Not every lasagna is made by an ancient Italian nonna who’s been slaving away in the kitchen all day, but let’s be honest—the good ones taste like they were.
Hours will pass while you layer the signature wide sheets of noodles, bolognese, and béchamel (or balsamella, the same thickened milk-based sauce as in mac ‘n cheese) into a casserole dish with handfuls of grated Parmesan. It might take a whole afternoon to make, but when lasagna comes out of the oven, you’ll be rewarded with baked layers of warm, rich, nostalgic heaven.
“It’s one of those true comfort things, isn’t it?” says Anna Klinger, owner of Brooklyn Italian joints Al Di La and Bar Corvo, the latter which serves individual skillets of seriously silky and crusty lasagna.“It’s a loving dish” is the way Will Cox, chef de cuisine at Carbone, puts it.
But not all lasagna is or needs to be authentically Italian. Italian-American versions have long appeared on our kitchen tables, turning marinara, ricotta, mozzarella, and all manner of vegetables into food that’s as comforting as the original. Whether you hew to tradition or not, remember—when you’re dealing with one of humanity’s all-time greatest food triumphs, you don’t want to drop the ball.
“Some things don’t get better than the classics, so you have to do it well,” says Zahra Tangorra, the owner of Brucie in Cobble Hill, which allows you to drop off an empty casserole pan that they’ll use to make a personalized lasagna.
Yes, lasagna feels comforting and simple to eat, but it’s a little less simple to make. To come up with a fool-proof game plan, we enlisted these three expert lasagneurs to help turn noodles, cheese, and sauce into gooey, rich pans of lasagna.
All the chefs we spoke with use fresh noodles in their lasagna. This should come as no surprise, since fresh pasta lends the right texture and flavor to the dish (and also because they have in-house cooks who can mix dough and press it into sheets). If you’re not up for the task, seek out fresh noodles of medium thickness at a local Italian deli. You’ll want about a pound and a half of noodles for a 9-by-13 dish of lasagna.
Most report cooking the noodles in boiling water first, so it’s welcome news that at Brucie, Tangorra doesn’t pre-cook. This works well in her style of lasagna, which features moisture-rich ricotta, mozzarella, and marinara. The chefs who make a more traditional, Italian-style dish always boil the noodles first. Fresh, cooked noodles can be annoying to deal with, so here’s what to do: Boil them for 30 seconds—basically dipping them into a pot with your spoon and removing them at once—and arrange them in layers on an oiled baking sheet, using foil or waxed paper in between to prevent sticking. Plain noodles are good, but if you’re planning a theme for your lasagna, make or buy sheets flavored with herbs, spinach, or lemon zest.
Finally, don’t scoff at dry lasagna noodles for home cooking. Pick the no-cook type and layer them in as you go. You may want to choose a deeper dish if you go this route, since they’ll be stiffer and take up more room when raw than after baking.
Typical Italian lasagna needs layers of Bolognese. This is not a tomato-y meat sauce. It’s a careful reduction of vegetables, meat, and wine—more like a savory stew than a jar of sauce. Klinger starts by browning aromatics. She uses a sofrito flavored with rosemary, then she adds a lot of white wine and reduces it all the way down, followed by a lot of milk, also completely reduced. Finally there’s tomato, cooked until jammy. “You want to make sure you season with every step,” she says. “Otherwise, it tastes like meat and sauce.” For a precise recipe, I’ve always thought this Anne Burrell sauce is a good place to start if you don’t have a go-to Bolognese in your life. You don’t need to stick to ground beef or pork in your ragu either. Try braising rabbit, pork butt, or game like venison instead. Klinger sometimes makes a goat ragu, which she pairs with parsley pasta layers.
Béchamel adds moisture to classic lasagna, bringing with it the creaminess of melted cheese without the bulk. “Whatever you want to put in the butter first, that will give you flavor,” explains Klinger. “You could put cinnamon in there, pepper, bay leaves, juniper” if those flavors go with the meat you’re using in your ragu, or the vegetables you’re planning to layer in. Whatever you add to the butter, strain it out before continuing with the recipe. To 4 tablespoons of melted butter, add an equal amount of flour, then cook to incorporate; keep cooking until the flour is barely golden. Pour in a quart of milk, season with salt, and whisk until smooth. Cook over medium heat until thickened, then cool before layering into your lasagna.
While marinara doesn’t have a place in lasagna bolognese, a simple tomato sauce will optimize your vegetarian version, adding the right tanginess and moisture to the mix. For a standard sauce, sauté onions and or garlic in a little oil, then season well, add a little oregano or thyme and a can of broken-up whole tomatoes, and cook until reduced. As with all components, season marinara well before using. Make sauce from a 28-ounce can of tomatoes to have plenty for one pan of lasagna.
