Essential techniques, recipes, and more!
Here in the United States, when most people say they're going to make lasagna, they almost always mean the baked dish of wide noodles with thick layers of ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and either tomato or meat sauce. But that limited use of the term doesn't begin to capture the vast possibilities of lasagna as it's prepared in Italy. The word itself, lasagna, technically refers only to the noodles—broad, flat, and rectangular—which is why Italians almost always use the plural, lasagne. Lasagne are also among the most ancient of pasta shapes, a fact that makes sense when you consider that they're literally the starting point for so many other kinds of pasta: You have to make lasagne before you can cut something like fettuccine or pappardelle from them.
Given their antiquity, there are probably 50 lasagna recipes for every square inch of Italian soil,* and not all of them are layered and baked. In Liguria, for instance, the lasagne are rolled out so thin that they're nearly see-through when cooked, then tossed with pesto. Sure, they call them mandilli de saea (or fazzoletti di seta), a reference to the silken handkerchiefs the pasta resembles, but they're lasagne all the same. In Naples, meanwhile, you're likely to find lasagne alla napoletana, a wonderfully over-the-top baked version stuffed with every goody you can imagine.
* Do not quote me on that.
The kind I crave the most, though, is lasagne alla bolognese, hailing from Emilia-Romagna in north-central Italy. It's a fundamentally simple recipe, with only a few key components: the pasta; the meat sauce, known as ragù bolognese; besciamella (a.k.a. white sauce); and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Despite its hearty frame, the true beauty of lasagna Bolognese is its refined delicacy. The layers are not overstuffed, guaranteeing that the pasta (and your mouth) isn't steamrolled by the filling's intense richness. The texture is silken, the result of layers of delicate fresh pasta and long-cooked, gelatin-infused ragù, all gently bound by creamy besciamella. And the flavor, while robust and meaty, has a hint of sweetness to it, a gift from all the carb- and dairy-rich components (along with the judicious use of nutmeg). It's about as close to perfection as any baked pasta I've ever eaten, and, while you're free to stuff it with additional ingredients if you so choose, I'd beg you to at least try it in its most basic form first, because I honestly don't think it wants for anything.
Making it work requires being thoughtful about each component—like many of Italy's best dishes, lasagna Bolognese is relatively simple, meaning bad technique and inadvisable shortcuts don't have much to hide behind.
Prima, La Pasta
Many experts, including Italian food authority Marcella Hazan, tell you that if you aren't willing to make your own fresh lasagna noodles from scratch, you shouldn't bother making the dish at all. I don't agree with that. While homemade fresh lasagne, rolled from an egg-enriched dough, may produce the apex of the dish, they shouldn't be a requirement. (In fact, Kenji even calls for dry no-boil lasagna noodles in his version of this dish.)
First, you can buy pretty decent fresh (or frozen) lasagna noodles at a lot of supermarkets now, leading to inarguably delicious results. And, frankly, while it's not the same, even dried pasta can work in a pinch—the pasta in a lasagna should be cooked past the point of al dente anyway, so that you can slide a fork through it without encountering much resistance, and dried pasta lends itself to that kind of overcooking nearly as well as fresh.
If you're up for making the pasta from scratch, you should start by reading about Niki's in-depth testing of fresh-pasta recipes, in which she dialed in to the sweet spot (to the degree that such can exist) for a basic flour-and-egg dough. You can follow either her regular pasta recipe or her spinach-enhanced recipe. Spinach pasta is technically the most traditional choice for lasagna Bolognese, but I don't consider it any more of a requirement than a homemade dough.
One of the advantages of making your own pasta, though, is that you can control just how thin the sheets are. With lasagna Bolognese, the thinner the better, at least to a point. I'd suggest rolling the sheets out to about the 6 or 7 setting on your pasta machine—thin enough that the pasta layers aren't needlessly bulky, but not quite so thin that they reach Ligurian silk-handkerchief levels. Once they're rolled out, cut the long sheets into more manageable rectangular lengths of about eight inches or so.
To prep the pasta, I cook it in salted boiling water until it's just done, with only a hint of resilience left when you chew it (it'll soften up more in the oven). I then chill the noodles in a bath of ice water, drain them well, and rub each one lightly with oil to prevent them from sticking. If you're going to be holding the cooked pasta for any length of time, I'd suggest laying the oiled sheets out on a parchment-lined baking sheet with layers of plastic wrap between them—once again, to prevent sticking.
Next up is the ragù bolognese, and we here at Serious Eats have you covered on that front in more ways than one. Bolognese is a meat sauce most often made with beef, and sometimes pork and/or veal as well; lamb is not an unheard-of addition. While there are probably as many recipes for Bolognese sauce as there are for lasagna, it always starts with a soffritto, a sautéed mixture of aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot, and celery. When it's raw, the Italians call this chopped-up vegetable mixture a battuto, which translates as "beaten" and harkens back to a time when they'd crush all the aromatics to a rough paste with a mortar and pestle. For this reason, I tend to opt for a well-minced battuto, which I do by hand (because I'm a little nuts), but you can easily do it much more quickly in a food processor. I like the way the finer mince mostly disappears among the bits of meat in the sauce.
