This cozy vegan cauliflower gratin is pure comfort food with a wholesome twist. Cauliflower is baked with a creamy, cashew-based sauce and crispy breadcrumbs. It’s a perfect dish for sharing and an easy make-ahead option for the holidays.
“Gratin” is one of those words that immediately brings coziness to mind. I think of food bubbling out of bakers that have just been pulled from the oven. I think of melted cheese and crisping bread crumbs. I’m transported to winter months and the comfort food that braces me for them.
This vegan cauliflower gratin is all of the things that a gratin, by this definition, should be. It’s warming, creamy, and crispy on top. It’s cozy and comforting. Yet it’s also wholesome. The gratin is made with an entire head of cauliflower and a cashew-based sauce. I like to use fresh, homemade bread crumbs as well.
Comfort and nutrition in one place—just the kind of recipe that I love.
The cauliflower gratin is a great option for holiday meals because it can be made ahead of time, frozen, and reheated. It’s good for sharing.
However, you don’t have to share any of it. This is also a versatile, cold weather side dish that can accompany your favorite vegan proteins or winter salads. Since it’s easy to make ahead, I have a feeling that it’s going to become a regular part of my winter meal prep.
What is a gratin?
No matter how many years I spend cooking, I’m always amused by what I don’t know. There are plenty of culinary terms that I use regularly, but close examination reveals that I have only a hazy understanding of their meaning.
Gratin is one of these words. I have a sense of what it is, but as I was writing this post I figured it was time to get a proper definition.
According to both Merriam Webster and The Oxford Companion to Food, “gratin” refers to a browned top, or crust. Gratin forms when a dish has been cooked au gratin.
I’ve read that au gratin is derived from gratter, the French word for “scratch” or “scrape”—a reference to the grated topping on a gratin. I’ve also read that “gratin” is derived from gratiner, which means “to broil.”
Either fits. Gratins are usually baked in shallow dishes. And they’re covered with some sort of topping—usually bread crumbs—that can crisp up when broiled.
All of this means that this cauliflower gratin may not technically be a gratin, since I don’t finish it in the broiler. But the bread crumbs on top certainly could be browned under a broiler, and they do become nicely brown and crispy in the oven. By the spirit of the definition, if not the letter, this feels like a proper gratin to me.
Thank goodness for cauliflower
Thank goodness for cauliflower, right?
At this point, the versatility of this crucifer is the stuff of funny memes. Cauliflower can be turned into steak, dip, or mash. It can be baked, roasted whole, served with whole grains or in salads.
Most recently, I used it as the base for a vegan alfredo sauce and creamy pasta. That dish has become one of my favorite easy dinners.
It’s no surprise, then, that cauliflower is an excellent base for a creamy gratin.
Gratin is most commonly made with potatoes. I like that version, but I think that there’s a lot to be said for using cauliflower for the same kind of preparation.
Cauliflower gratin is lighter in texture than potato gratins, but it still feels substantial. It has a great texture: not too stodgy, not too soft. The creamy cashew sauce in the recipe helps to bind the cauliflower florets together.
Of course, the gratin is also rich in all of the nutrients that cauliflower provides. This includes lots of fiber, lots of vitamin C, vitamin K, and potassium.
How to make cauliflower gratin
The steps for preparing this cauliflower gratin are pretty straightforward.
Soak your cashews
You’ll begin by soaking cashews for the creamy sauce in the recipe. The soaking step helps to soften the cashews and makes them easier to blend. I soak cashews whenever I make my all-purpose cashew cream, tofu whipped cream, cashew cheese, or cashew queso.
I soak cashews for about two hours in room temperature water before blending. If you’re short on time, you can soak them in boiling water for 30 minutes instead.
Prep and cook your cauliflower
When the cashews are ready to go, you’ll bring a pot of salted water to a boil and preheat your oven. It’s time to cook your cauliflower florets and pieces.
