You don’t need to give up your favourite Italian meals when you go vegan — instead, veganise classic pasta dishes with these simple tips.
Going vegan, especially when you love good food, can feel overwhelming. Suddenly your favourite, classic dishes don’t fit into your new way of eating. All I craved when I first went vegan was an authentic, silky bowl of spaghetti carbonara. But after scouring the web and trying recipe after recipe, I couldn’t find any vegan versions that did the traditional Italian pasta dish justice.
I couldn’t work out why these recipes weren’t hitting the spot. Especially since pasta dishes are some of the simplest recipes to veganise: pasta itself is vegan more often than not (and you can make or purchase great fresh pasta without eggs), and many of the classic sauces are vegetable-based.
Pasta is hard to really get wrong: carbs with sauce is virtually always going to taste good. But how do you make those stand-out, classic Italian pasta dishes taste like you remember, without the dairy, eggs and meat?
After years of obsessively studying classic pasta recipes and testing vegan versions, I’ve worked out the most important steps to veganise classic pasta dishes while preserving the essence of the originals.
It takes a little consideration at first — but once it becomes second nature, you’ll find it a breeze to recreate your favourites with this guide.
Start with the classic pasta recipes
Like anything worth doing in life, you need to start at the beginning. Find a good recipe for the classic Italian pasta dish you’d like to veganise and get to know it. Work out what flavours and textures are crucial. Really get the gist of what the classic pasta dish is all about.
Once you have a thorough knowledge of the original recipe, only then should you look at plant-based recipes. You’ll know what to look for in a good vegan recipe now. For example, carbonara should look like the pasta is coated in a silky, eggy sauce with lardons of “bacon”, and vegan lasagna should be carefully layered with creamy béchamel (or, if you’re making the Italian-American version, mozzarella and ricotta) and a rich bolognese sauce.
Scan recipes and, if they seem as though they could match up to the traditional in terms of flavour and texture, make a mental note of the ingredients and processes used. Skip any that look completely different from the original.
Bookmark your favourite recipes to refer to later if you need, though be prepared to go your own way and rely on your tastebuds for guidance.
Consider your ingredients
Think outside the box when it comes to your ingredient substitutes. Nadia Fragnito, the author of Discovering Vegan Italian, encourages cooks to “get a little more creative when veganising Italian dishes”.
Making vegan versions of the classics you love isn’t always about straight substitutions like mince for plant-based mince or parmesan for vegan parmesan — think in terms of flavour and texture and what the non-vegan ingredient contributes to the traditional dish instead.
Pecorino cheese in carbonara adds a sharp, lactic acid tang, saltiness, and deep umami savouriness. What vegan ingredients have a similar flavour profile? (Hint: it’s not storebought vegan parmesan.)
You might need a few ingredients to replace the cheese. White miso is a great substitute for the salty umami of pecorino and parmesan. Nutritional yeast will add cheesiness. As for the tang, a little sauerkraut brine or apple cider vinegar does the job perfectly.
This fun experiment will dramatically increase your knowledge and confidence in the kitchen. You’ll be able to fly recipe-free and veganise classic pasta dishes on a whim if you can get the hang of this.
Creative swaps include extra-firm tofu, which Fragnito tells me “can be blended into ricotta or sliced and marinated in soy sauce and liquid smoke to mimic bacon or pancetta”. Or a walnut mince that “creates a beautiful rich texture for ragu or polpette”. The Indian black salt, or kala namak, can be used to replicate “the smell and taste of eggs” in carbonara, she says.
Search online for creative substitutes for Italian pasta classics like eggs, pancetta, mince, anchovies, and parmesan — you’ll be surprised by the possibilities.
Don’t forget the salt and olive oil
If you want to veganise classic pasta dishes while keeping them rich and delicious, salt and olive oil are non-negotiables.
Vegan recipes often forget the importance of fat and salt when recreating dishes that are as flavourful as their non-vegan counterparts, but animal products have a lot of fat, and the cheese or pancetta in Italian pasta recipes are quite salty, so you need to account for this.
“If you’re veganising a dish that normally contains meat or dairy — you need to think about replacing the fat and often the salt too,” acknowledges Fragnito. “Cheese especially contains a lot of fat, as do eggs, so ensure you add extra olive oil or vegan butter.”
She says adding “extra oil and salt is how you get your dishes to taste more like Nonna’s”.
Don’t be afraid of the salt and olive oil — you’re aiming for food heavy on flavour, and your dish will still be lighter than the traditional version.
Enjoy the process
You don’t need to rush the cooking process or throw things into your dish in a hurry. Take it slow and taste the sauce as you go. Pasta sauces are great like that — you can easily tweak them, so you’re better off to start with less and gradually increase ingredients until the sauce tastes just right. Refer to your saved recipes if you need a little inspiration or guidance.
For creamy sauces like carbonara or alfredo, you might want to grab a blender to assist you. If you’re making pesto, pull out your food processor if you have one, or break out the mortar and pestle.
If you don’t have access to blenders and food processors, go at your ingredients with a sharp knife, and buy cashew butter or store-bought vegan coconut, soy or oat creams for creamy sauces. Do what you can with what you have, and don’t give up.
Enjoy the kitchen alchemy and the process of experimenting — the classics are worth getting right.