Beyond the soffritto and the meat, Bolognese often has a small amount of tomato, either puréed or in the form of paste—though not so much as to make it a full-on tomato-meat sauce—as well as wine (red or white, but always dry...and don't worry too much about the quality), plus a hint of warm spices like nutmeg and a good splash of milk or cream, which creates a silky and luxurious final texture.
You can choose from a variety of recipes for this. First, there's Kenji's slow-cooked version, which is about as tricked-out as you can get. Among the cooler elements of his recipe is the inclusion of pancetta, lamb, and chicken livers for added richness and depth; he also cooks the sauce in the oven instead of on the stovetop, which takes longer but leads to some of the deepest flavor and tenderest texture, thanks to a combination of gentle heat and surface browning.
Kenji has also published a pressure cooker Bolognese recipe, which is a great time-saver that doesn't sacrifice much in terms of quality. If you have a pressure cooker, it's definitely worth considering.
I've also written my own Bolognese recipe, just for this lasagna. It's a little simpler than Kenji's, both for slightly more ease and to hit a specific flavor profile I'm after—playing up those sweet dairy notes and reducing some of the funky intensity from the pancetta, chicken livers, and lamb. Mine is not a quick and easy recipe by any measure, though if you do it on the stovetop, it takes three, maybe four hours. You can also pop it in the oven à la Kenji's approach, which will yield some subtle improvements in flavor and texture, but will also likely take an hour or two longer.
There are a couple key steps in all our ragù recipes. One is to add unflavored gelatin to the chicken stock before adding it to the pot, especially if you're using store-bought broth, which lacks the gelatin that a good homemade stock always has. The gelatin is important because it delivers that rich, mouth-coating viscosity that separates the best sauces from all the wimpy, watery ones. Using some ground veal in the Bolognese, incidentally, also ups the gelatin factor.
The other is to brown only a portion of the ground meat, or start with the meat in larger chunks for browning and then grind it after that. The reason is that browning delivers excellent flavor development, but sacrifices texture by drying the browned bits out excessively—browning requires drying, so there's no good way around this. By browning only some of the meat, we get that excellent depth of roasted flavor, but we reserve a more tender texture in the remaining portion of un-browned meat. It's a win-win.
The Great White Dope
Aside from the grated parm, besciamella is the most basic of all the components in a lasagna Bolognese, but its importance shouldn't be underestimated. It's the indulgently creamy sauce that binds the whole thing together, helping to marry the meaty sauce with the silky sheets of pasta while underscoring the rich dairy in the dish and bringing out that warm-spice note of nutmeg (which is in both the ragù and the besciamella).
The secret to getting it right is to make a version with the proper ratio of flour to milk, which in this case means less flour for a thinner white sauce. That's because the besciamella will thicken up as the lasagna bakes, so if you start with a thicker sauce, it'll end up gluey by the time the lasagna comes out of the oven. I use a ratio of a little more than one tablespoon of flour per cup of milk. The resulting besciamella will be easy to drizzle onto each layer, but will reach the perfect, slowly flowing consistency after baking.
Aside from that, the method is classic. Melt butter in a saucepan, whisk in flour to form a paste, then cook until the flour's raw smell has cooked off, but not so much that it starts to brown. After that, drizzle in the milk slowly, whisking well the whole time, to prevent lumps and ensure a truly silky, smooth sauce.
One thing to watch out for: Besciamella has a tendency to rapidly develop a thick skin on the top as it sits; you can prevent this by pressing some plastic wrap against the surface. Then just keep it warm until you're ready to use it.
Some Assembly Required
With all the components prepared, all that's left is to assemble and bake the lasagna.
Assembly is simple: Start by buttering a baking dish (nine by 13 inches works for my recipe), then put down a thin layer of ragù, just to underpin the first layer of pasta. Now cover the ragù with sheets of pasta; some overlap is totally fine, but you can cut the pasta as needed to avoid too much doubling up. Next, add another thin layer of ragù, followed by a drizzling of besciamella and a grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. Repeat this layering sequence until the baking dish is filled up; that was about six layers total for me.
The most important thing is to not go too thick on the meat sauce, as tempting as it may be. Each individual layer should be thin, since it will add up as each one is stacked atop the last; if you do it right, the pasta will be sauced in roughly similar proportions to an unbaked pasta dish (i.e., not too much sauce). Excessive sauce will do nothing but drown out the pasta and reduce the structural integrity of the layers once the lasagna is cut and plated. (Anyone who wants the sauce that badly should just skip all this trouble and eat it from a bowl with a spoon. There's no shame in that.)
Once you've reached the top layer of pasta, spread the remaining besciamella on it, without any more ragù, then shower it with a final dose of grated cheese.
The whole thing can go into a 375°F oven until it's bubbling and browned on top, about 35 minutes. Then let it rest at least another 10 minutes or so, so that it can set slightly and will hold together better once you cut into it.
It may not reach towering heights, or overflow with thick layers of cheese, but it more than holds its own in the pantheon of lasagnas—I mean, who can argue with the fact that there's more than one way to keep things interesting between the sheets?