Homemade Lasagna: How to Master the Italian Classic
Helpful tips, delicious recipes and vegetarian and vegan options
There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that I like to cook more than lasagna. When I think about it now, there also aren’t many dishes that I prefer to eat. The reasons are numerous, but here's the most important one: In these times of lightning fast, 15-minutes-and-your-dinner's-on-the-table recipes, a lasagna is as resolute as ever. It demands dedication, effort and love—and I am more than happy to give it all of that!
I find it relaxing, almost meditative, to spend a few hours in my kitchen cooking lasagna, listening to some podcasts or music, and talking to my lasagna every now and then (but that’s just between us, right?!). This way, I prepare one lasagna layer at a time—from the pasta sheets and bolognese to a creamy béchamel. And although you simply cannot make a lasagna in under 20 minutes, it's not a complicated dish in the slightest. As long as you stay within the frame of some basic lasagna rules, you can even get creative and develop your own favorite recipe.
Layer by layer, we’ll go through the process of making a homemade lasagna: which meats and cheeses are the best options, whether you should use dry or fresh pasta sheets, and why some recipes use a ricotta filling instead of a béchamel? Since not everyone is into spending half a day to cook a lasagna, we'll share a few shortcuts to save some time. We'll also try to answer all the most-asked questions about lasagna—but if you've got more, just let us know in the comments!
How to make a classic lasagna, step by step
Before we start, let's answer the question, "What makes a classic lasagna, anyway?" There are countless "classic" recipes that differ as much from region to region in Italy as they do from one family to another — with most of the latter remaining well-guarded secrets. Usually, when we talk about a classic lasagna, we refer to a "lasagne pasticciate" which originates from the Italian region of Emilia-Romagna and is also often called "lasagne al forno". It consists of several layers of lasagna sheets, ragù alla bolognese, béchamel, and cheese, which is why we’ll dedicate this guide to exactly these layers.
Lasagna sheets: dry or fresh?
Whether you want to use dry or fresh lasagna sheets mainly depends on how much time you have. You can find dry sheets in almost every supermarket with plenty of no-boil options that you can directly layer into your baking dish uncooked. In my experience, it’s then helpful to make the bolognese a bit more liquid, so that the dry lasagna sheets soften enough while baking. If you’re looking for a shortcut for homemade lasagna, this was the first one—more to follow!
For the ‘perfect’ lasagna, I’d still recommend using fresh pasta sheets. They can be bought in bigger supermarkets or delis, but depending on where you live, this quest can still be difficult. Nevertheless, we’re pretty sure that you'll find flour, eggs, and water in your local supermarket—and these are all the ingredients you need for homemade pasta dough.
After kneading all ingredients into a smooth dough, let it rest for at least 30 minutes. Then roll out the dough using a pasta machine or a rolling pin and cut to size, depending on your baking dish. It’s best to precook the lasagna sheets in salted boiling water for approx. 6 – 7 minutes, then transfer them to a lightly greased baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap. This will prevent the lasagna sheets from drying out or sticking together. Watch our recipe for homemade pasta here:
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When using fresh lasagna sheets, feel free to let the bolognese simmer a bit longer. If there's too much liquid in the sauce, the lasagne sheets run the risk of overcooking and becoming mushy in the oven.
A flavorful ragù alla bolognese
Many roads leads to a successful bolognese. Of course you could save time by buying a pre-made sauce. But for what it's worth, a store-bought bolognese can't come close to a homemade one. I'm not only saying this because I love to spend a good chunk of time on my lasagna, but because I truly believe that the quality of the ingredients determine the result. Plus, if you cook the bolognese yourself, you can build up the flavor step by step to your taste.
The meat: The classic lasagna recipe uses ground beef, but you'll also find combinations with ground pork or even poultry. Some swear by frying some diced bacon first before adding the rest of the meat, which gives a salty and smoky flavor. If you want to skip ground meat entirely, try a bolognese with fried Italian sausage.
The vegetables: My personal go-to lasagna recipe only features a few aromatics and vegetables: onions, garlic, and carrots. Celery is also a popular bolognese ingredient (forming the basis of the Italian sofritto along with the prior three ingredients), as well as bell peppers, spinach, zucchini, mushrooms, or eggplant (which will give your lasagna a moussaka twist). When choosing the vegetables, keep in mind that they shouldn't be letting off too much liquid in the oven. To prevent a soggy lasagna, you should for example drain frozen spinach while you are defrosting it, and after you've fried it.
The tomato sauce: Of course, there's no better gift for your bolognese than a sauce made from fragrant fresh tomatoes that has been simmering on your stove for a good while. But especially in the colder seasons (just when I love to eat lasagna the most) fresh tomatoes are often pretty bland. So in winter or whenever you can't find fresh and flavorful tomatoes, feel free to use canned ones, but make sure that they are as unprocessed as possible and don't contain additives, spices, etc. Using canned tomatoes is of course another shortcut for your lasagna, as fresh tomatoes need more time to simmer. Additionally, you can also add tomato paste, white wine, or red wine to the sauce.
Herbs and spices: In addition to classics like salt, pepper, and fresh or dried herbs such as basil, oregano, rosemary, or thyme, some people swear on a teaspoon of cinnamon or fennel in their bolognese. For a spicy note, chili is always a great option!
