I was so sure that eating vegan would mean I would have to give up my favorite food—macaroni and cheese—because there is no way to make mac n’ cheese without cheese and butter. After some research I found that there are almost as many variations of vegan mac n’ “cheese” as there are traditional mac n’ cheese. You can use a starch- or nut-based sauce or swap out the butter, cheese and milk for vegan alternatives. You can go basic or add a touch of spice or even add some vegetables for a higher nutritional value.
So I decided to try out a few different mac n’ cheese recipes from my favorite food blogs (as well as experimenting with a recipe of my own) and prove to all of you (and myself) that vegan mac is just as delicious as traditional dairy-full mac n’ cheese.
During my research I learned that there are various ways to make the vegan cheese sauce. The three most common: nut-based (usually cashews), starch/flour-based (gluten-free option is arrowroot or tapioca starch), and dairy alternatives (vegan butter, cheese, and milk). I chose three recipes and illustrated below how to make each variation. Note that I chose recipes with extra ingredients rather than the most basic options for the sauce to make the mac n’ cheese a little more flavorful and healthier.
- Garlicky Gluten-Free Mac n’ Cheese, Recipe Credit: Minimalist Baker
- Spinach Mac n’ Cheese, Recipe Credit: Love & Lemons
- Instant Pot Mac n’ Cheese Experiment, Original Recipe Credit: Pinch of Yum; Modified Recipe Credit: Leah
Garlicky Gluten-Free Mac n’ Cheese
This recipe has a starch-based sauce. You can add some boiled carrots or potatoes to your blender to add nutritional value. I chose this recipe because garlic has several health benefits. It also adds an aroma and can’t-beat flavor!
- 1 head roasted garlic (see instructions for method)
- 10–12 ounces gluten-free pasta
- 4 tablespoons olive or grape seed oil
- 4 cloves garlic, minced (4 cloves yield ~2 Tbsp)
- 4 ½ tablespoons arrowroot starch
- 2 cups unsweetened plain almond milk (plus more as needed)
- ~ ¼ teaspoon each sea salt and pepper (to taste)
- 5 tablespoons nutritional yeast (plus more to taste)
- ½ cup vegan parmesan cheese (plus more for serving)
Note: I found most of the above ingredients at my standard grocery store—Tom Thumb’s. I had to go to Whole Foods for the nutritional yeast and the vegan parmesan cheese.
- To roast garlic, preheat oven to 400 degrees F (204 C) and cut off the very top of a head of garlic. Drizzle the top with a bit of oil, a sprinkle of salt and loosely wrap in foil. Place directly on oven rack and roast for ~45 minutes. You’ll know it’s done when the garlic is very fragrant, and the bulb is golden brown. Remove from oven, slightly unwrap, and let cool.
- At the 40-minute mark, bring roughly 10 cups water to a boil in a large pot and salt generously. Once boiling, add pasta and stir to prevent noodles from sticking. Cook according to package instructions (usually about 8–10 minutes). Once fully cooked, drain and set aside.
- In the meantime, begin preparing sauce. Heat a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Once hot, add oil and minced fresh garlic. Stir and cook for 1–2 minutes, or until light golden brown. Immediately add arrowroot starch and whisk. Cook for 1 minute.
- Slowly add almond milk while whisking, then cook for 2 minutes over medium heat, stirring frequently. The sauce will likely look a little clumpy and that’s okay! We’re going to blend it.
- Transfer mixture to a blender, along with the roasted garlic. To extract garlic, simply push up from the base and the softened cloves should come right out—so gratifying (and delicious).
- Next, add salt and pepper, nutritional yeast, and vegan parmesan cheese. Blend on high until creamy and smooth, scraping down sides as needed.
- Taste and adjust seasonings as needed—you want it pretty well salted and cheesy, so don’t be shy with the nutritional yeast, salt, and vegan parmesan cheese.
- Return sauce back to the skillet and cook over low heat until warmed and slightly thickened—about 2–3 minutes, whisking occasionally. As it warms back up, it will thicken and get super cheesy. For a thicker sauce, leave it as is. To thin slightly, add almond milk, 1 tablespoon at a time until desired consistency is achieved. Turn off heat if it starts bubbling too aggressively.
- Add cooked, drained pasta to the sauce and toss to coat. Then top with 1 more tablespoon of vegan parmesan cheese.
10. Optional: Heat oven to high broil and position a rack at the top of the oven. Broil pasta on high for 1–2 minutes, or until golden brown. Watch closely as it can burn quickly.
11. Serve immediately. I love topping mine with an extra pinch of vegan parmesan cheese. I can never get enough of that stuff.
12. Leftovers keep covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, though best when fresh. Reheat in the microwave or on the stovetop and add extra almond milk if it’s dry.
This mac n’ cheese came out the creamiest. The vegan parmesan cheese added that unmistakable cheesy flavor—I almost forgot it was vegan!
Spinach Mac n’ Cheese
This recipe has a nut-based sauce. The spices are optional but add a kick of flavor. I chose this recipe because I love the extra texture that spinach brings out in the dish. You can instead add peas, carrots, diced tomatoes, or any vegetable(s) of your choice!
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 1 cup raw cashews, soaked 3–4 hours, preferably overnight, and drained
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup water, more as needed
- ¼ cup nutritional yeast
- Pinch of cayenne pepper, optional
- 1 teaspoon turmeric, optional
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 12 ounces macaroni or small shell pasta (gluten-free optional)
- 4 cups packed spinach
- In a small skillet, heat a drizzle of olive oil over medium-low heat. Add the shallot and garlic and sauté until soft, about 3–5 minutes. Stir in the paprika and balsamic vinegar and cook another 30 seconds.
- In a high-speed blender, puree the sautéed shallot mixture with the cashews, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the water, nutritional yeast, cayenne and turmeric (if using). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Makes about 1 ¾ cups of sauce.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare the pasta according to the instructions on the package, cooking until al dente. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Drain and return the pasta to the pot. Stir in the sauce, adding the pasta water as needed to thin the sauce and make it creamy. Add the spinach, stir until wilted, season to taste, and serve.
This mac n’ cheese came out a little grainer than I thought it would. Most likely because I don’t have a Vitamix blender that can make anything smooth and creamy. The flavor was not quite as cheesy. Next time I plan on adding some vegan parmesan cheese to the blender to bring out that cheesy taste.
Instant Pot Mac n’ Cheese Experiment
This recipe simply replaces dairy ingredients with vegan alternatives. Instead of cooking it all together in a pot on the stove, (which is 100% an option), we decided to try out our latest kitchen accessory—the Instant Pot.
- 16 ounces whole wheat pasta (gluten-free optional)
- 4 cups water
- 3 tablespoons vegan butter
- ½ cup almond milk
- 1 ¼ cup vegan cheddar cheese
- 1 ¼ cup vegan mozzarella cheese
- 2 tablespoons nutritional yeast
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Put the pasta, water, vegan butter and pinch of salt into Instant Pot. Cook for 4 minutes using the manual function. Release the steam immediately after the timer goes off.
- Stir in milk, cheese, and nutritional yeast. Add more liquid and nutritional yeast to adjust consistency and cheesiness. Season to taste with pepper or other spices and enjoy!
Without a doubt this mac n’ cheese resembled the taste of traditional dairy mac n’ cheese. A testament to how far vegan alternatives have come!
So go ahead and pick one of the above variations and satisfy your craving for some creamy mac n’ cheese. Consider ditching the dairy and making one of these vegan mac n’ cheese recipes for your Thanksgiving table. Let me know how it goes for you in the comments below!
Unit next time,