Cooking Tips · Techniques

Classic Italian Lasagna Bolognese

Do you have a favorite lasagna recipe? I know I do. However, I suspect my recipe is similar to many of yours in that it is an Americanized version of lasagna. Traditional Italian Lasagna Bolognese is a bit different than what most of us make. I decided to make that for our New Year Eve’s dinner and as part of that, share with you in this Cooking Tip.

Take a look at your favorite lasagna recipe. Does it call for ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan and maybe eggs? Mine uses all of that except the eggs. Classic Italian Lasagna Bolognese is made only of layers of pasta, a slow cooked meat/tomato sauce, a béchamel sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan. Let’s talk, in turn, about each of these components.

As with most Italian food, it is very regional. The following discussion is about lasagna from the Emilia-Romagna region. Other regions will have different styles of lasagna.

Pasta – the pasta is in the form of lasagna sheets. Although not required, fresh pasta is a great addition to the lasagna and classically, it is a spinach pasta. Making fresh pasta is very satisfying and not very difficult. If you have never done it, consider booking a class with me to learn how to do it. If that is not something you want to do, you can buy a good quality dried pasta.

Bolognese sauce – this is a hearty, slow-cooked meat and tomato sauce. There are many recipes that claim to be the “authentic” recipe. In reality, although there are many similarities among all these recipes, there are also differences. In my research, I looked at 12 recipes. I then made a chart of the ingredients so I could easily see how they compared. None of them were exactly the same. Let me break them down into 4 categories.

  • Meat – many recipes used a combination of ground beef and pork while others used solely beef. Occasionally, ground veal was added. About half also called for pancetta.
  • Vegetables – a base of finely chopped onions, celery and carrots was pretty standard. All but one recipe called for these veggies. Some listed garlic as an ingredient but most did not.
  • Tomato product – different chefs had very particular ideas about which type of tomato product should be used but it varied from whole tomatoes to crushed tomatoes to tomato passata to puree. About one-third of the recipes also added tomato paste.
  • Liquid – the liquids ranged from wine to broth to milk. Some added all three while others only called for wine and milk. Still others only used the liquid that was in the tomato product.

Béchamel sauce — this is one of the “mother sauces” that all cooks should master. Béchamel is a simple white sauce made from milk thickened with a white roux (a mixture of butter & flour). This is what gives the lasagna its creamy element instead of all the cheese.

Cheese – ricotta is not to be found in any of the traditional recipes. The cheese of choice is parmesan and is usually just on the top layer. A few recipes will also add mozzarella but these recipes are a minority.

Once you have all the above components, you can assemble your lasagna. Most sources recommend getting as many layers as you can, even up to eight layers. Start by coating your lasagna pan with butter. On the bottom spread a small amount of béchamel and a spoonful of Bolognese. Follow with a layer of noodles, Bolognese sauce and more béchamel. Repeat these layers until your pan is full alternating the direction of the noodles each layer. The top layer should be béchamel. Some chefs will sprinkle parmesan on each layer while others will just do it on the top of the lasagna.

Although you can go from start to finish in one long day, you can also make things ahead of time. The Bolognese sauce actually benefits from being made 2-3 days ahead and letting it sit in the refrigerator to meld all the flavors. After it is cooked and cooled, it may also be frozen up to 3 months. Since this is the component that takes the longest, this also helps with time management. I made mine 2 days prior to the day I wanted to serve the lasagna.

Both the pasta and the béchamel sauce can be made a day ahead but since they do not take an enormous amount of time, I made mine the same day of serving. If you choose to make the sauces ahead of time, reheat them before using taking care not to boil the béchamel.

You may also assemble the entire dish ahead of time and refrigerate for up to 2 days. If you do this, some recommend letting it sit at room temperature for a couple of hours before baking while others will say it is fine to go right from the refrigerator to the oven. Another option is to freeze it unbaked for up to a month. Let sit in the refrigerator overnight before baking.

Baking is usually done with the pan covered but taking the foil off for the last 20 minutes so that it will brown nicely.

It was definitely a labor of love as the time involved in making this classic Lasagna Bolognese was more than my regular lasagna. I must say, though, that it was worth it.