Which lasagna is the heartiest dish to warm your family this winter?
Casseroles have long been a favorite for family meals and gatherings, because one-pan dishes are usually easy to make, a dream to portion and can feed a crowd.
Lasagna is a particular favorite for many because who doesn’t love the magical marriage of cheese, pasta and tomatoes? Add that it can be composed ahead of time, taking some of the stress out of weeknight cooking, and you’ve got the perfect comfort food. It’s especially life-affirming in winter, when we crave rich and hearty dishes jam-packed with carbs.
Like just about everyone else impacted by COVID-19, I haven’t had many chances to cook for people outside my family lately. Then last weekend, on a visit to Washington D.C., my daughter brought the boyfriend we hadn’t yet met to dinner.
I saw this as my chance to try what the internet says is the best lasagna ever. In 2001, John Chandler of Dallas submitted a version of his mother’s lasagna to the food-focused online social networking service Allrecipes.com. In a bold move, he named it the “World’s Best Lasagna,” and the rest is history.
In the years since, the recipe has been rated by nearly 20,000 home cooks and has the most reviews of any recipe on the site, according to Esmee Williams, the site’s consumer & brand strategy vice president. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, it was Allrecipes’ third most-viewed recipe behind only Good Ol’ Fashioned Pancakes and Easy Meatloaf.
Thanks to its solid five-star status, the recipe has also been “pinned” tens of thousands of times — despite its 20 ingredients and 21/2 hour cook time.
“Clearly this recipe has the flavors and features cooks are looking for — especially when feeding a crowd,” Williams said by email.
The recipe, she added, exudes a “feeling of authenticity” while using readily accessible ingredients. It also appeals to cooks who like to tweak recipes — using turkey instead of beef or adding red wine instead of water. And a great title “communicates confidence,” Williams said.
Which brings me back to the boyfriend. What better way to make a good first impression than with a dish that’s enjoyed cult status for more than a decade? Game on!
While Chandler’s recipe takes hours to prepare, with a host of ingredients, many American lasagnas do not. For that, we can probably thank the popularity of dried lasagna noodles and the recipes printed on the boxes.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever thrown some no-boil lasagna noodles into a pan with a jar of spaghetti sauce, ricotta and shredded mozzarella. It might not be the real deal, but it’s a reasonable facsimile, right?
Yet the standard-bearer that originated in Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy in the 19th century was never meant to be a quick, everyday meal. It was a dish for feasts and other special occasions made with long-simmered meat sauces, velvety bechamel and delicate, fresh pasta rolled by hand.
“It’s a cultural thing,” explained food historian and cookbook author Francine Segan in an email. “In Italy, the custom is to prepare a special dish like lasagne with care and time for Sunday dinner and special occasions. It takes hours.”
In the U.S., home cooks tend to value free time more and want things done quickly, “so we take short cuts.”
The dish is older than you might think: What Italians know as lasagne (plural for the noodles) is derived from the Greek word laganon — flat sheets of dough cut into thin strips. As early as the 4th century B.C., Etruscan frescoes in the Tomb of Reliefs in Lazio near Rome depicted the basic tools and ingredients to roll and form pasta, Segan noted, as well as banquets showing diners enjoying an early version.
The first written recipe for a lasagna-like dish appeared in the 1st-century cookbook “De Re Coquinaria” by the ancient Roman gastronome and writer Apicius, says Segan. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages that a recipe approximating modern lasagna — boiled flattened dough sprinkled with cheese and spices — appeared in the 14th-century cookbook “Liber de Coquina.”
Every Italian region has its own traditional recipe — and they don’t necessarily include tomatoes (which didn’t arrive in Italy until the 1500s). Lasagne al brodo, baked lasagna in broth, is a typical dish of Molise made with a chicken and veal stock, while Lasagne all’Ascolana, from Ascoli province in the Marche region, features fresh egg lasagna sheets layered with a sauce of ground beef and minced chicken giblets cooked in wine and sliced white truffles.
