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Jan 28, 2013 10:39 AM

What is 'traditional' lasagna?

So, it began with purchasing a couple pounds of beautiful grass-fed beef from the local farmer's market. After some debating over how to use it, I decided I'd finally tackle a true homemade lasagna -- noodles and all. I perused some recipes and came up with a conundrum: it appears there's a school of thought (I never knew existed) that insists traditional lasagna is made with a bechamel sauce, bolognese, and parmesan -- no ricotta or mozzarella. In fact, I've read multiple articles that balk at the thought of using ricotta particularly in lasagna.

Friends, please shed some light on this topic.

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  1. You will probably get hundreds of opinions, so lat's start with mine. :)

    The lasagna you describe is traditional in northern Italy. Many even go so far as to use only spinach pasta.

    The more "traditional" lasagna with a red sauce, mozzarella and ricotta is traditional to the Italian American cuisine.

    There. I've had my say. :)

    1 Reply
    1. re: ttoommyy

      Well, at least there's no 'wrong' way to do it then! :)

    2. "Traditional" is a tricky word, because everyone's traditions are different. That said, ttoommyy is right in that the lasagna you describe is a very specific recipe (better known as lasagne alla Bolognese al forno) and it is a "traditional" dish of Bologna/northern Italy. However, there are other treatments of lasagna noodles that are just as traditional to other parts of Italy, and there are also Italian-American treatments of lasagna noodles that are traditional to various parts of the United States.

      Which one you choose to make depends entirely on what you want the finished dish to be. Personally, I love both lasagne alla Bolognese al forno AND American-style lasagne with a ton of mozzarella and ricotta. If you're going to go to the trouble of making your own pasta, though, I'd suggest the Bolognese version, as I think the pasta has more of a chance to shine there. I use dried noodles for American lasagna.

      4 Replies
      1. re: biondanonima

        That definitely makes sense since the bolognese version seems to be more delicate/lighter. I've just never had it before -- I always thought of 'traditional' lasagna as they type with lots of ricotta and mozzarella! Very true that 'traditional' varies between location and people.

        1. re: bmw89

          I'm not sure I'd use the word "light" in a recipe that involves traditional bolognese sauce, though. :-)

          I use the bolognese/white sauce/parmesan version (Marcella Hazan's recipe), and it's plenty rich. I find that that the bolognese sauce is so rich and dense on its own that combining it with mozarella and ricotta and whatever else would be overkill.

          1. re: bmw89

            I wouldn't say it's lighter but I think if you use homemade noodles it will be more delicate.

            I have seen traditional Bolognese lasagna recipes use fresh mozzarella in addition to parmigiano, balsmella & meat sauce. A bolognese lasagna has much less tomato flavor than most Italian American versions.

            Since you started your post mentioning grass-fed beef, I would try a Bolognese lasagna recipe, because it highlights the meat sauce much more than an Italian American version does. I would try to find a recipe that uses a traditional bolognese-style meat sauce.

        2. Yeah, I think there are lots of views on this, and many are valid. I used to make the red sauce, ricotta and mozzarella version. int he last 3 years, we've been making the bechamel and bolognese version, combined with no-cook lasagna sheets. Personally, I prefer the bechamel and bolognese version much, much better.

          It's lighter, and the flavors are both clearer and meatier. For me, the problem with the "Italian American" version is that with the heavy red sauce and cheese, flavors would get very muddled, to the point where it essentially makes no difference if you use high quality ingredients or crappy ones. With the bolognese version, I think you can taste subtle differences in flavor (for example, how you construct the bolognese) more than you would with the ricotta/mozzarella version.

          But, tastes vary, and so will opinions.

          26 Replies
          1. re: foreverhungry

            That's a great explanation. I definitely want to make the best use of quality ingredients, so I can imagine how a heavy cheese component might overpower delicate noodles and a great sauce.

            Have you tried making your own noodles? What do you think about the no-cook noodles vs. regular noodles?

            1. re: bmw89

              I also went on a quest for the "True" lasagna and found that each region has a slightly different version. The one I make these days is a combo of the bechamel, bolognese with the ricotta, mozzarella and parmiggiano. With the bolognese sauce you do get a rich, meaty flavor, that you really don't want to step on, so the keyfor me to using the 3 cheeses is to go easy. The American Italian version is often oozing with cheese. I like just a bit here and there.


              1. re: JuniorBalloon

                That sounds like a nice compromise! I think this time I'm going to try with parmesan and mozzarella. Do you use fresh or low moisture?

