Today, I’m sharing my Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese!
Mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, and there’s so much nostalgia wrapped up into it. Though my mom had never even heard of mac and cheese until well after moving to the U.S., she happily adopted this American tradition.
To be clear, she exclusively made Kraft mac and cheese. And while I still have fond memories of the boxed stuff, my tastebuds have changed, so this recipe was designed with adult tastebuds in mind.
Why you’ll love this Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
Comfort food heaven. Mac and cheese is always comfort food heaven (cheesy + creamy), but when you throw in crispy and buttery topping, it gets even better. Each bite is packed with flavor, indulgence, and nostalgia.
Textural contrast. While I love mac and cheese, one thing that I don’t love is that it’s one uniform texture. Sure, I’ll eat a bowlful, but the one-note texture can get a bit boring after a while. Hence, this crispy breadcrumb topping. The crunchiness pairs so perfectly with the rich creaminess that you’ll never want to stop eating this meal.
Easy to make. This cheese sauce is incredibly easy to make. The longest part of the recipe is just waiting for the butternut squash to roast, but the prep work takes less than 5 minutes. (you just need to cut the squash in half; no need to peel or dice it). Then, you blend the squash with the other ingredients until liquified, pair the sauce with cooked elbow macaroni, top it with a 2-minute breadcrumb topping, and pop it in the oven.
Butternut Squash. I love using butternut squash as part of the base for a vegan cheese sauce. First, the vibrant color lends this beautiful shade of orange, the color we most associate with mac and cheese. And from a texture perspective, it adds this velvety body to the cheese sauce.
To make this a quicker dish, you can also roast the butternut squash in advance and store the flesh in the fridge for a few days.
And while you can definitely use canned butternut squash puree if you’re in a rush, I do recommend using whole butternut squash since (a) it’ll be fresher and therefore more flavorful and (2) you’ll have a chance to season it with salt and pepper, thereby bringing more flavor to the recipe.
Cashews. If you’re no beginner to vegan recipes, you know that raw cashews that have been soaked in water make for some of the creamiest vegan sauces and dressings.
If you have a high-powered blender like a Vitamix, you can soak your cashews in boiling water for just 30-60 minutes. However, if you have a standard blender, you’re safer soaking the cashews in cool water for 8 hours or overnight. The longer soak will help fully pulverize all the cashew bits, so the sauce is smooth and not gritty.
Nutritional Yeast. Again, if you’re no beginner to vegan recipes, you also know that nutritional yeast is a potent source of umami and helps mimic the taste of cheese. In order to get this to really taste cheesy, I use a generous ½ cup of nutritional yeast. Not to worry, nutritional yeast itself doesn’t taste “yeasty.”
Dry Mustard Powder. This is technically an optional ingredient but I love adding a bit to my cheese sauce because it yields a sharp tang that not only evokes sharp cheddar cheese but also balances the creamy richness of the cheese sauce.
Miso Paste. One of the reasons people love cheese is that it naturally contains glutamic acid, which is the essence of umami (i.e., a rich savory taste). To bring in more umami without using dairy, I add a bit of white miso paste.
Lite Coconut Milk. Mac and cheese is supposed to be indulgent, so to really amp up the creaminess, I add in some “lite” coconut milk. It has a high enough fat content to bring a lot of creaminess, but it’s not so heavy that it will make the cheese sauce too thick.
To make your own “lite” or reduced-fat coconut milk, mix together 1 part full-fat canned coconut milk with 2 parts water, stir together until well combined. Then measure out 1 cup for this recipe.
Tapioca Flour. This ingredient helps thicken and creamify the cheese sauce and really give it the texture you associate with a cheese sauce. If you don’t have access to tapioca flour, you can substitute with cornstarch with mostly similar results.
Panko. The crispy bread crumb topping utilizes panko, aka Japanese bread crumbs. Their light, flaky texture brings an irresistible snappy crunch to the topping and works much better than standard breadcrumbs.
Watch! How to make Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
How to make this Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
Roast the butternut squash halves for 45-55 minutes, or until completely fork tender and lightly browned. Then scoop out 1 ½ cups of butternut squash flesh.
Pour the cheese sauce over the cooked macaroni, toss well to coat. Then transfer the mac and cheese to a 3-quart baking dish and spread out evenly.
For the topping, mix together the panko, nutritional yeast, salt, paprika, and melted vegan butter.
Sprinkle the breadcrumb topping over the mac and cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the topping is crispy and golden brown.
