Pasta carbonara is a classic comfort food, usually made by stirring egg yolks & parmesan cheese into hot spaghetti & guanciale (cured pork similar to pancetta or bacon), loosened with pasta water. This vegan version is by no means the same as the original but takes inspiration from that creamy, savoury sauce and smoky, salty bacon bits! The simple sauce is made from roasted cauliflower, with the ‘bacon’ being made from mushrooms.
Ingredients for Vegan Carbonara:
- Vegetable stock (from a cube)
- Tahini (optional)
- Olive oil
- Chestnut Mushrooms
- Smoked paprika
- Maggi liquid seasoning or soy sauce
- A pinch of sugar
- Dry spaghetti
Creamy vegan cauliflower carbonara sauce – no cashews!
When considering the many ways to make a creamy vegan sauce, I knew I wanted one without cashews as that significantly increases the cost of the sauce.
A common, high-protein option is using silken tofu which has been blended with other tasty bits like nutritional yeast, to make the sauce. However, when making a silken tofu pasta sauce I prefer there to be other strong flavours involved, otherwise the tofu flavour can be a bit overwhelming.
Another option is to use a ready-made dairy-free cream such as Alpro, oatly creme fraiche or Elmlea plant. However, I wanted something which was more approachable/universally easy to get the ingredients and I know the vegan creams will differ from brand to brand and around the world.
In the end, I settled on a cauliflower puree. Roasting the cauliflower lessens its bitterness and brings out the savoury flavours in the veg. I like to then set aside some of the florets for sprinkling on top (along with the ‘bacon’) so you get a variety of textures on the plate. I enhanced the creaminess of the cauliflower puree by blending in some tahini – this is a smooth sesame seed paste which has a fairly neutral flavour. It’s an optional addition as buying a jar of tahini won’t always be an option to everyone! And the cauliflower sauce is still super tasty without it.
If you prefer, you can even use roasted butternut squash instead of the cauliflower. Peel it, scoop out the seeds and cut into ~4cm chunks then toss with the oil and roast in the same way you would the cauliflower. The squash may take 10-20 minutes more roasting time to reach the golden-brown colour desired.
Making vegan ‘bacon’ from mushrooms
I’ve tried a few of the fake vegan bacons that exist (e.g. the THIS isn’t bacon) and haven’t found one that I love. It also tends to be on the pricey side so for me, it isn’t worth the cost. However, if you have one you know you love you can of course skip the making of this mushroom ‘bacon’ and just chop up your fave vegan bacon into lardons and fry them in some oil until crispy.
I do really like smoked tofu and it’s quite widely available in UK supermarkets now. As it has that smoky flavour, it’s already halfway to tasting bacony. You can chop it into lardon-sized chunks and fry them in some oil, seasoning as you would the mushrooms in this recipe (minus the smoked paprika) and it’ll be delicious! This is also a great option if you’d like some extra protein in the dish. Similarly, you could use tempeh although I’d still use the smoked paprika to give it that smoky flavour.
I’ve opted for mushrooms as they have that meaty texture & savoury flavour to them. They’re also so easy to get hold of & cheaper than the options above. I season them with:
- Smoked paprika: for the smoky flavour which is essential for the bacon vibes. If you have liquid smoke, you can use 1/2 tsp of that instead.
- Garlic: a bit of a flavour boost and some savoury deliciousness
- Sugar: this enhances the bacon flavour and helps make the mushrooms a bit crispy
- Maggi liquid seasoning or soy sauce: Maggi is a savoury condiment which adds a BIG whack of umami flavour to your bacon. I highly recommend getting some if you can as it’s really useful for enhancing meaty flavours in pretty much anything. Of course, it’s something not everyone has so you can always go with a bit of soy sauce instead as it still has that umami kick.
- Salt: as bacon/lardons are SUPER salty, it’s really important to season the mushrooms so they taste a bit more salty than you’d think you want. Once they’re sprinkled on the pasta their saltiness will be lessened.
What type of pasta should I use for carbonara?
The classic pasta shape for carbonara is spaghetti. The sauce clings to it really well so it works great for this type of dish. If you like you can also use another long pasta like fettucine or tagliatelle. If you’re feeling like you need some serious comfort food, try using potato gnocchi instead of spaghetti (just make sure you check that it’s vegan-friendly) – so good!
