Slightly adapted from Cooks’ Illustrated magazine, this Lasagna Bolognese recipe takes a few shortcuts to cut down on the time, but doesn’t sacrifice any flavor of traditional Lasagna Bolognese
I am such a fan of lasagna in any form, but I really love Lasagna Bolognese. The first time I had authentic Lasagna Bolognese was in Bologna. I was 18 years old and on an Art History trip. There were zero bad meals that tour. I had been on a few school trips before – to England and France one time – and the meals in Italy were far more superior. They were simply delicious. That’s when I realized I had been deprived all my life. Ha! I ended up moving to New York shortly after and had access to some of the best Italian food outside of Italy. But nothing could touch eating Lasagna Bolognese IN Italy.
This recipe comes as close as possible to the authentic version as possible, but in much less time. I don’t even use a recipe anymore when I make it. And it doesn’t take quite as much time as it used to because I don’t need to keep glancing at the recipe. I predict if you make this Lasagna Bolognese, you’ll be hooked and it will become part of your regular meal rotation too. I’ve included step-by-step photos – probably more than anyone needs, but hopefully that provides some help with assembly.
What is Lasagna Bolognese?
Lasagna Bolognese is a pasta dish from Bologna, Italy. It differs from other types of lasagna in that is uses a béchamel sauce and parmesan cheese instead of ricotta or cottage cheese, and includes a bolognese meat sauce (ragú). Ragú is made with a combination of ground meats – beef, pork, and veal – that is simmered in milk until the liquid evaporates, followed by wine that also cooks until evaporated. This results in the most tender, delicious meat to which chopped or crushed tomatoes are added. The sauce simmers for quite a long time to allow flavors to blend. It is the best sauce – totally worth the effort!
Lasagna Bolognese Simplified
I’ve adapted a simplified recipe for Lasagna Bolognese from the September and October 2004 issue of Cooks’ Illustrated magazine. Instead of taking an entire day to prepare, the time is cut down to about 2 hours total, including baking time. It’s way more doable on a weeknight than the traditional. I’ve further simplified it because I don’t quite have two hours most night to make dinner – ha! Mostly I use a higher temperature when simmering so the liquid evaporates more quickly when the meat is cooking.
I make this several times a month. It is my son’s favorite meal. It used to last us a week. Now it lasts a day tops. Teenagers eat more than I remembered. Haha!
What is Béchamel?
Béchamel sauce is one of the classic “Mother Sauces.” It is also called a white sauce – light, medium, or heavy white sauce depending on the amount of milk added.
Butter is melted and heated until it foams, then flour is added to create a roux. If you stop at this point and cool it down, it can be added by the spoonful to thicken other sauces and soups. But to make a béchamel, cold milk is whisked in. Cooking the flour with the fat first cooks out the raw flour taste, but the fat coats the flour and helps prevent lumps.
This recipe uses a lighter béchamel meaning that it isn’t very thick. The ratio is 1:1 butter to flour, and 4 parts milk. Whole milk is preferred because of the higher fat content which makes the sauce richer in flavor. I frequently use 2% milk and even 1% milk if that’s what I have on hand. It works fine, but it doesn’t quite thicken up as much as whole milk. I have also added a few tablespoons heavy cream to enrich the sauce.
Why No Boil Noodles?
Part of what makes lasagna such a hassle and so time-consuming to make is having to cook the noodles first. Enter: no boil noodles. Maybe I’m just too lazy when it comes to boiling the lasagna noodles first, but I really do hate that part. Plus the noodles break apart and are blazing hot. It’s messy and I hate it. No boil noodles eliminate that whole process, making it much more enjoyable.
No boil lasagna noodles absorb the liquid from the sauces and creates a more cohesive casserole. Cooks’ Illustrated really perfected this recipe through all of its testing. I’ve probably made this recipe 100 times or more, no exaggeration, and it IS perfect. They specify to lightly soak the no boil noodles in hot tap water before using. Not a step to skip – it really helps the lasagna hold together better and even shortens the cooking time a bit.
Other Unique Parts of the Recipe
The recipe directs an addition of a little of the béchamel to the meat sauce. The purpose of this is to help thicken the sauce a bit more and keep it from separating. The flour sort of holds the sauce together, in short. Don’t skip that step!
The layering may be a little different than other lasagna recipes. Pay close attention to the directions, it seems confusing at first, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to remember.
