Just like the kidney bean versus no-kidney-bean debate surrounding chili, people are divided on what should be in lasagna. Should it have ricotta or not? A meat sauce or not? Mozzarella or not? Also, there are some procedural disagreements like should you boil the noodles first or not? How many layers do you need to have? There sure are a lot of places for debate when it comes to lasagna!
All those contentious issues mean that there are many ways to make lasagna. Because of that, it’s pretty difficult to come up with the ultimate lasagna that everyone will love. Somebody somewhere will have a problem with it, no matter what.
And so, I’m not claiming that this recipe is the best lasagna for everyone. I’m claiming that it’s my best lasagna for me. It’s my favorite. That’s all. There are reasons why it’s my favorite. It’s meaty, but not too meaty. It’s creamy and moist, but not so moist that it falls apart. It’s cheesy, but not too cheesy. Middle of the road, lasagna, perhaps.
Along with the steps below to make this lasagna, and the recipe at the bottom, I’ve also included my best tips. You can apply these tips to any of your own lasagna recipes. For more lasagna tips (and a different perspective), I really like this article on Epicurious and this one from Bon Appétit.
(Feel free to disagree with any of the following steps and go ahead and do it your way. This is simply how I do it and I won’t be hurt if you do it differently).
Boil the lasagna noodles according to the package instructions. Make sure that you’ve bought regular dry lasagna noodles and not the “no boil” kind. This recipe will not work with the no-boil kind. To make lasagna with no-boil noodles, you need to have more sauce than is called for here.
Drain the noodles and then toss them with a tiny bit of olive oil so that they don’t stick together while you’re getting the other things ready. Lay them flat on a baking sheet so that they don’t end up all bent up. You want them nice and flat.
Make a meat sauce. Here’s my basic spaghetti sauce recipe, which works great here. You’ll need 6 cups of it. If you just want to wing it, go with 1 pound of ground meat sautéed until cooked (you can add chopped onions, celery, carrots, bell pepper – all, some, or none of those works fine) and then add enough canned tomato sauce to make up 6 cups of sauce.
If you’d prefer this to be vegetarian, you can sauté the vegetables without the meat and then add sauce to those. You might want to add something extra like finely chopped zucchini to the mix as well.
Make the béchamel sauce. Béchamel is a basic white sauce that is used in some lasagnas. It makes everything creamy, moist and so good. It’s super simple to make. The step-by-step instructions and lots of info about béchamel are over here.
Now that you have all the components ready, it’s time to assemble the lasagna. You start by putting some meat sauce into the bottom of a 9×13 inch cake pan like this. Always start your lasagna with sauce, never with noodles. Otherwise, the noodles will be too dry.
Spread the sauce around. Sprinkle it with grated Parmesan cheese and then top with three non-overlapping noodles. Drizzle noodles with béchamel and then top with mozzarella cheese. Repeat that set of layers twice more for a total of 3 sets of layers.
Here are the layers with amounts so you can assemble things quickly at a glance. Each set of layers contains the following ingredients in this order:
After doing that a total of three times, you’re done. You can add extra mozzarella cheese to the top if you want.
If you’re wondering why there isn’t any ricotta in there, here’s why: I find it dry in lasagna. I don’t think it adds much in terms of flavor either. I use the béchamel instead. If you’re a die-hard ricotta fan, go for it. Add it onto the noodles, before the béchamel or instead of it. But make sure to add beaten egg to the ricotta (this adds moisture) and to season it well with salt and pepper. Otherwise it’s really really bland.
Cover the top of the pan with foil. Bake covered in a 375°F oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake until it’s heated through and bubbling, about 20 more minutes. Covering it for the first half is important because that stops it from drying out as it bakes.
The next step is important. Do not skip it!
I’m going to say this again: Do not skip this step!
Let the lasagna rest at room temperature for 15 minutes. Do it. Don’t ask questions. Just do it.
O.K., O.K., you can ask a question.
Why does the lasagna have to rest?
When the lasagna is baking (and this is true for all kinds of casseroles, really) it’s all hot and bubbling and everything is agitated and steaming inside and out. If you just take it out of the oven and cut into it, all that steamy agitation is going to squirm all over the place. You won’t get a nicely held together slice. It’s going to slip and slide and be sloppy for sure.
Letting the lasagna rest allows everything to calm down in there. It lets it set a bit. Then when you cut into it, it can hold together better. It’s going to taste better too when the first bite doesn’t scald your tongue.
Note that the 15 minute resting time will not cool the lasagna down to the point where it’s no longer hot. It will still be very very and delicious. Don’t worry. I promise it will be good.
After it rests, you can cut it and serve it. I cut it into 12 pieces, 3 cuts in one direction (lengthwise in the pan) and 4 in the other direction (widthwise in the pan).
To serve the lasagna (as in, to get it out of the pan) I use a small-ish metal spatula. It really lets you get under the slice. The one I have (in the picture below) is not specifically designed for lasagna but works well. This one, however, is tailor made for lasagna and has rave reviews. I really really want to try it out, don’t you?
Note that when I serve lasagna, I always have a second spatula right beside me. If the lasagna is for some reason more slippery than I anticipated, I use the second spatula, held in my other hand, to keep things together a bit better.
The printable lasagna recipe, in a shorter, more concise form, is below. I hope you love this one. I really really think you will! -Christine