In southern Italy, lasagna is generally made with dried sheets of pasta layered with rich meat ragu, ricotta and mozzarella. In the north, especially in Bologna, the most popular version includes fresh egg pasta colored green with spinach and layered with ragu, bechamel and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
In 2003, the Italian Academy of Cuisine added the recipe for Green Lasagna alla Bolognese to its archives, even though Neapolitan lasagna — which includes fried meatballs, ricotta, mozzarella and hard-boiled eggs — has the most historical documentation, according to the magazine La Cucina Italiana.
You’re much more likely to find the famed Italian casserole offered by the pan, family-style, for takeaway meals and banquets. That’s because lasagna is relatively expensive to make and quite labor-intensive. “And to be honest, there’s more interesting food items out there,” says Frank Vitale, the chef and owner of Cucina Vitale on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
He offers three versions on his takeout menu with 24-48 hours’ notice: cheese, vegetable and meat, with prices ranging from $59.95 for a 10-by-12-inch pan of cheese lasagna that serves six to $129.95 for a large pan of meat lasagna that serves 20. All are made with fresh pasta sheets and herbed ricotta mixed with grated Romano and mozzarella cheeses. The bolognese for his meat lasagna is slow-simmered for nearly four hours using beef, veal and pork in addition to pancetta and short ribs.
“What makes a good lasagna is like anything else — use the best ingredients,” he says.
Fiore Moletz, who owns Della Terra in Zelienople, Pennsylvania, is another who offers lasagna family-style as a takeaway, and it’s also occasionally on the menu on weekends during cold weather. He agrees that the dish is only as good as its components.
“It’s so simple it has to be done with the best ingredients and techniques,” Moletz says.
For him, that means 7-12 layers of fresh pasta topped with a mix of creamy bechamel and bolognese that’s been cooked very slowly over low heat with prosciutto ends instead of pancetta. He also tucks fresh basil into the pasta somewhere between the fourth and fifth layers.
“The way you build flavors is super important,” he says.
Whatever recipe you choose — we offer both the World’s Best Lasagna and a Classic Lasagne alla Bolognese to compare and contrast — be sure to follow these simple rules from the experts:
Thinner is better when it comes to noodles, whether you’re making it from scratch or choosing a boxed variety. You also probably want to avoid no-boil noodles, as it can make your lasagna heavier and drier if there’s not enough liquid in the sauce.
Use the best ingredients you can afford — premium cream, real Parmesan-Reggiano, Italian plum tomatoes and quality meats.
Cook the sauce until it’s thick, or your lasagna will be watery.
Choose a casserole dish that’s deep enough for easy layering, and make sure the final layer of pasta is completely covered by sauce and topped with cheese.
Don’t overcook! Fresh pasta is quite soft and will get mushy if baked too long. Even if you use boiled lasagna noodles, you’re really just rewarming all the ingredients once the pan goes into the oven.
Let the lasagna sit for at least 15 minutes before portioning it, or it will disintegrate into a sloppy mess.
Above all, have fun while you’re creating your masterpiece. It’s lasagna, after all. “Take your time and enjoy the process,” says Segan.
World’s Best Lasagna
You need to be a meat lover to truly enjoy this lasagna. You also need to have a few hours, as the sauce needs to simmer on the stove for 90 minutes before it’s layered with the noodles and cheese.
I made the sauce — which is on the sweet side — a day ahead to speed the process at dinner time. My family of carnivores, including my daughter’s boyfriend, gave the lasagna a resounding thumbs up. It’s heavy and filling.
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
- 3/4 pound lean ground beef
- 1/2 cup minced onion
- 2 cloves garlic, crushed
- 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 2 (6-ounce) cans tomato paste
- 2 (6.5-ounce) cans canned tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 tablespoons white sugar
- 11/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- 11/2 teaspoons salt, divided, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- 12 lasagna noodles
- 16 ounces ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Prepare sauce: In a Dutch oven, cook sausage, ground beef, onion and garlic over medium heat until well browned. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce and water. Season with sugar, basil, fennel seeds, Italian seasoning, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper and 2 tablespoons parsley. Simmer, covered, for about 11/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water for 8-10 minutes. Drain noodles and rinse with cold water. In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese with egg, remaining parsley and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Assemble lasagna: Spread 11/2 cups of meat sauce in the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Arrange 6 noodles lengthwise over meat sauce. Spread with one half of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with a third of mozzarella cheese slices. Spoon 11/2 cups meat sauce over mozzarella and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers and top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil. To prevent sticking, either spray foil with cooking spray, or make sure the foil does not touch the cheese.
Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.
Classic Lasagne Alla Bolognese
The Italian Academy of Cuisine added this recipe for Green Lasagna alla Bolognese to its archives in 2003. It features green pasta noodles made with spinach, a classic Bolognese ragu, bechamel sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
In the original Italian instructions, cooks are cautioned: “Be careful that the layers are very regular, the sauce is abundant, but not excessive, the béchamel is creamy and evenly distributed. Let it rest for five minutes before serving; the portions on the plate must be strictly ‘standing.’”
I made the pasta from scratch using thawed, frozen spinach (squeezed between a clean dish towel to remove the moisture), but it’s OK to substitute dried noodles. Cook until al dente, or about 1 minutes less than package instructions. To keep them from sticking while you assemble the lasagna, lightly rub each piece on both sides with a little vegetable oil.
Its delicate layers of fresh pasta and two sauces made this lasagna a rich and tasty delight. It does take some time, however, so you may want to make the sauce in advance to speed the process.
For bolognese sauce
- 5 ounces porchetta or bacon
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 21/2 ounces finely chopped carrot
- 2 ounces finely chopped celery
- 2 ounces finely chopped onion
- 11 ounces ground beef
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 10 ounces tomato puree
- Beef broth
- 1 cup milk
- Salt and pepper
- 12 ounces flour, preferably “00”
- 2 eggs
- 7 ounces boiled spinach, squeezed well and chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Prepare bolognese sauce: Dice the bacon, chop it and fry in a large Dutch oven until crispy. Add 2 tablespoons butter and finely chopped carrot, celery and onion and sauté gently. Add the ground beef. Mix well and cook until it is brown and “sizzles.” Add the wine, mix gently and cook until it has completely evaporated, about 2 minutes. Add tomato sauce, cover and simmer slowly for about 2 hours, adding broth when needed. When sauce is just about done, add milk to reduce the acidity of the tomato. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Prepare the dough by mixing eggs, flour and the boiled spinach, squeezed well and finely chopped, until a ball of dough forms. (I used my stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment.) Continue to knead for 3 minutes, either by hand or in the mixer, so the dough develops elasticity and silkiness.
Cover dough ball in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes before using. Or let the dough rest for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Roll out the dough, which must be light green and not excessively thin. (I used a pasta maker, working my way down through the settings, but you can also roll out the dough by hand.)
Put a pan three-quarters full of salted water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Cut the pastry into rectangles or squares (mine were about 3 by 5 inches), throw them in boiling water and remove them as soon as they come to the surface. Rinse in cold water to stop cooking, then dry them on a clean white cotton or linen cloth.
Prepare bechamel: Melt butter in a saucepan over low heat, add flour and whisk to form a paste. Continue to cook, stirring, until raw flour scent is gone, about 1 minute. Whisking constantly, add milk in a thin, steady stream, whisking thoroughly and getting into all corners of the pan. Heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken slightly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, until sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 3 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper and nutmeg. Use sauce right away or wrap a piece of plastic wrap over surface of sauce to prevent a skin from forming. Keep warm until ready to use.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Grease the bottom of the pan liberally with butter. Line it with a layer of pasta followed by a layer of meat sauce, bechamel sauce and a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Continue layering with pasta, sauces and cheese until you run out of ingredients (I had enough for 6 layers.) Add a small piece of butter in each corner of the pan to keep the edges from drying out.
Bake for about half an hour in preheated oven. Allow to sit for 15 minutes before serving,
— Adapted from Accademia Italiana Della Cucina