How do you make Bolognese sauce vegan? It’s easy with my vegan tempeh Bolognese recipe! Crumbles of tempeh and chopped mushrooms replace the beef in this whole food plant based take on the classic. It’s a delicious dish that even ardent tempeh haters may love! Enjoy this vegan Bolognese over whole grain pasta, or try it with spaghetti squash for a low carb and low calorie meal.
I was on a vegan diet for many years. And during that time, I cooked a lot of tempeh. With so much tempeh cooking experience under my belt, why are there so few tempeh recipes on the site?
The answer is simple really. I only post recipes here that we eat and enjoy. And certain members of my family never developed a love for tempeh.
Through the years many different preparations were tried. And they were always met with a “yuck.”
The tempeh hatred has become a bit of a running joke in our household. When we play games like Fibbage: Enough About You, and someone says they despise tempeh, we always know that one’s a truth!
I don’t think it’s necessary to develop a love for every single healthy food out there. So, I pretty much gave up making recipes with tempeh for many years. However, then I remembered Bolognese sauce.
Bolognese works well as a vehicle to hide a variety of strong-tasting proteins, such as liver. Would it work for tempeh too? There's only one way to find out!
- What is tempeh?
- Is tempeh healthy?
- The BEST Vegan Bolognese
- Tempeh Bolognese Ingredients
- How to Crumble Tempeh
- How to Make Vegan Bolognese Pasta Sauce
- How to Make Tempeh Bolognese in an Instant Pot
- Can you freeze tempeh Bolognese sauce?
- Expert Tips from a Dietitian
- How to Serve Vegan Bolognese Sauce
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Other Pasta Recipes to Enjoy
- And now for the disclaimer…
- 📖 Recipe
What is tempeh?
Tempeh (sometimes spelled “tempe”) is a fermented soybean cake from Indonesia. Tempeh differs from tofu because of the special fermentation process that it undergoes. This fermentation process gives tempeh a different flavor, texture, and nutritional profile than other soy products.
Some tempeh varieties are made solely of soybeans and tempeh starter. Other types of tempeh may integrate grains such as barley, brown rice, and quinoa. The Lightlife Flax Tempeh I used for this recipe contains soy, brown rice, and flaxseeds.
Is tempeh healthy?
In short, yes, I would consider tempeh to be a healthy choice. In fact, if I had to rank soy foods in terms of their nutritional profile, I would consider natto and tempeh to be the best. These are both whole fermented foods that are rich in protein, fiber, and an assortment of essential vitamins.
The biggest downside to both natto and tempeh is that they have a strong flavor that can be an acquired taste. Natto especially has a really pronounced flavor (and it’s a little stinky, tbh).
Tofu tends to be much easier to tolerate because it acts more as a flavor sponge. Unlike tempeh and natto, you can make tofu taste like pretty much anything. If you really can’t stand natto and tempeh, tofu would be my next choice for a healthy soy food to try.
Before you completely give up on tempeh, though, I hope you try this vegetarian spag bol. I may help you flip your opinion on this vegan protein.
The BEST Vegan Bolognese
Why is this the best vegan Bolognese? Here are some of my reasons:
Complete Plant Based Protein
Soy is (fairly) unique among the plant-based proteins in that it is a “complete protein.” That means that it contains all of the essential amino acids in the proportions that make them most efficient. Most plant protein options are lacking in one or more of the essential amino acids, but soy (including tempeh) provides a source of high-quality protein.
No Ultra-Processed Foods
There’s more than one way to incorporate soy into your diet, and some are better options than others. Though you may be tempted to use fake meat in your Bolognese, I recommend sticking with tempeh or other whole legumes instead. Limiting ultra-processed foods, like fake beef crumbles, may make it easier to maintain a healthy weight (and whole foods tend to taste better too, IMVHO).
This tempeh Bolognese is packed with umami flavor from not only tempeh, but also mushrooms and soy sauce. This dish would lack protein if made with all mushrooms, while using all tempeh provides too much tempeh flavor. The combination of tempeh and mushrooms gives you the perfect balance of umami flavors while not skimping on protein.
Packed with Phytonutrients
This vegan comfort food is packed with potentially beneficial phytonutrients from plant foods. The tinned tomatoes are rich in lycopene, of course. But the other plants here (such as tempeh, carrots, onions, and celery) each add their unique phytonutrient mix to the dish as well.
Low Carb and Low Calorie
This vegan Bolognese sauce provides 374 calories and 18.8 grams of net carbs per serving. When served over spaghetti squash or shirataki, you’ve got a meal that is both calorie conscious and low in carbohydrates.
Even Tempeh Haters Like It
My little family experiment ended up being a success. Everyone enjoyed this easy tempeh Bolognese, and they ate it all up! Hopefully, this recipe will be liked by the tempeh-resistant members of your household too.
