Our lentil bolognese has a bold taste and meaty texture; it’s packed with flavor and umami, and it’s hearty, nutritious, and satisfying.
It’s an excellent recipe for those trying to incorporate more plant-based protein and fiber into their diet, and it’s delicious with pasta, grains, gnocchi, and lasagna.
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Lentil bolognese is the meat-free version of a classic Italian sauce, ragù alla Bolognese.
Lentils are an excellent ground meat replacement because they have a rich earthy taste, keep their texture, and are rich in minerals, iron, and plant protein.
Also, they are whole food, healthier, and more affordable than ultra-processed meat replacement.
Here, we try to stay close to the original Italian recipe and cook with simple everyday ingredients.
Like the original, our lentil bolognese is perfect with pasta – especially tagliatelle, pappardelle, rigatoni, spaghetti, penne, and fettuccine, – with lasagna or with homemade gnocchi.
It’s also perfect for adding flavor and nutrition to zucchini noodles or spaghetti squash. Let’s see how to make it!
Ingredients & Substitutions
We use extra virgin olive oil to make the flavor base.
Extra virgin olive oil is commonly used for cooking in Italy. It’s a superior quality oil that handles heat beautifully thanks to its high amount of polyphenols (antioxidants) that keep it stable at high and prolonged cooking temperatures.
Substitute regular olive oil for extra virgin.
Onion, celery, and carrot
Chopped onion, celery, and carrot add flavor to this bolognese sauce. We gently fry them in extra virgin olive oil to enhance their flavor.
We recommend chopping these veggies by hand with a chef’s knife, although it takes a little longer. Alternatively, you can blitz them up with a food processor.
Use fresh rosemary and bay leaves to add that classic bolognese aroma to the sauce.
There’s no dried oregano or other herbs in Bolognese.
Use white, brown mushrooms, or portobello mushrooms grated with the large holes of a box grater.
Mushrooms add flavor, juiciness, and texture. They also make the sauce meatier and richer.
We use dry brown or green lentils. Lentils are a great meat replacement for flavor, nutrition, and texture for this sauce.
We don’t recommend red lentils for this recipe, especially if they are hulled or split.
Dry white wine, sometimes red wine, is used in the original bolognese recipe to provide flavor and acidity.
Substitute vegetable stock or water for wine.
We recommend Italian tomato puree or passata in a glass bottle. But any other good-quality tomato puree or canned crushed tomatoes work well here.
Optionally, add a tablespoon of tomato paste to make the sauce richer.
We use vegetable stock for cooking the lentils. You can make the broth yourself or use a store-bought one.
Milk is optional. It’s added to the original Italian bolognese recipe to help break down the meat’s fibers and add sweetness to the sauce.
We like to add unsweetened soy milk or unsweetened almond milk to balance the acidity of the tomato sauce and recreate that touch of sweetness of the original bolognese recipe.
Soy sauce is optional but recommended. We did several tests of this vegan Bolognese with and without soy sauce, and there is a clear difference in taste.
Soy sauce adds saltiness, sweetness, and savory (that irresistible umami flavor) to the final dish, bringing this recipe to the next level and making it much tastier.
You can substitute balsamic vinegar for soy sauce.
Salt and pepper
We use sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you want to add heat, go for a pinch of red pepper flakes.
To make this recipe gluten-free, serve it with gluten-free pasta and use a soy sauce alternative such as gluten-free tamari sauce.
How to make lentil bolognese
Make the flavor base
Finely chop onion, celery, and carrot. You can chop the vegetables with a knife or blend them for a few seconds in a food processor.
Grate the mushrooms with the large holes of a box grater.
Rinse the lentils and ensure there are no foreign objects such as stones, soil, or dirt.
Warm up the olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot, then gently fry onion, carrot, and celery for 5 minutes.
Add grated mushrooms, rosemary, and bay leaves.
Sauté on medium-high heat for 5 minutes; when the pan is dry, add the wine and let it evaporate completely.
Add vegetable stock, tomato puree, rinsed lentils, salt, and pepper to the Dutch oven.
Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium heat until the lentils are ready.
It’ll take 20 to 30 minutes, depending on the lentils. Stir occasionally. Add more vegetable broth or water if necessary.
Note: At this point, the sauce should be somewhat thick, and the lentils tender but still intact, with a slight bite.
Add milk and soy sauce, stir, then remove the rosemary sprig and bay leaves.
Blend some sauce
Blend some of the sauce with an immersion blender to make the lentil bolognese thicker, creamier, and more similar in texture to the original Bolognese.
Don’t over-blend it, or it’ll turn into lentil hummus.
Tip: Blending some of the sauce makes it more appealing to kids and adults who don’t want to eat lentils.
