Delicious vegan lentil bolognese takes a little time but is super easy and totally worth it! A thick umami tomato sauce laced with wine, herbs, and a secret ingredient…
We’re straying fairly far from authentic here with this lentil bolognese, but this is a vegan version of the bolognese that I used to devour all the time growing up as a kid in Ireland and at the very least it is authentically SO good.
You’ll just chop up and fry some veg, add tons of garlic and dried herbs, simmer in some wine, and then add the lentils, crushed canned tomatoes, and the secret ingredient and simmer until the lentils are tender.
For those vegan pasta aficionados out there looking for something quicker to make without skimping on taste, I’d suggest making my 20-minute vegan pumpkin pasta, or my 10-minute vegan roasted red pepper sauce for pasta.
Okay, time for the big reveal. What’s the secret ingredient I use in my vegan lentil bolognese recipe? Drumroll…(ducking in anticipation of Italians throwing things at me…)
Wait! Don’t run away! Hear me out – when I first came to Spain many moons ago on Erasmus, I couldn’t find a ton of premade ingredients I usually used. I was used to just buying some Dolmio jarred bolognese sauce (hey, I was a student, don’t judge!).
When I couldn’t get it I decided to make a bolognese sauce from scratch, but couldn’t find any tomato paste (tomato concentrate) which my mother used to always add.
Lots of recipes also call for some sugar to balance the acidity of canned tomatoes, and what is ketchup but basically tomato paste and sugar?
It also has other seasonings which make it a great addition to any bolognese. Use high-quality ketchup (I’m a Heinz fan), or if you’re cutting down on sugar in your diet you can just use a low sugar or sugar-free brand.
Lentils to use
You can use either cooked or dried lentils in this lentil bolognese recipe. With cooked lentils, try to just use green, black, or brown and reduce the cooking time after adding the tomatoes and vegetable stock to 30 minutes.
This will give the sauce enough time to develop and thicken nicely but not turn your cooked lentils to mush. Red lentils are a no-no here as they will dissolve if they are already cooked.
For uncooked lentils, preferably use brown or black lentils – I find these give the best texture. Green lentils are okay, red lentils I don’t suggest using as they will get mushy.
If using dried lentils, do presoak them. They will cook more quickly, evenly and have less “gassy” properties.
Preferably soak your lentils overnight, but if you’re like me and never remember to, just quick-soak them.
Pour boiling water over them and leave for 1.5 to 3 hours, the longer the better. Then drain, rinse and proceed to use in the recipe.
I’ve kept it simple with onions and carrots, but if you want to up your veggie content, some celery and mushrooms would also go great in this recipe.
For celery, take one or two long stems, dice finely, and add in with the carrots. For mushrooms, take two to three large handfuls of white or chestnut mushrooms, clean, slice, and add with the tomatoes and stock.
Of course, as usual, a few handfuls of the nutritional powerhouse that is spinach thrown in at the end to wilt wouldn’t go amiss either.
How to make it
Vegan lentil bolognese is a walk in the park to make, no difficult cooking techniques and just a little chopping and some time required.
In this section, I’ll go over the recipe in great detail, with photos to show what the bolognese should look like at each stage.
If you’re an experienced cook you can probably jump on down to the recipe card, but if you’re unsure of your skills or just want to check a photo out, or if you’re having doubts halfway through making the recipe, then this section is for you.
First things first gather your ingredients. Check against the photo above if you’re unsure about any of them. I recommend measuring everything out before you begin cooking, but it’s totally optional.
Next, Add the oil to a large work, a very large frying pan, or a large non-stick saucepan and heat on medium-high. Peel and chop your onion and add to the pan. Saute for five minutes until light brown (see image one below), stirring every minute or so to avoid burning.
In the meantime peel and chop your carrots. Cut them lengthwise into two pieces and slice the halves about to a width of about half a centimeter. If your carrots are very wide you can quarter and then slice them. Add to the onions (image two below).
Mix the carrots up and leave for a few minutes (between three to five) while you peel and finely chop the garlic cloves.
Add the minced garlic to the pan and mix. Cook for between one-two minutes until the garlic is lightly browned and doesn’t smell as “raw”.
Add in the dried herbs (the basil, oregano, and thyme) and cook for between 30-45 seconds, stirring the whole time (image three above). You want to toast the herbs slightly but not have them become crunchy, hence why you really need to keep stirring continuously.
Add the drained lentils and wine and mix (image four above). Increase heat to high and once it starts bubbling, cook for five minutes, stirring occasionally. You can use any red cooking wine or dry red wine (cabernet, pinot noir, merlot, etc.), or even a dry white wine if that’s what you have to hand.