Last tips about cooking your bolognese: The longer the bolognese simmers, the deeper the flavor will be. There are legends of Italian nonnas who cook their ragù alla bolognese over low heat for more than 12 hours. But never fear, you don't have to spend quite so much time, though the absolute minimum time to cook your bolognese is approx. 30 min. Some recipes also prepare the tomato sauce and minced meat separately and only combine them when layering the lasagna. The meat is then gently seasoned, but fried until well-browned, while most of the spices and herbs end up in the aromatic tomato sauce.
A creamy béchamel
Many people skimp on the béchamel when making a lasagna: some prepare a lighter version with less butter and water instead of milk, others just spread one thin béchamel layer on top of the lasagna, and then there are those who drop it completely. If I could give you only one piece of advice for your lasagna, it's this one: Take béchamel seriously!
To be honest, I love béchamel so much I wouldn't hesitate to drink it in the form of a smoothie. The perfect "besciamella" is slightly buttery, very creamy, and mildly seasoned. It's so easy to make that there's really no excuse to skip this layer. Melt the butter, stir in the flour, let it dissolve and bubble, then add the milk, and stir until smooth and thickened. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. If you want an extra cheesy béchamel, add grated Parmesan cheese. Let it simmer over low heat for approx. 10 minutes, stirring constantly to prevent any lumps.
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When I asked the Kitchen Stories editorial team about their favorite recipes for lasagna, my fellow editor Devan, who hails from the US, said she prefers "classic ground beef and ricotta". Ricotta in lasagna was news to me, but it turns out that Italian-American recipes tend to use a ricotta filling instead of béchamel. For this, ricotta cheese, egg, and chopped parsley are combined and seasoned to taste.
A melting cheese
Although the classic lasagna recipe calls for Parmesan cheese, many people long for a cheese pull—for which you'll need a tender melting cheese. Therefore, grated Parmesan cheese is often paired with mozzarella. In fact, you can use almost any melting cheese for a lasagna, such as Emmentaler cheese, Gouda cheese, or even mild Provolone cheese. Only be careful about tangy kinds like Cheddar cheese or Gorgonzola cheese whose strong flavors can quickly outperform the actual taste of your lasagna. When using these, it's better to combine them with a second, milder cheese.
In some lasagna recipes, you can even find up to four different types of cheese used throughout. For the ultimate cheesy lasagna, sprinkle some of it in between the layers. It's best to freshly grate the cheese for this, instead of buying pre-grated cheese as freshly grated cheese contains more moisture and therefore melts better.
The very last lasagna tips
You've finished preparing all the different components for your lasagna? Then it's time to layer them! There are no rules for how many layers you should end with, most recipes have 5 – 6 layers, our editor Devan somehow always ends up with 8 layers and I could swear that I even saw a few more when our Australian editor Ruby brought in some lasagna for lunch the other day. So layer it on!
After baking, you can hardly wait to finally eat the lasagna—and I totally get it. There's the tempting smell floating around your kitchen and after all the effort, you deserve to take a forkful of this heavenly dish, but unfortunately there is one last challenge: Let the lasagna rest for approx. 5 minutes after baking. Trust me, it would be too hot to eat anyway at this point. But the real reason befind this is that the lasagna will firm up during this short time of cooling down. It will become more stable and make it easier to cut and lift the pieces out of the baking dish—without it collapsing all over the plate.
With all this knowledge in your mind, it's finally time to start cooking, right? Here's our recipe of a classic lasagna, which you now know how to adjust to your taste.
If've you've got an appetite for lasagna, but prefer a low-carb option, substitute the lasagna sheets with zucchini slices—and off you go!
Freezing and preparing lasagna in advance: If you've already made the effort to cook a lasagna from scratch, it should be really paying off. So instead of just preparing tonight's dinner, prepare a large baking dish of lasagna and freeze the leftovers. They can easily be heated up later in the microwave or in the oven (for this, cover the lasagna with aluminum foil to prevent it from burning).
If you're expecting guests, prepare the lasagna in your baking dish, let it rest in the fridge and put it in the oven once your guests arrive. The baking time should take approx. 25 - 30 minutes, depending on how cold the lasagna is when you put it in the oven.
Skip the meat: How to make a vegetarian lasagna
Here's just another detail that makes me love lasagna even more: whether you're vegetarian or not, gluten intolerant, or vegan—there's a lasagna option for everyone! Except for the ragù, most of the layers are vegetarian anyway, so you only need to find your favorite vegetable to replace the meat. How about an asparagus lasagna with cooked white asparagus, a colorful vegetable lasagna with eggplants, bell peppers and zucchini, or a lasagna with lentils instead of minced meat?
Since spinach and cream always go well together, it’s no surprise that the leafy vegetable combined with béchamel sauce is a match! This recipe adds a light acidity to the sauce thanks to white wine, while pine nuts provide a nice crunch. To finish it off, nutty Pecorino cheese matches perfectly with the spinach.
Meet the fall version of a lasagna with pumpkin and spinach made with tangy goat cheese and ricotta. Pumpkin pairs up with its partner-in-crime, sage, which gets nice and crispy once baked in the oven.
Even without any meat or dairy products, a lasagna can be a true vegan comfort food. For a vegan béchamel, simply substitute the butter with margarine and the milk with a plant-based variant. Adding some nutritional yeast gives a more depth flavor and turns the béchamel into such a delicious sauce, that you really don’t need any cheese at all for this recipe. Enjoy!
Let us know your best lasagna tips or most favorite version in the comments!
Published on March 3, 2019