Simmer for a few more minutes, stir, taste, and adjust for salt. Your lentil bolognese is ready.
The best way to serve lentil Bolognese is with tagliatelle or fettuccine; however, you can easily replace those with most other pasta types, such as rigatoni or spaghetti.
You can add a couple of ladlefuls of lentil bolognese on top of your favorite pasta and sprinkle with parsley-grated parmesan or vegan parmesan cheese.
Or, if you want to do it like the Italians, undercook the pasta for 2 minutes, drain it, and add it to a pan with a ladleful of reserved pasta cooking water and the lentil bolognese.
Toss gently until the sauce coats the pasta, and serve with fresh basil on top.
Serve with a side of veggies or salad. Our favorite side dishes for lentil bolognese are:
- Roasted zucchini or air fryer zucchini
- Roasted eggplant or air fryer eggplant
- Crunchy and simple side salad with cherry tomatoes and red onions.
- Italian salad with Italian dressing.
- Shaved brussels sprouts salad
- Roasted broccoli with garlic and red pepper flakes.
- Roasted cauliflower or air fryer cauliflower.
- Green bean salad with a creamy mustard dressing.
Make ahead: This lentil bolognese is the perfect recipe to make ahead of time, as its flavor improves as the sauce sits in the fridge.
Refrigerator: You can make it up to 5 days in advance and store it in an airtight container in the fridge, ready to be spooned onto your everyday meals.
Freezer: You can also make a big batch, doubling the recipe, and store half of it in the refrigerator and half in the freezer for up to 3 months. Let it cool down completely before freezing.
Thaw in the refrigerator over a few hours or in the microwave with the thawing function. Do not freeze multiple times.
Spaghetti is never used with bolognese in Italy. It’s one of those strict rules Italians have about food, like no cappuccino after 12:00, no cream in carbonara, and so on.
Ragù alla Bolognese is served with egg-based pasta types, like tagliatelle and fettuccine, which also originated in Bologna. It’s also popular in Lasagna and sometimes served with gnocchi.
You can use canned lentils; however, canned lentils are softer and don’t keep their texture as dry ones.
If you use canned lentils, you won’t need to add as much vegetable broth (use only half a cup of broth) and simmer for a shorter time (about 10 to 15 minutes).
Why is it called Bolognese?
Bolognese means Bologna-Style. Bologna is a beautiful and vibrant city in Italy with some of the country’s oldest and richest culinary traditions.
Walking through the small alleyways of the old town, you can smell the food from hundreds of local shops selling fresh homemade pasta to all kinds of local cured meats.
Think mortadella (bologna in English), lasagna, tortellini, many types of cured meats, tigelle, parmigiano reggiano, and many other dishes.
They all come from Bologna and the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna.
Ragù alla bolognese is one of the most well-known dishes made in Bologna.
More pasta sauces
Looking for more Italian-inspired sauces and pasta ideas? Check out our:
More lentil recipes
Looking for more lentil recipes? Check out these wholesome lentil ideas:
- Lentil soup and lentil vegetable soup.
- Easy Lentil curry.
- Lentil pasta (Italian pasta e lenticchie).
- Lentil sweet potato salad with delicious cumin dressing.
- Mediterranean-inspired lentil cauliflower salad.
- Lentil tabbouleh.
- Zucchini boats with lentil filling.
- Moroccan carrot salad with lentils.
For many more dinner ideas, check out our mains category page.
- Immersion blender (optional)
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 medium onion chopped
- 1 rib celery chopped
- 1 large carrot chopped
- 1 sprig rosemary + 1 bay leaf optional
- 8 ounces mushrooms grated with large holes of a box grater
- ⅓ cup dry white wine or vegetable broth
- 4 cups vegetable stock
- 24 ounces (one glass bottle) tomato puree or passata
- 1 cup dry lentils green or brown
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 twists black pepper
- ⅓ cup milk we use unsweetened soy milk
- ¼ cup soy sauce reduced sodium
- Fry 1 medium onion, 1 rib celery, and 1 large carrot (all chopped) in 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil for 5 minutes.
- Add 1 sprig rosemary, 1 bay leaf, and 8 ounces mushrooms grated with the large holes of a box grater. Cook on medium-high heat for 5 minutes until the pan is dry.Add ⅓ cup dry white wine and let it evaporate completely.
- Add 4 cups vegetable stock, 24 ounces (one glass bottle) tomato puree, 1 cup dry lentils, 1 teaspoon salt, and 2 twists black pepper.Simmer uncovered for about 30 minutes or until the lentils are cooked and the sauce is thick.Tip: rinse the lentils to ensure there are no stones.
- Stir in ⅓ cup milk and ¼ cup soy sauce. Remove herbs then blend some sauce with an immersion blender.
- Taste and adjust for salt and serve with your favorite pasta.
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