Once the five minutes are up, add in all the other ingredients (the canned crushed tomatoes, ketchup, and vegetable stock), mix well (image five below), and when it comes to a lively simmer, reduce heat to medium-high again and leave to cook for 30 minutes for pre-cooked lentils, or 40-45 minutes for dried soaked black, brown or green lentils.
Done! Taste to see check seasoning – I don’t usually add salt as the salt in the ketchup and the vegetable stock is enough for me, but this can change depending on which brands you use and your dietary requirements. Check out image six above to see how your finished sauce should look.
Pro tip: lentils are heavy and settle to the bottom so it’s important to stir your bolognese every few minutes, and more often towards the end of the cooking time as the sauce thickens. The sauce will also thicken up a bit more as it cools.
Serve over freshly cooked spaghetti, tagliatelle, or your favorite short pasta (choose something with spirals or ridges to “catch the sauce”). If presentation isn’t a thing add the drained pasta to the sauce and toss before serving to evenly distribute sauce, and dollop more sauce on top.
Optionally, sprinkle over some finely chopped fresh parsley or basil, some vegan parmesan, and add garlic bread if desired.
Older lentils or lentils that haven’t been soaked very long can be tricky and stubborn when it comes to cooking – it’s not a problem as long as you keep the sauce from drying out, and stir often so that the bottom layer doesn’t burn.
If your lentils aren’t done by the end of 45 minutes, add an additional half cup of water, mix, and continue to cook, checking every five minutes for doneness and adding water as needed.
If you’ve erred on the side of high rather than medium-high heat, 45 minutes haven’t passed yet and the lentils are starting to stick to the bottom, just add water as needed. try adding just half a cup initially as you don’t want to thin your sauce out unnecessarily.
If you’re lentils cooked up surprisingly quickly and are starting to become a bit overdone or mushy but the sauce is still looser than you’d like, don’t worry, just take the bolognese off the heat and leave aside for ten-fifteen minutes.
The starch released by the cooked lentils means that this bolognese continues to thicken up as it sits so your sauce should be thicker. If it’s still not thick enough for you, you can blend a cup or two of the bolognese and mix in to thicken more.
How to store it
Simply let your vegan lentil bolognese cool completely and then either:
- Place in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days. To reheat, zap in the microwave for three minutes on high, stir, and heat an additional one or two minutes as needed, depending on the amount of bolognese.
- Place in a freezer bag or a suitable container for freezing and leave in the freezer for up to three months. To use, defrost overnight and then heat up as in the first case, use the microwave defrost option, or add (sealed!) to a pot of hot water.
If the sauce has thickened more than you’d like, simply thin it with a little water.
Did you make this recipe? Let me know how much you loved it with a star rating in the recipe box, review, or comment below.
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion
- 2 large carrots
- 6 cloves garlic
- 1 tbsp dried basil
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1 tsp dried thyme
- 1 cup dried lentils (200g) or 2.5 cups cooked lentils (400g)
- 1.5 cups dry red wine
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 14 fl oz vegetable stock (1.75 cups/400ml)
- 3 tbsp ketchup
- If using dried lentils, soak overnight 10-12 hours or quick-soak by pouring boiling water over and leaving for at least 1 hour, preferably three or more. Drain and rinse to use. For cooked lentils, if they are jarred or canned in liquid, drain and rinse.
- Heat the oil in a large pan on medium-high. Peel, finely chop, and add the onion. Saute for five minutes, stirring every now and then.
- In the meantime, peel and halve the carrots lengthways and slice into 1/2 cm wide pieces. Add to the pot with onions when the onions have hit the five-minute mark.
- While the carrot and onion cook more, peel and finely chop the garlic. Add to the pan and cook 1-2 minutes more until lightly browned.
- Add the dried herbs (basil, oregano, and thyme), and saute, stirring continuously for 30-45 seconds.
- Add the lentils and red wine and let bubble away for five minutes, stirring every now and then.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, vegetable stock, and ketchup. Mix and cook for 30 minutes (precooked lentils) or 40-45 minutes (soaked dried lentils).
- Serve when the lentils are cooked and the sauce has reduced to your liking. Taste for salt - I don't add any but this will depend on the salt level in your stock and ketchup. Done!
Lentils should preferably be black or brown. Green are okay, red I don't advise as they become mushy.
Red wine can be substituted with a dry white wine. If avoiding alcohol substitute with 1.25 cups vegetable stock and 4 tbsp balsamic, sherry, or red wine vinegar.
Crushed tomatoes can be substituted with the same volume of chopped tomatoes if preferred, but cooking time may need to be increased five minutes more to break down the tomato chunks.
Use quality ketchup that you like the flavor of, Heinz for example, or a good sugar-free or low-sugar one if you're watching your sugar intake.
Amount Per Serving Calories 425Total Fat 11gSaturated Fat 2gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 9gCholesterol 0mgSodium 799mgCarbohydrates 54gFiber 16gSugar 17gProtein 16g