The Food Lab: How to Make The Ultimate Creamy Spinach Lasagna

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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This lasagna is creamy, cheesy, and packed with layers of spinach flavor. [Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Get the Recipe

I'm not really much of a sleeper. No matter how often I try and no matter what method I take, I simply can't get into bed and nod off until four or five hours before I have to wake up. For a while this concerned me (and particularly concerned my wife), but to be honest, I don't feel tired, and I kind of enjoy those extra four hours I get all to myself.

What is it that keeps me up late at night? Admittedly sometimes it's ridiculous things like the Walking Dead or Reddit or de-skunking my silly dog after he gets sprayed in the face at 2 a.m. But more often than not, I'm up cooking. Sure, I cook for work, and I do it almost all day every day, but I also cook to relax, and there is little to me that is more relaxing or therapeutic than putting together a carefully constructed lasagna, whether it's traditional Bolognese, creamy mushroom or brussels sprout, or a rich and hearty squash lasagna.

My wife tells me I need to learn how to relax. I think I manage just fine.

I find pleasure in preparing each of the separate fillings and balancing their flavors. Joy in spreading layers of thin pasta with just enough filling to coat. I sit in front of the oven with my face pressed up against the glass as the lasagna transforms from layered pasta into a bubbly, browned, irresistible casserole.

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Today we're going to look at another one of the classics. Creamy, cheesy, spinach lasagna flavored with a hint of nutmeg and a combination of besciamella (that's Italian-speak for "white sauce") and fresh ricotta. And while I'll often opt for the ease and convenience of no-boil lasagna noodles, today we're going to go with store-bought fresh pasta. There are a few subtle but significant differences in how to handle fresh noodles.

Let's dive right into the deep end of this rich, creamy pool, alright?

The Spinach

This is a spinach lasagna, so we want that spinach flavor front and center. I've tried a few different types of spinach over the years including frozen, fresh flat leaf, curly leaf, and baby, and I find that you get the best flavor and texture with fresh flat or curly leafed spinach. They don't have the pulpy, mushy texture of cooked baby spinach (plus they're cheaper), and they have significantly better flavor than frozen spinach, which can tasted muddy and occasionally has fibrous stalks included.

I started out by cooking my spinach using a method that Cook's Illustrated recommends, blanching it in boiling water just until wilted. I find the process a little cumbersome, particularly because the spinach ends up absorbing way more water than it needs to, leading to diluted flavor.

Microwaving it in a bowl is a little better, but doesn't offer you the opportunity to buttress its flavor with some aromatics.

The best method? Sautéing.

I start by sweating some shallots and garlic in a mixture of butter and olive oil (for superior flavor), then adding in the spinach a few handfuls at a time until its fully wilted.

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From there I let it cook down, letting any juices that are expelled reduce until the pan looks completely dry.

But looking completely dry and being completely dry are two separate things. I found out the hard way that it's extremely important to remove as much excess liquid from your spinach as possible if you want to end up with consistent, reliable results.

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Place the cooked spinach in a strainer and press on it with a spatula until you extract those last couple tablespoons of residual moisture.

The last question is how to incorporate that spinach. Some recipes call for simply scattering the roughly chopped wilted leaves in between each layer all willy nilly. Once upon a time I used this method as well. It's easy to do, but it doesn't make for ideal eating—whole leaves of spinach slide out of your lasagna with each bite.

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Much better is to chop that spinach by pulsing it in the food processor, then combining it with some of your cheese mixture to really disperse it evenly.

Speaking of cheese, let's speak about cheese a bit, ok?

The Cheese

I knew that extra creaminess was my goal here, and I started off by making a cheese-spiked standard besciamella to bind everything together. It's nice enough, but it didn't have the rich cheese flavor of a lasagna made with ricotta. The problem? Most store-bought ricotta is terrible, and I mean really terrible.

See, in order to save money, instead of carefully forming curds and draining away excess water the way they should, most major label brands will add gums and stabilizers designed to help keep that extra water bound inside the mixture. The result is ricotta that is blander (after all, the milky flavor is watered down) and has an odd, gum-like texture that bears little resemblance to the real deal.

There are a couple of solutions. The first is to make the ricotta yourself. With our simple microwave method, you can get fresh ricotta on the counter in about five minutes, though you'll need to make multiple batches for the quantity required for a large lasagna like this.

Alternatively, you can seek out quality brands. If you've got a good local dairy, freshly made ricotta can't be beat. At the supermarket, check your labels for ricotta that contains nothing more than milk, salt, and either a starter or some acid.

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Calabro is a fantastic brand that's available at Whole Foods. Make sure you pick up their full-fat ricotta—the low fat versions have had stabilizers added to make up for their excess wateriness.

Your last option? Skip the ricotta and use cottage cheese instead. It may sound odd, but the two products are made in a very similar manner and once incorporated into the lasagna, the cottage cheese comes out beautifully creamy. Some folks actually prefer the end results you get from the cottage cheese over true ricotta!

