If you're looking for a classic Italian lasagna, get one from an Italian. Italian lasagna with ricotta is baked with luscious layers of sausage, ground beef, FOUR cheeses and two secret ingredients for authentic flavor. Ladle over some marinara sauce and for the best Sunday dinner the whole family will love.
There are a lot of traditional Italian lasagna recipes out there so why choose this one? Lasagna is a layered topic 😉 with so many variations like lasagna neapolitan (a meatball lasagna), lasagna bolognese (a no ricotta lasagna with bechamel sauce) and ones similar to this four cheese baked Italian lasagna with ricotta that my big Italian family devours at the holidays.
Yes, Italians eat lasagna for Christmas and Italian-Americans like me have it with our turkey, mashed potatoes and stuffing at Thanksgiving too.
No matter when you serve this easy lasagna recipe, you'll likely end up with an empty baking dish.
All lasagnas are not created equal
Some families' lasagna recipes are handed down from generation to generation (and tweaked along the way like mine); others come straight from the back of the box (lasagna noodle box, that is). The truth? The secret to the best lasagna is in the layers. Not just how you put them together (although that matters too) but the ingredients in each layer.
Essential Ingredients for the best lasagna recipe (plus three secret ones)
Traditional lasagna recipes call for meat, a cheese mixture and lasagna noodles. This recipe is chock full of two kinds of meat, tender noodles, a creamy, zesty ricotta mixture and a sauce with big, bold flavors.
The layers look like this:
FIRST LAYER | Homemade meat sauce. A thick meat sauce loaded with Italian sausage, ground beef and a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce.
SECOND LAYER | Noodles. This is where you get to choose. I prefer a no-bake, oven ready lasagna noodles like these from Barilla. Or you can make pasta sheets from homemade pasta. Or you can choose to boil lasagna noodles (the ruffled ones are so pretty and really hold the cheese).
THIRD LAYER | Ricotta cheese. Three kinds of cheese in this layer and no cottage cheese or cream cheese (yes, I’ve seen it) in sight. Whole milk ricotta is my preference because it’s creamier and is less likely to get watery but if you part-skim is all you can find, that works too. And here was add a twist...2 secret ingredients!
- Lemon. Don’t be deterred! A little lemon adds needed acid and brightness that counterbalances all the meat and tomato.
- Goat cheese. Creamy texture and another zip of flavor that even the pickiest of your guests will love!
FOURTH LAYER | Cheese. Fresh mozzarella is my cheese of choice for the best lasagna because it’s lighter in flavor but has the best cheese pull potential for the money shot.
LAST LAYER | More meat sauce and parmesan
My favorite lasagna pan
First, this lasagna isn’t going to fit in a traditional 9 x 13” baking pan. You NEED a really deep baking dish with straight sides.
My favorite lasagna pan is this rectangular, deep baking dish. It cleans unbelievably well and is deep enough for a four layer lasagna if that’s your preference. holds a lot of lasagna for a lot of people! And the edges are crispy and crusty in the best way possible thanks to the straight sides!
The Order of Lasagna Layers - Step by step Color these in the background alternating the layers
As in most recipes, especially baking, the order in which you do them matters. And lasagna is no different.
You’ll build this homemade lasagna recipe in the following order:
- A ladle of meat sauce. Over medium heat, brown the ground meat and crumbled Italian sausage in a large skillet of onions and garlic sauteed in olive oil. Add tomato paste and seasonings and swirl around to caramelize the tomato paste. Pour in tomato puree (I use Mutti passata) and season with kosher salt and pepper. Set aside. Start with a cup of meat sauce at the bottom of the pan . This prevents the noodles from sticking to your baking dish.
- Noodles. Lay them side by side being careful not to have them on top of each other and giving the noodles room to expand as the lasagna bakes .
- Fresh mozzarella cheese layer. Cut or tear up fresh mozzarella over the pasta . This is where all that cheesy goodness happens.
- Ricotta. In a medium bowl, stir together the ricotta, eggs, ALLLL the cheeses, some fresh parsley and that amazing lemon flavor . Use an inset spatula or regular spatula to spread on a thick layer of the ricotta cheese mixture .
- Repeat layers at least two more times.
- For the last layer, finish with some more mozzarella and freshly grated parmesan cheese .
- Tuck in some basil leaves either before or after cooking . Or both as I did here!
Prep Your Noodles
Cook traditional lasagna noodles for about ⅔ the amount of time the package states. They’ll finish cooking al dente in the oven and won’t be mushy.-Josie + Nina
Top Tips for Getting a Golden Crispy Topping on Lasagna
- If boiling lasagna noodles, make sure that they’re dry before layering them in the lasagna. You don’t want any extra water in the pan to make a mushy lasagna.
- Bake until the center of the lasagna puffs up and the cheese is golden and the edges are dark in the best way. That’s the tomato sauce caramelizing. So so good!
- You can also cover the lasagna with aluminum foil while it bakes for the first 45 minutes and then remove the foil, add the cheese and crank up the heat for the last 10-15 minutes or so.
How long should lasagna rest?
