What is it about lasagna that makes it so good? Is it the layers of deliciousness or the simplicity of preparation? Or are the ingredients – pasta, sauce, meat, and cheese – what makes lasagna one of our favorite comfort foods?
Can lasagna possibly become any better? This post offers a few shortcuts that will make the preparation of lasagna even easier. It suggests ingredients that will make your lasagna healthy and nutritive. Once you learn how to make a meal that is so simple and good for you at the same time, you will never decide to buy the frozen lasagnas packed with salt and preservatives from the supermarket. This post also provides a few delicious vegan and vegetarian alternatives to common ingredients because here at MyGreatRecipes, we believe that everyone deserves to eat well!
What is Lasagna and Where Did It Come From?
The flat-shaped pasta commonly referred to as ‘lasagna sheets’ or ‘lasagna noodles’ is believed to be one of the oldest types of pasta. As you might have guessed, it originated in the home of ultimate deliciousness – Italy or, to be more precise, in Naples, where the first lasagna recipe was created during the Middle Ages!
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What all lasagna types have in common are interchanging layers of pasta sheets. What goes between them greatly varies from region to region and from country to country. Traditional lasagna is made with ragù or béchamel sauce, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, and hard-boiled egg slices.
Some regions prefer tomato sauce, various types of meat (usually chicken or ground beef) mozzarella or ricotta, various vegetables (most commonly spinach, mushrooms, and zucchini). When it comes to spices, the most usual options are onion, garlic, oregano, and wine.
In the States, there is a large number of lasagna varieties, from vegan and vegetarian to exotic and spicy.
Types of Lasagna Noodles
Even though lasagna noodles come in different shapes – flat-edged and ruffled (the latter variety helps trap sauces more easily), the shape is not the key to making a great lasagna dish. The main decision when choosing the noodles is whether to choose the ones that require boiling or the non-boiling version.
As a general rule, when buying the noodles, choose the ones made from durum wheat. This type of wheat is especially resistant to long cooking and you can be certain that it won’t fall apart or soften too much.
How to Boil Lasagna Noodles
Fill a large pot with water and heat over high heat on the stove top. Add one teaspoon of salt and bring the water to a boil. Add the lasagna noodles carefully into the water. Add them one by one, taking care not to overcrowd the pot. Boil about ten noodles at the time to avoid sticking. Cook the lasagna sheets for about 8-9 minutes, stirring frequently, until almost tender (don’t make them too tender, bear in mind that they will finish cooking in the oven). Remove the noodles one by one using tongs, taking care they don’t tear apart. Transfer into a large bowl filled with cool water to stop the cooking. Keep them there until ready to use.
How to Use No-boil Lasagna Noodles
Why are the no-boil noodles much better to use? Well, besides the most obvious reason, the time-saving factor, it is worth mentioning that the mess in your kitchen will be reduced as well. Which means no pot, no wooden spoon, tongs, or a bowl left behind to wash.
An even more important reason is that oven-ready noodles actually increase the deliciousness of the dish. Instead of boiling in water, these noodles cook in the juices of the dish itself, thus absorbing all the flavors (especially if the dish is covered during baking). In addition, they will pull the excess moisture and soften, at the same time preventing the dish from becoming soupy and soggy.
It should be noted that these noodles will elongate during baking so you don’t need to stuff the pan with them. If you do so, there is a possibility that they will expand over the pan’s edges and became too dry and tough.
Note: Do not use regular lasagna noodles that require boiling as you would use the oven-ready version. The dish will be too gummy and with a starchy taste.
How to Make Your Lasagna Dish Healthier
If you have enough time and patience, try to prepare homemade lasagna noodles. Even though they will take longer to prepare (45 minutes to be precise), homemade noodles will give you the opportunity to control the ingredients and allow you to make the healthiest version of this dish. Also, there is nothing better than a lasagna recipe made with fresh pasta!
To make a regular lasagna dish better for you, choose whole wheat noodles instead of regular ones. However, not all whole-wheat pastas are the same. Opt for unprocessed whole-grain noodles which contain more fiber and protein than traditional pasta. Today, different types of noodles are available at the supermarkets and healthy food stores to suit everyone’s taste – choose from millet, quinoa, corn, rye, or rice.
Use low-fat cheese. It keeps all the proteins, without the harmful fat and unwanted calories. Also, learn how to make homemade tomato sauce. Store-bought tomato sauces contain plenty of sodium. The homemade version, on the contrary, will pack your lasagna recipe with extra fiber. Make it in larger amounts and store in the freezer; it will come handy anytime you make lasagna or any other recipe that calls for tomato sauce; simply place in a dish filled with hot water to defrost it quickly.
Make sure the meat you use is fresh and, whenever possible, unprocessed. For this reason, try to buy your meat from the local butcher’s shop instead of from supermarkets. Another option is to omit the meat altogether, at least from time to time.
Combining veggies with cheese yields some seriously good combinations and spinach lasagnas are the best proof for it. Not only are they extra delicious, they are also absolutely healthy.
Spinach is considered to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet. It is packed with vitamin C, vitamin A, and essential minerals like zinc, manganese, zinc, and selenium. In addition, it contains a high amount of antioxidants which fight harmful free radicals in the body, thus protecting it from numerous diseases including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Its low-calorie count makes it a perfect addition to any weight loss plan.
