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 Time: 1 hr
Cook Time: 15 mins
Total Time: 1 hr 15 mins
5 from 70 votes

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.

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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.

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Ingredient Spotlight

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.

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Tips for making this recipe

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.

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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.

 
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Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

5 from 70 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
Keyword: gluten-free, mac and cheese, vegan cheese
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.

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68 comments on Crispy Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese

  1. Claire

    5 stars
    Oh my goodness! This was so delicious! I’m always a little nervous when trying new mac and cheese recipes that use veggies in the sauce instead of just nutritional yeast, as the cheese flavour is never the same in the cheeseness department. This was the complete opposite! When my partner and I took our first bites and looked at each other and went wow :O I loved how it has so much flavour and that creamy cheeseness you want in a mac and cheese. I will definitely be making this again.

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for the lovely feedback, Claire!

  2. Debbie

    5 stars
    When I first saw your recipe on YouTube whilst scrolling through food videos, I stored it away in the back of my mind to try. I then forgot your user name 🤦‍♀️ But thankfully searched a vegan Mac n cheese and found it again! I instantly subscribed to your channel and have just prepped the sauce for tomorrow nights dinner. It tastes ah may zing! I always do a crispy top on my ‘baked sauce dishes’ and the ingredient list read like a song to me. Well done to you for all the effort you put into your content. Im married to a chef. A very French and specifically trained French Chef who has worked with and in some fabulous countries around the world. I will dazzle him with your vegan Indian Dahl that impressed your parents (he loooooves REAL authentic Indian food and makes the best butter chicken from scratch! He got the recipe from some beautiful Indian chefs he worked with in Dubai years ago – it’s still one of his go to recipes when we have friends over). Avid follower here from Australia- not vegan but love all food and cuisine. My son is dairy free – so I ventured into vegan ‘dairy’ alternatives- nutritional yeast being in my top 3! Keep posting and sharing your recipes- I am very inspired by your cooking channel! 🙏💕

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi Debbie, we are so glad you love the mac and cheese sauce! Thank you for the rave reviews, we are so happy to have you :)

  3. Poiema

    5 stars
    The cheezy sauce was so velvety and yummy! This is a masterpiece recipe that will stay in my repertoire. I used a 12 oz. bag of pre-cubed butternut squash from Trader Joe’s. It was just the right amount.

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for sharing, Poiema!

  4. Natalie Fröhlich

    5 stars
    WOW!!!
    I am SO impressed, I loved this! Obviously it didn’t taste like a Mac and cheese but it tasted like my favourite butternut squash soup in a pasta and it’s just amazing! So in love with this and definitely a new go to, it takes a while to cook however it’s quite easy as most the more is in the oven or blending. I did FORGET the coconut milk which was so silly as I remembered how important you said it was! I was so annoyed but it still tasted so amazing but very strong in flavour (so next time I will use it to even out the tangy-ness)
    P.S for anyone wondering I didn’t add the miso paste because I don’t have any and just added some blended walnuts for that Umami and it tasted fab!

    1. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Thanks for sharing your experience Natalie, we are thrilled you loved this Mac and Cheese!

  5. CD

    Is there another cheese sauce/recipe you’d recommend for someone that is allergic to squash?

    1. Robbie

      I would either omit it or use sweet potato. Sweet potato is both orange in color and sweet similar to butternut squash.

    2. Support @ Rainbow Plant Life

      Hi There! We have a couple on the blog.

      In this blog post there is a Mexican Cheese Sauce Recipe: https://rainbowplantlife.com/the-best-vegan-breakfast-burritos/#wprm-recipe-container-11481

      In this blog post is a Smoky Cheese Sauce Recipe: https://rainbowplantlife.com/vegan-quesadillas-with-smoky-cheese-and-refried-beans/#wprm-recipe-container-5771

      Hope that helped!

  6. Jane Anders

    5 stars
    Awesome!! Wondering if frozen butternut squash in a steamer bag would work??

    1. Lauren

      I’ve used frozen butternut squash before with no issue! Tastes so good!!

  7. Diana

    5 stars
    It’s funny cause as I read the comments, everyone seems to agree! This IS the BEST vegan Mac & cheese❣️ I can’t get over how delicious it is!! It has a subtle sweetness. I think it’s the squash…. I’ve never had butternut squash. I also added pepper flakes cause I luv heat! Will keep this as a very special dish to make!! Amazing! Yay‼️👏🏻👏🏻

  8. James

    5 stars
    Absolutely delicious and surprisingly easy

  9. Kelly

    5 stars
    Absolutely indulgent and delicious! Followed the recipe exactly. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Laura

    5 stars
    Made this last night and it was a huge success! There was quite a lot of cheesy sauce so I boiled up some extra pasta to bulk it out. Also to add in some extra veg I sauted some onions + garlic + celery in mixed it in. Will 10/10 be making again!

  11. Elizabeth

    Hi there – any recommendations for substitutes for the cashews? Would cannelini beans work? Dying to try this after all the rave reviews!

  12. Haley

    Made this last night for dinner — it’s as amazing as advertised. I substituted equal parts soy sauce (real deal) and tahini (unsalted) for the miso paste as none of the stores I visited had any (looking at you, WF, Sprouts and Tom Thumb!). The cheese sauce came out absolutely stunning: color, texture, viscosity and taste. ALL perfect. The only “problems” I encountered were portions being off. I ended up needing all of the macaroni noodles (16 oz) which lengthened my cooking time as I had to reheat water, etc. I also had about a pint of cheese sauce leftover. These are the kinds of problems I like to have; made for an excellent/quick lunch the next day! Bake time and wait time were perfect as well. This is the best mac & cheese recipe out there, y’all. SO worth it! Thanks, Nisha!!

  13. Omnia

    5 stars
    It was amazing. My husband just loved it!!!

  14. I'Asia Lovelace

    5 stars
    Sooo good. Love that there is no fake cheese and it’s actually delicious. Never tried breadcrumbs on mac and cheese before, but it does what it needs to do here! This will be my new go-to recipe for the holidays!

  15. Lauren

    5 stars
    I’ve made so many vegan Mac n cheeses that have been very underwhelming but this is so incredible! And the crispy topping is just next level yum! 🤤

  16. Anna G

    5 stars
    This turned out incredible! I’ve been trying lots of vegan recipes and mac n cheeses, but they often are a bit gritty and dry. Not this one! Aside from the fact that I accidentally threw in too much mustard powder when I was adjusting it… Woops! Didn’t realize how potent mustard powder is. (And how much it reminds me of horseradish lol.) That being said, it still was super tasty. Though I wish I didn’t use that much mustard powder, I just had the mindset that it was a horseradish mac n cheese and then it didn’t bother me as much.

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