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 no matter what time of the year it is.
And this healthy vegan baked ziti won't disappoint. This is a meat-free and dairy-free recipe made without cheese, but you won't even realize it is not there.
It is filled with tomato sauce and crumbly lentils, but really, the highlight of this dish is the amazingly rich cashew cream. There are pockets of rich cheesy white cream that gently blend within the tomato sauce to create a luscious pink sauce. It is SO good.
You can meal-prep this meal ahead of time, it freezes pretty well and makes for amazing leftovers for lunch the next day. It is also fairly quick to make, especially since it uses store-bought marinara sauce, so you can make it during the week.
I hope you give it a try! ❤️
What's to love about this recipe
- Easy to make and uses mostly pantry ingredients
- Amazing vegan comfort food recipe and very satisfying
- Great to feed a family or guests
- Rich in fiber and healthy fats
- Perfect for meal-prep
- Dairy-free, meat-free, soy-free and with a gluten-free option.
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 noodles from the brand Whole Food Markets, but choose any ziti you can find. You can also use whole wheat noodles if you prefer, although I have not seen whole wheat ziti noodles yet. Actually, any short noodles will work well!
- Lentils (dry or canned): I love French Du Puy lentils. They keep their shape pretty well after cooked and don't turn mushy as easily. But, you can also use green or brown lentils if that's all you have. Black beluga lentils would also work well, just avoid red or orange lentils for best texture.
- Marinara sauce: when I have the time, I love making my own marinara sauce for this recipe. But, I also often use a jarred marinara sauce for convenience, especially if I make it during the week. Simply use your favorite brand!
- Raw cashews: important NOT to use salted and toasted cashews!
- Nutritional yeast: to add a subtle cheesy flavor to the cashew white sauce.
- Garlic: also flavors the white sauce. Use fresh cloves and not powdered garlic for best result.
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.
Start by soaking the cashews. This will make sure they are soft enough to blend to a super smooth texture. There are 2 ways to do it:
- You can soak them in cold water and keep at room temperature overnight (or at least 3-4 hours).
- OR, you can also soak them in boiling water for 10-15 minutes. This is usually what I do.
Also, pre-heat the oven to 350º and cook the ziti noodles al dente. Make sure to slightly undercook them since they will keep cooking in the oven later on.
Make the lentil tomato pasta
I usually cook dry lentils opposed to get them canned, they cook so quickly!
To cook them, combine ½ cup dry lentils with about 1 ½ cups of water in a small pot and cover. Bring to a simmer, then turn down the heat to medium-low. Keep cooking until the lentils are tender and once done, drain the excess water, if any.
Then, once the noodles are cooked, drain them well and return the noodles to the pot used to cook them. Pour the jarred marinara sauce over the noodles as well as the cooked lentils and stir to combine. Set aside.
Make the cashew cream
In a blender, combine the drained cashews with the nutritional yeast, garlic, salt and water. Blend on high until very smooth.
The sauce might appear a little thin, but that's what you want, it gives a better creamy texture to the whole dish once baked.
Assemble and bake
To assemble, start by adding half of the tomato pasta to a baking dish (8 x 8 or 9 x 9 inches work well), 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 uncovered in the oven for 30 minutes. If you want a nice 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
- 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. If you cook your noodles too much, the dish might end up too mushy!
- 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 top that's nicely browned and a little crispy.
Variation to the recipe
Bake pasta dishes are so easy to customize!
In this case, I kept the dish pretty simple to make it easy and quicker to prepare, but also to stay as close as possible to a classic baked ziti recipe.
BUT, you could easily load up the dish with more vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, zucchini, green peas or red pepper. Simply steam or gently cook the veggies first and then, add to the tomato pasta before layering the dish.
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.
If you don't want to use lentils, then you could also crumble and roast seitan in a pan until browned, then add to the tomato pasta. Also, feel free to use my tvp bolognese or tofu bolognese to make this dish as well.
And if you enjoy vegan cheese, then don't hesitate to add some over the top for a melting finish.
This recipe makes amazing leftovers that store well.
Keep leftovers in an air-tight container for up to 3-4 days in the fridge. Reheat using the microwave or in a pre-heat oven at 350º for 10-15 minutes.
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.
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.
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.
Yes, you would have to make a vegan bechamel sauce instead of the cashew cream, which I do sometimes. Check out my vegan lentil lasagna to see how I do this. The vegan bechamel sauce recipe is here, just be sure to use oat milk and not almond milk to make for a nut-free recipe.
Other vegan 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 lentil lasagna
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!
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.