All of my life, I have enjoyed macaroni and cheese six ways from Sunday. And now, that includes macaroni without the cheese. If you avoid dairy for any reason at all, this recipe will change the landscape of your weeknight dinners. It comes together on the stovetop in about 30 minutes and hits all the marks: Creamy? Check. That familiar orange tint? Heck yeah.
For the same amount of work as making the dairy-infused stuff from scratch, you can make lucious, flavor-packed vegan stovetop macaroni and cheese using pantry ingredients and wholesome, recognizable foods. After years of tinkering, I got this recipe to a point where my daughter—a vocal non-vegan and proud connoisseur of mac and cheese—receives it with cheerful gusto.
The Secret to Creamy Sauce
What makes this vegan mac and cheese so good? Potatoes. Plus some other things, but the potatoes are what launch this recipe into a higher plane of mac and cheese-dom.
I took Coco Morante’s Vegan Queso recipe from our site and fussed around with the seasonings to make it cheesier and less nacho-y. Soaked raw cashews add a dairy-like richness, and cooked potatoes make the sauce silky smooth.
A Cheesy Flavor Without the Cheese
To get a classic stovetop macaroni and cheese taste, you’ll drive into the arsenal of vegan flavor boosters. Each one is available at most mainstream grocery stores. By combining them artfully, you’re essentially making your own gourmet fake cheese from scratch.
- Nutritional yeast: Lovingly referred to as “nooch” in many circles, nutritional yeast flakes are not active baking yeast. They’re inactive, dehydrated flakes whose yeasty character calls to mind a cheesy aroma and taste. A little nooch goes a long way; I prefer to cap mine at 1/4 cup.
- Miso: Any type of miso paste will do. It adds a suave depth to sauces that I’d describe as “instant yum.”
- Apple cider vinegar: A small touch of acidic tang helps to cut through the creamy richness of the sauce.
- Oil: The cashews contribute some fat, which is important for the sauce’s body. But adding one tablespoon of oil really goes a long way in making this sauce taste like macaroni and cheese and not just cooked pasta tossed with puréed potato goop. You can use any mild oil you like.
- Turmeric for color: Since we eat with our eyes, a sauce that’s not ghostly pale is more visually inviting and gets our brains set for a cheesy meal before the first bite. To get that all-important orange color, we boil a carrot and then boost it with a fat pinch of deep yellow ground turmeric.
Make It Your Own
This macaroni and cheese easily stands on its own, but it’s pretty rare that I make mac and cheese without add-ins. Here are a few combos that I love.
- Cajun: Add Cajun seasoning to the sauce. Most kinds from the store have tons of salt, so omit or reduce the miso accordingly.
- Nacho: Add 1 small (4-ounce) can diced green chiles, 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, and 1/2 teaspoon cumin to the sauce. Put 1 cup frozen corn kernels in the bottom of the colander and drain the pasta over them. Then add 1 (15-ounce) can of drained and rinsed black beans to the hot cooked pasta in step 5.
- Broccoli: About halfway through cooking the pasta, add up to 1 pound of fresh broccoli florets and peeled, chopped stems.
- Chilimac: After draining the pasta, add a bunch of vegan chili to the hot pot. Stir in the sauce and cook, stirring constantly, over medium heat until warmed through. Then add the hot drained pasta.
- Peas: This one is a major staple around my house when our cupboards are otherwise bare. Add up to 2 cups of frozen peas to the colander and drain the hot pasta over them. Then return to the pot and proceed with the recipe.
More Comforting Vegan Dinners
- Vegan Sloppy Joes
- Easy Vegan Sheet Pan Burritos
- Vegan Cincinnati Chili
- Sweet Potato Taquitos
- Pressure Cooker Saag Tofu
Soak the cashews:
Put the cashews in a small heatproof bowl and pour 1 cup of boiling water over them. Set aside.
Boil the potatoes and carrot:
Put the diced potato and carrot in a medium saucepan. Add 1 cup water, or enough to barely cover the vegetables. Cover and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Once boiling, reduce the heat to maintain a hearty simmer and cook, covered, until the potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes.
Purée the sauce:
Pour the potatoes, carrots, and cooking liquid into the jar of a blender. Add the cashews and 1/4 cup of their soaking water, along with the nutritional yeast, miso, oil, vinegar, garlic powder, turmeric, and cayenne. Purée until creamy, about 1 minute. If the sauce seems too thick, add a little more of the cashew-soaking water.
Boil the pasta:
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil over high heat. Add the macaroni to the boiling water and cook according to package directions until al dente (tender but with just a bit of resistance when you bite in).
Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water, then drain and return the pasta to the still-warm pot.
Mix the sauce and macaroni:
Pour the sauce into the pot with the macaroni and stir to combine. Add the reserved 1/2 cup pasta cooking water to the blender and run it for about 30 seconds to coax out any sauce still clinging to the sides, then pour into the sauce.
Taste and serve:
Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary. Serve immediately.
Refrigerate leftovers, tightly covered, up to 4 days. Add a few tablespoons of water when reheating to help smooth out the sauce.
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