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The Best-Ever, Only-Recipe-You'll-Ever-Need: Vegetarian Bolognese

The Best-Ever, Only-Recipe-You'll-Ever-Need: Vegetarian Bolognese

We dipped into 5 of the best recipes to find one winner

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Lisa-Kristin Erdt

Lisa-Kristin Erdt

Food Editor at Kitchen Stories

Every other month on Kitchen Stories, we investigate the best-ever recipe for classic dishes by putting the top recipes from chefs and food blogs to the test. We prepare and serve them to our highly-qualified Kitchen Stories Eat Force and rank them to find the ‘bestest’ recipe. If you have a special request for the next best recipe, leave a comment underneath the article!

I've been living in the capital of Germany for almost 4 years now, and Berlin is a city that thrives from its dynamism—it's never quiet here. The diverse communities and vibrant cultures that make up the city means there's no shortage of international and vegetarian/vegan cuisines. In fact, the food trends of Berlin aren't lost on me, and I do try to keep my meat consumption to a minimum, which can be difficult since my favorite dish is... pasta Bolognese.

For me, saying goodbye to my favorite bolognese combination of garlic, fresh garden tomatoes, red wine, and minced meat was necessary, but definitely not easy. With the support of the Kitchen Stories test kitchen team, we tested the internet's 5 best meatless bolognese sauces to see if any of them can stand up to the classic.

In search of the best meatless bolognese, we tested both a vegetarian recipe and a vegan one from old contenders, Bon Appétit and Jamie Oliver. But popular vegan food blogs Zucker&Jagdwurst, Making Thyme for Health and Rainbow Plant Life were able to convince me with their visuals and unique alternatives to the meaty sauce—at least for the time being—and also made it to the list. What ended up in the pot was a wide variety of ingredients—from red and green lentils to cauliflower—and each contender competing for the same title: the best and only vegetarian bolognese recipe you'll ever need.

The candidates

1. Jamie Oliver's healthy vegetarian bolognese

If I had to choose a chef as my favorite TV chef, it would definitely be Jamie Oliver. His passion for the simplest things motivates me time and again to view food from his eyes and try his recipes. For this reason, I had high expectations for his meatless companion to whole grain spaghetti. Can this recipe meet my expectations for the British restaurateur?

The ingredients: green lentils, dried porcini mushrooms, onion, garlic, celery, fresh rosemary, laurel, red wine, canned whole tomatoes, fresh thyme, and olive oil

The method: For this recipe, being a strong multitasker pays off: First, cook the lentils and rehydrate the dried porcini mushrooms by soaking them in water. In the meantime, prep the onions, garlic, celery, and rosemary—so far, so good. Add all the vegetables to a frying pan and sauté, then deglaze with red wine. Add the rehydrated mushrooms along with their soaking water to the pan. The soaking water is vital here, as it's what gives the dish umami. Then it's time for the canned tomatoes, which—and for me this is a real Jamie Oliver moment—get broken up into small pieces with a wooden spoon.

After draining the lentils, the sauce is almost done! Remove the bay leaf and use a potato masher to bind the vegetables with the sauce. For garnish, Jamie Oliver recommends frying breadcrumbs, thyme, and olive oil as an alternative to hard cheese.

The verdict: I had high expectations for this version with green lentils, but ultimately, I found the flavors to be unexpectedly average. At our tasting in the office, thoughts such as "the rosemary stands out very strongly here" and "although the consistency comes very close to the original bolognese, the taste of the lentils is too important to me" swirled around. In terms of appearance and texture, Jamie Oliver's healthy bolognese is in no way inferior to the original, but I have to admit with a heavy heart that the combination of lentils and (a little too much) rosemary didn't give me the desired satisfaction. All in all, however, the taste is impressive, which is also reflected in its rating.

2. Bon Appétit's cauliflower bolognese

Bon Appétit's recipes have made it through to all of our "Best-Ever" tastings, so it's no surprise to find another one here. This time we're diving into a vegetarian bolognese sauce that uses cauliflower—a popular alternative to meat and carbs—as its foundation. The lingering question is whether the sauce can stand alone as a meatless bolognese, or tastes more like a vegetable-friendly pasta sauce.

The ingredients: cauliflower, mushrooms (shiitake or button), olive oil, butter, onion, (lots of) garlic, chilli, rosemary, tomato paste, salt, parsley, and lemon

The method: Stir, stir, stir—this is a recipe that'll work out your arms. First, add cauliflower to a food processor and blend into small pieces. Then fry the mushrooms in a large saucepan with olive oil, and, as you can guess, you'll need to stir constantly. Toss in the chopped onions, garlic, chilli, rosemary, and tomato paste, and continue stirring, so as not to burn anything. And yes, even after the cauliflower has been added, you keep on stirring.

