The most popular approach to a classic lasagna

Lasagna is the Italian classic comfort food that everyone loves, whether it’s for a special event like Christmas Eve with the family, or reheated for an easy weeknight meal.

A slice of golden brown lasagna garnished with basil on a white plate with a glass baking dish full of lasagna in the background and the text the essence of lasagna.

While it’s not a difficult dish to make, it’s not straightforward either, and there are many different ways to make it. And because it’s so universally popular, there are hundreds of different recipes to show you how.

To try to make sense of it all, I’ve gone through twenty different recipes for lasagna. I’ve figured out what’s popular, and what’s not, to help you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.

Before we dig into it though, there’s an important question we need to consider.

Where does lasagna come from?

There’s an easy answer, and a more complicated one.

If we’re talking about lasagna generally, as a type of dish, then it’s easy – it comes from Italy.

But if we’re talking about a specific type of lasagna, of which there are many, then it gets a whole lot more complicated.

Why? Because food is very regional in Italy. Cross an invisible line and favoured local foods can change quite dramatically. And this is definitely true of lasagna. So there’s no point in looking for an authentic lasagna. You instead need to look for an authentic Emilia-Romagna lasagna, or an authentic Sicilian lasagna, or an authentic Naples lasagna. Each of these is very different, and there are many more types as well! Super Market Italy have a great overview of several different regional lasagnas.

I’ll comment on authenticity briefly as we go through the recipes, but for the most part it’s best we stick with the easy answer. Lasagna is indeed from Italy.

Lasagna or lasagne?

One last point worth mentioning in case you’re a language fan, or you’ve seen it written both ways and just want to know. In the US and many other parts of the world, the dish is known as lasagna. Strictly speaking (in Italian that is), lasagna is singular, and refers to one sheet of the pasta. When there’s more than one, it’s lasagne. So in Italy, the dish is known as lasagne because it contains multiple sheets of the famous pasta. In fact, a typical Italian lasagna, no matter the region, will have many sheets of pasta in five or more layers.

And again, because of the number of varieties, the full name of the dish is typically used. Lasagne alla Bolognese, lasagne di Carnevale, lasagne con ragu di salsiccia, etc.

What’s in a typical lasagna?

Although there’s some variation in the detail, there’s a surprising amount of consistency amongst these recipes regarding the main ingredients:

  • Ground/minced beef
  • Tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs, or marinara sauce
  • Lasagna noodles/pasta sheets
  • Ricotta cheese
  • Mozzarella cheese
  • Parmesan cheese
  • Eggs

The recipes approach these ingredients in different ways, and some use fundamentally different ingredients, so I’ll dig into each separately.

Meat

Amongst the twenty recipes there are four different types of meat used:

  • Ground/minced beef
  • Italian sausage
  • Ground/minced pork
  • Pancetta

Beef

All but one of the recipes includes ground beef, and in seventeen of these it is either the only meat or the main meat.

A number of authors specify the leanness of beef to use, and most of these recommend lean or very lean meat. This will help prevent an overly greasy sauce, which could otherwise lead to a sloppy lasagna.

Italian sausage

Nine of the authors include some Italian sausage in their lasagna. One of these recipes, from Jac at Go Go Go Gourmet, uses only Italian sausage, with no other meat.

In these recipes Italian sausage refers to the widely available sausages or ground meat mix available in North America. It’s typically made from ground pork and is flavoured, especially with fennel, and comes in mild, hot and sweet varieties.

The most common types used in these recipes are hot, which is spiced with some red pepper/chili flakes, and sweet, which is flavoured with basil.

Ground pork

Three of the recipes include some ground pork in their meat sauce. In two of these, beef and pork are used in equal proportions.

Pancetta

One recipe, on Tastemade, includes some pancetta, which is salt-cured pork belly.

From meat to ragu   

The savoury heart of a lasagna is the ragu, which is the Italian term for a meat sauce. And in every one of these recipes it is a tomato-based meat sauce.

The authors take three different approaches to making their meat sauce:

  • Ten make the ragu from scratch. I’ll go through this in more detail further down.
  • Seven authors simplify the process by adding store-bought marinara sauce to their cooked meat.
  • The last three take a similar approach, but instead use homemade marinara.

Whichever route the author takes, the sauces are all remarkably similar to a classic Bolognese sauce, with the most notable variation being the inclusion of fennel seeds.

Fennel

While not prevalent, fennel is a not uncommon addition to these ragus, appearing six times, which left me wondering at first. Fennel is certainly a popular flavour in Italian cooking, especially with pork, but it’s not common in a beef ragu. It was a comment from Sabrina at Dinner the Dessert that helped. She adds fennel to replicate the flavour of using Italian sausage, which usually contain fennel. All makes sense now!

