This is a delicious, nutritious plant-based variation on the Italian classic pasta sauce, ragù Bolognese.

While I don’t eat a vegan or vegetarian diet, an estimated 75% of the energy I consume every day comes from plants — one of the hallmarks of the Mediterranean diet. And while you need to eat an exclusively plant-based diet for health reasons (in fact, this could be unnecessarily restrictive and lead to nutritional deficiencies), it’s fun to enjoy a plant-based meal now and then — especially when you’re hosting a veg(etari)an friend or family member.

When I cook a traditional meat Bolognese, I build flavor by sauteeing pancetta (bacon) with onions & garlic, next, adding the vegetables and aromatics, and finally browning the ground meat I’m using (usually beef or lamb) before cooking the sauce under pressure.

When cooking a 100% plant-based Bolognese, however, it’s a little harder to replicate those deep, comforting aromas of traditional meat sauce. Umami to the rescue!  If you haven’t heard of this exciting flavor, here’s a brief explanation.

Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is often described as a savory or meaty taste and is associated with the flavor of glutamate, an amino acid that occurs naturally in many foods. Umami is responsible for giving foods a rich, savory, and satisfying quality.

Umami can be found in various foods, including:

  • Tomatoes: Tomatoes contain glutamate, which contributes to their umami flavor. Tomato-based products like tomato puree, sauce, and ketchup also have umami.
  • Mushrooms: Many types of mushrooms, such as shiitake and porcini, are rich in umami compounds.
  • Parmesan cheese: Aged Parmesan cheese is known for its strong umami flavor and is often used to enhance the savory taste of dishes like pasta and risotto. Nutritional yeast — a vegan mainstay that supplies B vitamins and protein — also is a rich source of umami flavor. Vegan “Parmesan” is made by blending nutritional yeast with nuts and garlic powder — yum! (Recipe here.)
  • Soy sauce: Soy sauce is a staple in Asian cuisine and is high in umami, thanks to its fermentation process. Thai or Vietnamese fish sauce (my favorite is Red Boat) is very umami-rich, too.
  • Fish and seafood: Fish, particularly those like anchovies and mackerel, have a natural umami flavor.
  • Meat: Beef, pork, and poultry also contain umami compounds, which are released and intensified during cooking.
  • Fermented foods: Foods like miso, Worcestershire sauce, and fermented soybean products like tempeh are rich in umami thanks to the fermentation process.
  • Green tea and red wine

Umami plays a crucial role in enhancing the overall taste of dishes and is often used to balance and round out flavors in cooking. To find out more about umami — in particular how it can zhuzh up plant-based dishes — visit the Umami Information Center.

In this recipe, umami-bombs include tomatoes & tomato paste, mushrooms (dried and fresh), soy sauce or fish sauce (IMHO the latter tastes even better, though obviously, it’s not vegan), tempeh, red wine and Parmesan (or you can make vegan Parmesan; see link above).

Although lentils are high in protein by legume standards, they can’t match the nutritional profile of meat; that’s why I add crumbled tempeh.

In addition, I suggest you serve this sauce with a higher-protein pasta like Barilla’s Protein+ pasta or a gluten-free legume pasta like Banza (chickpeas), Barilla’s chickpea or red lentil pasta. or pasta made with edamame (soy) beans, like this brand (this company also makes a wide variety of other legume-based pastas). To keep the carbohydrate content of this dish at a level that won’t spike your blood glucose, I suggest you stick to the recommended serving of 2 oz dry (or, if you have insulin resistance, 1.5 oz dry).

Lentil & Tofu Bolognese

Keyword: Dairy-Free (or can be), Gluten-Free (or can be), Instant Pot, Legumes, Vegan (or can be), Vegetarian (or can be)
Total Time: 40 minutes
Servings: 6
Calories: 308kcal
So full of umami you'll barely notice this sauce contains no meat.
Print Recipe


  • 1 pressure cooker of Instant Pot You can make this in a regular stove-top pot; should take about 30 minutes' simmering time.


  • ½ oz dried mushrooms for instance, porcini or shitake mushrooms
  • 1 cup (dry) French green lentils small, grey-green lentils sometimes called "Puy" lentils (e.g., here or here). If you can't find these, you can use regular brown or green lentils but make sure not to overcook them.
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped
  • 2 medium carrots quartered lengthwise and finely cubed
  • 2 medium celery stalks halved lengthwise and finely cubed
  • 8 oz cremini mushrooms coarsely chopped
  • 1 tbsp garlic coarsely chopped (equivalent to 4-6 cloves)
  • a pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • ½ cup milk or unsweetened plant milk
  • ½ cup wine, red or white if you avoid alcohol, replace with ½ cup water or broth
  • 15 oz chopped tomatoes (with their juice) canned or fresh
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste
  • 7 oz extra-firm tofu finely chopped or briefly blitzed in a food processor or mini chopper; I like teriyaki-seasoned tofu
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce or fish sauce
  • ½ cup fresh basil leaves as garnish
  • 6 tbsp Parmesan (freshly grated) or vegan "Parmesan"


  • Place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and top with 1 cup of just-boiled water. Soak for at least 10 minutes, ideally closer to 20 minutes.
  • Check lentils for debris, and rinse thoroughly. Place in a medium pot and add enough water to cover by about 2 inches. If you like, add aromatics like a bay leaf or garlic clove. Bring to a full boil, then reduce heat to a gentle simmer, using a lid to help regulate the heat, and gently cook until almost done ("al dente"), about 20-25 minutes. Salt to taste. Remove aromatics; drain through a sieve and set aside.
  • Once the dried mushrooms have softened and roughly doubled in volume in their soaking liquid, place a strainer over a bowl, line it with a cheesecloth, and strain the rehydrated mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Coarsely chop the mushrooms with a large knife and set aside.
  • Program the Instant Pot to SAUTE, HIGH, warm the olive oil and add the chopped onion, carrots, celery, chopped cremini mushrooms, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Salt lightly and sauté, stirring frequently, until browned all over; this takes about 10-12 minutes.
  • Add bay leaves and Italian seasoning, milk, wine, chopped tomatoes, tomato paste, chopped rehydrated mushrooms, drained lentils, and crumbled tempeh. Bring to a boil.
  • Lock the lid of the pressure cooker and set it to cook on HIGH PRESSURE for 4 minutes. As soon as the cooking time is up, switch the pressure valve to VENTING to quick-release the steam (cover the valve with a towel to avoid getting sprayed by steam). If the sauce looks very soupy, simmer it on SAUTE, LOW for 5-10 minutes to reduce it.
  • Once the sauce has achieved the desired consistency, add soy sauce or fish sauce (whichever is used) and season to taste with additional salt or pepper.
  • Serve over pasta (a serving is 2 oz dry pasta per person, which equates to about ¾ to 1 cup of cooked pasta). If you’re eating a low-carb or keto diet, serve on a bed of zoodles (zucchini noodles) or another low-carb pasta substitute.
  • Dust each serving of pasta Bolognese with a generous amount of Parmesan cheese and garnish with roughly chopped basil or parsley.
  • This sauce freezes well and doubles perfectly as a shepherd’s pie filling (low-carbers can top this with cauliflower mash). The sauce gets better after a night or two in the fridge.


Serving: 1.25cups | Calories: 308kcal | Carbohydrates: 39g | Protein: 20g | Fat: 8g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 4g | Cholesterol: 7mg | Sodium: 691mg | Potassium: 1058mg | Fiber: 15g | Sugar: 8g | Vitamin A: 4330IU | Vitamin C: 17mg | Calcium: 153mg | Iron: 5mg