Meatless “Meat” Sauce

You want it quick. You want it easy. Most of all, you want it to be as hearty and satisfying as a beefy red sauce. Do you really need meat to achieve the look, feel and savoriness of a good meat sauce? No, you can create this vegetarian version. Start with cremini mushrooms and tomato paste—both rich sources of savory flavor. Extra-virgin olive oil does double duty, enriching the sauce and helping toast the classic Italian aromatics: garlic, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes.


A popular meat alternative, earthy, neutral-tasting cremini mushrooms become a savory stand-in for ground beef as long as it is balanced with other components. Quickly chop them into ground meat–size bits by blitzing them in a food processor. From there, sauté them in extra-virgin olive oil with a bit of salt. Once the mushrooms have developed some color, add an onion (also chopped in the food processor) and a healthy scoop of tomato paste, another umami booster.

When the onions are translucent and the paste has darkened to a deep rust red (a sign that its sugar had caramelized and its flavor had intensified), add garlic, dried oregano, and red pepper flakes; stir in the tomatoes; and simmer the sauce for about 20 minutes. And here’s the interesting clincher, bulk up the sauce with chopped chickpeas! Just make sure to rinse them of their excess starch after pulsing in the food processor. Finally, to thin the sauce without watering down its taste, add vegetable broth which loosens the sauce without diluting the flavor. For an authentic finish, stir in chopped fresh basil.

To finish, we added some grated parm, a bit of chopped fresh basil, and of course in my case, another sprinkle of red pepper flakes. Any type of pasta will work. We chose gluten-free rigatoni with ridges to help capture the sauce into all of the nooks and crannies. Result? Very satisfying and just as filling as a meat sauce. Now officially in our bank of “will make again” recipes is Meatless “Meat” Sauce.


Meatless Meat Sauce

  • Servings: 4-
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Print


  • 10 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned
  • 6 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 onion chopped
  • 5 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 cup tomato paste
  • 1, 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1, 15-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil, more to garnish


  1. Pulse mushrooms in two batches in food processor until chopped into 1/8- to 1/4-inch pieces, 7 to 10 pulses, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. (Do not clean work bowl.)
  2. Heat 5 tablespoons oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add mushrooms and 1 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are browned and fond has formed on bottom of pot, about 8 minutes.
  3. While mushrooms cook, pulse onion in food processor until finely chopped, 7 to 10 pulses, scraping down sides of bowl as needed. (Do not clean work bowl.) Transfer onion to pot with mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  4. Combine remaining 1 tablespoon oil, garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes in bowl.
  5. Add tomato paste to pot and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture is rust-colored, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce heat to medium and push vegetables to sides of pot. Add garlic mixture to center and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in tomatoes and broth; bring to simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer sauce for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.IMG_1477
  6. While sauce simmers, pulse chickpeas in food processor until chopped into 1/4-inch pieces, 7 to 10 pulses. Transfer chickpeas to fine-mesh strainer and rinse under cold running water until water runs clear; drain well (don’t omit this step). Add chickpeas to pot and simmer until sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper to taste. (Sauce can be refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 1 month.)


In the end, it resembles authentic meat sauce, and pretty much tastes like it too!

From Lan Lam of Cook’s Illustrated

6 thoughts on “Meatless “Meat” Sauce

  1. We just made this tonight. Outstanding recipe. One of our family members doesn’t eat onions, and his batch was a little looser but he raved about the flavor.


  2. Thank you for posting this America’s Test Kitchen recipe! I’ve made this several times since becoming vegetarian and it always satisfies my meaty pasta craving! I omit the broth and don’t bother rinsing the chickpeas; these two seem to cancel each other out. Add some sugar/sweetener if you find the end product a little too tangy/tomatoey. Highly recommend this recipe!


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