Lasagna is a classic Italian dish. It’s considered a staple meal all across the globe and is considered to be very homely and traditional.
If you consider yourself a fan of all types of pasta, then you likely love a good old-fashioned lasagna. Yep, it truly has everything — layers of pasta, tomato sauce, and cheese. Lasagna is traditionally made with meat, but there are vegan and vegetarian versions of lasagna, which are equally as popular.
Lasagna is considered the perfect dish, but in the world of all things pasta, there’s a conflict about whether ricotta cheese should be used in lasagna.
Well, in this article, we tackle the age-old question, “Should ricotta be in lasagna?”, and the answer might just surprise you.
The History Of Lasagna
Everyone knows that lasagna is a traditional, Italian dish. While lasagna is certainly considered a native dish of Italy, the dish actually has roots in Ancient Greece. Now, we’re not at all saying that lasagna isn’t Italian, because the Italians most definitely created the type of lasagna that the world knows, and loves today. What we are saying is that the origins of the dish actually stem all the way back to Ancient Greece.
The word lasagna, itself, can actually be traced back to Ancient Greece. The word lasagna is derived from the word ‘laganon’. ‘Laganon’ was the name for the first form of pasta. This type of pasta was formed out of flat sheets of pasta dough and then cut into thin strips of pasta noodles.
Of course, Laganon is very different from the type of lasagna that is common in the modern world. Laganon was made out of layers of pasta with a sauce but contained none of the Italian ingredients which are considered vital to a typical lasagna.
In Ancient Rome, there was a very similar dish, which was called ‘lasanum’. Lasanum is Latin for pot, or container. Now, Italians used the word Lasanum to refer to the container, or pot, that the dish was made in. Over time, the dish itself became known as Lasanum. The Romans conquered Greece in around 146 BC. This was crucial in the formation of lasagna. Romans appreciated local customs and embraced the local culture and cuisines. The Laganon noodle, which was important in Greek society, was popular with the Romans.
It is said that due to the Romans, the recipe made its way to Italy. Italian chefs in Italy altered the recipe to fit their culture, and that birthed the incredible dish that the world knows today, which is lasagna. So, during the Middle Ages, in the 14th century, the recipe made its way from Greece to Naples.
Italy And Lasagna
In the 14th century, lasagna — known as ‘Lasagna di Carnevale’ — became a staple and traditional dish in Naples. Lasagna di Carnevale consisted of fried meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, sausage, Neapolitan Ragu, and either mozzarella or ricotta.
A variation of this, from the region of Emilia-Romagna, is called Lasagna al Forno. This lasagna consists of onion, oregano, green sheets of lasagna (pasta made with spinach), as well as ragù, béchamel sauce, wine, and ricotta or mozzarella.
In Italy, lasagna is made differently, depending on the region. Different regions will use a different dough, a different sauce, or different ingredients. Over the years, Italians have created and evolved many variations of lasagna. In fact, tomatoes were not used in lasagna until the 1880s and were first used in lasagna in Naples.
The type of lasagna that is popularized now, is the result of the work of Francesco Zambrini, who was from Bologna. He introduced the concept of lasagna in the form of layers, rather than pieces of pasta or strands of pasta, during the 19th century.
In fact, the lasagna which is deemed a classic in Italy is due to chefs in Bologna, who popularized the use of spinach in pasta dough during the 20th century. The chefs in Bologna also made the use of béchamel, ragù sauce, and grated Parmigiano popular too.
While there are many versions of Bolognese lasagna, the Italian Kitchen Academy conducted an analysis of what can be considered the traditional, and the original, recipe of Bolognese lasagna, at the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna.
The Italian Kitchen Academy decided that the traditional lasagna recipe consists of three very important main ingredients. This is the egg pasta dough with spinach, a ragù sauce, and béchamel.
Outside of Italy, the most popular type of lasagna is the Lasagna al Forno. The recipe is quite similar to the original recipe. The main difference is that in modern society, the ragù is thicker, as well as the béchamel sauce.
What About America?
In the 1880s, Italian immigrants made their way to North America. The immigrants brought with them their culture, as well as their cuisine.
This meant that authentic Italian cuisine, including the recipes for lasagna, was introduced to America. Americans were introduced to the Italian way of cooking lasagna. Italian cuisine soon became a staple in America and has continued to be popular.
What Cheese Is Traditionally Used In Lasagna?
Traditionally, ricotta cheese is not used in Lasagna. The traditional lasagna recipe is the Bolognese lasagna. For this type of lasagna, béchamel sauce is used, instead of cheese. This is the Bologna version, but the Neapolitan version did originally use ricotta cheese.
In The Neapolitan version, ricotta cheese is used, as well as mozzarella cheese. The Neapolitan version of lasagna, and the Bologna version of lasagna, caused conflict. The conflict was regarding which recipe is the real, authentic recipe, however, the Bologna recipe is most often classified as the authentic recipe.
In reality, both regions think they are right. The Neapolitan version of lasagna is native to Naples, while the Bolognese version of lasagna is native to Bologna. If you were to head to those areas, they’ll both tell you that their version is the best. While the Bologna version is deemed as the traditional recipe, both recipes are technically authentic Italian!
What Cheese Is Used On American Lasagna?
In America, and all across the globe, there are dozens of variations of lasagna. Some lasagnas use cheese, while other lasagnas use a béchamel. It’s also very common for lasagna to be made with both béchamel and cheese.
