Sunday Dinner: No-Holds-Barred Lasagna Bolognese Recipe

[Photograph: J. Kenji López-Alt]

Following this week’s ricotta-fest, I found myself with a few quarts of the stuff left over. There’s only so much queso fresco, paneer, or ricotta salata one can make and consume, so I decided to get rid of the excess in what is probably the least efficient (and most delicious) way possible: a traditional Lasagna Bolognese.

Ok, ok. Not exactly traditional, since the most authentic lasagna Bolognese contains nothing but ragù Bolognese, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and nutmeg-scented besciamella (Italian for bechamel, which is French for “white sauce”) sandwiched between layers of fresh pasta tinted green with spinach. But ricotta is a common enough addition, and a delicious one to boot. I’ve also sneaked a bit of mozzarella into the besciamella. (Serve this to your Italian grandmother at your own risk.)

Ragù Bolognese is the king of all meat sauces. Deep, rich, rib-sticking, soul-satisfying, heart-warming, and yumm-o are all words that have been used to describe it. (I’d use five out of six of those descriptors.) Unlike red sauce joints whose Bolognese is not much more than tomato sauce with ground beef, this ragù is all about the meat. It’s made with a combination of lamb for flavor (ground beef works fine), pork for fat, and veal for tenderness.

I also like to add a few chicken livers, which are traditionally called for in Ragù Bolognese intended for special occasions. Frankly, if I’m putting in the time to make a lasagna, whatever occasion it is had best done make itself special.

If you don’t want to go the whole nine yards andmake your own ricotta, and if you can’t find good store-bought ricotta (look for stuff with an ingredient list that contains nothing but milk, some kind of acid or starter, and salt. Avoid any gums or stabilizers), I’d highly suggest using store-bought whole milk cottage cheese in its place.

There’s nothing else too unusual about my recipe, other than the fact that I finish it with a bit of fish sauce in order to up the umami. Don’t worry, it won’t taste fishy. You could get similar results by adding a couple smashed anchovies and a half teaspoon of marmite in with the vegetables in the second step.

Hand-rolled pasta works great, but the no-boil flat noodles are surprisingly good—almost as good as the real deal, particularly because with a 40 minute cooking time, even with fresh pasta, al dente is not the final goal. The pasta in a good lasagna should be soft, tender, and intensely flavored with the soaked-up liquid from the ragù.

Serve this up with a medium to full-bodied Sangiovese-based wine, like a good Chianti, Rosso di Montepulciano, or Super Tuscan.

Quick tip: Want to make quick and easy meaty cannelloni instead? Simply soak the no-boil noodles in 4 or 5 changes of really hot water until they soften up. Roll them up around a mixture of ricotta, eggs, and mozzarella, top with sauce and more cheese, bake at 350 until bubbly, and you’re done.

  • Yield:Serves 8
  • Active time:2 hours
  • Total time:about 5 hours
  • Rated: 4.4
  • Ingredients

    • For the Ragù Bolognese:
    • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    • 4 tablespoons butter
    • 2/3 pound ground lamb (or 85/15 ground beef)
    • 2/3 pound ground pork
    • 2/3 pound ground veal
    • 4 ounces chicken livers, finely chopped (optional)
    • 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
    • 2 large carrots, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
    • 3 large ribs celery, peeled, and cut into 1/4-inch dice (about 1 cup)
    • 4 cloves garlic, finely minced, or grated on a microplane grater
    • 1/2 cup fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
    • large pinch red pepper flakes (optional)
    • 1 (28-ounce) can crushed Italian plum tomatoes, preferably D.O.P. San Marzano
    • 1 1/2 cups dry red wine (white works fine as well)
    • 1 1/2 cups whole milk
    • 2 cups homemade chicken or veal stock (or 2 cups low-sodium canned chicken broth)
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 1 tablespoon Vietnamese or Thai fish sauce
    • 1/2 cup heavy cream
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 1/2 cup minced basil or parsley (or a mix of both)
    • For the Ricotta Mixture:
    • 3 cups home-made fresh ricotta (see note), or 3 cups store-bought whole-milk cottage cheese
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 2 large eggs
    • 1/4 cup minced basil or parsley (or a mix of both)
    • For the besciamella:
    • 2 tablespoons butter
    • 2 tablespoons flour
    • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced, or grated on a microplane grater
    • 2 cups whole milk
    • 1/2 pound dry whole milk mozzarella cheese, grated (see note)
    • 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • To assemble:
    • Fifteen 4- by 8-inch sheets fresh rolled pasta, or 15 pieces no-boil lasagna noodles from 1 package (see note)
    • 4 ounces parmesan, grated on a microplane grater (About 2 cups)
    • 2 tablespoons minced basil or parsley (or a mix of both)


    1. 1.

