A lot of the magic in a vegan kitchen happens in the pantry, and this Lentil Bolognese is a prime example. It’s a comforting, tasty meal made exclusively with budget-friendly, shelf-stable ingredients. In fact, many of my favorite pastas are made with pantry ingredients but they never sacrifice on flavor (think vegan caramelized onion pasta, Italian white bean and pasta stew, or creamy pantry pasta).
I used to enjoy a good bolognese (a lot), but after going vegan, the plant-based bolognese recipes I tried fell flat (or terribly). They mostly tasted like vegetables in marinara sauce.
So I challenged myself to come up with a recipe that delivered the same flavor and texture profile as traditional bolognese. And this version delivers – it’s meaty but in a wholesome way, packed with umami, and so rich and thick. Plus, it requires just 10 main ingredients, so you can almost always make it at a moment’s notice.
Why you should make this recipe
10 main ingredients. Okay, not counting water, oil, salt and pepper. But yeah, just 10 main ingredients! And aside from soaking the lentils, the prep time is super quick – just 10 minutes.
Pantry staples + budget-friendly. All ingredients are pantry staples! Depending on the brand of ingredients, I was able to make this recipe for $9-$12. At six servings, that’s $1.50 – $2 for a meal.
Comforting and hearty. It’s hearty and meaty but not in-your-face meaty. It’s rich, thick, and sticks to your ribs. Hello, comfort food pasta!
Wholesome and healthy. The bolognese sauce is made entirely with wholesome ingredients like red lentils and walnuts. Feel free to make it even more wholesome with whole wheat pasta. It’s vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free.
Why this vegan bolognese recipe works
Texturewise, bolognese should be nice and thick! And as you can see from the step-by-step photos in the next section, the bolognese is just that. This is a result of a few things.
First, cooking down an entire tube of tomato paste brings a rich body to this sauce. It gets even more body if you add in the optional red wine. Using the minimum amount vegetable broth also keeps this sauce thick. And using red lentils (instead of green or brown) helps thicken this sauce up (similar to how the red lentils thicken in my red lentil curry).
Also, using a wide-shaped pasta or ridged pasta helps the chunky, thick sauce cling to the noodles.
Flavorwise, bolognese is obviously quite meaty. Since I’m not using a vegan beef substitute, I won’t claim that this recipe “tastes like beef or pork.” But, it does have a deceptively meaty taste that is very satisfying thanks to all the layers of umami.
First, an entire tube of tomato paste (tomatoes are a natural source of umami, especially so when super concentrated in paste form;). Second, crushed walnuts enhance the meatiness of the lentils, both from a texture and taste perspective. You can enhance the flavor even more by toasting the walnuts.
Finally, you get what you love about bolognese in a wholesome plant-based way. Lentils are a humble superfood and a great way to help fight off anemia; their protein and slow-digesting fiber may in weight loss and maintenance. And walnuts are are good source of omega-three fatty acids (great for brain, skin, eye, heart, and mental health).
PS: If you’re an instant Pot fan, try my Instant Pot One-Pot Bolognese in my cookbook, The Vegan Instant Pot Cookbook (you get to cook the pasta and sauce all together!).
First, soak your red lentils in water for at least 30 minutes, then drain. Meanwhile, dice the onions and mince the garlic.
Cook the onions in olive oil in a deep saute pan until a fond starts to appear. Then start deglazing the pan with a few splashes of water.
Cook for a total of 9-10 minutes, continuing to deglaze as needed, until the onions are deeply golden brown.
Add the garlic, dried oregano and thyme, and salt/pepper. Cook for 60-90 seconds, stirring frequently.
Add in the tube of tomato paste.
Stir the tomato paste into the onions for a few minutes, until darker in color (brick red).
Optional: deglaze with the red wine. Cook until the smell of alcohol burns off and the mixture becomes jammy.
Add in the vegetable broth, soaked red lentils, and finely chopped walnuts.
Cook the lentil mixture at a rapid simmer for 20 minutes.
Stir in the crushed tomatoes.
Cook the bolognese sauce for 15 to 20 minutes until the lentils are tender but still a bit al dente (I prefer 20 minutes for a more developed flavor). The sauce should be really thick by this point.
Stir in the balsamic vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper.
1. Use tomato paste in a tube, not a can. Tomato pastes are NOT created equally. I learned this the hard way when I made this recipe using a can of tomato paste instead of a tube. I could taste the tinny metallic flavor from the canned tomato paste and it ruined the sauce for me (admittedly, I have fairly sensitive taste buds).