Tip: Fresh spinach is always the best option. Chop it to make sure it is evenly distributed throughout the whole dish. Sauté the spinach in seasonings of choice, chopped garlic, and olive oil, instead of microwaving or blanching it, to improve its flavor. You can add any herbs and spices, but in order to capture that authentic Italian flair, opt for basil, oregano, or mixed Italian spice.
The choice of cheese is at your discretion and depends on your taste. Spinach is extremely flexible when it comes to combinations and works with literally every type of cheese – cottage, ricotta, mozzarella, cheddar… With its high protein content, the cheese will complement this green leafy veggie to produce a spinach lasagna full of nutrients.
Tip: Soft cheeses like ricotta or cottage cheese are easier to use because they can be simply spread over the noodles with a spoon. Balance their taste and texture by combining with a hard cheese like parmesan, grated on top of each layer.
Arrange and Cook
The following method of arrangement and cooking is not limited only to spinach lasagna; it applies to all kind of lasagna recipes:
Use a 13×9-inch baking pan.
Always, always start by spreading a layer of sauce in the pan, regardless whether it is a simple tomato sauce, marinara, ragù, béchamel, etc. If you forget to do this, your lasagna will stick to the bottom and probably burn.
Continue with 3-4 lasagna noodles, then spread half of the ricotta cheese, one cup of grated Mozzarella, and one cup of sautéed spinach. Repeat twice more.
The top layer should always be cheese (here-grated mozzarella).
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for about 20-25 minutes. The last 5-10 minutes of cooking are reserved to make the cheese bubbly and melty, and to crisp the edges. Uncover the dish and turn your oven up. Don’t leave the lasagna unsupervised at this stage, it can easily burn.
Vegan Lasagna Tips and Tricks
Making a vegan lasagna may sound like a blasphemy but believe it or not, knowing a few tips and tricks will enable you to make vegan lasagna that is just as good as the regular one. If not better!
The first question that comes to mind when making vegan lasagna: are lasagna noodles vegan?
The answer is affirmative, but it is always wise to check before taking the packet of pasta home. Even though most regular semolina white pasta and whole wheat pasta is vegan, some producers include eggs in their products. Look for packages that have no eggs on the ingredient list or the ones that have ‘faux egg’. Butter is another common non-vegan ingredient in pasta. It is added to make the noodles softer, but many producers choose to replace it with olive or canola oil.
Which Ingredients to Use in a Vegan Lasagna
It should be noted that lasagnas are NOT leftover dishes. It is imperative to use good quality ingredients, be them vegan or not. That being said, you can choose any veggies (mushrooms, spinach, eggplant, butternut squash, and zucchini are most commonly used). The important thing is to sauté them beforehand so they don’t taste bland. If you are using nuts (e.g. pine nuts), toast them before layering.
Same goes for meat substitutes like tofu and seitan. They taste pretty bland on their own, so they should be sautéed, marinated, baked, or braised before you layer them. Tip: the stronger the flavors, the better. Get creative with garlic, jalapeno, basil, fennel, pesto, olives, chili peppers, and more!
No good lasagna has ever been made without cheese! Luckily, there is a wide array of cheese substitutes on the market, from coconut and soy alternatives to salty nutritional yeast. Here are a few suggestions to use in vegan lasagna recipes:
- Instead of mozzarella, use vegan, no-casein cheese that melts easily.
- Instead of ricotta, use a pine nut pesto sauce. When cooked, this sauce thickens and gets really close to ricotta in flavor.
- Instead of cottage or ricotta, use tofu. Combine it with non-dairy milk, lemon juice, garlic powder, basil, and salt in a food processor or blender, then mix until smooth and creamy.
- Instead of parmesan cheese, use nutritional yeast flakes.
How to Freeze Lasagnas
No matter how you prepare it, lasagna will last for a few days in the fridge. Make a double dosage and you won’t have to cook for a whole week! No one will object because you simply can’t have too much lasagna!
The best thing about this dish is that you can freeze it before cooking. Here is how to do it:
Line a 13×9 inch baking pan with nonstick aluminum foil (with the foil extending over the pan’s sides). Arrange the layers of your lasagna recipe in the pan. Freeze the unbaked lasagna until firm, then remove from the baking pan by holding the foil’s edges. Fold the foil over the lasagna, then wrap it in more foil, sealing tightly to prevent any air from entering. Keep it the freezer for up to a month.
One day before serving, remove from the freezer. Wait for it to loosen a bit, remove the foil, then transfer the lasagna in a greased baking dish (13×9 inch). Cover and leave in the fridge overnight to defrost. Bake as usual. If you are in a rush, bake the lasagna without thawing it beforehand, but double the baking time.
Now that you know all there is to know about lasagna, all you need are a few fantastic recipes to inspire you:
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I believe that food should not only taste good, but make you feel good as well and that is why I am so interested in exploring ingredients, preparing meals, and finding ways to make the whole cooking experience fun and exciting! Being a blogger for MyGreatRecipes unites my two passions – food and writing, and I am enjoying every second of it!