After the pasta cooks, reserve some pasta water, which can amplify flavors and regulate the consistency of the sauce. Add some pasta water to the saucepan, along with one of my favorite ingredients, Parmesan, a little butter, and a (large) amount of parsley to finish up the long process of cooking and stirring.

The verdict: Throughout the cooking process, I felt a roller coaster of emotions: This bolognese was too viscous and acidic. The natural sweetness of tomatoes is missing, and there's only a small amount of tomato paste to suffice. The large portion of parsley and the cauliflower's dominant flavor made it difficult to find similarities to the classic pasta Bolognese. The sauce's consistency, however, clung well to the noodles, which is why some points were added under the category of "Texture."

3. Vegetarian Bolognese with vegetables from Making Thyme for Health

To be honest I was initially kind of skeptical of this recipe: The list of ingredients felt endless to me. Besides, how are cashews, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and miso paste going to replace my passionate love for cheese? One thing I can't deny: The recipe sounded interesting—I had to try it!

The ingredients: cashews, dried porcini mushrooms, olive oil, onion, garlic, carrots, bell pepper, salt, pepper, tomato paste, thyme, oregano, fresh mushrooms, red wine, lemon juice, miso paste, and nutritional yeast

The method: Soak the cashews and dried porcini mushrooms (separately) in water and set aside. For this recipe, the food processor will do most of the work for you: Toss in the onions, peppers, garlic and carrots, and blend into small pieces. Add the chopped veg to a large pot, season with salt and pepper, and let cook. Then chop the rehydrated mushrooms (reserving some of the soaking water) and use the food processor to chop the fresh mushrooms, making sure the pieces aren't too small—the mushroom bits will add texture to the sauce, which is what we want!

Add all the mushrooms, tomato paste, and herbs to the pot and bring to a boil. Then add reserved mushroom liquid and red wine, and reduce to a simmer. As the sauce cooks, add the soaked cashews to the food processor, along with water, lemon juice, salt, nutritional yeast, and miso paste, and blend into a smooth paste. This is then stirred into the tomato sauce to create a creamy texture. A little pasta water helps to bind the noodles to the the sauce and you can garnish with fresh thyme, if desired.

The verdict: Surprisingly good! My skepticism quickly evaporated when I had a taste of the creamy sauce. Although the paprika stood out a bit too much, the cashews provided nuttiness and the mushrooms added an intensity that rounded out the dish, resulting in a full-bodied bolognese that's neither too thick nor too thin and sticks well to the pasta. Our test kitchen team was also impressed by the balance between acidity and sweetness, so much so that our chef Christian called first dibs on taking the leftovers home. Due to the different elements, this didn't resemble the classic pasta Bolognese per se, but the overall recipe was convincing.

4. Rainbow Plant Life's Bolognese with 10 ingredients

As you know, we sometimes also eat with our eyes—and with this recipe, my stomach and eyes probably played a trick on my subconscious. As soon as I saw the pictures of this spaghetti Bolognese with red lentils, I couldn't wait to cook the recipe. The manageable list of ingredients was also attractive to me and that's how Rainbow Plant Life landed on the list of my candidates for the best meatless bolognese.

The ingredients: olive oil, onion, garlic, oregano, thyme, salt, pepper, tomato paste, vegetable broth, red lentils, walnuts, canned tomatoes, and balsamic vinegar

The recipe: First and foremost, the red lentils have to be soaked. This leaves more than enough time to prep the other ingredients. Chop the onion, garlic, and walnuts. The onion is then steamed in olive oil with a pinch of salt in a cast iron pot. Add a few teaspoons of water to prevent the onions from burning. Add garlic, thyme, oregano, salt, and pepper. Stir constantly as you add the tomato paste to the pot. Let it lightly caramelize, or until the mixture is dark red, then deglaze with vegetable broth.

Stir in the lentils and walnuts and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and let cook for 20 min. Add the canned tomatoes, and let the sauce simmer again for 15 - 20 min., or until the lentils are cooked through. Season the sauce with salt, pepper, and balsamic vinegar and serve with fresh parsley.

The verdict: If you take a sober look, the appearance is more appealing than the taste: The sauce isn't bad, but it's definitely not a strong contender in the race for the best meatless bolognese. After trying this recipe, my colleague May said, "It reminds me more of a lentil soup, but by no means Bolognese!" The lentils are such a dominant element of this recipe and combining them with pasta seems almost wrong. The taste is lackluster and the consistency is too thick due to the lentils. My tip: purée the lentils with an immersion blender and serve as a hearty lentil soup!