What else can I use Maggi liquid seasoning in?
As I know it’s something you might not want to buy if you can’t think of other things to use it in, I’ve listed some ways I tend to use Maggi, just in case you do get some and are stumped with how to use it! It’s a concentrated liquid (more so than soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce) so a little goes a long way – just add a few splashes when you’re using it.
- veggie ragu (e.g. for this vegan lasagne!)
- onion gravy
- vegan shepherd’s pie
- for adding to the dough when making seitan ‘chicken’
- in pastry-topped savoury pies
- vegan stews
- stir-fry sauces
- tofu marinades
- ‘meaty’ soups
What else can I use tahini in?
Similar to maggi, buying tahini can be a bit of a stretch so I’m giving some ideas of other ways to use it:
- obviously for homemade hummus!
- other dips e.g. blended with roasted veg or cooked beans
- tahini dressing (lemon juice, crushed garlic, salt, tahini, water) – drizzle on any veg, salad, rice
- add to smoothies
- use in baking instead of peanut butter
- stir into ramen broth for a creamy texture
- stir into tomato sauce for creaminess
- on toast with cinnamon & golden syrup
- mix into smashed peas for a tasty side for vegan fish fingers
- use in pesto instead of pine nuts
- use in slaw dressing instead of (or in addition to) vegan mayo
- stir into vegan yogurt for a taco topping
- as a noodle dressing (with garlic, ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, a bit of sugar & sesame oil)
Vegan Mushroom Carbonara
Cauliflower carbonara sauce:
- 1 medium head cauliflower outer leaves removed
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 300 ml boiling water
- 1 veg stock cube
- 2 tbsp tahini (sesame paste) optional
- 250 g chestnut mushrooms
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic crushed
- ½ tsp smoked paprika
- 4 splashes Maggi liquid seasoning (or 1 tbsp light soy sauce)
- 1 pinch sugar , any kind
- 350 g dry spaghetti
- If using an oven, preheat to 200C fan (220C non-fan). If using an air-fryer, no need to preheat.
Roast the cauliflower:
- Cut the cauliflower into medium florets. Toss with the olive oil and a pinch of salt either on a baking tray (if using the oven) or in the basket of an air fryer.1 medium head cauliflower, 2 tbsp olive oil
- Roast for 20-25 minutes, flipping the cauliflower over halfway through the cook time. If using an air-fryer, air-fry at 200C for 15-20 minutes, shaking the basket occasionally to ensure even browning.
Blitz the cauliflower:
- Pour the boiling water into a jug and crumble in the veg stock cube. Stir in the tahini, if using.300 ml boiling water, 1 veg stock cube, 2 tbsp tahini (sesame paste)
- Add around 3/4 of the roasted cauliflower florets to the jug and use a hand blender (immersion blender) to blitz until smooth. Alternatively use a free-standing blender to blitz the sauce but make sure the stock has cooled to only be warm before blending to avoid accidents! If the sauce seems thick at the moment that's okay as we'll loosen it later with pasta water.
Fry the mushrooms:
- Chop the mushrooms into roughly 1cm chunks. Add to a dry non-stick frying pan with a pinch of salt. Cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are starting to brown.250 g chestnut mushrooms, salt
- Add the oil, garlic, smoked paprika, Maggi/soy sauce and sugar. Stir over a medium heat for 2 minutes so the garlic can cook. Remove from the heat and taste – season with any extra salt until the mushrooms are as salty as bacon!2 tbsp olive oil, 2 cloves garlic, 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, 4 splashes Maggi liquid seasoning (or 1 tbsp light soy sauce), 1 pinch sugar
Cook the pasta & sauce it up:
- Bring a large pot (or deep frying pan) of salted water to the boil. Add the spaghetti and cook according to the time on the packet.350 g dry spaghetti
- Remove some of the pasta water with a mug and set aside. Drain the pasta.
- Return the drained pasta to its pot/pan over a medium-low heat and pour in the cauliflower sauce. Toss together and loosen with the reserved pasta water as needed. Taste and season with salt and pepper, if needed. Remove from the heat.
- Divide the pasta between 4 bowls and top with the remaining roasted cauliflower florets and mushroom pancetta.