Some cooks may balk at a vegan version of Bolognese because it bypasses the beef and milk that are usually integral to the Italian classic. But there is a particular thrill to capturing the spirit of a traditional ragù without the traditional ingredients.
This recipe manages to achieve equally rich, robust flavor and comparable complexity and comfort. It is built like a Bolognese, but skips meat and dairy. To mimic the original, other options for body and richness replace the usual components and perform their purposes.
The foundation is the same: It builds flavor from soffritto — the Italian trinity of minced onion, carrot and celery sautéed in olive oil until the vegetables are caramelized and their sweetness exaggerated — and gathers acidity and sugar from tomatoes and vegan wine.
While standard Bolognese formulas rely upon meat — and its natural gelatin — to simmer and collapse to make the sauce silky and unctuous, this vegan version gains substance from minced caramelized mushrooms and toasted walnuts, and bolsters them with balsamic vinegar, tomato paste, soy sauce and Marmite. A thoroughly atypical Bolognese ingredient, Marmite is a popular British sandwich spread made from concentrated yeast extract, and brings salty, bitter notes that taste like those of browned meat. Like mushrooms, walnuts, soy sauce and tomato paste — and, yes, beef — it has a high concentration of glutamic acid, which imparts a strong umami taste best described as meaty.
A swirl of olive oil lends body, flavor and that prized richness that lingers on your tongue the way dairy and animal fats do. The result tastes as lush, but also brighter, with a welcome boost of bitterness.
Serve the sauce over pasta (or in this lasagna Bolognese), and your guests might not guess it’s meatless. But the lasagna? That’s got dairy. It’s OK to draw the line somewhere. Though the line will move depending on whom you ask, this vegan Bolognese is delicious enough for everybody.