Nothing lights up a room like a hot tray of lasagna.
In addition to being one of the world’s great comfort foods, lasagna has versatility. It can be made ahead and keeps warm nicely, making it a smart option for entertaining or nights where you’re cooking many dishes and want something ready ahead of time. It isn’t hard to learn how to make an impressive tray.
Whether you're cooking boxed noodles or rolling pasta from scratch, use these tips for a better lasagna.
Treat Your Pasta Right.
Are you using boxed pasta or fresh pasta? If boxed, you have two roads: the no-boil noodle and the more traditional boiled noodles. No-boil will save you some time, but boiled noodles lead to a better result.
If you’ll be using fresh pasta, you have the same two roads: boiling and not boiling. Some cooks give fresh lasagna sheets a very brief boil, about 10 to 20 seconds in salted water. If you roll your pasta thin enough, though, you can skip boiling altogether. (Ultra-thin noodles will cook as your sauce and cheese bubble in the oven.)
Follow the Proper Method for Boiling Noodles.
When cooking boxed or fresh noodles, use plenty of water. Stir frequently but gently. This is to keep noodles from sticking together. Once they’ve finished boiling, plunge them into ice water. This is to bring the cooking process to a screeching halt. You’ll want your lasagna sheets firmly on the al dente side, as they’ll still soften some more in the oven.
To Ricotta or Not to Ricotta?
The version with red sauce, ricotta, and mozzarella common in the U.S. is just one lasagna of many. Given the many kinds, there’s a lot of room to get imaginative here, to have some fun. Maybe you want to skip ricotta and incorporate bechamel for added lightness, as in a classic lasagna Bolognese. Maybe you have some fresh basil or mint on hand that you want to layer between sheets, or a soft cheese from the farmers’ market. Don’t feel confined by any ideas about what lasagna should be, because what it is happens to vary widely.
Consider Your Layering Strategy.
When making lasagna, you should err on the side of more layers. You don’t need 25 or 100, like some upscale restaurants have done, but you’ll want at least five. Ideally, you can shoot for more like seven or eight pasta layers. This is to keep sauces juicy. This is to develop a more dramatic bite as your teeth glide through.
Begin with sauce on the pan bottom. Doing so will prevent your bottom noodle from sticking. As you build each individual pasta layer, try for minimal overlap between pasta sheets. If you can, stick to a half-inch or less of overlap, or you could have some gummy spots.
Top Sheet Overhangs Lead to Crispy Magic.
On your top (and final!) layer, consider leaving pasta sheets long, so they climb a little bit off the lasagna and up your pan’s sides. These bits will crisp during baking, giving them crunch. They’ll make for more of a soft-crisp contrast—one thing that makes a great lasagna.
Err on the Side of Under-Baking.
An overbaked lasagna can’t be saved. When noodles mush and it becomes hard to differentiate between pasta and sauce layers, lasagna is past its prime. On the other hand, an under-baked lasagna can simply return to the oven for longer, an easy fix.
Check lasagna often. There are a lot of factors that influence cooking time: pan size, number of layers, fresh versus dry pasta, and whether your sauce was hot, room temperature, or cool when you layered. Lasagna is done when it has a nicely browned top with crisp edges. Inside, noodles should retain a small degree of bite.
Make Extra Sauce for Serving.
If your lasagna has dried out some or overcooked a bit, sauce can help. Make some extra sauce to put on the table beside your lasagna tray. Unveiling a tray comes with a seriously great feeling of warmth and anticipation. Extra sauce, you can bet, will only make that feeling better.