Which Lasagna Recipe Is Worth the Work?

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The basic makeup of lasagna is simple: sauce, pasta sheet, cheese. But that sparse list contains the potential for so much variation, whether it’s multiple sauces, meat or no meat, pasta from scratch or a box, or what kinds of cheese and how much. What makes the most satisfying lasagna depends a bit on what you’re looking for — a person who believes lasagna needs meat probably won’t be satisfied with one that’s filled with spinach. I myself am a blank slate, not yet committed to any particular lasagna-making approach.

For the purposes of this recipe testing, I narrowed my scope to standard, red sauce-inclusive lasagna recipes. I appreciate a white lasagna, but it feels like a different thing entirely, in the same way that New England and Manhattan clam chowders can’t be evenly compared. After considering a number of options, I settled on testing three popular lasagna recipes, each differing in approach and effort, to figure out which one will stand the test of time in my kitchen.

Samin Nosrat’s Big Lasagna, NYT Cooking

Nosrat’s recipe breaks down into a few parts. If you follow her instructions completely, it’s a once-a-winter project: You’ll make a red sauce, a bechamel, a mixture of spinach and ricotta, and homemade lasagna noodles. But except for the noodles, all of these components can be made in advance to lessen your efforts on the day of. Nosrat also makes space for substitutions: Swap in store-bought sauce or noodles, or replace the dairy products with nut-based alternatives to make it vegan. This recipe is as much or as little work as you’re able to put into it. Because it had been a while since I’d last made lasagna entirely from scratch, I decided to go all in.

I’m not a glutton for punishment, so I made the red sauce, bechamel, and ricotta mixture the day before I planned to assemble and bake my lasagna. None of these steps is necessarily difficult, though each is slightly tedious; the red sauce, for example, calls for 5 cups of diced onions. By the time I was done, I definitely wished I had a dishwasher.

The next day, all that was left to do was the noodles. I’ve struggled with homemade pasta in the past (tearing has been an issue, and it often doesn’t turn out silky-smooth), but with Nosrat’s detailed instructions, I made thin, uniform pasta that held its shape. This was the recipe’s most difficult step, but I found that after the first quarter of dough, I got into a rhythm with it. After that, the lasagna’s assembly was easy.

Time: This recipe estimates a total time of 2½ hours, assuming you already have your sauce and lasagna sheets prepared. The pasta sauce takes about 1¼ hours, though this isn’t all active time, and the noodles about 1 hour.

Verdict: Was it worth it? Well, the recipe certainly makes a good — and hefty — lasagna. But I think the answer to this question depends on how exactly you like your lasagna. I’d call this one, above all, rich. This should have been clear from the start: In addition to the bechamel, Nosrat relies on two pounds of ricotta, which was the most ricotta of the recipes I tried. (It also uses the least mozzarella — 9 ounces — which balances it out a little.) The result is an incredibly creamy lasagna that, despite the red sauce, felt more like a white lasagna.

The amount of sauce as written had me hoping for slightly more tomato flavor (or even more spinach) to cut the ricotta and bechamel, especially since I’d taken the extra effort to make the sauce. While the pasta stays delicate and light with a distinctly just-made quality, and the cheese gives the dish a creamy softness, the overall result feels surprisingly heavy; you need only a small slice to be satisfied. All lasagna is great for a crowd, but I’d say that’s especially the case with this one; I’d pair it with a simple, acidic salad for balance.

The lasagna froze well and I actually preferred it as leftovers (warmed through in the microwave, then crisped in the air fryer), which made it feel less overwhelmingly creamy. I’ll likely make it again because I liked the spinach and cheese combination, but unless I’m fully in the mood for two days of work, I’ll simplify the process with store-bought sauce and noodles.

John Chandler’s World’s Best Lasagna, Allrecipes

Allrecipes calls this lasagna, which was submitted by the late John Chandler, one of its “top-performing recipes of all time,” with over 7 million annual views. As of this writing, it’s still the highest ranking and most reviewed lasagna recipe that comes up on Google, with over 20,000 positive ratings. Naturally, I had to try it, especially since it seemed so different from Nosrat’s recipe.