This will involve coring and breaking down your head of cauliflower. It’s one of my least favorite kitchen tasks, honestly, but this how-to can help to make the process efficient. You can also purchase pre-cut cauliflower florets.
Next, you’ll cook your cauliflower in boiling water for 6-10 minutes. The cauliflower should be entirely cooked before it goes into the gratin. You’re aiming to have florets that are fully fork tender, but not mushy (though if they are a little mushy, that’s OK).
Drain the cauliflower florets well after boiling.
Blend the creamy sauce
While the cauliflower cooks, you can blend up your creamy sauce. It’s fine to use either a food processor or a blender for this, but if you don’t have a powerful blender (such as a Vitamix or a Breville Super Q), then a food processor will be more efficient.
Assemble and bake
Now it’s time to assemble the gratin!
This is easy. You’ll pour a small amount of the creamy sauce into the bottom of an oiled or buttered baking dish (I use a 7 x 11-inch rectangular baker). Arrange all of the cooked cauliflower on top.
Pour the rest of the sauce over the cauliflower and use your hands to make sure that all of the pieces are coated or submerged in sauce.
Sprinkle the top of the gratin very generously with bread crumbs. Transfer the gratin to the oven and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until the bread crumbs are a deep golden color.
Cool and enjoy
Give the cauliflower gratin about fifteen minutes of cooling time before you slice and serve it. At that point, it’s time to enjoy it!
Cauliflower gratin ingredients
Here are the main ingredients that you’ll need in order to make the cauliflower gratin.
You’ll need one extra large (~3 lb) or two small (~1.25 lb) heads of cauliflower. After preparation, this should come to about two and a quarter pounds (~1020 g) of florets and pieces.
You have the option to purchase pre-cut florets if they’re available at your grocer. You can also use two one-pound bags of frozen cauliflower. If you do, you can skip the boiling step for the recipe. Instead, cook the cauliflower according to package instructions. Be sure to drain it of any excess cooking liquid. Then, proceed with assembling the gratin as described above.
For this gratin and all of my other creamy, cashew-based dishes, I use raw cashews. They have a neutral, buttery and almost sweet flavor that lends itself to sauces and creams.
Flour will help to thicken the creamy sauce and bind this casserole together. There’s only a quarter cup of flour here, but that amount is hard-working and important for the recipe’s success.
If you need to make the gratin gluten-free, you can use a gluten-free, all-purpose flour blend in place of regular all-purpose. I really like King Arthur’s Measure for Measure.
Nutritional yeast adds a slight cheesy flavor to the gratin. It replaces the cheese that might normally broil on top of a gratin or be folded into the interior. However, the cheesy flavor here isn’t overwhelming; it’s there, but it’s subtle.
As an added bonus, nutritional yeast always adds a little extra plant protein to vegan recipes.
You can use fresh or dried bread crumbs to make the cauliflower gratin. I prefer fresh bread crumbs for this recipe, and I’ve included some quick instructions for making them in the notes section of the recipe, below.
However, homemade bread crumbs are an added step. If you don’t have time, don’t worry. Dried bread crumbs (regular or panko) will work nicely, too.
I keep the seasonings of the gratin pretty simple: a touch of nutmeg, some garlic powder, and lemon juice. You can absolutely add more garlic (or roasted garlic), more salt, or a particular herb that you like in order to customize the recipe.
Can I make the gratin nut-free?
Great question! I actually feel a little badly that I’ve shared three recent recipes—tofu whipped cream, classic vegan pumpkin pie, and this cauliflower gratin—that rely heavily on cashews. Cashews are definitely a staple ingredient for me, but I know that this doesn’t make life easy for those with cashew or tree nut allergies!
If you’re allergic to cashews, but not all tree nuts, you can certainly replace the cashews with pine nuts. Pine nuts will work beautifully in the cream sauce.
