Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

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This Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. An incredibly creamy (and easy) vegan cheese sauce gets paired with elbow macaroni, covered in a crispy and buttery breadcrumb, and then baked in the oven.
Prep 1 hr
Cook 15 mins
Total 1 hr 15 mins
4.9 from 156 votes

Today, I’m sharing my vegan spin on the ultimate comfort food: Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese!

This recipe features an easy cheese sauce that is ridiculously creamy and cheesy (and even secretly wholesome…hi, butternut squash!). Once mixed with elbow macaroni, it gets topped with a buttery bread crumb topping and baked until crunchy and browned. The textural contrast of creamy and crispy is irresistible and every bite is packed with flavor, indulgence, and nostalgia.

baked mac and cheese on a plate

What you need to make the best Vegan Mac and Cheese

Butternut Squash. Butternut squash adds a velvety body to the cheese sauce and (2) it brings that nostalgic orange-yellow color you associate with mac and cheese.

Cashews. Soaked raw cashews, when blended up, rival the creamiest of dairy sauces. I’ve tried vegan cheese sauces without them and they never compare.

Nutritional Yeast. A potent source of savory flavor 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.

Miso Paste. One of the reasons people love cheese is that it naturally umami. To bring in more umami without using dairy, I add a bit of white miso paste.

Lite Coconut Milk. Mac and cheese is meant to be indulgent, so to amp up the creaminess, I add in some “lite” coconut milk. It has a high enough fat content to bring the creaminess, but it’s not too heavy.

Tapioca Flour. This ingredient helps thicken the cheese sauce and give it the texture you associate with a mac and cheese sauce. 

Panko. The light, flaky texture brings an irresistible snappy crunch to the topping and works much better than standard breadcrumbs.

sliced of crispy baked vegan mac and cheese on plate

How to make Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese 

Coat the butternut squash halves with olive oil, salt and pepper. Roast at 425ºF for 45-55 minutes, or until completely fork tender and lightly browned. Scoop out 1 ½ cups of butternut squash flesh.

Add the butternut squash flesh to a blender with the soaked cashews, miso, nutritional yeast, spices, coconut milk, and tapioca flour. Blend until thick, creamy, and smooth.

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 at 400ºF for 15-20 minutes until the topping is crispy and golden brown.

tray of vegan mac and cheese with crispy topping

Tips for making this recipe

How to easily slice butternut squash

If you find it difficult to slice your butternut squash in half, pop it in the microwave for 1-2 minutes to help soften and make it easy to slice.

How to soak cashews

If you have a high-powered blender, you can soak your cashews in boiling water for just 30 minutes. But if you have a standard blender, soak them in cool water for 8 hours or overnight so the sauce is smooth and not gritty.

Taste the cheese sauce

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. If you’re planning to use this cheese sauce to make regular mac and cheese (i.e., not baking it), omit the tapioca starch. It’ll taste chalky if not cooked.

Let the mac and cheese rest

If you want your mac and cheese to almost solidify into a mass (see photo below), allow it to cool for 15-20 minutes before slicing into it.

crispy vegan baked mac and cheese

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I substitute the tapioca flour?

You can sub in cornstarch (or arrowroot powder) with fairly similar results, but I find that tapioca flour works best.

How to store and reheat leftovers (and make ahead of time)

If you want to save time, you can make the cheese sauce and macaroni 1-2 days in advance, and toss them together in the baking dish; cover and refrigerate. On the day of serving, take it out of the fridge so it’s not super cold and make the topping (takes 2 minutes). Sprinkle the topping on and bake it off.

Or, you can just make the cheese sauce 2-3 day ahead of time and store it in an airtight container. Or even just roast the butternut squash 2-3 days in advance and store the flesh in the fridge.

Once baked, allow to cool and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. To reheat, add your mac and cheese to an oven-safe dish. If very thick, add a spoon or two of plant milk and toss to combine. Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375ºF for 15-20 minutes, or until warmed through. If desired, take off the foil and bake for another 5 minutes.

Can I substitute the coconut milk?

For me, mac and cheese is an indulgent treat, not a health food, which is why I use coconut milk. But, if you’re allergic to coconut, substitute with full-fat oat milk or cashew milk. Almond milk is too thin IMO and soy milk (even unsweetened varieties) leaves a subtle but strange sweet aftertaste.

How can I make this vegan mac and cheese gluten-free?

  • Use gluten-free macaroni (or any small-medium pasta shape you can find) and gluten-free panko-style bread crumbs like this.
  • Can I use use something besides butternut squash?

    You can use (1) canned pumpkin puree or (2) canned butternut squash puree if you’re in a rush. That said, using whole butternut squash adds more flavor, as it’s fresher and gets more flavor baked into it with the roasting and the salt and pepper.

    Can I make vegan mac and cheese without the nutritional yeast?

    My answer would be no, as it brings a significant amount of the cheesy flavor. Otherwise, it’ll be more of a creamy pasta bake (delicious but won’t have the mac and cheese flavor).

    Watch! How to make Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

    TASTIEST VEGAN MAC AND CHEESE | easy recipe
    TASTIEST VEGAN MAC AND CHEESE | easy recipe

    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.

    Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

    4.9 from 156 votes
    This Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese is the ultimate comfort food. An incredibly creamy (and easy) vegan cheese sauce gets paired with elbow macaroni, covered in a crispy and buttery breadcrumb, and then baked in the oven.
    Prep Time: 1 hr
    Cook Time: 15 mins
    Total Time: 1 hr 15 mins
    Course: Dinner, Lunch
    Cuisine: American
    Diet Vegan
    Serving size: 6

    Ingredients

    • 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

    Crispy Topping

    • 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

    Instructions

    • 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.