1. If you find it difficult to slice the butternut squash, pop it in the microwave for 60-90 seconds to help soften.
2. Taste the cheese sauce before you pour it onto the macaroni. Add more salt, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, mustard powder, or miso paste as needed.
3. If you want your mac and cheese to almost solidify into a mass (see photos below), allow it to cool for 15-20 minutes before slicing into it.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I substitute arrowroot powder or cornstarch for the tapioca flour?
- Yes, though I find the texture is best with tapioca flour.
Can I make this baked mac and cheese ahead of time?
- Yes, for the most part! You can make all three components – cheese sauce, macaroni, and topping in advance. I would wait until the day of to assemble and bake though, as the topping looses some of its crispness after being refrigerated. That said, the leftovers are still very tasty after several days – you just don’t get the same crispiness you do on the first day.
- This cheese sauce can be made several days in advance and stored in a glass jar or airtight container. You can also bake the butternut squash a few days in advance.
Can I substitute the coconut milk?
- Mac and cheese is supposed to be a decadent treat. It is not supposed to be a “health food.” So if you’re not allergic to coconut, please use the coconut milk! It makes for the creamiest and dreamiest mac and cheese.
- If you are allergic to coconut, substitute with a creamy, full-fat milk, such as oat milk or cashew milk. I don’t recommend almond milk – it’s too thin. I also don’t like using soy milk because even the unsweetened versions are slightly sweet, which is off putting to my tastebuds.
How do I make this recipe gluten-free?
- Use gluten-free macaroni (or any small-medium pasta shape you can find)
- Use gluten-free panko-style bread crumbs like this.
If you give this Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese recipe a try, be sure to tag me on Instagram with your recreations and please comment with your feedback below.
- 1 small-medium butternut squash (about 2 1/4 pounds or 1 kg)
- Olive oil or avocado oil, for roasting and tossing pasta
- 1/2 cup (~70g) raw cashews, soaked in cool water overnight or in boiling water for 1 hour and then drained*
- 3/4 cup (60g) nutritional yeast (makes for an extra cheesy flavor, but you can use 1/2 cup or 40g and it will still be good)
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard powder (optional but adds a nice sharp tangy flavor)
- 1 tablespoon mellow white or yellow miso paste
- 1 (13.5 ounce/ 400 mL) can “lite” coconut milk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon tapioca flour (see the “frequently asked questions” section for substitutes)
- 12 ounces (340g) elbow macaroni (see the “frequently asked questions” section for notes on how to make this recipe gluten-free)
- 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt + more to taste
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp (60-65g) panko bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
- Scant 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/8 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 2 1/2 tablespoons vegan butter, melted
- Preheat the oven to 425°F (218°C). Use a very sharp knife to slice the butternut squash in half, then scoop out the seeds using a spoon.
- Bake the squash. Place each squash half, cut side up, on a baking sheet and rub each with a bit of the olive oil or avocado oil and season well with salt and pepper. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the flesh is completely fork tender and lightly browned.
- Meanwhile, make the crispy breadcrumb topping. In a small bowl, combine the panko bread crumbs, nutritional yeast, salt, paprika, and melted vegan butter until well combined.
- Meanwhile, cook the elbow macaroni. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and salt generously. Cook the pasta according to the box directions until al dente and drain in a colander. Toss with a little bit of olive oil to prevent sticking.
- Once the squash is done roasting and cool enough to handle, scoop out the flesh and discard the skin. Measure out 1 1/2 cups (310-330g) of the flesh. Reserve the rest for another use, such as a curry, soup, or side dish.
- Reduce the oven temperature to 400°F (205°C). Lightly grease a 3-quart/3-liter baking dish with oil or melted vegan butter.
- Make the cheese sauce. In a high-powered blender, add the 1 1/2 cups (310-330g) of the squash flesh. Add in the soaked and drained cashews, nutritional yeast, mustard powder, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, miso paste, tapioca flour or cornstarch, lemon juice, lite coconut milk, 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, and black pepper to taste. Blend until the sauce is completely smooth and creamy, about 1-2 minutes, scraping down the sides as you go. Taste for seasonings and adjust accordingly, adding more salt as needed, more miso paste for more umami, more nutritional yeast for more cheesiness, or more lemon juice for more acidity.
- Return the cooked and drained pasta back to its saucepan and pour in the cheese sauce. Toss until well combined. Transfer the mac and cheese to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle the crispy breadcrumb topping evenly over the top.
- Transfer to the oven and bake for 18-20 minutes, until the topping is crispy and brown. Allow to cool for 10-20 minutes to help set up, then slice into it and serve.