In a vegetarian lasagna, ricotta’s an essential. Many recipes call for mixing egg into the ricotta to help it solidify, but Tangorra says to skip that: “I think it gets dry,” she says. Seek out the best quality, freshly made ricotta, and season with a bit of salt if you like, or even some nutmeg. You’ll want about 2 cups of ricotta for a full-sized vegetarian lasagna.
In traditional Italian lasagna, the only cheese you need is Parmesan—and a lot of it. Plan to use 2 cups of grated imported Parmesan in a dish of lasagna. However, if you’re straying from lasagna bolognese, you have your pick of melting cheeses. At Brucie, Tangorra likes a mix of fresh mozzarella, grated pecorino, and aged imported provolone. It sounds like a lot, but you’ll want to have about a pound of mozzarella, sliced, plus 1 cup each of grated pecorino (or Parmesan) and provolone. The cheese does more than add richness, though—it also acts as a binder, the factor “that’ll spin the liquids in there,” explains Cox, helping to turn the lasagna from a bunch of separate layers into a unified whole.
“Be mindful of the ingredients,” when using veggies, says Cox—especially of their moisture content. “Don’t throw raw tomatoes in,” for example; you’ll want to oven-dry them first. For an irresistible mixed vegetable lasagna, slice eggplant and/or zucchini into planks, oil and salt them well, then bake at 375°F or so until very golden and shrunken in size (aprx. 40 minutes or so). Only then can you add them to your lasagna. At Carbone, Cox adds a variety of vegetables to his completely meat-free lasagna. There’s broccoli rabe in the béchamel, oven-dried tomatoes next to the mozzarella, and raw spinach blitzed into the noodles. Once you’ve committed to skipping the meat, you can have a lot of fun with the veggies in mind. Just keep texture in mind, cook in advance to get rid of water, and season well.
Gathering ingredients and cooking sauces is step one. Buy and prep the best ones you can find, then “give yourself plenty of room, plenty of time,” says Cox. “It’s going to be longer than you think. Get people involved. It’s a family activity.” All the sauces hold well for a day or more, so make them in advance. Consider all the steps to be meditative rather than daunting. “There’s this whole experience where you lose yourself in it,” says Tangorra.
You want each element to be cool when it goes into the pan, according to Cox. Then, for any lasagna, first coat the pan with a layer of sauce. This starts you off with moisture and prevents the bottom layer of noodles from sticking. Assembly of a vegetarian lasagna will look something like this, according to Tangorra: “Sauce on bottom, noodle, more sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino, provolone. Another layer of pasta, repeat! Finish with sauce and cheese.” Cut noodles to fit the size of your pan. Build up your layers until you’re at the top of your pan; most lasagna makers aim for at least five. And not every layer has to be the same. At Carbone, “In a lasagna for eight, we’ll have four layers of tomato and mozzarella with two layers of the broccoli rabe béchamel and cheese, then one layer of demi sec Roma tomatoes,” says Cox.
For a meat lasagna, the idea is the same, you just have fewer components to layer in. Start by swirling béchamel across the bottom of the pan, then arrange noodles, ragu, béchamel, Parmesan, more noodles, etc., until you’re done. “Cover the top noodle completely with béchamel, so there’s no noodle exposed on the edges,” says Klinger about achieving the to-die-for caramelization that’s Bar Corvo’s signature. “Then sprinkle a lot of Parmesan cheese on top.”
You don’t have to commit to a potluck-sized dish when you make lasagna. Try collecting smaller, oven-safe pans, and you’ll be in for a treat—plus, you’ll only have to assemble about three layers. “I like making it individually, it bakes really beautifully,” says Klinger. By beautifully, she means a bubbly top and a greater proportion of crispy crust to inner gooeyness.
Baking lasagna has two functions. One, to cook the inside of the dish, making sure that pasta sheets soak up moisture and flavor, that cheeses melt, and that sauces bubble and boil. Two, to turn the top of your lasagna into a puffy, golden brown, bubbling landscape. There is more than one way to do this. You can cover the lasagna with foil and cook at about 350°F for 40 minutes to get the inside right, then remove from the oven, cover with Parmesan cheese, and broil for a few minutes just before serving. Or, you can simply stick the entire dish in, uncovered, at 400°F for 45 minutes (with a baking sheet underneath to catch any overflow). This cooks the inside and browns the exterior at the same time. The downside to the simplicity is that you have less control over the evenness of cooking.
If you’re using fresh pasta, you’ll know when it’s done because the whole thing will be firm—“The middle too, it won’t be goopy,” says Tangorra, who sometimes sticks a cake tester into the middle to test for moisture and temperature. “You want it to be blazing lava hot.”
Before the feasting begins, there’s one important rule to abide by: Don’t cut into the lasagna right when you pull it from the oven. “It’s not uncommon that it’ll be sitting out for 30 minutes,” says Cox. Plan for at least 15 minutes if you can’t stand 30. The resting time will make each wedge hold its shape better too. “If it’s too hot it’ll spew everywhere,” he says. “You’ve gone from lasagna to a huge mess on a plate.”