This vegan baked ziti is so creamy, cheesy and satisfying. It makes for the best comfort food dish to serve to your family or guests. Made with lentils, marinara sauce and a cashew cream, this no meat and dairy-free baked pasta dish yields a combination of flavors that's absolutely perfect!
If you feel real hungry and need to cozy up over a delicious meal, then this meatless baked ziti is the one for you.
Because there is something SO comforting and satisfying in baked pasta dishes. I know it's summer coming up and baked dishes are not the current favored kind of food, but what can I do, I always crave warm pasta bakes. It's in my blood.
And this healthy vegan baked ziti won't disappoint your taste buds. It is filled with tomato sauce and crumbly lentils, but really, the hero of this dish is the cashew cream. There are pockets of rich cheesy white cream that gently blend with the tomato sauce to create a luscious pink sauce. I mean, it is so good I can barely write about it.
What is a classic baked ziti
The popular casserole dish is typically made with ziti noodles, ground sausage meat and tomato sauce. The dish is usually combined with some cheese, either ricotta, sour cream or even provolone. Then, topped with more cheese that melts and creates a crust in the oven, usually mozzarella and parmesan.
Even thought the traditional recipe is a very meaty dish, you can easily make a vegetarian baked ziti by omitting the meat all together. I see lots of vegan baked ziti containing processed vegan meats, but I chose to add cooked lentils to the dish instead for a healthier option.
And you can go as far as to veganize it by also replacing the cheese with a plant-based creamy filling. In this case, the white sauce is a simple & flavorful cashew cream that you will add both in the middle and on top of the dish. The cashew cream in the center will stay moist and mix gently with the tomato filling, but the cashew cream on top will crust nicely and create more texture.
Ingredients for this healthy vegan pasta bake
- Ziti noodles ( I used ziti from whole foods, choose whole wheat if desired)
- Lentils (dry or canned)
- Marinara/Tomato sauce, homemade or jarred
- Raw cashews
- Nutritional yeast
How to make a vegan baked ziti
If you already have a tomato or marinara sauce ready to go, then this recipe will come together super quickly. It's like making a lasagna, but in a much simpler way.
- Cook your pasta. Make sure to undercook your noodles slightly.
- Cook your lentils if using dried ones. Then add the lentils to your tomato sauce.
- Combine the cooked noodles with the tomato sauce and cooked lentils. Set the tomato pasta mixture aside.
- Make the cashew cream by blending the cashews, nutritional yeast, salt, garlic and water together until very smooth. The sauce might appear thinner than expected, it is normal. I found that a thinner cream yields a better texture after being cooked.
You will need to help soften your cashews first, so the sauce blends easily. To do this, you can soak them in cold water for at least 2 hours (overnight is best), but I often do a quick soak by adding them to boiling water for about 10 minutes before draining and adding to the blender.
- Then layer up your dish: Add half of the tomato pasta to a baking dish, then drizzle about half of the cashew cream on top, then transfer the rest of the noodles over and finish up by covering the whole dish with the rest of the cashew cream.
- Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. If you want a crusty brown top, then finish up by roasting on HI-broil for a few extra minutes. Make sure to watch as it will burn quickly!
Watch how to make it
Ziti vs Penne? What's the difference?
Both noodles really look alike and are a tubular shaped noodles. The ziti has a wider cavity and a smoother surface (some penne have ridges over their surface). Also, the penne have a oblique cut compared to the ziti noodles.
Both noodles work great in this dish as well as any other short pasta with a cavity (ex: rigatoni). The cavities help grabbing on some more of the sauce with each bite.
Can I make it gluten-free
Yes, you can. Choose any pasta that suits your diet, but try to avoid brown rice noodles. I find these to get mushy in baked dishes as they tend to overcook easily. Don't forget to undercook your pasta slightly as they will keep cooking in the oven.
Make this vegan baked ziti ahead
This is why pasta bakes are so great: you can make them on the weekend to use later in the week when everyone gets too busy to cook. To do this, prepare the whole dish as directed, do not bake it and cover with foil before storing in the fridge. Then, when ready to eat, remove the foil and bake for 10-15 minutes extra or until warmed through. You can also bake it ahead of time and reheat individual portion in the microwave, just like you would do with leftovers.
- Be sure to cook your noodles al dente! I actually undercook the noodles by about 2 minutes as they will have plenty of time to continue cooking while soaking in the sauce.
- I find the dish better when using a smooth tomato sauce. If using a chunky tomato sauce, then I recommend to blend it slightly (using a regular blender or immersion blender) to remove some of the chunks.
- It is best not to cover the dish while cooking it so it creates a crust on top.
Variation to the recipe
Bake pasta dishes are so easy to customize. In this case, you could load up the dish with cooked vegetables, like broccoli, carrots, zucchini or pepper. Make a baked spinach ziti by wilting lots of spinach first, then adding it to the baked dish either by mixing in the tomato sauce or even better, layer the cooked spinach on top of the middle layer cashew cream sauce. Also, if you enjoy vegan cheese, then don't hesitate to add some over the top for a melting effect.
I hope you enjoy this pasta bake recipe as much as we do! If you try it, please leave a comment below and rate the recipe to let me know how it was. Your feedback is so helpful!
Other comfort food recipes you might like
- Vegan lentil shepherd's pie
- Butternut squash mac and cheese
- Vegan garlic pasta bake
- Lasagna roll-ups
- Tofu tikka masala
- Mushroom and corn stroganoff
- Vegan cauliflower gratin
- Vegan creamy tomato pasta
- Vegan Swedish Meatballs
Vegan Baked Ziti with Lentils
- 16 oz ziti noodles (1 lb) - cooked accordingly to packaging (keep them al dente)
- 25 oz marinara sauce - homemade or store-bought
- ½ cup dried lentils (about 1 ½ cup cooked lentils) - or 15oz canned lentils, drained
Cashew cream topping
- 1 ½ cups raw cashews - soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes, then drain
- 1 ½ cup water
- 2 tbsp nutritional yeast
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 tsp salt
- Add the dry lentils to a medium pot, then add plenty of water and cover. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and keep on a low simmer until the lentils are tender (about 20-25 minutes). Drain and set aside.
- While the lentils are cooking, cook the noodles al dente. Then, drain the noodles and return them to the pot used to cook them. Add the marinara sauce and cooked lentils and stir to combine.
Make the cashew cream topping
- In a blender, combine the drained cashews, water, nutritional yeast, garlic and salt. Blend until very smooth taking a few breaks to scrape the walls of the blender. You might need to blend for 2-3 minutes to reach a super smooth texture. The mixture will appear a little thin, this is what you are looking for!
Assemble and bake
- In a large baking dish, add about half of the tomato-lentil-noodles mixture, then drizzle over about half of the cream sauce, then top with the rest of the noodles and finish up with the rest of the cream sauce, evenly spread over the whole dish.
- This dish makes for amazing leftovers. Store them in the fridge in a covered container for 4-5 days, then reheat in the microwave until warmed up.
- Make sure to cook your noodles al dente as they will keep cooking in the oven.
- You can use your favorite marinara-tomato sauce to make this recipe. I find that a smoother tomato sauce works better. If you have a chunky marinara sauce, then you can slightly blend it before adding to the noodles.
- You can also use penne or rigatoni to make this dish. Any tubular shaped short noodles would work just the same as ziti.