’m just as happy if not happier with something that’s creamy, gooey, savory, a little funky, without being explicitly cheesy. Something that, like with my vegan meatballs, has the same good qualities of cheese that I used to enjoy but without tasting exactly like it.
This vegan baked mac and cheese is more of the latter. Sure, there are some very cheese-like characteristics to this but of course, the flavor isn’t identical. However, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking. Here are a few of the things that I think make my vegan mac and cheese recipe special:
- The roasted red peppers add a deep savory flavor and just a hint of sweetness, as well as a beautiful orange color.
- The roasted garlic gives a robust garlic flavor without overpowering.
- The cashews make the vegan mac and cheese sauce rich and creamy.
- The blended potatoes give the sauce that ‘gooey’ texture without needing to add a flour or isolated starch.
- The cooked onions add a little funkiness, not too much.
- And finally, the miso and nutritional yeast add an umami, a little bit “cheesy” flavor, but not enough to mask the flavors of the other ingredients.
You’ll often see vegan mac and cheese recipes that call for boiling carrot along with the potatoes. It’s generally there for the purpose of color, as far as I can tell. I’ve made those recipes. I found the carrot flavor a little aggressive (which is also how I feel about coconut milk in this application), so next I tried sweet potato; that was tasty, but too sweet. Roasted red pepper is the solution I’ve come up with. I think both the flavor and color it brings to the table are spot on.
Back when I was a pre-teen who basically lived for congealed deli counter mac and cheese, if you’d had tried to get me to try a vegan baked mac and cheese made from vegetables, I probably would have been horrified, and definitely would have been confused. But look at me now. I LOVE this delicious vegan pasta bake and it ticks all of the boxes that mac and cheese used to tick for me, while also being made with a number of nutritious ingredients!
Even more importantly, I happened to notice the leftovers slowly disappearing from my fridge when a certain someone-who-will-not-be-named-but-isn’t-vegan would leave for work in the morning. I’m considering that an endorsement 🙂
If you make this vegan baked mac and cheese, let me know how you like it! Check out my notes on the recipe for how to most successfully make the mac and cheese gluten-free, or make it ahead of time/for leftovers. Cheers!
Ultimate Vegan Baked Mac and Cheese
For the vegan mac and cheese sauce:
- 1 large red bell pepper
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 small yellow onion (115g)
- 3 medium red potatoes (400g)
- 3/4 cup raw cashews soaked in water overnight or in boiling hot water for 1 hour
- 1/2 tsp paprika (regular, not smoked)
- 1/4 tsp ground turmeric (optional, for color)
- 1 and 1/2 tbsp white or yellow miso
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast (plus more to taste)
- 1 tbsp olive oil (optional, but recommended, for texture)
- 1 tsp of freshly-squeezed lemon juice (plus more to taste)
- 3/4 tsp salt (or to taste; you may want to reduce if omitting the oil)
For the vegan baked mac and cheese:
- 16 oz . pasta of choice (see notes if using gluten-free)
- olive oil
- 1/4 cup sliced sundried tomatoes (optional, as a mix-in)
For the vegan mac and cheese sauce:
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Add the bell pepper whole to an oven-safe baking dish. Slice off the tops of the cloves of garlic, leaving the head intact; lightly grease the exposed parts with oil or oil spray and wrap the head of garlic in foil. Add it to the baking dish.
- Bake, rotating the red pepper occasionally, until the pepper is collapsed and browned on the outside, and the garlic is completely tender, about 45 minutes. You can leave the oven on at this point, since the baked mac and cheese will go back in at 350 after you assemble it. Ocne cool enough to handle, pull the skin off of the red pepper, cut it open, and remove the stem and seeds.
- Meanwhile, cut the onion and potatoes in half and add them to a saucepan with water to cover. Bring to a boil, and cook until the potatoes are tender, about 15 minutes (depending on the size and age of your potatoes). The peels should come off easily from the potatoes at this point. If you have a high-speed blender you can also leave the skins on. Strain out the potato and onion from the water.
- Add the cashews to a blender or food processor and process into a paste (if using a food processor you will need to scrape down the sides). Add the roasted red pepper and garlic and combine as best you can. Finally, add the potato, onion, and the rest of the sauce ingredients, and blend until very smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. If using a food processor this may take a couple of minutes. Adjust seasoning to your taste, especially the salt, lemon juice, and nutritional yeast.
For the vegan baked mac and cheese:
- Bring a pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta just to al dente, according to package instructions. (I recommend doing this while waiting for the pepper, garlic, and/or potatoes to cook).
- Drain the pasta and rinse it well. (This is different from my usual pasta recipes, where I ask you not to rinse the pasta. This time, the sauce is already very starchy from the potato and the dish works better if you rinse the pasta). Toss the pasta with a small amount of olive oil, and the sundried tomatoes if using. Transfer it to a lightly-greased casserole dish.
- Pour the roasted red pepper cheese sauce over the pasta, and stir together with a spatula to combine. Stir together all of the breadcrumb toppings and sprinkle onto the top of the dish.
- Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for about 20 minutes, or until hot throughout and the topping has become firm and crisp. (The topping does not brown very much). Serve hot.
You can also use a jarred roasted red pepper if desired.
GLUTEN-FREE: Simply use gluten-free pasta and gluten-free breadcrumbs, or even omit the breadcrumbs altogether. I recommend a pasta that can hold up well to a long cooking time, like brown rice pasta, which I tested this recipe with. It was great!
SOY-FREE: There are several delicious soy-free miso options on the market these days. I keep chickpea miso stocked in my fridge, but I've seen other choices at my local Whole Foods. Is this isn't an option for you, then omit the miso and increase the nutritional yeast a little bit - it's really fantastic with miso, though, and fermented soy is easy to digest!
OIL-FREE: Skip the olive oil in the sauce, for greasing the garlic and the pan, and tossing with the pasta. I tested this recipe both ways, and the texture is better if you use olive oil, but it doesn't make a huge difference.
MAKE AHEAD: The vegan mac and cheese sauce is best when blended fresh using potatoes that are still warm, but you can make it ahead if needed. Heat it back up on the stovetop with a splash of vegetable broth to loosen it back up. Either way the red pepper and garlic can be roasted in advance.
LEFTOVERS: This is best eaten fresh - the pasta tends to start to absorb the sauce as leftovers sit. However, we still enjoyed the leftovers from the refrigerator happily. I recommend adding a little water or vegetable broth and a dash of olive oil to liven them up again. I don't recommend freezing this dish.
NUTRITION: Nutrition facts include the breadcrumb topping and exclude the optional oil.
It’s really difficult to cite sources for the potato/cashew cheese sauce as it’s all over the internet at this point, and I spent quite a lot of time tweaking my own recipe from the ground up. However, to link to at least a couple of points of inspiration, I checked out this vegan roasted red pepper mac and cheese by Isa Chandra (formerly The PPK); and this vegan cheese sauce by Veggie On A Penny.
This works awesome as a baked mac but if you’re looking for a classic vegan mac and cheese made on the stovetop, I’ve got you covered on that too!