Why It Works
- A choice of hearty ragù recipes lets you choose the final flavor of the dish.
- Thin layers of ragù coat each layer of pasta sheets with just the right amount of sauce.
- The creamy besciamella is easy to drizzle onto each layer, but will also reach the perfect consistency after baking.
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, and in particular, the king of all lasagnas: lasagna Bolognese.
What Is Lasagna Bolognese?
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.
*Do not quote me on that.
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.
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. béchamel or 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.
There's no ricotta in it, no mozzarella, no wads of spinach leaves, chunks of mushroom, or other heavy add-ins that you often find in other lasagna recipes.
Instead, 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.
Choosing the Type of 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 lasagna recipe.)
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 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 dough, 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 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.
Making the Ragù Bolognese
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; 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 deep flavor and a more tender 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.
It takes some time, but the sauce freezes well, making it a component you can prepare in advance at your leisure, and then defrost whenever you want to layer into a lasagna (or serve on fresh tagliatelle noodles).
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 Best Way to Prepare Besciamella for Lasagna
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 nutmeg spice (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.
Assembling and Baking Your Lasagna
With all the components prepared, all that's left is to assemble and bake the lasagna.
Step 1: Butter Baking Dish, Then Begin Layering Ragù and Pasta
Start by buttering a baking dish (9 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.
Step 2: Layer on More Ragù, Pasta, Besciamella, and Cheese
Next, add another thin layer of ragù, followed by a drizzling of besciamella and a grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Step 3: Repeat Until Baking Dish Is Full
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.)
Step 4: Finish With Besciamella and Cheese
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.
Step 5: Bake the Lasagna
The whole thing can go into a 375°F (190°C) 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?
The Many Layers of Lasagna Bolognese
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 ounces; 60g), plus more for greasing baking dish
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour (1.25 ounces; 35g)
3 cups (700ml) whole milk
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Vegetable oil, for greasing pasta
3 ounces (85g) Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat (do not allow it to brown). 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, or in increments of a couple of tablespoons at a time, whisking thoroughly and getting into all corners of the pan to maintain a homogeneous texture. Sauce will initially become very thick, then get very thin once all the milk is added.
Heat, stirring, until sauce comes to a simmer and begins to thicken slightly. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring, until sauce is just thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 3 minutes.
Season with salt and pepper. Whisk in nutmeg. If any lumps form, simply whisk thoroughly to remove them and smooth out sauce, or use a hand blender or countertop blender if lumps are particularly large or tough. Use béchamel sauce right away, or press a piece of plastic wrap over surface of sauce to prevent a skin from forming and keep warm until ready to use. (Béchamel sauce can be cooled and stored in a sealed container in the refrigerator for several days. Reheat very gently on the stovetop or in a microwave to use.)
If Using Homemade Pasta: Follow the recipe and instructions here through step 10 (you will end up with long sheets of fresh pasta), doubling the quantity to yield 2 pounds total (this will make more pasta than you will need, but it's best to have extra and avoid running out midway through assembly). Cut those sheets into roughly 8-inch-long rectangles.
In a pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta, working in batches if necessary, until al dente (this will vary depending on the pasta you use, but for store-bought it's about 1 minute less than package instructions), then use a spider or mesh strainer to transfer immediately to a large ice bath to cool.
Drain pasta well, then rub each sheet lightly on both sides with vegetable oil (to prevent sticking). You can hold the cooked pasta sheets for up to 3 hours, but if you're doing this, it's best to lay them out on a parchment-lined baking sheet, with layers of plastic wrap between the layers of pasta (once again, to prevent sticking).
If Using No-Boil Pasta: Soak in warm water for 30 minutes to partially hydrate, then drain on paper towels or kitchen towels.
To assemble and bake lasagna, preheat oven to 375°F (190°C). Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with butter. Spoon a thin, even layer of ragù on bottom of baking dish, then lay down a layer of lasagna noodles; it's okay if they overlap somewhat, but you can cut any sheets that are too large to avoid excessive doubling up.
Top pasta with another thin layer of ragù (thin enough that you can see the pasta through it in some spots). Drizzle a small amount of béchamel all over ragù, then top with a showering of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Repeat this layering process with pasta, ragù, béchamel, and grated cheese until baking dish is full; this should be about 6 layers. Finish with a top layer of pasta, then coat that with an even layer of the remaining béchamel sauce. Grate a final generous amount of cheese on top.
Bake lasagna until bubbling and browned on top, about 35 minutes (placing a rimmed baking sheet under the baking dish is good insurance in case anything bubbles over). Let rest 10 minutes, then serve.
You probably won't need a full two pounds of fresh pasta (nor a full two boxes dried), but I prefer to err on the side of having extra than risk falling short mid-assembly.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 37g||47%|
|Saturated Fat 15g||74%|
|Total Carbohydrate 55g||20%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||16%|
|Total Sugars 10g|
|Vitamin C 17mg||85%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|