Here at Food52, we love recipes -- but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often.
Today: We're showing you how to layer up a soul-satisfying lasagna. And you don't even need a recipe.
If bread pudding is the world's most versatile dessert, lasagna is its savory equivalent. With virtually endless permutations, lasagna can be swayed to take on any fillings you fancy. It can consist of a day-long affair of simmering bolognese, homemade pasta noodles, and layers on layers on layers. Or, it can be fast-tracked: if you make the bolognese ahead of time and use quick-cooking noodles, you can have the whole dish on the table in under an hour. And you don't even need a recipe.
With two basic sauces and elementary layering knowledge, you've got all the tools you need to make everyone's favorite comfort food. Just don't invite Garfield to the party or there'll be none left for you.
If you want to make a traditional lasagna bolognese, my personal favorite, you'll need a meat ragù, béchamel sauce, grated Parmesan cheese, and lasagna noodles. If you want your lasagna vegetarian, try subbing in mushroom ragù or a butternut squash purée for the bolognese. With lasagna on our minds, we saved some incredible (yet blasphemous) bolognese in the freezer at Food52 HQ, but feel free to use your favorite recipe.
How to Make Lasagna Without a Recipe
1. The key to effective lasagna assembly is organization. Prep all of your ingredients well beforehand, and lay everything out on the table so that it's easily within reach. Rectangular baking dishes work best, for reasons which are obvious if you've ever done a puzzle. However, the dish can be any size -- as you see, we opted for a mini version.
You have your bolognese or marinara or butternut purée ready right? Cook your lasagna noodles according to package directions, or leave them as-is if you're using the pre-cooked variety. To avoid sticking, lay out cooked noodles on an oiled baking sheet, without overlapping them. Grate your cheese -- here we used Parmesan.
2. Make your béchamel. Heat some butter in a large pan until melted (we used 1 stick). Whisk in an equal amount of flour -- if you used 8 tablespoons of butter, add 8 tablespoons of flour, etc. Whisk until no lumps remain, then keep whisking for another two minutes. Voila, you've made a roux! Ever so slowly, start whisking in some whole milk, stirring the whole time, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the mixture begins to thicken. Use about 8 times as much milk as butter -- if you used 1/2 cup of butter, you'll need 4 cups of milk.
3. Begin the layering process by spreading a generous amount of béchamel along the bottom of your dish. This will keep the noodles from sticking, and also help create a caramelized underside.
4. Next, add your first noodle layer. Keep a knife nearby in case you need to cut the noodles to fit your dish. Or, embrace your rustic side and rip them to size with your hands.
5. Spoon a generous amount of bolognese on top of your noodles. You want a thin, even layer from corner to corner.
6. Ladle out some béchamel sauce on top of the bolognese layer. Spread it out as evenly as you can. Don't worry if it doesn't look perfect -- just try to avoid mixing the two sauces together.
7. Sprinkle a handful of Parmesan cheese evenly over the béchamel. First layer: down. And you didn't even break a sweat!
8. Repeat the layering process -- noodles, bolognese, béchamel, then Parmesan -- until your dish is filled to the top. Be careful to budget out your components so that last until the end. Remember, it's not about aesthetics; even if your lasagna looks like Frankenstein, it will still be one of the best dishes you've had all year. Make sure to save a bit of Parmesan and béchamel for the finishing touches.
9. Finish off your lasagna by gently spreading a thin layer of béchamel over the top noodle layer (thanks, Deb, for this pro tip). Sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese to create that coveted golden, bubbly lid, and your lasagna is ready for the oven. Alternately, you could make your lasagna up to a day in advance and keep it in the fridge, wrapped in plastic wrap. If you're very organized, you can even freeze the lasagna, fully assembled, and have a show-stopping meal at the ready.
10. Bake your lasagna in a 400° F oven until the top is browned, bubbling, and the noodles begin to curl up at the edges. Depending on the size of your pan, this could take anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes. Let the lasagna cool for 10 minutes before cutting into it. Serve with nothing but a glass of red wine -- this is a dish that can stand on its own.
Photos by Mark Weinberg