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The simplest way to incorporate whichever you choose is to simply use it as-is, folding an egg into it to help bind it a bit as it bakes, but I find that ricotta added this way comes out a little pebbly and dry. Instead, I like to take half of the ricotta and whiz it up in a food processor with an egg, a healthy amount of Parmesan cheese for extra flavor, and some freshly grated nutmeg, pepper, and salt.

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To that, I fold in my chopped spinach along with the other half of the ricotta.

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By incorporating the ricotta in two different forms, you get an end result that is rich and creamy, but still has the signature small curds of ricotta interspersed throughout.

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Finally, some freshly grated mozzarella and Comté or Gruyère cheese combined with some of that besciamella take the whole thing over the top.

The Pasta

I'm generally a huge advocate of those flat-rolled, no-boil lasagna noodles. They work particularly well if you soak them in water while you're putting together your fillings. But no matter how convenient they are, they never have quite the same resilient bite as fresh pasta sheets do, and sometimes you just need to go all in, even if it's at 2 a.m. on a Tuesday.

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Working with fresh store-bought pasta sheets is pretty easy. I make a big stack of them and use a pizza wheel to cut them into the right shape and size. Remember, fresh pasta will expand when you cook it, so you need to account for that when cutting. I subtract about an inch from each side when cutting.

Fresh lasagna noodles don't need to be par-cooked, but raw noodles stacked into a lasagna will absorb quite a bit of moisture from the fillings. I find it's much easier to gauge the finished texture of the lasagna if you do par-cook them.

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Par-cook your cut noodles a few at a time in a big pot of salted boiling water. They should be cooked until very, very al dente—less than a minute in the water will do.

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Transfer them to the sink and run them under cold water, gently unfolding the sheets and taking care not to tear them.

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Lay the rinsed sheets out on a layer of clean kitchen towels, then repeat with the remaining noodles. To minimize bench space, I like to place a layer of noodles on one half of a towel, fold the other half over, then layer my next noodles on top of that. I repeat with as many towels as I need.

Dried no-boil noodles absorb liquid and get extra-thick when cooking, so it's tough to stack more than five to six layers of them in a single lasagna pan. When I'm using fresh noodles, I like to do take am ore traditional approach and really make the pasta the star of the show. I'll go for 12 layers or even more.

Stack and Go

We've got our cheesy besciamella, our spinach and ricotta mixture, and our noodles, which leaves us with the most therapeutic, enjoyable part of all: stacking.

I like to start with a thin layer of besciamella on the bottom of my greased lasagna pan to gives that bottom layer of noodles something to stick to.

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In goes a layer of pasta.

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Followed by a thin, thin coating of the spinach mixture. Remember: 12 layers to go here! It's ok if there are bare spots of pasta showing, everything will settle and shift as it bakes anyhow.

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A little drizzle of besciamella goes on next.

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I smooth it out with the back of a spatula.

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I repeat the process until I've used up both the pasta and the spinach mixture.

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For the very top layer, I mix things up a bit by incorporating some plain grated cheese. This gives the top an extra gooey, stretchy coating.

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One more layer of besciamella to bind it all together, and it's ready for the oven.

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To get the cheese nicely melted, I start by covering it with foil for the first 15 minutes of its 30 to 40 minute bake time. After that the top comes off and it keeps going until bubbly and browned all around.

You may find that with fresh lasagna noodles, you'll end up with quite a bit of puffing due to water vapor getting trapped in between layers of pasta. If you peek into your oven (or like me, sit there riveted to the glass for the entire 40 minutes) and notice that there is a bulge in the middle of your lasagna, just poke it with a sharp paring knife, twisting the knife a bit to open up an escape route for that trapped steam.

Rest and Serve

When the lasagna looks something like this...

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...and smells even better, then it's ready to come out of the oven. You'll be tempted to jump right in, but for best texture, let it rest for about 10 minutes before cutting in and serving.

Who here likes a bit of gratuitous food porn? This next section is for you.

OK lasagna, it's just you and me here. Can you give me gooey? Give me gooey, and throw in a little cheesy if you've got it.

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That's it. Ooh, cheesier. Give me cheesier! You're killing me here, yeah baby, yeah!

OK, can you do golden brown crisp edges? Let's see you do that for a little while.

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You nailed it, perfect. Give me more! Whaddaya got? How about creamy layers of pasta dripping with ricotta and spinach? Can you do the dripping thing?

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Yes, yes, yes!

I've worked with better... but not many.

For you red sauce lovers...

When I made a quick inquiry over on Twitter, there was an overwhelming reply that a good spinach lasagna should have no tomato sauce. That said, there was a strong vocal minority who actually likes the combination of tomato and spinach. If you're of that persuasion, feel free to add a couple cups of tomato sauce to interspersed into the layers here and there. Might I be so bold as to suggest my Slow-Cooked Italian-American Red Sauce as a suitable candidate?

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