Turn the simple ingredients in your cupboard into vegan magic with this Lentil Bolognese recipe. It’s a comforting and hearty meal made with budget-friendly and wholesome ingredients.
Just like my Vegan Caramelized Onion Pasta and Italian White Bean and Pasta Stew, this healthy vegan bolognese requires a short list of ingredients but yields big, gourmet flavors. A mix of red lentils and walnuts add a rich body while tomato paste and canned tomatoes load it with umami, just like the Italian classic. Best of all, it’s naturally vegan, gluten-free, and soy-free!
What is bolognese?
Bolognese is an Italian meat sauce that originated in Bologna, Italy. The traditional recipe simmers soffritto vegetables (carrots, onion, and celery), tomatoes, wine, broth, ground meat and often milk for 2 to 3 hours before it’s ready to serve over long and wide pasta noodles.
Why this recipe works
Comforting and meaty, yet wholesome and healthy
This is a 100% wholesome recipe that’s also vegan, soy-free, and gluten-free, but you’d never know it. When red lentils and walnuts get together in the pot, they transform into the incredibly meaty base of the sauce. You’d think it was made with a vegan ground beef substitute because it’s so hearty!
The rich body of the sauce comes down to an entire tube of tomato sauce. This richness only gets better when you add vegetable broth and the optional but lovely red wine.
As gourmet as a classic bolognese
I challenged myself to create a vegan bolognese with the same flavor and texture profile as traditional Italian bolognese, and this version really delivers. It’s packed with umami, is delightfully rich and thick, and has a deceptively meaty taste that’s ultra-satisfying.
A new family favorite
The best part about this vegan lentil bolognese is that it only requires 10 main ingredients and it’s always a hit with families.
Bonus: All of the required ingredients are pantry staples! Depending on the brand of ingredients, I was able to make this entire recipe for somewhere in the range of $9 to $12. At six servings, that’s just $1.50 to $2 for a meal.
The prep time is also super quick – just 10 minutes! And unlike a traditional bolognese that’s simmered for hours, this recipe is ready in less than 1 hour.
If you want to take this recipe to the next level, add the optional red wine for a richer body and more complex flavor, and finish with fresh basil!
Just like in my Red Lentil Curry, red lentils make this sauce incredibly hearty and nutritious. They’re perfect for bolognese because they soften easily, cook quickly, and practically melt into the sauce. Red split lentils (sold as masoor dal in Indian grocery stores) will cook even quicker because their skins have already been removed.
Lentils are one of the main reasons why this sauce is so wholesome and nourishing. They’re a humble superfood and a great way to help fight off anemia, plus their protein (17 grams per 1 cup) and slow-digesting fiber can contribute to weight loss and maintenance.
Substitute: Some readers have made this with brown or green lentils with good results. These varieties do, however, need to be cooked longer (an extra 5 to 10 minutes). Also, keep in mind that the sauce will have more of a bite to it if you make it with green, brown, or puy lentils because they aren’t as soft as red lentils.
An entire tube of tomato paste goes into this sauce! It adds a rich body and the necessary umami flavor to every bite.
There is no substitution for a tube of tomato paste. Tomato pastes are NOT created equally, and I learned this the hard way after testing this recipe with canned tomato paste. It left a tinny metallic flavor behind and 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 while canned tomato paste is preserved with citric acid.
You can read more about the differences in this article by The Kitchn. They tested 16 different brands of tomato paste (canned and tubed) and the tubed stuff came out on top every time.
Brands we like: Our favorite tomato paste brands are Amore, Cento, Mutti, San Merican. For more budget-friendly options,try the Whole Foods 365 and Trader Joe’s brands.
Red wine (optional)
Deglazing the pan with dry red wine, like malbec, chianti, tempranillo, sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, or syrah, adds a noticeable amount of richness and flavor. It brings out the meatiness of the lentils, lends a richer body to the bolognese, and complements the tomato paste beautifully.
Where to buy: A few affordable vegan-friendly red wine brands that are sold at grocery stores include Santa Julia (organic and sustainable) and Layer Cake Wines.
Substitute: Just omit the wine if you don’t drink alcohol, as it’s still delicious.
They may not be traditional, but crushed walnuts work together with the lentils to enhance the meatiness of this sauce, both from a taste and texture perspective.
Tip: Toast the walnuts in the oven or a dry skillet on the stove to enhance their flavor.
Nut-free substitutes: If you are allergic to nuts, try sautéing finely diced mushrooms after the onions to add in some of that natural umami. You can also try blitzing dried porcini mushrooms in a spice grinder, then adding ½ to 1 teaspoon of the mushroom powder to the sauce when you add the veggie broth.
It wouldn’t be bolognese without crushed tomatoes. A good-quality can of tomatoes will add the perfect amount of umami, as well as the acidity and sweetness needed to balance the rest of the sauce.
We tested this recipe with canned crushed tomatoes and canned whole peeled tomatoes crushed by hand. The whole tomatoes were the clear winner because they gave the sauce the best tomato flavor.
Brands we like: Try to buy the best canned tomatoes money can buy to give your sauce the most wonderful flavor profile. Our favorite brands are Bianco DiNapoli, San Merican, and Cento.