Ever since vegan cheese has been introduced to the market, vegans have been able to create similar pasta recipes, without having to use dairy cheese. It’s common for vegans who are trying to recreate lasagna recipes, to use vegan cheese in their lasagnas.
Technically, traditional lasagna just involves béchamel sauce, with no cheese. However, variations of lasagna are popular all across the globe. Unless the recipe needs to be traditional, it’s acceptable to use ricotta in lasagna.
Tips On Making The Best Lasagna
If you plan on making lasagna, there are a couple of tips that some of the best chefs around the world recommend. Below, we have summarized these tips.
1. Always Put The Ragù First
It’s vital that the lasagna sheet is never the first layer. The first layer should always be the ragù or the tomato sauce. The first layer of sauce is very important because it helps soften the first layer of pasta sheets. If the pasta sheets are the first layer, then they’ll just burn.
2. Make Your Own Tomato Sauce
It’s super easy to go to the store and buy a jar of tomato sauce. The problem with this is that jarred tomato sauce is not authentic, and it does not taste as good as homemade tomato sauce.
It’s actually incredibly easy to make tomato sauce at home. It’s not difficult, and it makes a huge difference to the quality of the lasagna. Plus, it’s much healthier to make your own tomato sauce, because there are no sugars or preservatives.
3. Use Fresh Pasta
Traditional lasagna should be made with fresh pasta sheets that are made out of eggs. While some brands can be expensive, there are some fresh pasta sheets that don’t cost too much available in most grocery stores, or you could make your own.
Using dried pasta sheets is fine, but it will not taste as great as fresh pasta. If you know how to make pasta, or you want to learn, then you should make your own pasta sheets. Once you make your own pasta, you’ll never look back. Fresh, homemade pasta is nothing like the pasta that people buy from stores. It’s definitely worth the effort.
4. Give The Lasagna Space
When lasagna is fresh out of the oven, it’s pretty impossible for most people to not immediately cut a slice. The problem is, that a lasagna always has a better structure if it’s left for a minimum of 15 minutes after being taken out of the oven.
If you’ve ever made a lasagna, and discovered that the whole lasagna seems to fall apart and lose its structure when you cut it, that’s because the lasagna is too hot. The lasagna needs to cool down before it is cut, otherwise, the layers of the lasagna will not stay in place.
Now, we’re not saying that everyone should follow this method, all the time. However, if you’re throwing a dinner party, or you have friends visiting, this tip can really upgrade how the lasagna looks when plated up.
In fact, in Italian restaurants, some lasagnas are cooked a day in advance. The lasagna is then individually cut and warmed in a pizza oven.
5. If You Use Dried Pasta Sheets, Don’t Forget Salt
If you choose to use dried pasta sheets, instead of fresh pasta, then you need to make sure that you don’t forget the salt. Just like cooking regular pasta, salt needs to be added to the water, when the pasta is boiling.
Most people ignore this step since the pasta sheets will be surrounded by béchamel and sauce. However, that’s a big error, because salting the water has a big impact on the flavor of the pasta sheets.
6. If You Use Cheese, Only Use Fresh Cheese
Some people prefer to follow tradition and other people do. Well, they just really like cheese. If you’re one of the people who cannot cook lasagna without cheese, then you need to make sure that the cheese you use is fresh.
In some states, ricotta is a bit more difficult to buy fresh, unless you have a local cheesemonger. It also tends to be more expensive, but if you have the money, fresh ricotta is great.
Mozzarella cheese is easier to buy fresh. Most people just use shredded mozzarella cheese, because it’s easier to use. While it might save a bit of time in the kitchen, the quality is not the same. Fresh mozzarella on lasagna should be used, as it completely changes the flavor of the dish.
Now, the thing with fresh mozzarella is that it needs to be drained for 15 minutes, before being added to the dish. This is because fresh mozzarella tends to have a high water content, and it needs to drain on a paper towel for 15 minutes before it can be used.
For some dishes, it doesn’t matter — but for lasagna, it can really impact the dish. Otherwise, when the mozzarella melts, the water can impact the structure of the lasagna, and ruin the flavors.
7. Use Fresh Seasonings
Fresh herbs tend to be much stronger than dried herbs. When making lasagna, fresh basil leaves, oregano, and thyme tend to work best.
In Italy, it’s very common for people to go into the garden, and pick their own basil, or oregano, before cooking a meal. In America, that’s not exactly common practice.
If you own basil, oregano, or thyme, then you can use the leaves from the plant. If you don’t own a plant, then you can buy fresh herbs from the grocery store.
However, there are times when dried herbs are preferred. In particular, when using dried herbs, you want to add them at the end of the cooking process. This is because dried herbs tend to lose their potency over time. So, if you were to add them during the cooking process, you would end up with a very bland dish.
This is why many people add dried herbs towards the end of the cooking period. They do this so that the herbs get infused into the dish.
To conclude, traditionally, ricotta does not belong in lasagna. The original and traditional lasagna is considered to be derived from Bologna, which means béchamel sauce is used, not ricotta.
However, if you believe that ricotta belongs in pasta, and you’re fed up with people telling you otherwise, all you need to remind them is that ricotta is traditionally used in the authentic lasagna dish of Naples. Yep, all you have to do is tell them it’s a Neapolitan lasagna, and that actually, ricotta kinda is important!