The way tomato paste from a tube is made and preserved makes it more flavorful and gives it a brighter and truer tomato flavor. The tube stuff is cooked at a lower temperature and preserved with salt (canned tomato paste is preserved with citric acid). Read more here about the differences at The Kitchn.
2. I like to finish my red sauces with a splash of good-quality balsamic vinegar. The acidity balances the richness, and the slight sweetness pairs nicely with the tomatoes. However, if you don’t have a good-quality one, omit it (an inexpensive balsamic vinegar will just add a watery sour flavor). If your bolognese is a bit too sour, add in a teaspoon of sugar at the end instead of the balsamic.
A fantastic balsamic vinegar that’s aged for at least 12 years. Tastes so much better than any store-bought balsamic vinegar I’ve tried.
3. Red wine is optional, so you can omit it if you don’t drink alcohol. That said, it does make a noticeable improvement. A few affordable vegan-friendly red wine brands are Santa Julia (organic and sustainable and about $10/bottle!) and Layer Cake Wines.
Tip: deglazing the pan with red wine brings out the meatiness in the lentils and lends a richer body to the bolognese. I made this recipe two days in a row (one version with wine, one without), and both me and my taste tester preferred the version with wine.
4. While it is definitely possible to make this recipe using only very budget-friendly ingredients, if you can spring for a few higher-quality ingredients, it makes a difference. Using the best ingredients you can find and afford is more important when the recipe uses so few ingredients (like this one).
For canned tomato brands, my favorite brands (in order) are Bianco Dinapoli, San Merican, and Cento. For tomato paste, I like Amore, Cento, Mutti, San Merican, and the Whole Foods 365 and Trader Joe’s brands.
And for pasta, I really love this recipe with the tagliatelle from Seggiano, which makes high-quality authentic Italian pasta. I served this recipe to family and friends using a generic $1 fettuccine and this Seggiano tagliatelle, and it made the biggest difference in their opinions.
Tips for making this vegan bolognese
1. Soak your red lentils before you start on anything else. You’ll need to soak them in cool water for 30 minutes, but you can soak them for up to 1 hour. This helps soften them up. If you don’t soak the lentils, they will take closer to 45-60 minutes to soften in the bolognese.
2. To crush the walnuts, the easiest/quickest method is a food processor or spice grinder. But if you want to wash fewer dishes, just chop them very finely with a large knife. You want to chop them really finely; otherwise, you’ll end up with hard bits of walnut. Not terrible but not great.
3. Use a deep sauté pan like the below, or a Dutch oven. If using a nonstick pan, you won’t have as much deglazing and scraping to do.
A great hybrid of a saucepan and a sauté pan. I love using it for recipes like this where there’s a fair amount of liquid involved.
Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the best pasta shape to serve with this bolognese?Spaghetti bolognese is an American invention and is NOT the best pasta shape to use for bolognese. That’s because the thin noodle variety doesn’t hold a chunky ragu-like sauce very well. Instead, the sauce pools at the bottom of the bowl.
In Italy, bolognese is often served with a wider pasta, such as tagliatelle. Pappardelle or fettuccine also work well. If you don’t want to use a long pasta, a ridged pasta shape is also good for holding this hearty, chunky sauce. Think rigatoni and penne rigate (the ridged variety). Even gnocchi works well!
How do I store leftover bolognese?
If you’re planning to eat only some of the pasta on the day you cook, the leftovers will stay best if you store the bolognese separately from the pasta. That said, the combined leftovers are still very tasty and should last 3-4 days in the fridge. This red lentil bolognese sauce stored separately will last a bit longer, 5 to 6 days.
Can I freeze bolognese?
Yes! The bolognese sauce (without pasta) freezes quite well. I like to freeze the bolognese sauce in these Souper Cubes. You can freeze them in 1/2 cup, 1 cup, or 2 cup increments, depending on how much you want to defrost and eat. You can also freeze in an airtight container (don’t pack it to the top) or freezer bags.
How do you reheat the bolognese sauce?
Heat the leftover bolognese sauce in a saucepan on the stove over medium heat until warmed through, thinning out a bit with water or vegetable broth if it’s very thick. Or, heat in a microwave-safe bowl. If frozen, thaw completely in the fridge before reheating. You can also reheat leftovers frozen (add to a saucepan, add water to thin, cover, and simmer it for 20-30 minutes until fully thawed).
What other lentils can I use besides red lentils?
I use red lentils because they cook down the softest (and quickest) out of the common lentil varieties. If you purchased red split lentils (sold as masoor dal in Indian grocery stores), they will cook even quicker.
