Vegetarian Bolognese

Vegetarian bolognese is a rich, luscious won’t-miss-the-meat pasta sauce. Roasting cauliflower and mushrooms deepens the flavor of this satisfying dinner. Double the recipe to eat some now and freeze some for later.

Vegetarian Bolognese in a bowl with spaghetti and silverware. A plate is under the bowl. A drink, grated parmesan and ground pepper are behind it.

Simply Recipes / Sally Vargas

Traditionally, bolognese is a time-consuming, rich, and deeply flavored broth. The meat adds body and umami, but you don’t need meat for a beautiful bolognese.

In this vegetarian version, while not the same as a traditional bolognese, roasted cauliflower and mushrooms provide every bit as much flavor and texture as the meat version. Serve it over spaghetti, fettuccini, linguine, or pappardelle noodles, and you’ll enjoy a satisfying, filling dinner full of robust roasted vegetable flavors.

The process of making this is not a slam-dunk in terms of time, but it does provide cooking therapy. When the steps occupy your mind, you can begin to focus on the moment, a good thing when times are challenging.

The cauliflower and mushrooms roast in the oven while you start the sauce. Roasting concentrates and deepens their flavor while you get going on the next few steps on the stovetop.

What Is Bolognese Sauce?

As the name suggests, Bolognese sauce originated in Bologna, Italy. It is a thick meat sauce made with ground beef or a combination of ground meat such as pork, beef, and veal.

Typically, it starts with a soffritto (finely chopped carrots, celery, and onions) gently cooked in butter. Milk or cream, white wine, and a small amount of tomato enrich the sauce.

The ingredients are added in stages, with each ingredient taking time to cook before adding the next ingredient. When they are all in the pot, the sauce simmers for three to four hours to produce a finished product that is more meat than tomatoes, with a very rich and luscious texture.

Vegetarian Bolognese in a bowl with a plate underneath and silverware. A drink, grated garmesan and ground pepper are to the left of the bowl.
Sally Vargas

How To Make the Best Vegetarian Bolognese

You will not need hours upon hours to cook this sauce, though it is not a throw-it-in-the-pan kind of meal. Paying careful attention at each step will ensure delicious results.

While the meat version includes a soffritto, ground meat, milk, and wine added in stages to deepen the flavors, the vegetable version uses a few other tricks to coax out hearty flavors from the vegetables.

These are:

  • Brown the onions until golden.
  • Toast some tomato paste in the skillet.
  • Roast the cauliflower and mushrooms in the oven.

These little moves take your sauce from just so-so to so, so delicious. Lentils add protein and thicken the sauce, giving it a similar consistency to meat sauce.

Ingredient Substitutions

If you don’t have every ingredient for this recipe, it’s easiest to contemplate substitutions when you know purpose they serve.

  • Cauliflower: Has a neutral flavor that merges seamlessly into the tomato sauce. When chopped into small pieces, it gives the sauce thickness with texture. You could use crumbled textured vegetable protein, small cubes of firm tofu, or roasted chopped carrots and celery.
  • Mushrooms: Add an umami flavor and could be substituted by the above ingredients or crumbled seitan. Seitan, made from fermented soybeans or whole grains, has a nutty taste.

What Kind of Lentils Are Best?

Small lentils mimic the texture of ground meat in this vegetarian sauce, while also adding extra protein.

Depending on the type you choose, you may need to adjust the cooking time. Also, since the sauce is made in a wide skillet or sauté pan, more water or vegetable stock may be required, because the liquid in the wide skillet evaporates during longer cooking. You are looking for a consistency that is not soupy, but at the same time, not so thick that it is not pourable. Like, for example, meaty Bolognese sauce!

  • Red or yellow lentils will be tender after 15 to 20 minutes of cooking, and I prefer the red variety primarily for speedier preparation.
  • You could use French green (puy) lentils and black lentils. They hold their shape in cooking but take longer to soften.
Cauliflower Bolognese on a plate with spaghetti and a fork.
Sally Vargas

How To Store and Freeze Vegetarian Bolognese

This is a great sauce to double. Use some now and save the rest for another day when you’re too tired to cook, but not in the mood for pizza.

The Fridge: The sauce will keep in the refrigerator in a covered container for three to four days. Cool to room temperature and refrigerate within two hours of cooking the sauce.

The Freezer: For optimal flavor, use frozen sauce within four to six months. The sauce will still be safe to eat for up to one year. If defrosted in the refrigerator, it will keep for an additional three to four days in the fridge. Use microwaved sauce immediately after reheating.

