According to a YouGov survey, lasagne (or lasagna as its often known in certain dialects) is the UK’s second most popular Italian dish, closely following garlic bread. It’s also the nation’s seventh most popular dish, after chips, full English breakfast, roast chicken, fish and chips, garlic bread, and mashed potatoes.
Largely believed to have originated in Naples during the Middle Ages, lasagne has evolved significantly over the past 600 years. With the first recipe found in an early 14th-century cookbook (Liber de Coquina), the dish bore a slight resemblance to lasagne as it’s known today, but featured flattened fermented dough sprinkled with cheese and spices. Tomato didn’t appear in a lasagne recipe until the 1880s, also in Naples, while the use of layered pasta sheets is said to have been introduced by Francesco Zambrini from Bologna, in the 19th century.
Today, the traditional lasagne of Naples – lasagne di carnevale – is layered with sausage, small meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, ricotta, and mozzarella, sauced with Neapolitan ragù. A version of lasagne is also popular in Emilia-Romagna (lasagna alla Bolognese), with cities such as Bologna serving a variation of the dish which typically uses a meat-based ragù, béchamel sauce, and pasta sheets coloured with spinach.
With the dish’s popularity having stretched far beyond Italy, the most common lasagne served in the UK is generally a bastardised version of the Neapolitan version and that from Emilia-Romagna. Instead of using béchamel, this lasagne recipe favours three different cheeses and a ragù cooked for three-to-four hours, featuring a holy trinity of beef mince, veal mince, and sweet Italian pork sausage, or pork mince at a push. (If you can’t get hold of sweet Italian sausages, this recipe will work as a good alternative). Said ragù is layered with pasta sheets, ricotta, fresh mozzarella slices, and a good amount of Parmigiano Reggiano. While the sauce takes a long time to prepare, the result is an absolute triumph and will work as a great base for an absolutely perfect lasagne. Any leftover sauce also works well in pasta bakes or gently reheated and served with pasta as an alternative to Bolognese.
- Large, heavy-based saucepan
- Deep roasting dish/tin for the lasagne to cook in
- Flat baking tray/sheet
- Aluminium foil
- Lint-free tea towel/kitchen roll
- 400 g minced beef
- 400 g minced veal
- 400 g sweet Italian sausage* See notes
- Dried lasagne pasta sheets approx. 15-30, dependent on the size of your pan
- 4 x 400g tins peeled plum tomatoes ideally San Marzano
- 1 large onion finely chopped
- 6 cloves garlic crushed
- A bunch fresh basil leaves finely ripped and stalks finely chopped
- 1 tbsp dried oregano
- 1-2 tsp chilli flakes dependent on personal preference
- 2 tsp white sugar
- 250 ml red wine
- 150 g fresh mozzarella approx.
- 200 g Parmigiano Reggiano approx.
- Parmesan rind
- Olive oil
- Sea salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Heat a small drizzle of olive oil in a large, heavy-based sauce pan until shimmering. Add the beef mince, season with a pinch of salt, and fry over medium heat until lightly browned. While the meat is frying, use the back of a spoon to break down the mince into small pieces. The entire process should take 5-10 minutes.
- Once browned, remove the beef mince from the pan and drain in a colander. Repeat the cooking and draining process with the veal mince, and then the sausage meat. Discard the watery beef and veal fat, but reserve some of the fat from cooking the sausage meat.
- In the same pan, add another splash of olive oil, the finely chopped onion, and a glug of the sausage fat. Cover and cook over low heat for 5-10 minutes until soft and translucent, stirring occasionally, especially towards the end of the specified cooking time to prevent burning.
- Once soft and translucent, add the garlic, basil stalks, oregano, chilli flakes, and sugar to the pan and increase the heat to medium-high. Keep stirring for a minute or two until fragrant.
- Pour in the wine and increase the heat to high. Keep cooking until the wine has reduced by at least 2/3 and has a syrupy consistency.
- At this point, return the meat to the pan and stir to combine. Add the tomatoes and two tins of water. Also add the parmesan rind at this point. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting. Simmer with the lid on for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally (every 20-30 minutes or so).
- After 2-3 hours have passed, remove the lid, add half of the ripped basil leaves and continue to cook, uncovered, for another hour, or until the sauce thickens to a good ragù consistency. Taste for seasoning and add salt, if necessary.
- During the final hour of the ragù’s cooking time, prepare the lasagne pasta sheets by boiling in small batches in salted water, for four minutes. After four minutes, immediately transfer the pasta to a large bowl of cold water to arrest the cooking process. Once cooled, separate and drain on a lint-free tea towel or kitchen roll.
- While the pasta is draining, slice the mozzarella as thinly as possible and dress with freshly ground black pepper, grate the Parmigiano Reggiano, and pre-heat the oven to 180C/Gas 4.
- Once the sauce and lasagne sheets are ready, begin to assemble the lasagne in a large roasting pan. Begin with a thin layer of the ragù sauce, to prevent the pasta from sticking. Arrange the pasta sheets so the entire surface of the pan is covered, trimming the pasta if need be to avoid excessive overlapping.
- Top each pasta sheet with a little ricotta and spread roughly, add a generous pinch of the ripped basil leaves, followed by a handful of the mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and a thick layer of the ragù. Repeat until the pan is full. On the top layer of pasta, add just a covering of ragù and a generous amount of Parmigiano Reggiano.
- Wrap the pan in foil and place in the oven on a flat baking tray/sheet, to catch any lasagne that may spill over. Cook for 30 minutes, then remove the foil and return to the oven for another 20-30 minutes, or until the top is crispy.
- Leave to stand for at least 15-30 minutes: cutting into the dish without resting will result in a soupy, unappetising lasagne.
- If Italian sausages are unavailable, a reasonable substitute can be made by combining approximately 400g sausage meat with a pinch of salt, 2 tablespoons Italian seasoning, 2 teaspoons white sugar, 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed, and ½ teaspoon smoked or sweet paprika.