If you’re allergic to all tree nuts, then you can use one of the following to replace them:
- 1 cup Tofutti (soy-based) vegan cream cheese
- 12 ounces extra-firm silken tofu
- 1 cup oat milk and two extra tablespoons all-purpose flour
I think that the first two options work best, but all are doable depending on your needs.
Preparation and storage
Cover any gratin leftovers and store them in the fridge. The gratin will keep, covered and refridgerated, for up to four days. This means that you can prepare and bake it two or even three days before you plan to serve it.
You can also assemble the gratin without the bread crumbs, cover it, and then put it in the oven the following day.
Can the cauliflower gratin be frozen?
Yes, it can! Leftovers of the gratin can be frozen for up to four weeks. This means that it’s a contender for very organized, make-ahead holiday cooking.
And if you, like me, live alone, this also means that you can prepare the gratin on any chilly winter night and freeze a bunch of leftovers for future coziness.
More cozy winter baked dishes
Oh, how I love a good casserole or baked dish. I could live off of these in the colder months, eating some of what I make right away, freezing individual portions for later. Nothing makes me feel more comforted than a good slice of lasagna, baked pasta, or gratin.
Especially now that I know what gratin actually means.
Here are some of my other favorite, plant-based winter baked dishes:
- Wholesome lentil, mushroom and kale lasagna
- Sweet potato lentil shepherds pie
- Easy vegan pizza pasta bake
- Cheesy quinoa broccoli bake
- Pizza cauliflower bake
- Spinach lasagna rolls
- Chick’n enchilada casserole
- Eggplant baked rigatoni
- Stuffed cabbage rolls
- Mushroom vegetable shepherds pie
And here’s that very cozy, vegan cauliflower gratin.
- 1 cup raw cashews (140 g)
- 1 extra large head (~3 lb) or 2 small (~1.25 lb) heads cauliflower (2 1/4 lb/1020 g florets after preparation)
- 1 1/2 cups water
- 1/4 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour (30 g)
- 3/4 teaspoon salt (plus extra for boiling the cauliflower)
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder (substitute 1 clove garlic)
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast (20 g)
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1 heaping cup (105 g) fresh breadcrumbs* or 3/4 cup (84 g) dried bread crumbs (I prefer fresh for this recipe; see note)
- Bring two cups of water to a boil. Pour the boiling water over the cashews and allow them to soak for at least 2 hours and up to overnight. If you soak them for longer than two hours, transfer the cashews to the fridge. When the cashews have soaked long enough, drain and rinse them.
- Preheat your oven to 350F. Lightly oil or grease a 7 x 11 x 2 in (10 cup) baking dish with vegan butter. (28 x 18 x 5 cm, or 2.4 L.)
- Core the cauliflower and break it down into small florets and bite-sized pieces. You should have about 2 1/2 lb (1020 g) cauliflower after preparation. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the cauliflower florets and pieces for 6-10 minutes, or until all of the pieces are fork tender, but not mushy. (The water temperature may drop when you add the cauliflower, in which case, be patient: the water will start to boil again if you cover it and allow it to reach a boil again.) Drain the cauliflower.
- While the cauliflower boils, blend the soaked and drained cashews, water, flour salt, nutmeg, garlic powder, nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and pepper in a powerful blender or a food processor until the mixture is completely smooth.
- Pour 3/4 cup of the blended creamy cashew mixture into the bottom of your prepared baking dish. Add all of the cauliflower to the dish. Pour all of the remaining liquid over the cauliflower, coating the pieces well. It will look like a lot of liquid, but it will thicken as it bakes. Top the gratin with the breadcrumbs.
- Bake the gratin for 30-40 minutes, or until the crumbs on top of the gratin are a deep golden brown. Allow the gratin to cool for 15 minutes before cutting into pieces and serving. Enjoy!
Just looking at a slice of this cozy, creamy dish makes me smile. It makes me less concerned that temperatures are supposed to drop rapidly tomorrow, because the upside of cold weather is lots of comfort food.
I hope you’ll find comfort in the gratin sometime this season, too. Enjoy!