                1. re: bmw89

                  I use the low moisture, shredded mozzarella from Whole Foods. I actually did a blog post about lasagna last month. I don't blog in a serious way, just to entertain myself, I'm not a great writer and I take bad pictures, but it might be useful. Link is in my profile.


                  1. re: JuniorBalloon

                    You and I both, JB. It's a fun hobby :)

                  2. re: bmw89

                    One option - use the parmesan inside the lasagna, and top with some grated mozzerella for the nice bubbly layer of cheese on the top.

                2. re: bmw89

                  Barilla no-cook lasagna noodles are thinner and more tender than other brands, and because they contain egg, taste like homemade in the final dish. I would not bother making them from scratch when the final destination is lasagna.

                  1. re: greygarious

                    Honestly, I'm relieved to hear that since there are already so many steps involved with lasagna! And thanks for the brand tip!

                    1. re: greygarious

                      +1. I use the Barilla no-cook lasagna noodles for the lasagna a la bolognese, and usually use the Barilla recipe on their website. In truth, you can use just about any bolognese recipe, and just about any bechamel recipe, it's just a matter of getting the quantities right so everything is in balance.

                      I've made my own pasta, and while I like it and it's clearly different than dried and store bought, I'm not sure I'd bother for most lasagnas, including the bolognese.

                      1. re: greygarious

                        while no-cook noodles are fine and work - I disagree. Home made noodles in a true lasagna bolognese makes a big difference, not so much in the american version.

                        But if it is the difference between trying to bolognese version or not - then use the no-cook noodles and save a few steps.

                        1. re: thimes

                          Huh. I've never tried homemade lasagna sheets when making the bologenese recipe, so next time I'll give fresh a try and see what difference it makes. I had just assumed that the meat component, which is big flavor, would overpower homemade pasta, but then maybe not.

                          So if using homemade lasagna sheets, would you cook them and then make the bechamel a little thicker? Or not cook the sheets, given that they'll do some cooking in the oven and don't need to absorb that much moisture?

                          1. re: foreverhungry

                            I pre-cook the sheets first - boiling water for maybe 1 minute then into ice water. I find that it is important to pre-cook - if I had to guess it must firm up the egg in the noodle - when you don't pre-cook them I find that they become more mush than actual noodle.

                            When I make lasagna bolognese the layers of meat sauce/bechamel are pretty thin layers, so it is as much about the noodle as it is about the sauce. I often do spinach noodles as well which is nice.

                            1. re: thimes

                              Perfect! Thanks for the info. I'll give it a try in the enxt couple of weeks. Makes sense to parboil for a veyr short time. Interesting step with the ice water, yeah, it must stop the cooking process. And it makes them easier to handle, which is nice.

                              1. re: foreverhungry

                                I've done it with homemade noodles. I parboil the noodles very briefly before assembling the lasagna, as I find that the bolognese sauce/bechamel combination makes too dry a lasagne with uncooked fresh noodles. And I do find that home-made noodles make a noticeable difference - the noodles themselves are thinner and more delicate.

                                And your lasagne sheets don't need to be neat looking like the ones you buy - messy shapes are fine, as long as you layer them carefully.

                                1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                  Regarding the shapes, that's where my scissors come in handy :)

                            2. re: greygarious

                              Oh, girl, I so disagree with you :) After making Hazan's green lasagna I would never use storebought pasta again. At least in hers (Bolognese style), it's all about the noodle. But if you cook it, I'll scarf it down!

                              To OP, here's a version of Hazan's


                              Also I ALWAYS make my B-sauce ahead of time. I make a lot of it and freeze in two cup portions. It's take forever to make and I'd never attempt to make it and the lasagna in the same day. But I'm old and tired :)

                              1. re: c oliver

                                One trouble I've had at times with the bolognese - bechamel lasagna is making the bechamel. I can't seem to get the consistency consistent. At times it's thicker than other times, and when using the no-cook lasagna sheets, it can result in a dry lasagna. I have a hard time figuring out what the stopping point is for making a bechamel, which really infuriates me, because it's such a basic. I'm otherwise very competent in the kitchen, but nailing bechamel consistently eludes me.

                                1. re: foreverhungry

                                  The first time I made it I used nonfat milk cause that's what we drink and have on hand. What a nightmare! It did eventually thicken somewhat. Since then I've used whole milk with much better success. And this last time it was the best ever. Like heavy cream. Might be worthwhile to start a thread on this subject.

