DIY Food

How to Make Lasagna Without a Recipe

March 17, 2014

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.

How to Make Lasagna

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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. 

More: Take a peek at the history of everyone's favorite layered pasta.

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

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.

More: Searching for another endlessly adaptable, crowd-pleasing baked pasta? Here's one that's pure genius. 

How to Make Lasagna


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.

How to Make Lasagna  


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.

How to Make Lasagna


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. 

How to Make Lasagna


5. Spoon a generous amount of bolognese on top of your noodles. You want a thin, even layer from corner to corner.

How to Make Lasagna


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.

How to Make Lasagna


7. Sprinkle a handful of Parmesan cheese evenly over the béchamel. First layer: down. And you didn't even break a sweat!

How to Make Lasagna


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.

How to Make Lasagna


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.

More: Unsure what dishes can handle a deep-freeze? Check out our guide to freezer-friendly foods.

How to Make Lasagna


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.

How to Make Lasagna

We're looking for contributors! Email [email protected] and tell us the dish you could make in your sleep, without a recipe. Check out what we've already covered.

Photos by Mark Weinberg

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Charles
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    Todd Ellner
A kitchen scientist and dog-lover. Someday I want to have you over for dinner.


Charles November 21, 2015
As for the ricotta, I can do without it. Like the sauce that you made to replace the ricotta. Will have to make this soon!
Ann-Marie D. September 30, 2014
Also, as I was using instant lasagna sheets (Barilla) and as I started reading comments, I was worried about the sheets sucking up moisture but I think there was no problem - though in a rush I did add about 1/4 cup of water with tomato sauce.
Ann-Marie D. September 30, 2014
Not sure if anyone ask - why is there no ricotta in this? I just made it with ricotta and it was quite tasty!
Karl R. April 8, 2014
Love this. One question: for the béchamel this calls for 0.5 cups (or 8 tbps) of butter, equal amounts flour, and then 4 cups of milk - I always thought the rule of thumb was 1tbsp butter, 1 tbsp flour, 1 cup of milk? So basically this recipe calls for half the milk (or twice the butter / flour) as I'd expect.
mike April 8, 2014
noun: recipe; plural noun: recipes
1. a set of instructions for preparing a particular dish, including a list of the ingredients required.
Todd E. April 8, 2014
I have shelves of old "receipt" and cookbooks that give fewer instructions and less guidance on ingredients and proportions.

How is this not a recipe?
Joy B. April 8, 2014
I would venture to say this isn't a recipe because there aren't exact measurements or ingredients given -- it's more of a guideline. The idea is to offer a sufficient amount of tips and suggestions, while still leaving plenty of room for adaptions and playing around, so that this may be useful and helpful to a wide range of home cooks.
Tom S. March 23, 2014
Admittedly, I am not an expert, but to make a vegetarian recipe I substitute strips of eggplant and zucchini for the meat sauce and used a blend of steamed cauliflower, butter, garlic, parsley and grated Parmesan and Asiago cheeses, all processed in my food processor, for the béchamel. People liked the taste.
Carol J. March 19, 2014
I make several versions of Las without a recipe...I enjoyed your demo/blog. The one I make depends on what quantities I have of which components-no wasteful trips to store - oh I never use no
cook noodles after the first experiment! This is the fast version: In a large steel bowl I mix a cheese blend of Asiago,
Ricotta, ribbons-lots of ribbons of spinach, fresh parsley,salt
pepper, a little grated nutmeg. If there's leftover chicken or feeding real carnivores I shred that in and of course mix with hands. If time allows will make enough béchamel for bottom and
top...fresh grated parmesan...mmmmmm
Honeylishuss March 19, 2014
Judging from the photos you've used to demonstrate the assembly of the lasagna I have a few concerns based on my long experience of making this meal using instant lasagna sheets. You need each layer of meat sauce and bechamal sauce to be quite thick. Instant pasta sheets soak up every ounce of moisture and will result in a very dry pasta if you are not really generous with each layer of sauce. Make sure the pasta sheets are completely hidden/covered by each sauce and no corners protrude.
Catherine L. March 20, 2014
That's a good tip! We used regular lasagna noodles that we pre-cooked, but for those using instant noodles it sounds like it might be using thicker layers of sauce.
Charlene N. March 19, 2014
how do you make butternut puree
Kate March 19, 2014
Depends kind of on how fancy you want to get! I think the most basic way would be to dice and roast a butternut squash, then stick it in the food processor with a little butter, cream, or stock and process until smooth. A little sage would go nicely with butternut squash in a lasagna, too.
kim March 18, 2014
This was great- I always forget to put something in the pan before the first layer of noodles. I so enjoy this blog.
barbara G. March 17, 2014
Lasagna needs no special occassion, no special day, etc... I love making fresh pasta spontaneously and surprising my family even on a weeknight
Buon Appetito!
Sunday at the Giacometti's.
Where every day is Sunday...
Catherine L. March 18, 2014
I like your attitude.
Kate March 18, 2014
YES. Love it. "I'm bored...maybe I should make pasta." :)
Shana L. March 17, 2014
I started baking my lasagna in loaf pans. Keeps it from bubbling over because it's deep and 1 loaf pan = 2 servings. :)
Catherine L. March 18, 2014
That's an awesome idea! Then you get tons and tons of layers, too...
Honeylishuss March 19, 2014
That's brilliant
Kate March 17, 2014
Why did I think it was always ricotta that went in the middle? Bechamel looks so much easier, once you've made it! No trying to spread ricotta on those slippery noodles. Ugh. That's what you get when you use a recipe from the back of the noodle box, I guess.
ATG117 March 17, 2014
I think, but am not certain, that whether you use bechamel or ricotta has to do with regions in Italy.
CarlaCooks March 18, 2014
When I make lasagne, I usually use ricotta instead of bechamel. I'll mix the ricotta with 1 egg and some dried basil, then use it as a layer similar to the bechamel layering above.
Kate March 18, 2014
That makes perfect sense, thank you!
Kate March 18, 2014
@Carla, that's usually what I do! Usually it's parsley, not basil, but same idea. I feel like that's the way my mom made it, though I'm pretty sure she learned from the back of a box, too :)
Joy B. March 17, 2014
Catherine, you are a Not Recipe Queen and I want to live in your castle.
Catherine L. March 17, 2014
Only if you have a Dinner Tonight castle next door and we can all hang out.
Kenzi W. March 17, 2014
Column castles!