The lasagna bolognese is baked covered for the first 2/3 of baking time, followed with a short time at a higher temperature uncovered. This helps the lasagna cook evenly, but allows for the top to become bubbly and brown. There is no mozzarella or other melting cheeses in this recipe – only parmesan. The parm and the béchamel combing into a dreamy, cheesy topping that is caramelized on top and creamy underneath. When I made this recipe for a large gathering years ago, a man came up afterwards and asked me if I was the one who made the lasagna will all the cheese on top because “it was the best lasagna [he’d] ever tasted.”
This blog post has been updated and edited as of 7/12/2019 – apologies for any typos or omissions. I updated the recipe according to how I make it currently, so the photos and directions may not match exactly. Use the recipe as a guide and the photos for help with assembly. Thanks!
- For Meat Sauce (Ragù)
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 medium celery rib, roughly chopped
- 1 small onion, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1½ pounds 97% lean ground beef
- 1½ cups whole milk
- 1½ cups white or red wine (optional)
- 1 can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes with puree or whole tomatoes
- 1 small can tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- For Béchamel:
- ¼ cup unsalted butter
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole or 2% milk
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- For Noodles and Cheese:
- 15 sheets (9 ounces) no-boil lasagna noodles
- 8 ounces (about 2 cups) finely grated Parmesan and/or Romano cheese blend
- Place carrot, celery, and onion in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the S chopping blade.
- Pulse for 1-2 seconds at a time until everything is finely chopped. If using whole tomatoes instead of crushed, transfer the carrot, celery, and onion mixture to a bowl and pour the tomatoes into the food processor. Pulse until tomatoes are finely chopped, but not pureed.
- Heat olive oil in a heavy-duty Dutch oven (stainless steel or enameled cast iron works the best).
- Add the carrot, celery, and onion. Saute until softened, about 4-5 minutes. Add the ground beef.
- Cook for a few minutes, making sure to break up the meat as it is cooking.
- Pour milk into the Dutch oven and bring to a simmer, stirring frequently. Allow the meat and milk to simmer over medium heat until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10-15 minutes. (Can simmer over lower heat for 20-30 minutes - I short-cut this step because I'm impatient.) Break up any larger clumps of meat that remain.
- If using wine, pour into the Dutch oven and bring back to a simmer over medium heat. Continue to cook until the liquid has evaporated.
- Add the tomato paste to the Dutch oven and stir well. Cook for a minute or so, then add the crushed tomatoes along with the salt and pepper.
- Bring back to a simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and cook for about 15-20 minutes, or until sauce has thickened. (You should have about 6 cups meat sauce.) Remove Dutch oven from heat, but keep warm.
- For the Béchamel: While the meat sauces simmers, melt butter in medium saucepan set over medium heat. Once foaming subsides, add flour to the pan and whisk constantly until combined. Keep stirring or whisking and cook for 1-2 minutes, making sure not to let the mixture brown. While whisking, add milk. The texture will be very thin at this point. Raise heat to medium-high and allow the milk to come to a boil, whisking as it cooks. Add the salt and continue simmering, stirring or whisking often for about 10 minutes. The sauce will thicken during this time. Be sure to scrape the bottoms and corners of the pan as the sauce simmers to prevent the sauce from scorching. Remove from heat and keep warm. (There should be about 3⅓ cups of béchamel.) Measure out ¾ cup of the béchamel sauce and stir it into the meat sauce.
- To Assemble and Bake: Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 425°F. Lightly coat a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray or use a paper towel to wipe the bottom and sides with a little olive oil.
- Fill a bowl with very hot tap water and set to side of baking dish. The noodles will be quickly submerged in the water as you assemble the lasagna.
- Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce in the casserole dish. Quickly submerge three lasagna noodles into the hot tap water, allowing excess to drip back into the bowl and place them over the sauce, leaving a little room between each noodle. (They will expand as they cook.)
- Next spread 1¼ cups meat sauce evenly over noodles. Use a spatula to spread to the edge of the noodles, but not all the way to the edge of the baking dish.
- Drizzle ⅓ cup béchamel evenly over meat sauce. (I use a separate measuring cup for each sauce and the cheese.)
- Sprinkle ⅓ cup Parmesan even over béchamel. Repeat layering of noodles, meat sauce, béchamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times.