      For the Ragù Bolognese: Heat butter and olive oil in large Dutch Oven over high heat, stirring occasionally, until butter has stopped foaming. Add lamb, pork, veal, and chicken livers, and cook, breaking up meat with wooden spoon, until no longer pink, 7-10 minutes. Remove from heat, transfer meat to strainer set in large bowl, allow to drain, then transfer drained liquid back to Dutch Oven. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, sage, and red pepper flakes, and set over medium heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are softened, but not browned, about 10 minutes.

    2. 2.

      Return meat to skillet, add tomatoes, wine, milk, stock, and bay leaves, and bring to a simmer over high heat. Reduce heat to low, partially cover, and simmer 2 1/2 to 3 hours, stirring occasionally, until liquid is slightly below level of meat, about 2 quarts of sauce total (you may need to add excess stock while cooking if your burner is cooking it too hot). A layer of fat may form on top during cooking, but do not skim it off. After cooking, remove bay leaves, add fish sauce and heavy cream and simmer until fat is emulsified, about five minutes. Season to taste with salt and black pepper. Remove from heat and allow to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes. Stir in parsley and basil. Bolognese will keep for up to 1 week in fridge, and will improve with time. Reheat until warm before using in lasagna.

    3. 3.

      While the ragù is simmering, make the ricotta mixture. Place ricotta in bowl of food processor or stand mixer fitted with whisk attachment and process/mix until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add two eggs and minced herbs, and process/mix until incoroporated. Set aside at room temperature until ready to use.

    4. 4.

      Make the Besciamella: Heat butter in medium saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming subsides, stirring occasionally, about 1 minute. Add flour and stir with whisk until light blond in color and slightly nutty aroma develops, about 1 minute. Add garlic, and stir to combine. Whisking constantly, add milk in steady stream until fully incorporated. Bring to a simmer (mixture should thicken). Remove heat, add cheese and nutmeg, and whisk until fully melted. Whisking constantly, return to a simmer, remove from heat, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside until ready to use.

    5. 5.

      Adjust oven racks to lower middle and lowest positions and preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place lasagna noodles in 13- by 9-inch baking dish and cover with hot tap water (or boiled water) and allow to soak for 10 minutes, changing water once during soaking time. Drain in single layer on clean kitchen towels, or paper towels. Cover with second kitchen towel or paper towels and pat dry.

    6. 6.

      To Assemble: Add 1/6th of meat ragù (about 1 1/3 cups) to bottom of baking dish and drizzle with 1/2 cup besciamella. Place three noodles in single layer on top of sauce (noodles will not quite touch each other; this is okay). Top with 1/6 of meat sauce, 1/2 cup besciamella, 1/3 cup Parmigiano, and three more noodles. Spread 1/2 of ricotta mixture on top of noodles with rubber spatula, top with 1/6 of meat sauce, 1/3 cup parmigiano, and three more noodles. Top with 1/6 of meat sauce, 1/2 cup besciamella, 1/3 cup Parmigiano, and three more noodles. Spread remaining 1/2 of ricotta mixture on top of noodles with rubber spatula, top with 1/6 of meat sauce, 1/3 cup parmigiano, and three more noodles. Cover with remaining 1/6 of meat sauce, remaining besciamella (about 1 cup), and remaining 2/3 cup parmigiano. Baking dish should be very full at this point.

    7. 7.

      Place foil-lined rimmed baking sheet on lower rack to catch drips, then place lasagna on upper rack and bake until edges are starting to crisp, and top is a bubbly, golden brown, about 45 minutes, rotating half way through baking. Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with herbs, and serve.

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