I like to finish my red sauces with a splash of good-quality aged balsamic vinegar. The acidity balances the richness, while the slight sweetness pairs nicely with the tomatoes.
Substitute: Omit the vinegar if you don’t have a good-quality aged balsamic vinegar at home (an inexpensive imitation balsamic vinegar will just add a watery sour flavor). If your bolognese is a bit too sour, add 1 teaspoon of brown, coconut, or cane sugar at the end instead of the balsamic.
Bolognese is traditionally served over wide-shaped pasta, like tagliatelle, or ridged pasta, like rigatoni. Both will scoop up the chunky sauce perfectly, helping you enjoy those robust and well-developed flavors in every bite.
Remember: Don’t serve your bolognese with spaghetti noodles. Despite spaghetti bolognese being a thing (an American invention, not Italian), the noodles are too thin and don’t hold a chunky ragu-like sauce very well. Instead, the sauce pools at the bottom of the bowl.
Let the lentils soak in water for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a deep sauté pan. Once it’s hot, add the onions and let them cook until they start to take on some color.
Next, add the garlic, then the herbs, salt, and pepper.
Add the tube of tomato paste. Let it cook down and caramelize for a few minutes. You’ll know it’s done when it takes on a darker red color.
If you’re using it, deglaze the pan with red wine at this point. Scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of the pan, then let the wine simmer until the smell of alcohol has burned off and the mixture is jammy.
Pour in the broth, soaked lentils, and walnuts. Stir, then bring the mixture up to a boil. As soon as it starts to boil, reduce the heat to a rapid simmer.
After 20 minutes of simmering, stir in the crushed tomatoes. Continue simmering the sauce until the lentils are al dente (tender with a soft bite). The sauce should be pretty thick at this point.
Taste the bolognese and adjust the seasonings, herbs, salt, and/or pepper as needed. Finish the sauce by stirring in the balsamic vinegar.
Scoop the vegan bolognese over freshly cooked pasta noodles, garnish with fresh parsley or basil, and enjoy!
Tips for making this recipe
Use the best ingredients you can find
The flavors from all 10 ingredients are on full display in this recipe, which is you’ll get the best results using better-quality ingredients. If anything, use quality brands of tomato paste, canned tomatoes, and pasta, because they add A LOT to this recipe.
Soak the lentils first
Before you do anything else, soak the red lentils in a bowl of cool water for 30 minutes. This softens them up and helps them cook much quicker. If you skip this step, they’ll take closer to 45 to 60 minutes to soften in the bolognese.
Chop the walnuts finely
The finer the pieces, the more they’ll melt into the sauce and you’ll avoid hard bits of walnuts (not terrible, but not great). The best way to do this is to blitz the nuts in a food processor or spice grinder. Chopping them by hand with a chef’s knife works too, but you’ll need to chop them very finely.
Frequently Asked Questions
Scoop the sauce over bowls of freshly cooked tagliatelle, pappardelle, or fettuccine pasta noodles (make sure they’re egg-free). If you don’t have a long pasta, use a ridged pasta instead, like rigatoni and penne rigate (the ridged variety). Even gnocchi works well!
For a lighter option, serve the sauce over zucchini noodles or sweet potato noodles. You can even use it as a filling on vegan sloppy joes or dolloped on top of nachos with queso sauce for an Italian spin on “chili cheese nachos.”
Yes, the bolognese itself is naturally gluten-free. To make the entire meal gluten-free, serve it with gluten-free pasta.
A good rule of thumb is to store the sauce and cooked pasta separately, otherwise, the noodles will soak up the sauce and become soggy. That said, the combined leftovers are still very tasty and should last 3 to 4 days in the fridge.
The lentil bolognese will last a bit longer, 5 to 6 days, when stored in a separate airtight container in the fridge.
Yes! The bolognese sauce (without pasta) freezes quite well. I like to freeze it in these Souper Cubes (affiliate link), although an airtight container (don’t pack it to the top) and freezer bags work well, too. Thaw in the fridge overnight before reheating.
Reheat the leftover sauce in a saucepan on the stove over medium heat until warmed through. If it’s too thick, you can thin it out a bit with a splash of water or vegetable broth.
If you enjoyed this pantry-friendly lentil bolognese recipe, please rate and review it 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 (see note 1)
- 1/2 cup (120 mL) dry red wine (optional, see note 2)
- 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 (see note 3)
- 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)(see note 4)
- 1 tablespoon high-quality balsamic vinegar (see note 5)
- 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, see note 5), 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.
- As mentioned in the post, this recipe is best with tomato paste from a tube, not canned tomato paste.
- Dry red wines include malbec, chianti, tempranillo, sangiovese, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and syrah. See the “tips” section for recommended vegan-friendly brands.
- For the best tomato flavor, use whole peeled tomatoes and crush them by hand. Crushed and whole peeled tomatoes are hard to find in 14.5 ounce cans, so I usually use half of a 28-ounce can.
- Read the package ingredients to ensure the pasta is egg-free!
- If you don’t have a high-quality balsamic vinegar, you can (a) omit or (b) substitute with 1-2 teaspoons of sugar (brown, coconut, or cane sugar; start with just 1 teaspoon, then taste, and add more as needed).