- Place final 3 noodles on top. Pour remaining béchamel over the top of the noodles (there will be more than ⅓ cup left) and use a spatula and cover the noodles and out to the edges. Sprinkle the top evenly with the rest of the grated cheese.
- Spray a large sheet of aluminum foil with nonstick cooking spray and place over the baking dish. Place pan in oven and bake for 30-45 minutes, or until bubbling around edges and in the center.
- Remove the foil and place lasagna back in oven. Increase the temperature to 450°F. Bake for an additional 15-20 minutes or until the top is golden brown.
- Cool 15 minutes; cut into pieces and serve. Store leftovers in airtight container for up to 5 days or freeze for up to several months.
How To Make Lasagna Bolognese
Prepping the Veggies
The ragú starts with the classic trio: onion, celery, and carrots. Sometimes I use a bit more than the recipe calls for and use only 1 pound of meat in an effort to get more veggies into my kids’ bellies. ;)
Using a food processor for the fine chopping is such a time-saver. I love, love, LOVE my mini-prep from Cuisinart. (affiliate link)
Process carrot, celery, and onion in food processor until finely chopped, about two 1-second pulses, scraping down bowl as necessary; transfer mixture to small bowl.
You can use whole tomatoes in puree and chop them in the food processor, or you can use a can of crushed tomatoes.
If using whole tomatoes, wipe out food processor work bowl; process tomatoes and juice until finely chopped, six to eight 1-second pulses. Set aside.
To Make the Ragú Sauce
Heat butter in heavy-bottomed Dutch oven over medium heat until foaming.
Add carrot, celery, and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened but not browned, about 4 minutes.
Add ground meats and cook, breaking meat into 1-inch pieced with wooden spoon, about 1 minutes.
Stir and break meat into 1/2-inch bits. Bring to simmer and cook, stirring to break meat into small pieces. Cook until almost all liquid has evaporated, 20 to 30 minutes.
Using potato masher or wooden spoon, break up any remaining clumps of meat (no large pieces should remain).
Add wine and bring to simmer; cook, stirring occasionally, until liquid has evaporated, 20 to 30 minutes.
I skipped this step because I had my two kids with me while I was grocery shopping and I forgot the wine! But you won’t, right? The wine is really an integral part of the flavor of this recipe.
Add tomato paste to the meat; stir until well-combined and cook for about a minute or two.
Add chopped tomatoes, salt and pepper.
Bring to simmer, then reduce heat to medium-low and cook until sauce is slightly thickened, about 15 minutes.
(You should have about 6 cups meat sauce.) Transfer meat sauce to bowl or keep in pan; keep warm.
To Make the Béchamel Sauce
While the meat sauces simmers, melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming.
Add the flour.
Cook, whisking constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 1 1/2 minutes; mixture should not brown.
Gradually whisk in milk, increase heat to medium-high and bring to full boil, whisking frequently. Add salt, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon, making sure to scrape bottom and corners of saucepan.
Transfer béchamel to bowl or leave in pan; keep warm. (You should have about 3 1/3 cups. I had a little more than that.)
Assembling and Baking the Lasagna Bolognese
Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 425°F. Lightly grease a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Fill a large bowl with very hot tap water and have nearby. The noodles will be briefly submerged during assembly.
Stir Béchamel to recombine; mix 3/4 cup warm béchamel into warm meat sauce until thoroughly combined.
Distribute 1 cup béchamel-enriched meat sauce in baking dish. By the way, you’ll notice that I place the baking dish on a foil-lined baking sheet. This is because the lasagna inevitably bubbles over the edge and it’s much easier during clean-up. ;)
Place three noodles in single layer on top of sauce, arranging them close together, but not quite touching, at center of pan.
Spread 1 1/4 cups meat sauce evenly over noodles, spreading sauce to edge of noodles but not to edge of dish.
Drizzle 1/3 cup béchamel evenly over meat sauce.
Sprinkle 1/3 cup Parmesan even over bechamel.
Repeat layering of noodles, meat sauce, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times.
Place final 3 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining béchamel, spreading béchamel with rubber spatula and allowing to spill over noodles.
Sprinkle evenly with remaining Parmesan.
Spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna; bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove foil, increase heat to 450 degrees F, and continue to bake until surface is spotty brown, about 15 minutes. Cool 15 minutes; cut into pieces and serve.