Chandler’s lasagna is bechamel-free, relying on a red sauce that’s bulked up with both ground beef and Italian sausage, plus an easy mixture of ricotta and egg. The most time-intensive step is making the meat sauce, which takes about an hour and a half but is pretty hands-off once everything has been added to the pot. Another nice simplification is that the recipe calls for slicing the mozzarella instead of grating it.

Time: This recipe estimates a total time of 3¼ hours, which includes the hands-off sauce cooking.

Verdict: Hearty and red sauce-forward, this is a meat lover’s lasagna — the kind of lasagna I imagine when I think of the word lasagna, and the kind that Garfield dreams about. It’s not a creamy lasagna — the ricotta acts as a binding layer and is more a subtle offset than main attraction. Likely due to the egg, it ends up drier (even a little grainy) and less rich than Nosrat’s recipe. The meat is the star here, with a generous amount in every bite, and the thicker quality of the store-bought noodles feels essential for holding up to its heft. Although I was somewhat surprised that the recipe didn’t call for cooking the tomato paste first, I found that it didn’t make much difference in the end. My dining partner even commented on the lasagna’s depth of flavor. “It’s so richly tomato,” he said.

A Very Good Lasagna, Alison Roman’s A Newsletter

In terms of effort, Alison Roman’s lasagna recipe is about the same amount of work as Chandler’s, but its makeup sits at the midpoint between his and Nosrat’s recipes — it’s red-sauce forward, but has more creaminess and cheese. It’s vegetarian, unless you opt for the very Roman inclusion of an anchovy in your tomato sauce. That said, I don’t think the anchovy is essential, but the optional tomato paste is worth including for a richer flavor.

It’s a simple, straightforward recipe, but still offers helpful little tips. While Roman also skips the bechamel, she compensates by adding some heavy cream to her ricotta mixture. The step keeps the ricotta moist and lends the finished dish some creaminess without adding any real work. It’s worth noting that this is the most mozzarella-heavy of the three recipes, as it uses a full pound and a half. Roman also calls for cooking the noodles quickly until just before they’re al dente, so they can finish cooking while the lasagna bakes in the oven.

Time: The recipe doesn’t list a total time, but the sauce cooks, with little intervention, for about 1 hour and the lasagna bakes for about 1¼ hours.

Verdict: This lasagna excels in its textures and balance of flavors. Roman writes in her headnote that the only real innovation she could come up with for lasagna would be to create an all-edges pan (these do, in fact, exist, though I imagine that making lasagna in them would be annoying given the zigzags). But even in a regular baking dish, Roman’s lasagna offers that experience of gooey cheese and crispy edges in nearly every bite. “The prominent mozzarella makes me realize how much I missed that in the other [recipes],” my dining partner concluded. “It makes the meat feel really unnecessary.” For our tastes, the ratio of tomato to cheese was ideal.

The Winner: Alison Roman’s A Very Good Lasagna

Project cooking can be humbling — you can spend hours making a dish that takes minutes to scarf down. The longer I work, the more I expect. Even simplified, lasagna is inevitably a bit of a project. For me, Roman’s recipe struck the best balance between effort, payoff, and versatility. It’s a lasagna I could easily pull off for a dinner party without too much stress, or even make on a random weeknight, especially if I were to take the additional shortcut of using store-bought sauce instead of making my own.

The fact that this lasagna is immediately vegetarian is also a plus for me, given who my guests usually are. Even eaten right after Chandler’s meaty lasagna, it still had enough texture and variety that it didn’t feel lacking by comparison, and I know both the meat-eaters and vegetarians in my life would enjoy it. Although Roman didn’t see herself as innovating with her recipe, I appreciated that she’d clearly taken the balance of effort versus deliciousness into account from the jump. Satisfying but not too rich for my taste, this lasagna had me instantly craving another slice.

Clay Williams is a Brooklyn-based food photographer and the co-founder of Black Food Folks.

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