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Let's say you're making a movie and need to film a fight scene. How do you make it believable without actually having the actors beat each other to a pulp? Without CGI, your only choice is subtle trickery—choosing camera angles that obscure the action, moving and shaking the camera to confuse the eye, and adding eardrum-pounding sound effects to make an air-punch seem like a sledgehammer blow. This kind of fake-out is essentially what we have to do when making vegan versions of meat and dairy dishes at home—we need to employ flavor and texture smokescreens that confuse, distract, and trick the palate into experiencing something that it's not.
I introduced this idea of smokescreens in my piece on making a vegan version of a classic Italian lasagna alla bolognese, which traditionally features thin sheets of pasta layered with a beefy ragù and creamy béchamel sauce. Today, I'll use the concept again to explain my approach to making a vegan version of an Italian-American–style lasagna; you know, the kind layered with ricotta, mozzarella cheese, and either tomato sauce or yet more meaty ragù.
For this lasagna, the big challenges are the ricotta and mozzarella. The pasta is easy—just avoid an egg-based product and use one made with wheat and water alone. And the sauce is easy, too; you can either go for an inherently vegan tomato sauce* or you can use my vegan ragù bolognese recipe if you want something that with a meatier texture and flavor. In the photos here, I'm using tomato sauce.
* Note, this links to all the tomato sauce recipes on Serious Eats, most of which are vegan but not necessarily all.
Tackling Vegan Mozzarella
By far the most difficult substitution is the mozzarella, which has a clean and fresh milky flavor and stretchy melted texture that is near impossible to fake in vegan form. I tested every brand of vegan "mozzarella" (and also "provolone") that I could find, and while I was somewhat impressed with one or two of those cheeses in their unmelted states, they completely failed to deliver once heated.
That left me with a decision. I could call for the vegan cheese substitutes anyway, but I decided to see if I could come up with an alternative that works better. In place of the cheese, I'm taking a cue from classic lasagna alla bolognese by using béchamel; and for the béchamel, I'm using the same vegan version I created for my vegan bolognese lasagna recipe.
In short, I use the same basic technique for a classic béchamel, but instead of cooking the flour in butter, I cook it in refined (i.e., free-of-coconut-flavor) coconut oil, then whisk in almond milk to make a creamy sauce. Because almond milk and coconut oil do not make a particularly delicious béchamel, I infuse the milk first with aromatics like bay leaf, fresh thyme, garlic, and black peppercorns, and then strain them all out before making the sauce. Those aromatics are the kinds of smokescreens I'm talking about—they layer on flavors that cover up what's inherently lacking in the vegan substitute.
The vegan béchamel creates a silky and creamy sauce that stands in for the mozzarella far better than the faux cheeses do; the one thing missing is the mozzarella's stretchiness, but as I mentioned above, that's something the vegan cheeses fail to deliver as well.
How to Make Vegan Ricotta
The ricotta, meanwhile, is a slightly easier nut to crack. What we're going for here is something mild and creamy, but with a slight graininess that emulates the texture of ricotta. I know from past recipes (both mine and Kenji's) that cauliflower can be turned into a pretty extraordinary purée, but it's too silky-smooth to be a convincing stand-in for ricotta. My trick is to employ a textural smokescreen by blending firm tofu into a base of cauliflower that I've cooked until tender with some almond milk. The tofu breaks up into tiny little bits; blended together with that silky cauliflower purée, it winds up with a much more ricotta-like texture.
For one final textural touch, I also mix in a small amount of refined coconut oil (again, this is the flavorless kind...you don't want a taste of the tropics sneaking its way in here). True ricotta is made from the whey that's leftover after cheesemaking, and, since most of the milk's fat has already been removed with the cheese, the ricotta itself is a relatively lean dairy product. Still, it does have some fat in it, and the coconut oil adds just a hint of that richness to our otherwise lean faux version.
We still need flavor smokescreens, though, because a cauliflower-and-tofu purée, while mild, does not taste quite right. To address that, I blend in a generous amount of the ingredients that often season the ricotta component of a lasagna: fresh basil, dried oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper.
How to Assemble the Vegan Lasagna
To finish the dish, you simply have to layer it all together in a baking dish and bake it until bubbling and browned on top. The result is a one-two punch of vegan lasagna flavor. If you pay attention, you'll see the choreography behind the illusion, but if you so much as blink you'll miss it.