Sheets of lasagna pasta and cherry tomatoes on a dark timber surface with the text which noodles are best for your lasagna.

Lasagne sheets

There are three different types of lasagna pasta available, and all three make appearances amongst these recipes. The choices are:

  • Regular dried pasta sheets. These are the thickest variety, and ideally should be cooked before being added to your lasagne. Otherwise they may not fully cook by the time your lasagne is ready to come out of the oven, leaving them too firm.
  • Oven-ready dried pasta sheets. These are similar to regular, but a little thinner, and designed to be added to your lasagne without pre-cooking.
  • Fresh lasagne sheets. These are, as per their name, fresh pasta sheets, and can be found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. They are the thinnest and require no pre-cooking. They also only need limited time in the lasagna in order to be fully cooked.

As you can see, each type will require a different approach to your lasagna. That said, each type is also completely interchangeable with some minor changes to how you prepare and cook the dish.

Other things to consider

A couple of interesting discussions come up amongst the recipes (and their readers’ comments) which are worth sharing.

A number of recipes use regular dried pasta, and most of these either boil or soak the sheets in advance of assembling their lasagna. A few authors specifically state not to pre-cook or par-boil your regular noodles, but several readers of their recipes commented that their pasta was not fully cooked by the end of the recommended baking time.

As for the oven-ready pasta, several authors and a few readers recommend adding a little additional water to your lasagna or your sauce if you’re using these sheets. This is to ensure there’s enough moisture for the noodles to absorb without drying out the dish.

Of course the choice may well come down to your personal preference for texture too. The dried sheets will be thicker and can be cooked to a firmer finish in your lasagna if you like your noodles that way.

Cheeses

Cheese is definitely a popular ingredient in a typical lasagna. And it is where the most variation comes into the recipes.

Across the group there are six different types of cheese, but only three are prevalent – ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan. Nineteen of the recipes include more than one type of cheese, and most of these use three or more.

Most of the recipes use quite a bit of cheese too. They average 1.4 times as much cheese as meat on a weight basis, but they range from one recipe with almost no cheese to another with almost three times as much cheese as meat!

Parmesan

I expected to find parmesan cheese in every lasagna recipe, and I almost did, but not quite. Sammi from Happi Homemade does not use any parmesan in her recipe. The other nineteen recipes do though.

Different authors use the parmesan in different ways – in a layer, as a topping, in the ricotta mixture, in the ragu, and more. The most common use of parmesan though is two-fold, both as part of a cheese layer and as part of the topping (usually with mozzarella as well).

Ricotta

Fourteen recipes use ricotta, almost always mixed with an egg and some seasonings, to add creamy layers to the lasagna. Ricotta is used in a Sicilian eggplant lasagna, and in a traditional carnival or stuffed lasagna from Naples, a celebratory concoction filled with ragu, meatballs, hard-boiled eggs and more.

A number of comments both from the authors and their readers point to a potential issue with ricotta. Some people just don’t like the texture. Ricotta has a tendency to be a bit grainy, especially when cooked. One reader describes a ricotta lasagne as “hairy”. If you’re in this group, a number of the authors suggest replacing the ricotta with cottage cheese, which is less prone to graininess. And in fact three recipes use cottage cheese, not ricotta.

Mozzarella

Eighteen recipes include mozzarella in the layers, as a topping, or both. Of the other two recipes, one uses an Italian cheese mix, which would include mozzarella.

Shredded or grated are the most popular formats, but slices appear frequently as well, and a couple of authors tear apart a whole mozzarella. I can’t imagine I’d be able to take this last approach without going “one for the lasagna, one for me, one for the lasagna…”.

Other cheeses

Three other cheeses appear in a small number of recipes:

  • As mentioned earlier, cottage cheese is used in place of ricotta three times
  • Two recipes use an Italian cheese blend, which likely includes parmesan, mozzarella and others like provolone and asiago
  • One recipe, from Sabrina at Dinner then Dessert, uses equal amounts of mozzarella and provolone

Eggs

Almost all of the recipes that use ricotta mix it with one or two eggs to bind the cheese together. Ricotta can become dry when cooked too, and the addition of eggs helps to combat this.

Bechamel sauce

Although it’s not popular amongst these recipes, it’s worth mentioning because of it’s heritage. It’s also worth considering if you’re looking to try lasagna with less cheese.

Lasagna with bechamel, the white sauce made from milk and a roux of flour and butter, is typical of a traditional northern Italian lasagna. Lasagne alla Bolognese, for example, is made from layers of Bolognese sauce, bechamel sauce and lasagne sheets. This style typically contains much less cheese.

Three of the recipes utilise a white sauce instead of ricotta or cottage cheese. I’ve listed them separately in the links at the bottom of the page if you’re interested in one of these less popular but still authentic styles. 