Once the lasagna has finished baking, remove it from the oven and let it rest for 15 minutes before cutting. Use a deep, wide spatula to remove the first piece.
Do I have to drain the ricotta cheese for lasagna?
If you open the ricotta container and see water, just pour it out. If you’ve made your own ricotta, you should drain it to remove excess water.
I only have a 9x13” pan. How can I make this recipe work? Or can I cut the recipe in half and make it in a square pan?
Cut the recipe by ⅓ for a 9 x 13” pan. And a little less than that for a square pan. You might only get two layers in a square pan depending on how thick the pan is.
Can I make this into a spinach lasagna?
Absolutely! Add a layer of DRY fresh or frozen spinach leaves between the meat sauce and the noodles. PRO TIP: run frozen spinach through a salad spinner and press down with paper towels until you get all the water out.
Serving, Make Ahead and Storage Tips
Serve with a ladle of marinara sauce or jarred spaghetti sauce and big sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
Storage. Store leftovers in an covered airtight container refrigerated for up to 4 days.
Make ahead. You have a couple of options
- Make up the individual layers up to three days before you plan to serve the lasagna. Build the lasagna the day of and bake!
- Make the lasagna the day before you plan to serve it and refrigerate covered first with plastic wrap and then foil. Bake the next day.
- Freeze the entire unbaked lasagna making sure the meat sauce is cooled completely. Cover with foil and then a double layer of plastic wrap and freeze for up to three months.
Reheat. Reheat leftover lasagna in a preheated 350˚ oven for about 15 minutes until warmed through. Spoon over more marinara and parmesan for the best lunch or quick meal.
Freezer tips for baked lasagna. Freeze pieces of cut lasagna in an airtight, freezer safe container for up to three months. Defrost before heating in a 350˚ oven until warmed through. You also can microwave in 30 second increments for about 2 minutes.
Baked Italian Lasagna with Ricotta
- 1 box of no bake lasagna noodles, I use Barilla
- 1 lb fresh mozzarella, sliced or torn
For the cheese filling:
- 15 oz container of whole milk ricotta
- 3-4 oz goat cheese
- 1 egg
- 1-2 T fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup parmesan cheese , divided
- half the zest of one lemon
For the sauce:
- 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes or bottle of passata, pureed smooth if using can
- 1 Tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup water, can substitute ½ cup of passata for half of the water
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 lb ground beef
- 1 lb Italian sausage, hot or medium
- 1 can of tomato paste, 6 oz
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 2-3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 2 T fresh parsley
- can add basil too if desired
- 8 oz shredded part skim mozzarella or thinly sliced mozzarella
- Blend the ricotta mixture ingredients together including ½ cup of parmesan, goat cheese, egg, parsley, seasoning and lemon. Set aside15 oz container of whole milk ricotta, 3-4 oz goat cheese, 1 egg, 1-2 T fresh parsley, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1 cup parmesan cheese, half the zest of one lemon
- Place whole tomatoes in a blender, if using, along with their juices and pulse until desired consistency is reached.28 oz. can of whole tomatoes or bottle of passata
- Heat olive oil in a 4qt. saucepan (or larger if doubling) over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until translucent and rich in color, about 5 minutes. Briefly add garlic for 30 seconds until you smell it.1 Tablespoon olive oil, 1 cup chopped onion, 2 cloves garlic
- Add the beef and sausage and cook until browned about 8 minutes. Drain excess fat as needed.1 lb ground beef, 1 lb Italian sausage
- Reduce heat to medium-low and add tomato paste. Swirl around until softened and combined with meat and onions about 2 minutes. Add spices ending with sugar and quickly combine because you don’t want the sugar to burn but to caramelize just a bit.1 can of tomato paste, 1 Tablespoon sugar, 2-3 teaspoons kosher salt, 1 teaspoon oregano, 1 teaspoon pepper, 2 T fresh parsley
- Quickly add pureed tomatoes or passata and simmer over low heat for about 30 minutes. Check the seasoning after 20 minutes or so. Add the additional water/passata if the sauce seems too thick, starting with ½ cup and continue to cook. Add more salt/pepper or a little more sugar if the tomatoes are more on the acidic side.1 cup water
- In a deep lasagna pan, sparsely coat the bottom with a ladle or two full of sauce. This is so the noodles don't stick to the pan. Place the following layers over the sauce:Start with the noodles lined up next to each other. I usually get four to the pan. Don't crowd them so they have room to expand. Next tear half of the fresh mozzarella into pieces and place evenly over noodles. Spread on ½ of the ricotta filling evenly over the mozzarella and top with ⅓ of the sauce.1 box of no bake lasagna noodles, 1 lb fresh mozzarella
- Repeat then end with the last layer of sauce. Sprinkle over shredded mozzarella or thinly slice pieces of mozzarella and a sprinkling of parmesan
- Bake at 350° for 1 hour uncovered until golden brown on top. If the lasagna starts to brown too soon, cover loosely with aluminum foil so as not to disturb the cheese and then remove the foil for the last 15 minutes to brown.
- Rest on the stove for at least 15 minutes, uncovered. Slice into 12 pieces.