Tip: If all you can find is brown or green lentils, you can use those (some readers have done so), but you’ll likely need to increase the cook time by 5 to 10 minutes. Also, keep in mind, the texture might have more bite to it. If you have Puy lentils, again, you can try those, but you will need to increase the cook time by 5 to 15 minutes (and it will have more of a bite).
How else can I serve bolognese?
Aside from pasta, you can also serve the bolognese over zucchini noodles or sweet potato noodles for a lighter option. You can also use this filling as a vegan sloppy joe filling or dollop it over nachos for a spin on “chili cheese nachos.”
Common substitutes for this lentil bolognese
In the event you don’t have all the exact ingredients on hand, here are some substitutions to try.
Gluten-free? Use gluten-free pasta! The bolognese sauce itself is gluten-free.
No vegetable broth. You can use water, but you’ll want to add more salt for a bit more flavor. Or, you can try using a vegetable broth powder like this! This particular is very flavorful and packed with umami. I do recommend using less of the broth powder per cup of water than the container calls for, as it can be very salty.
No walnuts? Pecans work just fine!
No red lentils? Green or brown lentils have a longer cook time but can still work (many readers have used these instead). Just check them along the way – they might need 5 to 10 minutes more.
Watch! How to make Lentil Bolognese
I had so much fun making this pantry friendly lentil bolognese (and a fancy pants version) and sharing it with my family. Watch the video to see which version comes out on top!
And if you enjoyed this recipe, please rate and review the recipe with your feedback below :) And tag me on Instagram with your recreations!
- 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme (or use more oregano)
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 (5.3-ounce) (150g) tube of tomato paste*
- 1/2 cup (120 mL) dry red wine (optional)**
- 3 cups (720 mL) vegetable broth
- 1 cup (185g) red lentils, soaked (see step #1)
- ¼ cup (32g) walnuts (or pecans), crushed finely
- 1 (14.5-ounce/410g) can of crushed tomatoes or whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand***
- 12-16 ounces (340-454g) long, wide pasta (such as tagliatelle, pappardelle, or fettuccine; or tube pasta such as rigatoni or penne rigate; or gnocchi)****
- 1 tablespoon high-quality balsamic vinegar*****
- Flat-leaf Italian parsley or fresh basil, chopped or slivered (optional)
- Soak the 1 cup of lentils in water for 30 minutes, or up to 60 minutes. Meanwhile, prep all the other ingredients (i.e., chop the onions and garlic, chop the walnuts, etc.)
- Heat a 12-inch deep sauté pan or Dutch oven on medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, and once it’s shimmering, add the onions and season with a pinch of salt. Stir occasionally and cook the onions until a light brown fond starts form on the surface of the pan, about 5 minutes. Add a few spoons of water to deglaze the pan, and stir. Continue cooking the onions, adding more water every few minutes and stirring frequently to prevent burning, until the onions are softened and golden brown, 9-10 minutes.
- Add the garlic, thyme, oregano, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and pepper to taste. Stir frequently and cook for 60-90 seconds.
- Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 2-3 minutes to caramelize, stirring very frequently, until it’s darker red in color.
- Optional: If using the red wine, pour the wine into the pan and deglaze, scraping up any browned bits. Cook for 1-2 minutes, until the smell of alcohol has burned off and the mixture is jammy.
- Pour in the broth to deglaze the pan, stirring any browned bits on the bottom of the pot and stirring the broth into the tomato paste to combine. Add the lentils and walnuts, and stir to incorporate. Heat until the mixture comes to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low to maintain a rapid simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and simmer for another 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils are tender but still al dente, stirring occasionally to prevent burning and sticking. If using crushed tomatoes, you may need to add a little water or lower the heat as needed to prevent burning.I prefer to cook for 20 minutes for a more developed flavor.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the pasta and cook until just al dente. Reserve a ladle or so of pasta water (may not need it). Drain the pasta but do not rinse it.
- Taste the bolognese for seasonings, adding more salt and pepper to taste. Finish with the balsamic vinegar (or sugar)****, and stir to combine.
- Add the hot cooked pasta to the bolognese and toss until well coated in the sauce, adding a bit of pasta water as needed to ensure the sauce coats the noodles. Garnish with chopped parsley or basil, if using.Note: If you're not serving all of the bolognese at this time, transfer the amount of bolognese sauce you'd like to eat to the pasta pot. Add the hot cooked pasta, turn the heat to medium, and toss to coat. Store the leftover bolognese sauce separately in the fridge.