    Calories: 538kcal | Carbohydrates: 80g | Protein: 18g | Fat: 17g | Saturated Fat: 7g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 6g | Trans Fat: 1g | Sodium: 845mg | Potassium: 1045mg | Fiber: 9g | Sugar: 7g | Vitamin A: 17907IU | Vitamin C: 36mg | Calcium: 113mg | Iron: 4mg

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    225 comments on Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

    1. Christina

      Second time making your recipe and I really enjoy it. Brings back childhood memories. Easy to make and definitely a keeper for us.

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        That’s so great to hear, Christina! Next time, would you mind leaving a rating alongside your review? Star ratings are big help to readers who are thinking of making the recipe. Thanks!

    2. Annie

      Hello, any advice for substituting cashews for folks with nut allergies? Thanks!

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Hi Annie, you could try soaked and blended raw sunflower seeds or maybe even silken tofu?

      2. Stephanie Dianne

        5 stars
        I’ve been successful replacing cashews with cannellini beans to get that creamy taste without nuts for nut allergic guests. Though I haven’t substituted cashews for cannellini beans in this recipe, I’m pretty sure it could work out nicely.

    3. Dave Barak

      5 stars
      I just now finished making the sauce – the most important part – and it’s amazing, just like real cheese. I only had 12.2 cans of condensed coconut milk on hand, but after adding a bit of water it worked out just fine. Surprisingly, I had tapioca flour on hand – I buy that stuff knowing I’ll need it someday.

      And today, for the first time ever, I ran the blender on high without the cover. Oops.

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Great to hear you loved the cheese sauce, Dave! And oopsies about the blender, it happens to the best of us!

    4. Antonia

      I really enjoy all your recipes, you are so fun to watch! I haven’t tried this 1 yet, but plan on it. Just curious if your dishes can be frozen… especially around Thanksgiving time, so one can cut down on time spent in the kitchen on that day?

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Hi Antonia, thanks! :) It depends on the recipe honestly, but for this recipe specifically we suggest preparing the sauce ahead of time, which can be frozen. The pasta and crispy topping are best prepared fresh. Enjoy!

    5. Alex

      5 stars
      Hey Nisha! I’ve made this recipe in the past and it was always so good. I’m wanting to make it for thanksgiving but have family that cant eat nuts. I was wondering if it’s possible to make the baked mac and cheese nut free and what you would suggest to substitute the cashews?

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        HI Alex, we’re so happy you love the recipe! You can still follow the recipe as-written but just use this nut-free vegan cheese sauce instead of the nut-based one! Cheers!

    6. Polly Warmuth

      I just made the cheese sauce/queso from the Instant Pot cookbook. Can I use it to make the Mac and cheese?

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Hi Polly, yes! Each of our cheese sauces can be used as a mac and cheese sauce.

    7. Thomas Muniak

      5 stars
      Just made your Mac and cheese recipe. Can honestly say it was the best vegan Mac and cheese I’ve made. Been difficult to mimic cheese but this really did turn out creamy and delicious. Add a little smoke hot sauce on it and we are in business 😂. Thanks again!

      1. Kaitlin @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Awesome, Thomas. The hot sauce addition sounds lovely. Thanks for your comment and for taking the time to review!

    8. Annia

      I have made the instant pot version before and it was delicious! I’m looking to make this version for my co-workers at lunch and I’m wondering if I can make the sauce and pasta ahead of time? I’m guessing I should wait to combine everything until right before baking? Thanks so much for the input. I’m curious to see if anyone realizes there is no actual cheese in it!

      1. Help

        I made the sauce ahead of time (will be 2 days tomorrow for dinner) so the flavours had time to meld. It has thickened up a lot in the fridge, so I will add more oat milk or pasta water (depending on salt) to thin it out when heating it up. I have also cooked pasta to have leftover (some hot for dinner, some for pasta salad). White pasta softens more overnight (as it cools) than whole wheat so I would take out white pasta really al dente (and WW al dente). At this point pasta should be undercooked, but that’s the point, when added to hot sauce it will finish cooking, and it will suck up the liquid in the sauce so expect the sauce to be thick. As always pour sauce and pasta into a cool dish/plate etc. and cool near a fan (ideally) to cool it down quickly (slow the rate of spoilage) and into a fridge until you need it. Oh and yes combine before hand for best texture. No one (or at least me) wants soggy pasta. Think I covered everything. Sorry for the blurb, hope that helps :)

      2. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

        Hi Annia, yes you can! Up to a day or two ahead of time. Pasta is best cooked fresh but if you want to make it ahead of time, cook it until just al dente so when it reheats it doesn’t break apart. Enjoy!

    9. Leah

      5 stars
      This has become one of our household favourites for the Fall!
      Im grateful for your brilliant mind putting this spectacular recipe together! I wouldn’t change a single thing about it

      1. Hannah Hairston

        Leah,

        What a kind and thoughtful review, thank you :) So happy you are enjoying it just the way it is!

    10. Christine Tyrell

      Any recommendations to sub the light coconut milk? Can’t have any coconut. Thank you.

      1. Helper

        I used full fat oat milk – mentioned on pumpkin macaroni cheese on this website, (and am a vegan experimenter so still consume cow’s milk) and wouldn’t know it didn’t contain dairy. Use a brand of milk you like – I swear barista style has a more neutral flavour than regular. Saying that, once you add spices, nooch etc. I can’t taste the oat milk aftertaste anymore. Hope that helps :)

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