                                  1. re: foreverhungry

                                    I don't have any problems making bechamel, but I do find that the lasagne tends to absorb it, no matter how much I put in - I end up with layers of noodles that are basically stuck together with a little bechamel glue rather than a silky sauce layer. I think the trick may be making the bechamel thicker than I normally would and using a bit more of it. I also once had a lasagne at a restaurant where they used only meat sauce in the lasagne but served it in a shallow bowl with bechamel in the bottom - that was actually one of the best lasagnas I've ever had.

                                    1. re: biondanonima

                                      So do you mix the bechamel with the Bolognese before layering? I've not had that problem. That way of serving sounds really good.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        No, I alternate layers of bolognese and bechamel, and throw parmesan cheese down with the bechamel as well. I think the consistency of my bechamel is the problem - I don't tend to make it terribly thick, and I think it needs to be thick to keep the noodles from sucking it up like water.

                                        1. re: biondanonima

                                          Hazan's recipe has you mix the bechamel and bolognese together and that's a very 'wet' combo.

                                          1. re: biondanonima

                                            I can't find a link for just the bechamel but here's the whole recipe and you can scroll down a bit. I followed it exactly this time and was super pleased with the result.


                                      2. re: foreverhungry

                                        I actually ended up making a bechamel for the lasagna and it turned out really well. It's the same way I start macaroni&cheese.

                                        I do think a key is using whole milk. The other thing I did is cook the equal parts butter & flour mixture for a few minutes, whisking constantly, so that it developed a little flavor.

                                        The ratios I used were 1/2 cup butter & flour and a quart of milk. I ended up having to add more milk from a container of 2%, probably 2 cups worth, because I didn't have enough the dish. Seasoned with garlic salt, pepper, and nutmeg, it tasted amaaaazing and had a nice creamy and slightly thick texture, both from a spoon and in the dish itself.

                                        Good luck!

                                  2. re: bmw89

                                    I make my own pasta regularly, but I also use dried noodles for lasagna, depending on what type I'm making. However, I never use the no-cook variety. I know many people swear by them, but I find they never taste like they've cooked through completely and the final product is always dry, no matter how much extra sauce you add to compensate. When making an American-style lasagna, I use three layers of dried noodles that have been cooked in well-salted water until al dente (I actually go a minute or two shy of what I would consider al dente, since they cook again in the casserole). This way, my meat sauce can be as thick as I want, and I can use as much or as little ricotta as I like (no cook noodles depend on moisture from the sauce and ricotta).

                                2. My favorite if you're using homemade egg pasta has a simple tomato/olive oil/garlic sauce and then layers of fresh mozzarella, ricotta enriched with Parmigiano and butter, and lots of basil freshly chopped. Lovely.

                                  1. If you travel in Italy, you'll find that there is no such thing as Italian cooking. At the least, there's a regional approach to food and, often, there's a town-by-town approach to food. Since you've already discovered this fact in lasagna recipes, you won't be surprised to learn that this applies to pasta dough recipes and the shape of the pasta.

                                    For example, since it contains eggs, the dough of Emilia Romagna is thinner and more delicate than the flour-water dough of southern Italy. Even within Emilia Romagna, the shape or size of the characteristic stuffed pastas (e.g. think tortelloni VS tortellini) varies from town to town.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Indy 67

                                      When I made lasagna with homemade noodles I had a total food epiphany. I never knew that lasagna could be so delicious. I roll the pasta out very thin, always boil them first and make lasagna with 8-10 layers of pasta. So much more delicious and work than what you can buy at the grocery store. Try it and see, or maybe not cuz once you go fresh you can never go back!

                                      1. re: Gloriaa

                                        I'm with you, Gloriaa. Talk about an aha moment :) On my KA pasta roller I can get it down to 7 (8 is the thinnest) and it's simply ethereal. Our kids and grandbabies are coming in for this long weekend and I made and froze my lasagna for the occasion.

                                        1. re: Gloriaa

                                          I woke up one Saturday morning with a serious craving for lasagna but didn't feel like making it and so decided to finally visit one of the raved about family-owned Italian delis in my area and had my first lasagna with homemade noodles and it was like a different a good way! I know that the consensus is that "traditional" lasagna varies but do you find that the more American/chain-restaurant style lasagne is served with more sauce. This gigantic hunk of lasagna had just the right amount of sauce but not floating gin it such that you could taste the individual components of the noodles and the sausage and beef.