Tempeh bolognese is a classic vegan comfort food. A hearty pasta for when you need something cozy and soul-satisfying. (This recipe has been updated from its original February 2017 version).
Tempeh bolognese has been on regular rotation in my household ever since I transitioned to plant-centered eating. Though I’d love to take credit for it, it’s one of the many genius techniques I picked up at Natural Gourmet Institute, the plant-based culinary school where I once worked.
This dish was part of “à la carte” day – when the chefs-in-training would take orders from staff (like me!) and deliver fancy lunches to our desks. Working at NGI had many perks (not the least of which were “cookie day” and “bread day”, which were as magical as they sound), but à la carte day was a steady staff favorite, as was this specific dish. (Naturally, it made it into The Complete Vegan Cookbook as well).
I published my first version of tempeh bolognese back in 2017 (!), with a subsequent update in 2019. This new-and-improved version is mostly the same – albeit a little saucier and with a few more spices. For the most part, though, I’ve updated the images and included some new tips.
What is Tempeh Bolognese
Bolognese is a traditional pasta sauce from Bologna, Italy. Sometimes called ragù, it’s a rich tomato-braised meat sauce made with beef, veal, and/or pork. My plant-based version uses a combo of tempeh and mushrooms for a similar vibe. It works well with short and long pastas, as well as with zucchini/sweet potato noodles, and even over mashed potatoes (my personal, slightly unorthodox favorite).
How to Make Tempeh Bolognese
Crumble an 8-ounce block of tempeh into small bits that resemble ground meat and place in a pan with a splash of water. Simmer the duo until all the water has evaporated. (This steaming step helps eliminate some of the tempeh’s natural bitterness. If you’re feeling rushed/lazy, skip the steaming and move on to the next step.)
Add some oil to the pan and season the tempeh with salt and pepper. Cook until it’s golden brown and somewhat crispy. Remove the tempeh and sauté the vegetables (onions, carrots, mushrooms) in the same pan until they’re softened.
Next, add some red wine to the veg and deglaze the pan (i.e. use the wine to lift off and scrape the browned bits [known as “fond”, French for “foundation” or “base”] stuck to the bottom of the pan, which will enhance the overall flavor of the sauce.)
Then add the tempeh back in, along with a can of crushed tomatoes, and simmer the mixture for 20 minutes. While that happens, boil a box of pasta. Finally, combine the pasta with the ragu as well as some of the starchy pasta-cooking water.
A Few Words About Tempeh
If you’re not familiar, tempeh (pronounced TEM-pay) is a traditional Indonesian ingredient and a go-to protein source for vegans all over the world. It’s a fermented product made out of soybeans, like tofu. But unlike tofu – which is, essentially, coagulated soy milk – tempeh is made out of whole soybeans, so all their nutrients remain intact. To make tempeh, soybeans are cooked and naturally fermented into a sliceable block.
Tempeh naturally has a slightly bitter flavor and steaming it before cooking (step #1 below) helps tame the bitterness.
Ingredients and Substitutions
- Tempeh: Tempeh can often be found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket, near things like hummus and tofu. Lightlife is the most common brand. If you’re avoiding soy, substitute the tempeh with a can of drained, rinsed, and patted dry chickpeas for a similar result.
- Onion: Yellow, white, and red onions will all work here, as will shallots.
- Wine: Use a dry, medium- or full-bodied red wine (like Malbec or Cabernet Sauvignon) that you would drink – never use “cooking wine”! Tempeh bolognese is the perfect opportunity to use up that bottle that’s been open for a few days too long.
- Maple Syrup: I like to add a bit of sweetener to tomato sauces to balance out their acidity. This really helps round out the flavors, but you can leave it out.
More tempeh recipes…
- Tempeh Meatballs
- Smoky Tempeh Chili with Tortilla Crisps
- Tempeh Banh Mi with Quick-Pickled Carrots and Onions
- Tempeh Bacon BLT with Spicy Mayo
Adapted from NYC’s Natural Gourmet Institute, tempeh bolognese is a classic vegan comfort food. Serve with pasta, zucchini/sweet potato noodles, or roasted spaghetti squash. (This recipe has been updated from its original February 2017 version).
- One 8-ounce package of tempeh, crumbled into small bits
- 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, divided
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 1 small yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and finely grated or diced (see note below)
- 8 ounces cremini mushrooms, finely diced
- 3 medium garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, dried thyme, or Italian seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
- ¾ cup dry red wine (see note below)
- One 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon maple syrup, honey, or granulated sugar (optional, see note below)
- 1 pound pasta (any shape or size, see note below)
- Chopped basil or parsley, for serving
- Place the tempeh in a large high-sided pan (or Dutch oven) and add 1/2 cup water. Place over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook until all the water has evaporated, 3 to 5 minutes. Then add 2 tablespoons of oil, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Cook until the tempeh is golden brown and crispy, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside.
- Return the pan to medium-low heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil along with 1 small diced onion, 1 medium grated carrot, and 8 ounces finely diced mushrooms. Season with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper. Cook until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes.
- Add 2 minced garlic cloves, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes, and a pinch of nutmeg (if using), and cook for 30 seconds more. Then stir in 3/4 cup wine and simmer for 2 minutes to evaporate the alcohol. Add the tempeh back in, along with a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. Cover tightly with a lid and simmer gently for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta. Generously salt the water and cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Scoop out 1/4 cup of the starchy water and drain the pasta.
- Add the pasta to the sauce along with the reserved water. Stir to combine. Taste and adjust the seasonings if needed. Garnish with basil or parsley.
Grated carrots pretty much melt into this sauce, giving it an earthy sweetness to balance out the tomatoes’ acidity. If you’re feeling too lazy to grate, dice the carrot instead.
This is a good way to use up a bottle of wine that’s been open for a few days too many.
I like to add a bit of sweetener to tomato sauces to balance out their acidity. This really helps round out the flavors, but you can leave it out.
As an alternative, serve this ragu over zucchini or sweet potato noodles, or roasted spaghetti squash. I also like it on mashed potatoes!
- Serving Size: 1/6 of the recipe
- Calories: 520
Keywords: vegan, tempeh, mushrooms, pasta, bolognese