Tempeh Bolognese Ingredients
The ingredients list for this vegan pasta sauce isn’t very different from my classic Bolognese recipe. Here’s what you need:
- Crumbled tempeh
- Baby portobello mushrooms, chopped or broken into small pieces
- Reduced-sodium soy sauce
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Chopped small onion
- Chopped carrot
- Finely chopped garlic
- Chopped celery
- Crushed tomatoes (from a can)
- Dried herbs (parsley, oregano, and basil)
- Salt and pepper
- Your favorite Bolognese sauce toppings (fresh herbs, nutritional yeast, Parmesan cheese)
- Whole wheat pasta or spaghetti squash, for serving
Feel free to use your favorite variety of tempeh in this recipe. You can use an all-soy tempeh, or use a tempeh that is a soy and grain mix.
The only type of tempeh I would avoid here is heavily seasoned or flavored tempeh, such as tempeh “bacon.” It might work out, but I can’t guarantee it because I did not try it.
I would definitely stick with a “reduced sodium” or “less sodium” soy sauce for this recipe. Otherwise, you are risking that your finished sauce will be too salty.
You may have noticed that this is a Bolognese sauce without wine. I don’t usually add red wine or white wine to my Bolognese recipes because I feel it’s unnecessary taste-wise. Skipping the wine just tends to be easiest since I don’t always have a bottle of wine in the house.
The kitchen equipment you need for a good Bolognese is pretty basic. I like to have a sharp knife, cast iron skillet, and a wooden spoon on hand.
You could also make your Bolognese in an Instant Pot instead of in a skillet if you would prefer. I have more information on how to do that below.
How to Crumble Tempeh
Making tempeh crumbles is so simple, I hesitated to give it its own section. My favorite way to make crumbled tempeh is to chop it and then crumble it up with clean hands. Hand crumbling the tempeh creates pieces that aren’t perfectly even, giving it more surface area for coating with the sauce.
BTW, I tend to do a similar thing with mushrooms. When I need chopped mushrooms, I buy mushrooms slices and hand crumble them into the skillet. This tends to save me a little time compared to using a knife (but it’s not the best method if you need an even dice).
How to Make Vegan Bolognese Pasta Sauce
Ready to do this? I recommend chopping the veggies and mushrooms, as well as crumbling the tempeh before we begin. Once we turn on the heat, things are going to come together fairly quickly.
Start by putting your olive oil, mushrooms, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic in a cast iron skillet. Heat them over medium heat on the stove top, letting them soften (but not brown). Stir the veggies frequently so they don’t stick; this step takes about 10 minutes.
Next, add the tempeh to the skillet and drizzle the soy sauce over the top. Stir the tempeh into the veggies and let it brown a little over medium heat. This will take 5-10 minutes.
Now you’re ready to stir in the crushed tomatoes, dried parsley, dried oregano, dried basil, salt, and black pepper. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let the sauce gently simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Get your squash noodles, pasta, or whatever you’ll be serving with the sauce ready while the sauce cooks. When the Bolognese is ready, plate up your pasta (or pasta alternative). Add a generous serving of this protein packed vegan sauce, and sprinkle with your preferred toppings. Enjoy!
We speak from experience when we say that this sauce is wonderful over spaghetti squash “noodles” ...
And it’s also the perfect topper for some whole grain tagliatelle (we like Jovial gluten free tagliatelle)...
How to Make Tempeh Bolognese in an Instant Pot
You can make Bolognese sauce in an Instant Pot instead of a cast iron skillet using the Instant Pot’s sauté function. Sauté the ingredients and simmer the Bolognese with the lid off. Set the Instant Pot’s temperature to “high” for the sautéing and browning steps, and to “low” for simmering.
Can you freeze tempeh Bolognese sauce?
Yes, this sauce freezes beautifully. Pop your leftover Bolognese sauce in the freezer and defrost it when you want an easy vegan meal option.
Expert Tips from a Dietitian
This is a level 1 recipe (may help support fat loss). If you have a weight management goal, this tempeh Bolognese can be a great fit! It’s high volume, low calorie, nutrient dense, and provides 22.8 grams of protein per serving. (Protein count is for the sauce only, not any pasta, squash noodles, or toppings you add.)
You can add a whopping three cups of spaghetti squash to this meal while keeping this dinner under 500 calories. I also added side salads to our meal, using the following veggies to make three salads:
- 1 small head of lettuce
- 6 ounces of halved cherry tomatoes
- 2 ounces of chopped broccoli florets
With a light (low oil) dressing, you can keep this meal at around 500 calories. Feel free to substitute any other non-starchy veggies you have kicking around for your salads. It’s an easy way to do a quick fridge clean out and add some more healthy veggies to your meal!
