Do you miss the creamy, cheesy goodness of mac and cheese? Look no further! Cheesy, savory, and downright addictive, this baked vegan mac and cheese is a must-try whether you're plant-based or not.
If you're suffering from "cheese separation anxiety" or have nightmares about a cheese-less existence, fear not! This vegan baked mac and cheese is here to save the day with its plant-based cheesiness that will have you saying, "Dairy who?" You won't believe how close it comes to the real thing, making eating plant-based easy.
For years, I've been making vegan mac and cheese recipes, and I've had more variations of this dish than I have fingers and toes. I've taken the best bits from various recipes, mixed in my ideas, and voila - I think I have a delicious dish that will have you wondering why you ever bothered with traditional mac and cheese in the first place... seriously, it's that good.
Here are other great cheesy recipes:
- Vegan Cashew Queso
- Easy Vegan Cashew Cheese Sauce
- Vegan Jackfruit Quesadillas
- Vegan Mascarpone Cheese Recipe
- Healthy Vegan Broccoli Cheese Soup
If you like pasta dishes and want a light, velvety sauce, try Easy Vegan Mushroom and Leek Pasta.
Why You'll Love This Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
- This vegan mac and cheese is incredibly creamy and satisfying, thanks to a velvety sauce from plant-based ingredients like cashews, nutritional yeast, and plant-based milk. You won't believe it's dairy-free!
- Making this dish is a breeze. You'll spend less time in the kitchen and more time enjoying your meal. Plus, it's perfect for busy weeknights or when you need a quick and tasty dinner.
- Unlike traditional mac and cheese, this version is lower in saturated fats and cholesterol. It's also rich in nutrients and fiber, making it a more wholesome choice.
- If you have children at home, they'll love this baked vegan mac and cheese. Personally, with teenagers in my household, this recipe currently ranks in their top three weekly requests, alongside Vegan Caesar Salad and Healthy Red Lentil Soup – yes, you read that right - it's also delicious!
- This baked mac and cheese can be made beforehand.
- It doesn't dry out quickly like other vegan mac and cheese recipes, making it great for leftovers.
- I have served this to many different dietary preferences, and everyone loves it. It's delicious for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike!
If you're into visuals, here's a snapshot of the ingredients and a few notes I wanted to pass along. For quantities, check the recipe card.
Ingredients for Baked Vegan Mac and Cheese
Carrot: I use a carrot in this recipe to give it a nice, mild yellow tint. I'm not a fan of that super bright yellow you get from turmeric in other mac and cheese recipes. I like my mac and cheese to look and feel traditional, and carrots do the trick. But if you don't want to hassle with boiling another pot for the carrot - I'm looking at my mother-in-law - no worries! Swap it out with ¼ teaspoon of turmeric (if you're cool with that bold color). Leaving out the carrot won't mess with the taste at all.
Cashews: Even though I have a high-speed blender, I soak my cashews for at least 30 minutes. I find that any soaking helps create a creamier cheese sauce. If you have a regular blender, the best ways to prepare the cashews for this recipe are to soak them in water for at least 4-8 hours or boil them for 15-30 minutes until soft and plump and then let sit for 20 additional minutes. The goal is a creamy baked vegan mac and cheese, so let them soak for the silkiest cheese sauce. Take a look at Guide to Soaking Cashews for more details.
Tapioca Starch: Tapioca starch is a thickener that helps create a creamy, glossy, smooth texture. When heated, it can thicken and form a gooey texture similar to melted cheese, making it a great substitute for vegan cheese sauces.
Substitute with arrowroot or potato starch, 1:1. They will also create a smooth and creamy texture with a neutral flavor. I would not use cornstarch or all-purpose flour as a substitute because they can make a slightly grainy texture.
Lemon Juice: The acidity in the lemon juice helps brighten up the flavors and adds a slight tanginess reminiscent of traditional cheese sauces.
Nutritional Yeast: Nutritional yeast adds a "cheese-ish" flavor without using dairy. It is sold in all major grocery chains. Once you buy it, you can use it in dishes like in these 9 Easy and Quick Recipes.
Miso Paste: Adding a bit of miso paste to baked vegan mac and cheese can help add depth of flavor and an umami taste that complements the creamy texture of the cheese sauce. You can find it in the refrigerated section near the tofu section of major grocery stores.
Dry Mustard: Mustard has a slightly tangy and spicy taste that can complement the creaminess of the cheese sauce, making it more complex and interesting. Additionally, the mustard can help balance the sauce's richness and prevent it from becoming too heavy. Some say it mimics the taste of dairy-based mac and cheese, making it more satisfying for those who are used to the traditional version. Substitute with a teaspoon of Dijon mustard or yellow mustard.