More Great Vegetarian Cauliflower Recipes

Vegetarian Bolognese

Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 45 mins
Total Time 60 mins
Servings 6 servings


For the sauce

  • 1 medium head cauliflower (1 3/4 pounds) quartered, cored, and thickly sliced

  • 1 pound crimini or white mushrooms

  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt

  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced

  • 3 cloves garlic, minced

  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste

  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar

  • 1/2 cup dry white wine

  • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

  • 2 cups vegetable stock or water

  • 1/3 cup small red lentils

For the pasta

  • 1 pound spaghetti, linguine, pappardelle, or fettuccine

  • 2 tablespoons chopped parsley, for garnish

  • 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan, for garnish, optional

Special Equipment

  • Food processor


  1. Preheat the oven:

    Preheat oven to 425°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment.

  2. Chop and prep the cauliflower:

    In a food processor, pulse the machine to chop the cauliflower into small pieces. You are not making cauliflower rice, so stop pulsing when the cauliflower is finely chopped with a few small chunks. Mound in the center of one of the baking sheets.

    Sprinkle the cauliflower with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper. Toss to coat and spread it on the baking sheet in a single layer.

  3. Chop and prep the mushrooms:

    Without washing the food processor, add the mushrooms to the bowl and pulse the machine until the mushrooms are finely chopped. Mound in the center of the other baking sheet.

    Sprinkle the mushrooms with 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and a pinch of pepper. Toss to coat it in the oil and spread it on the baking sheet in one layer.

  4. Roast the vegetables:

    Place the two baking sheets in the oven and roast for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the cauliflower is golden at the edges and the mushrooms have released much of their moisture and are dark (don’t be alarmed, the mushrooms will shrink considerably, which is okay.)

    Finely chopped cauliflower roasted on a sheet pan to make Vegetarian Bolognese.
    Sally Vargas
  5. Meanwhile, cook the onions and garlic:

    In a large deep skillet over medium heat add 2 tablespoons of oil. Once the oil shimmers, add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. If the onions start to stick to the bottom of the pan, add water, 1 tablespoon at time, to release them. Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute.

  6. Pan roast the tomato paste and add the wine:

    Push the onions and garlic to one side of the skillet and move the skillet so the onions are off the heat. In the space you cleared, add the tomato paste and sugar. Cook, stirring, for about 3 minutes, or until the tomato paste turns a dark, rusty red.

    Place the skillet over the burner and stir in the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to release any browned bits. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine evaporates.

    Onions are caremelized in a skillet to make Vegan Bolgnese.
    Sally Vargas
  7. Simmer the sauce:

    Add the tomatoes, water or stock, lentils, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper to the pan and bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. (If you are using French green lentils, cover the pot to reduce evaporation of the liquid.)

    Exact cooking time depends upon what type of lentils you used.

    Vegetable Bolognese being made in a skillet. The lentils are being added to a tomato sauce.
    Sally Vargas
  8. Finish the sauce:

    Stir in the mushrooms and cauliflower, and simmer for 5 minutes to allow the flavors to mingle. The sauce may be thick, depending on the type of lentils you used. If so, use the pasta cooking water to thin it to the desired consistency. Keep the sauce on low so it says warm while you boil the noodles.

    Skillet with Vegan Bolognese simmering inside.
    Sally Vargas
  9. Cook the pasta:

    Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta of your choice according to the package directions. Scoop out 1 cup of the pasta water to reserve it for thinning the sauce if necessary. Drain the pasta in a colander.

    If your sauce looks too thick, stir in some of the pasta water just a little at a time until it reaches your desired consistency.

  10. Serve:

    Mound a nest of pasta onto a plate, ladle some sauce over the top, and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and parsley, if using.

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
400 Calories
17g Fat
48g Carbs
14g Protein
Show Full Nutrition Label Hide Full Nutrition Label
Nutrition Facts
Servings: 6
Amount per serving
Calories 400
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 17g 22%
Saturated Fat 3g 17%
Cholesterol 7mg 2%
Sodium 935mg 41%
Total Carbohydrate 48g 18%
Dietary Fiber 8g 27%
Total Sugars 13g
Protein 14g
Vitamin C 60mg 298%
Calcium 170mg 13%
Iron 4mg 24%
Potassium 1119mg 24%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate. In cases where multiple ingredient alternatives are given, the first listed is calculated for nutrition. Garnishes and optional ingredients are not included.