Nutmeg

A few authors include a small amount of nutmeg, either in their ricotta mix or in their white sauce.

Nutmeg is commonly included in a bechamel sauce, uniquely enhancing the creamy sauce. I’ve also heard it’s a good addition to mashed potato.

Cooking your lasagna

A great lasagna depends on a great meat sauce, which is why the most popular approach is to make it from scratch.

Making a ragu

The ten scratch-made ragus have a number of consistent ingredients:

  • Ground beef is used in every one.
  • They are significantly more likely to have more than one type of meat, adding ground pork, Italian sausage or pancetta.
  • Although the classic Italian soffritto only appears in a couple of the recipes, onion and garlic are used in every one
  • Most use multiple types of tomatoes, typically canned, paste and tomato sauce (for those outside North America, this is pureed cooked tomatoes, not the condiment)
  • Basil and/or oregano, or Italian seasoning, or all three, plus maybe some fennel seed
  • Some water or white wine
  • A few include a tablespoon or two of sugar to offset the acidity of the tomatoes

The process is also remarkably similar across the ten recipes:

  1. Saute the onion and garlic until soft
  2. Add and brown the meat
  3. Put in the herbs and season with salt and pepper
  4. Add the tomatoes
  5. Simmer for at least one but up to three hours

A couple of authors reverse steps one and two, and a couple more combine them, but the overall method remains the same. And most of the authors are adamant about the time in step five. This allows the flavours to marry and intensify, the meat to beautifully soften and the vegetables to melt into the sauce.

The end goal is a thick sauce, not a soupy one. I’ll highlight why a little further down.

Once you’ve made your ragu, it’s times to construct your lasagna. But while layering the noodles, sauce and cheeses may seem straightforward, it’s the step in making a lasagna that so often causes home chefs to pause.

Closeup of the cut surface of a piece of lasagna sitting in marinara sauce with the text what's the best way to layer your lasagna.

How should you layer a lasagna?

Given how similar these recipes are, you’d expect the structure of the layers in the different recipes to be similar as well. But this is not the case at all.

There’s a surprising amount a variation in how the different authors choose to layer their lasagna. So much so that trying to summarise the different approaches is almost impossible. The layerings used range from a very simple repetition of sauce-pasta-cheeses to one that’s so complex the author had to lay it out separately for readers in sixteen steps! Googling the “right” approach doesn’t help either. You get so many different answers it’s almost meaningless.

So how to proceed then? Based on these recipes there are two fundamental approaches:

  • Pasta, then meat sauce, then ricotta, then cheese
  • Pasta, then ricotta, then cheese, then meat

The second approach is the more popular, but either will work. In both of these approaches, cheese refers to mozzarella and parmesan. And for both approaches, ricotta is interchangeable with cottage cheese or bechamel if you’re doing one of these styles instead.

No matter which way you go, there is one step that every recipe takes first. Apply a thin layer or ragu or at least marinara sauce to the bottom of your dish. This ensures the first layer of pasta cooks evenly and doesn’t stick.

And almost every author finishes with a topping of mozzarella, parmesan, or more often both.

Baking your lasagna

After the complexity of determining a layering strategy, you’ll be pleased to know there’s much more consistency in the approach taken to baking your lasagna.

Covered or not?

Seventeen recipes direct you to cover your lasagna with foil for some or all of the cooking time. This is to prevent the topping from both over-browning and drying out. Most of the recipes then guide you to remove the foil for the last fifteen to twenty minutes to allow the cheese to brown and crisp before removing it from the oven.

A few of the authors offer up a couple of different tricks to prevent the foil from sticking to your cheese topping:

  • Spray one side of the foil with cooking oil and face that side to your lasagna when covering the pan
  • Insert a few toothpicks into the lasagna so that they stick out an inch or so. These will act as tentpoles, keeping the foil from falling onto the cheese.

Alternatively, as a couple of authors and readers suggest, you can use a dish with an oven-proof lid in place of a foil covering.

Oven temperature

The oven temperatures the authors prefer are evenly split:

  • Ten set their oven to 350°F/175°C
  • Nine go a little higher to 375°F/190°C

Cooking time

There are a few different proposed cooking times:

  • Six recipes bake for fifty minutes
  • Six recipes bake for an hour
  • Four recipes bake for forty-five minutes

You may think there’d be a correlation between lower oven temperature and longer cooking time, but this doesn’t play out. There’s a mix of the above temperatures and times amongst these recipes. As always, different ovens, starting temperatures (ambient, refrigerated, etc), dish depths and more will all impact the cooking time required. As a result, many authors suggest your lasagne is likely done when the sauce is bubbling to the surface around the edges.