Oat Milk: Swap oat milk for a can of coconut milk instead. I'd advise against using coconut cream here because it tends to have a stronger coconut flavor, and we're aiming for something subtler. Using coconut milk in this recipe makes the cheese sauce more indulgent and creamy without any coconut taste.
I frequently make this baked vegan mac and cheese and use oat milk to reduce calories and fat. But I've got to admit, it's a real treat when you go all in with the coconut milk. So, the choice is yours – whether you want to keep it lighter with oat milk or go all out for that luscious coconut milk richness, it will be delicious either way!
Ingredients For Breadcrumb Topping
This is easy to make and a great addition to your mac and cheese.
Breadcrumbs vs. Panko: Panko may be the way to go if you want a light and crispy texture. If you prefer a denser and more cohesive texture, breadcrumbs may be better. You could also experiment with using a combination of the two to achieve a balance between crunchiness and cohesiveness. I don't have a preference as they both are delicious. Let me know in the comments what you prefer.
Here are some pics if you want to see what you'll be doing. Check the recipe card for full instructions.
Cook the pasta according to the package instructions.
Boil the carrot. To get the carrot tender quickly, chop it into small chunks. You can skip the carrots and add ¼ teaspoon of turmeric for color.
While the pasta cooks, preheat the oven to 400 °F (205°C) if topping with breadcrumbs.
While the carrot boils, prepare your panko or breadcrumb mixture by mixing together the ingredients for the topping. Set aside.
Fill the blender with the cheese sauce ingredients, including the softened carrots.
Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. Add the cheese sauce and mix until well combined.
If you are not using an oven-safe pot like the Dutch oven above, transfer it to a casserole and top it with the breadcrumb mixture.
Bake for 12 - 15 minutes or until golden brown.
- IMPORTANT: The tapioca starch will be heated when baking the mac and cheese. However, if you are not baking the mac and cheese, you should run the blender for about 4-5 minutes to ensure it gets heated up and activated. If it doesn't get activated, the cheese sauce might have a starchy and gritty taste and not thicken it. If you don't have a high-speed blender, you will need to bake the mac and cheese, or you can opt to heat the cheese sauce on the stove.
- Cooking the pasta al dente ensures it doesn't become too mushy when you bake it.
- Adding salt to the water is generally recommended when cooking pasta. Adding salt to the water helps to enhance the flavor of the pasta and gives it a better overall taste. Additionally, it can also help to prevent the pasta from sticking together. The general rule of thumb is to add 1-2 tablespoons of salt per 4-6 quarts of water.
- When baking, observe it periodically. It will burn fast and dry out if left too long.
- Overbaking can cause the mac and cheese to become dry and lose its creaminess.
- I make my breadcrumbs by saving the ends of the bread that no one in my home uses for sandwiches or toast. I keep them in a bread bag in the freezer. When I have a bunch, I place them in the food processor and blend them to make breadcrumbs. I store it in an airtight container.
- Use a Dutch oven or oven-safe pot to save yourself an extra baking dish to clean. Just boil the pasta and mix the mac and cheese in the same pot. Then sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture evenly over the vegan mac and cheese and place it in the oven.
If you want a nut-free cheese sauce to make mac and cheese, try Best Nut-Free Vegan Cheese Sauce.
This baked vegan mac and cheese is good enough as a stand-alone meal, especially with the crispy topping. Here are some ideas if you want to add more variety.
- Add a side salad - A simple side salad with fresh greens, tomatoes, and cucumbers can help balance the richness of mac and cheese. Serve with a light dressing like light oil and/or vinegar, or try Vegan Honey Mustard.
- Serve with roasted vegetables - Roasted broccoli, Brussels sprouts, or asparagus can make a great side dish with mac and cheese.
- Add a protein - Serve mac and cheese alongside some vegan sausage or grilled or smoked tofu for a complete meal.
- Serve in a bread bowl - For a fun and creative presentation, hollow out a bread roll and fill it with mac and cheese. Top with some fresh herbs or roasted veggies for added flavor.
- Garnish with fresh herbs - Chopped parsley, basil, or chives can add a pop of color and freshness to mac and cheese.
Variations of Vegan Mac and Cheese
Customize your vegan mac and cheese recipe to suit your taste preferences. Here are a few ideas:
- Use different types of pasta: Instead of using elbow macaroni, use penne, rigatoni, or fusilli for a different texture. I love to use the quinoa fusilli pasta from Trader Joe's for healthy, high-protein pasta. It holds up great and, most importantly, has a great flavor and texture.
- Add vegetables: Add steamed broccoli, roasted cauliflower, sautéed mushrooms, or frozen peas and carrots to your mac and cheese for extra nutrition.
- Make it a "big deal" casserole - Layer mac and cheese with some sautéed onions, spinach, or mushrooms, and bake it in the oven until bubbly. Use penne or fusilli for a more elegant look.