5. Vegan Bolognese from Zucker &Jagdwurst

Call me biased, but I already had a high opinion of this recipe in advance. The blog Zucker&Jagdwurst is known by many vegans, but those who normally can't do without cheese and other dairy products (like me) really get their money's worth. Developed by 2 bloggers based in Berlin, this vegan spaghetti bolognese looks confusingly similar to the original—maybe because for the first time in this recipe series, the hero ingredient isn't a vegetable alternative that can potentially dominate the dish's flavors, but is in fact a meat substitute. Is that perhaps the recipe for success?

The ingredients: fine soy granules, vegetable broth, carrots, onions, garlic, soy sauce, tomato paste, agave syrup, oregano, basil, tomatoes, ketchup, salt, pepper, and paprika powder

The verdict: And again, we're soaking diligently: The soy granules need to be steeped in hot vegetable broth for 10 min. Then squeeze out any excess water and season the granules. Grate the carrots, and dice the garlic and onions. Sear the soy granules in a large frying pan, then add soy sauce, tomato paste, and agave syrup. Stir in the chopped vegetables. Now it's going to be all things tomato: Add whole or diced tomatoes and (yes, indeed!) ketchup to the sauce. Boil down the sauce until the tomatoes fall apart. Then season with oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. A ladle of salted pasta water completes this vegan bolognese.

The verdict: What immediately stands out is positive: There is definitely no shortage of tomatoes in this recipe. The sauce has a pleasant consistency that closely resembles the original bolognese. Admittedly, a little grated Parmesan landed on my plate (which of course the recipe doesn't provide), but I had the feeling of a good bolognese straight from bella Italia. In our test team, some voices were heard saying that the sauce was a little too sweet, but it was still the best of all the contenders. I, too, could have used a pinch of salt, because the sweetness seemed a little one-dimensional (but that may also be due to the choice of ketchup). Still, I can say: Well done, Zucker&Jagdwurst didn't let me down this time either!

So which meatless bolognese is the best?

The moment you've been looking forward to has finally come. Our Kitchen Stories team devotedly dedicated themselves to many loads of carbohydrates, served with the 5 best meatless Bolognese sauces from the internet (how unselfish! ). Each sauce was rated in the categories of taste, look, texture, and "wow" factor from 1 (best) to 5 (worst). Do you have a hunch about who won?

Here are the results of our search for the best-ever, most tomato-y, meatless bolognese sauce:

What's the secret to a perfect meatless bolognese?

These tips will help you make your very own Bolognese the best and only recipe you'll ever need:

1. Tomatoes are the be-all and end-all

It's no secret that tomatoes are a staple ingredient in bolognese sauce. And yet there were recipes that didn't fully understand this principle, which had a serious impact on their evaluation. For an aromatic sauce, it's best to use fresh tomatoes, which you'll have to boil down into a thick sauce. Doing this allows the sweetness to really develop and it's definitely worth the wait. Incorporating different forms of tomato, like tomato paste or diced tomatoes vs. whole tomatoes, also pays off.

2. The basic ingredient is well chosen

Our Kitchen Stories Eat Force were often annoyed when the meat substitutes overshadowed the tomato sauce. It's better to give both the base sauce and hero ingredient an equal share of the spotlight. The meat substitute shouldn't have a strong flavor on its own, as it'll usually end up dominating the dish. Grated carrots or soy granules, for example, have proven themselves well in our rankings.

3. Not soup, not paste—sauce!

Over and over again, it seemed our test eaters were concerned with how the recipes' sauces fared in resembling the original Bolognese with meat. Sauces that were too viscous lost crucial points which could've helped them to win. Water often escapes from food during the cooking process, which is why the addition of liquid (e.g. vegetable broth, wine or cooking water) must be carefully regulated. When using lentils, care must be taken to ensure they bind to the liquid properly—a shot of wine won't hurt anymore.

4. Set accents

We want flavor, but not too something one-dimensional. A few herbs here and there are good, but they shouldn't be the prevailing flavors. Dose aromatic herbs rather low and only add more when the sauce has been simmering for a while. Dried porcini mushrooms also won over our team's taste buds with umami and a hearty, yet mild aroma.

5. The key to success: pasta water

Do you usually pour out all the pasta water after the noodles have cooked? Now's the time to stop that habit. Always save a few ladles of the salted water, as it gives the sauce some flavor. Pasta water also contains starch, which can thicken the bolognese sauce and help bind it to the noodles. Gradually add the pasta water to the sauce until it has the perfect consistency.

Here are more inspirations with Bolognese sauce waiting to be cooked by you!

Spaghetti with lentil Bolognese

Spaghetti with lentil Bolognese

What shouldn't be missing in your vegetarian Bolognese? Let us know in the comments or upload your very own recipe and share it with the community!

Published on June 4, 2020

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