Closeup of a piece of lasagna sitting in marinara sauce with the text make sure your lasagna slices and serves beautifully.

Preventing a runny lasagna

A number of readers across the different recipes come looking for answers as to why their lasagna turned out runny, or sloppy. If this has happened to you in the past, or you just want to make sure it doesn’t happen, there are a few factors to consider.

Moisture

Liquid is the enemy of a nice firm lasagna. And there are a number of steps where too much liquid can sneak in if you’re not careful:

  • If you’re using regular noodles and boiling them first, make sure they’re really well drained before adding them to the dish.
  • While you want your meat sauce to be just that, a sauce, it shouldn’t be runny. The excess water in it will not help the consistency of your lasagna. Boil your sauce down to the right consistency if it’s too watery.
  • Ricotta can be watery, so make sure you drain it well, or strain it before using it.
  • If you’re using a bechamel sauce instead of ricotta, take the same approach as per your meat sauce. Make sure you thicken it properly, simmering off excess moisture.

Resting time

Seventeen authors recommend resting your lasagne before serving to allow it to set a little. This is especially important if your recipe includes eggs, or has a lot of cheese. As the fats in the cheese cool a little they’ll firm up, helping keep the slices in shape.

Most only recommend ten or fifteen minutes, although Tastemade make a point of serving their lasagna warm, not hot, and recommend forty-five minutes rest.

Making lasagna in advance

Lasagna can definitely be made in advance. In fact, much like chili or a curry, it will likely taste even better if it’s made in advance. And the good news is it freezes well too. So even though it takes time to prepare and cook, you can make a big batch, freeze it up in portions, and reheat for a great weeknight meal or a sneaky late night craving.

Many of the authors offer advice on freezing and reheating lasagna. Some recommend freezing it once it’s assembled but before it’s cooked, and some recommend leftovers or a whole cooked lasagna can be frozen well. Most of the authors prefer reheating in the oven, preferably once it’s thawed. But if the cravings really have a grip on you, the microwave may be your best friend!

The essence of lasagna

If you’re wanting to make lasagna, based on the most popular approach you’ll need the following:

  • Ground beef
  • Canned tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, onions, garlic and some herbs
  • Regular or oven-ready dried lasagna noodles
  • Ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses
  • An egg or two

The typical approach will look something like this:

  1. Make your beef into a ragu (a meat sauce), much like a Bolognese sauce, with tomatoes, onion, garlic and herbs. Make sure you cook it slowly for several hours.
  2. Mix the ricotta with beaten egg and season it well.
  3. Boil or soak your lasagna noodles in hot water if you’re using the regular type.
  4. Put a thin layer of your meat sauce in the bottom of your lasagna dish.
  5. Layer up your lasagna with repetitions of pasta, then ricotta, then mozzarella and parmesan, then ragu.
  6. Finish with a generous topping of mozzarella and parmesan.
  7. Spray a piece of foil with cooking spray and cover the dish with the sprayed side down.
  8. Bake in a 350°F/180°C oven for fifty minutes to an hour, uncovering it when there’s about twenty minutes to go. Sauce bubbling up around the edges of the dish is a good sign your lasagna’s done.
  9. Rest your lasagna for fifteen minutes or so before slicing and serving.

So there you have it – the essence of lasagna. Hopefully this has helped you choose an approach, or a recipe, that suits you the best.

And if this review has left you craving other Italian weeknight meals, what about spaghetti bolognese, or chicken parmesan?

Recipes included in this review

Recipes with ricotta

The Best Lasagna – Craving Home Cooked

World’s Best Lasagna – Allrecipes

Ultimate Meat Lasagna – Dinner, then Dessert

The Best Lasagna – Will Cook for Smiles

The Most Amazing Lasagna Recipe – The Stay at Home Chef

Best Homemade Lasagna – Great Grub, Delicious Treats

THE Best Lasagna EVER – Queenslee Appétit

Million Dollar Easy Lasagna – Go Go Go Gourmet

The Best Lasagna Recipe – Kristine’s Kitchen

EASIEST Lasagna Recipe – Alyona’s Cooking

The Easiest Lasagna Recipe Ever – Cooking Classy

Easy Lasagna Recipe – Tastes of Lizzy T

The World’s Best Homemade Lasagna – Cupcakes and Kale Chips

Easy Homemade Lasagna – Spend With Pennies

Recipes with cottage cheese

Easy Homemade Lasagna – HappiHomemade

Simple Lasagna Recipe – Spaceships and Laser Beams

Best Classic Lasagna Recipe – Great Grub, Delicious Treats

Recipes with bechamel/white sauce

Classic Lasagne Recipe – Tastemade

Lasagne al Forno (Italian Beef Lasagna) – Inside The Rustic Kitchen

Best Lasagna – Cafe Delites

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