- Spice it up: Add some heat to your mac and cheese by adding a pinch of cayenne or red pepper flakes.
- Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese - Replace some of the milk with pureed butternut squash for a creamy and slightly sweet twist on the classic recipe.
- Pesto Mac and Cheese - Top or stir in some homemade or store-bought vegan pesto (Trader Joe's has a good one) for a fresh herb flavor. Add cherry tomatoes or roasted red peppers for extra color and texture.
- BBQ Mac and Cheese - Stir in a bit of BBQ sauce and top with chopped vegan bacon or tempeh for a smoky and savory twist on mac and cheese. Add some caramelized onions or sautéed mushrooms for extra depth of flavor. Yum!
FAQs for Baked Mac and Cheese
If you skip the nutritional yeast, the sauce won't have that cheesy kick it's known for. It'll still be creamy, but you'll miss out on that unique cheesy flavor that nutritional yeast brings.
Yes, you can freeze vegan mac and cheese. Let it cool completely before freezing, and place it in airtight containers or bags. Freeze for up to 2-3 months. To thaw, refrigerate overnight and reheat in the microwave or oven.
It will last up to 5 days in the fridge if stored in an airtight container.
Vegan mac and cheese can be healthier than traditional versions due to its lower saturated fat, no cholesterol, and potential for added nutrients from plant-based ingredients. However, its healthiness depends on ingredient choices, the amount you consume, and preparation methods. For example, opt for whole-grain pasta to boost fiber and nutrition while being mindful of portion sizes for a balanced diet.
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For the Mac and Cheese
- 1 lb macaroni (or any pasta you prefer)
- 1 cup cashews (soaked (see post for more info))
- 1 carrot (medium ~80g; substitute with ¼ teaspoon turmeric)
- ¼ cup nutritional yeast
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice (juice from about 1 lemon)
- 1 ¼ cup oat milk (substitute with 1 can of coconut milk)
- 2 cloves garlic (¼ tsp garlic powder or 2 teaspoons minced garlic)
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon tapioca starch (see post about substitutions )
- 1 teaspoon white miso (or yellow miso)
- ½ teaspoon dried mustard powder
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
Toasty Breadcrumb Topping
- 1 cup bread crumbs (or panko)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 2 tablespoons vegan butter (oil works too)
- Prepare the cashews: For the silkiest sauce, soak the cashews in water between 4-8 hours. You don't need to soak the cashews if you have a high-speed blender, but soaking even for just 30 minutes is recommended. See tips in the post.
- Cook the pasta: Prepare the pasta according to the package instructions, then drain and set aside.
- Preheat: Preheat the oven to 400 °F (205°C) while the pasta cooks.
- Prepare the carrot: Cut and boil the carrot for about 8 minutes.
- Prepare breadcrumbs: While the carrot boils, prepare your breadcrumb mixture. Combine breadcrumbs, salt, garlic powder, Italian seasoning, and vegan butter or oil. Mix well and set aside.
- Make the Cheese Sauce: Fill the blender with the remaining ingredients. Drain the soaked cashews and discard the soaking water. Add the cashews, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, milk, garlic, salt, tapioca flour, miso, mustard powder, paprika, and cayenne pepper. When the carrot can be pierced with a fork, drain, and then place in the blender. Using a high-speed blender, blend until the ingredients are warm, about 4-5 minutes. This will activate the tapioca starch. See the post for more details.
- Drain the pasta: Drain the pasta and return it to the pot.
- Add the cheese sauce. Add the sauce and mix until well combined.
- Transfer to a baking dish: If you are not using an oven-safe pot, transfer the mixture to a casserole dish, top with breadcrumb mixture, and bake for about 15 minutes on top rack until golden brown. Watch it carefully, though. It will burn fast.
A serving size of 8 is based on an estimation as a side dish. If serving as a main course, its serves about 5.
If you do not have a carrot or turmeric as a substitute, you can omit the ingredients. The sauce will be a pale yellow from the nutritional yeast but will still taste delicious.
Blend the sauce for a few minutes to activate the tapioca starch and thicken it. If you do not have a high-speed blender, the sauce will thicken when baked in the oven or heated on the stove if you choose not to add the breadcrumb topping.
See Guide to Soaking Cashews for quicker soaking methods for cashews.
Nutritional information is only an estimate.
- Prep Time: 20 minutes
- Cashew Soaking Time (optional): 4 hours
- Cook Time: 15 minutes
- Category: dinner, lunch, side dish
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: American
- Diet: Vegan
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Calories: 406
- Sugar: 3
- Sodium: 481
- Fat: 18
- Saturated Fat: 10
- Carbohydrates: 51
- Fiber: 3
- Protein: 12
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
Keywords: cashews, cheese, pasta