By the way, I normally like to add more protein group foods to my meal than I have added here. If you like the taste of tempeh, feel free to add more and drop back on the mushrooms. 20 grams of protein tends to be the minimum I aim for in meals, but 25-30 grams is better.
How to Serve Vegan Bolognese Sauce
Serve tempeh Bolognese sauce over whole grain pasta for a high calorie option. Alternatively, you can make a low carb and vegan spag bol using “zoodles” (zucchini noodles) or spaghetti squash. My Air Fryer Spaghetti Squash is great with this vegan pasta sauce.
For toppings, I like to use freshly grated Parmesan cheese and fresh basil for a vegetarian Bolognese. To keep things vegan, use a sprinkle of nutritional yeast (AKA “nooch”) in place of the Parm.
Frequently Asked Questions
In the United States, you can find tempeh in many major supermarkets, as well as health food stores. In my area, it is typically found in a refrigerator case in the produce section. If you can’t find tempeh locally, it can also be purchased on Amazon.
Yes, you can make this Bolognese sauce 3-4 days ahead. If you’ll be making it even further in advance, freeze it until you want to use it.
This tempeh Bolognese sauce recipe makes enough to generously serve 3-4 adults.
Yes, leftover unused tempeh can be frozen. Wrap the tempeh tightly in plastic wrap before freezing. It can be thawed in the refrigerator overnight when you are ready to use it.
Both ragu and Bolognese are meat-based sauces, but Bolognese comes to us from Bologna, Italy. Interestingly, the authentic Bolognese version of ragu is served over thicker pasta (such as tagliatelle), never spaghetti. Believe it or not, you might have trouble finding a spag bol in Italy outside of the restaurants for tourists!
Bolognese is traditionally a meat sauce that includes some tomatoes, while marinara is a tomato sauce. Marinara sauce typically contains no meat at all.
Use coconut aminos or gluten-free tamari to make this Bolognese sauce gluten free. You’ll need to make sure the tempeh you’re purchasing is gluten free as well. Some varieties of tempeh contain barley or other gluten-containing grains.
Other Pasta Recipes to Enjoy
Are you looking for more healthy recipes using pasta? Here are some of my favorite easy pasta and pasta alternative recipes:
- Tagliatelle ai Funghi (Pasta with Mushrooms)
- Turkey Meatballs with Zucchini Noodles and Sauce
- Poppyseed Butter Noodles
And now for the disclaimer…
All recipes on this website may or may not be appropriate for you, depending on your medical needs and personal preferences. Consult with a registered dietitian or your physician if you need help determining the dietary pattern that may be best for you.
The nutrition information is an estimate provided as a courtesy. It will differ depending on the specific brands and ingredients that you use. Calorie information on food labels may be wildly inaccurate, so please don't sweat the numbers too much.
For more information on how the three recipe levels may help with a weight management goal, refer to my overnight oats with yogurt post. Let's get cooking!
Tempeh Bolognese Sauce Recipe (Vegan, Low Carb, Low Calorie)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 1 medium carrot, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 8 ounces baby bella mushrooms, cleaned and chopped into small pieces (227 grams)
- 8 ounces tempeh, crumbled (227 grams)
- 1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 28 ounces crushed tomatoes (794 grams; from a can)
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- salt and pepper, to taste
- toppings of choice (fresh basil, nutritional yeast, and/or Parmesan cheese)
- cooked whole grain pasta or spaghetti squash, for serving
- Chop your mushrooms and veggies, and crumble your tempeh. We're making things easier on ourselves by using "mis en place" (prepping our ingredients before we begin cooking).
- Put the olive oil, mushrooms, onion, carrot, celery, and garlic in a cast iron skillet. Heat them over medium heat on the stove top for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. They should soften but not brown.
- Add the crumbled tempeh and soy sauce to the skillet. Stir and let the tempeh brown in the skillet for 5-10 minutes.
- Next, add the crushed tomatoes, dried parsley, dried oregano, dried basil, salt, and black pepper. Turn the heat down to medium-low and let the sauce gently simmer, stirring occasionally.
- To serve: Plate your spaghetti squash or pasta. Add the vegan Bolognese, and top with your preferred toppings. I used about 4 teaspoons of fresh basil and 4 teaspoons of freshly grated Parmesan cheese per plate. Enjoy!
This is a level 1 recipe (may help support fat loss). If you have a weight management goal, this tempeh Bolognese can be a great fit! It’s high volume, low calorie, nutrient dense, and provides 22.9 grams of protein per serving. (Protein count is for the sauce only, not any pasta, squash noodles, or toppings you add.) You can add a whopping three cups of spaghetti squash to this meal while keeping this dinner under 500 calories. I also added side salads to our meal, using the following veggies to make three salads:
- 1 small head of lettuce
- 6 ounces of halved cherry tomatoes
- 2 ounces of chopped broccoli florets