Cooktop Cove: You can cook a lasagna that trumps a fine Italian restaurant. Just follow these 5 tips
Lasagna is one of those dishes that everyone loves. Layers of pasta, meat, sauce and cheese all equal layers of love and deliciousness. And it seems so simple to make, right? So why do your noodles sometimes turn out so chewy? Or simply turn to mush that's indiscernible from the rest of the dish? And why does it fall flat and spread all over the plate when it's served?
These are just a few of the things that can go wrong when you're making lasagna, and believe it or not, there are many more. While the taste may still be there, it won't be the mile-high, pretty dish you expected to see sitting on your plate. Luckily, the mistakes that cause these things to happen can be easily fixed. And when you start perfecting each step, you'll take that "pretty okay" lasagna and turn it into something pretty delicious!
1. Choose the right noodles
Of course, Italians will tell you that fresh is always best, and this extends to their pasta noodles. And they're not entirely wrong. If you can use fresh pasta, do. Even if you don't want to make it yourself, you can now purchase fresh pasta sheets in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores. Using these will give that pasta the perfect consistency and will boost your lasagna up several notches.
Don't have access to fresh pasta, and still don't want to make it yourself? There is another type of lasagna noodles you can use: no-boil. These are readily available and are the best type of noodles to use in lasagna if you can't use fresh. They won't turn to mush during a lasagna's long cooking time and will keep that nice al dente texture.
2. Treat your ricotta
Ricotta is the cheese of choice to stuff between each layer of lasagna. But too many people simply scoop it out of its plastic container and pile it onto the meats, sauce, or noodles. But this can result in a soggy and flavorless lasagna. Instead, ricotta needs to be treated first, and that involves a few steps.
Start by draining the ricotta in a fine mesh colander in the sink. This will remove a lot of the moisture that's contained inside. But it won't remove all of it. To do that, you'll have to lay the ricotta in a thin layer on paper towels and place another layer over the top of that ricotta. Press the top layer of paper towel gently to squeeze out more of the moisture that the towel has absorbed. Remove the top paper towel after 15 minutes, and replace it with another. Repeat this process for about 2 hours — that's how long it will take to really dry your ricotta.
After the ricotta has been fully dried, place it in a bowl and season it with salt and pepper. Ricotta is used in lasagna for its creaminess, but it can also be quite bland. Seasoning it lightly with salt and pepper will kick up the flavor of your cheese and the overall lasagna.
3. Keep an eye out for excess moisture
It's not just ricotta cheese that can bring too much moisture to a lasagna — many other things can as well. These include a sauce that hasn't been properly reduced, or vegetables left raw when added that leech their moisture out while cooking. All of these bring too much moisture to the dish, moisture that isn't needed. In fact, too much moisture will make the lasagna soggy and leave an unpleasant pool in the bottom of the dish.
To avoid excess moisture, make sure your sauce is sufficiently reduced. To do this, coat the back of a wooden spoon with the sauce, and then draw a line through it. If the line stays, the sauce is reduced enough. If the sauce quickly creeps back in and erases the line, the sauce needs to be reduced a bit more.
Mushrooms, green peppers, zucchini, eggplant — you name it — just about any vegetable can be added to a lasagna. But vegetables contain an immense amount of water, and this will run out into the lasagna and possibly ruin it. Instead, give vegetables a quick saute before adding them, so the moisture stays in the saute pan and far away from your lasagna.
4. Know when to use foil, and when not to
Some people don't use foil at all when making a lasagna, and some use it throughout its entire cooking time. Both are mistakes. A lasagna that isn't covered with foil at all will turn hard and dry on top. This results in a top layer of noodles that's hard to cut and almost impossible to chew. On the other hand, a lasagna that's covered with foil the entire time will never get a chance to brown on top, and that golden layer is one of the best layers of all!
To get those noodles perfectly cooked and get a delicious brown topping on the dish, cover the lasagna entirely with foil for the first 45 minutes of baking time. For the last 15 minutes, remove the foil so the cheese on top can bake and become golden, while keeping the noodles soft underneath.
5. Let it rest
This might be the last tip in this list, but it's one of the most important. Lasagna is so delicious, it can be tempting to cut into it right away to get it on your plate as fast as possible. But if you do this, you likely always end up with layers that fall apart and end up spreading around the entire plate. By simply letting the lasagna rest for 15 to 20 minutes after it comes out of the oven, you can avoid this mess.
When the lasagna has properly rested, all the juices inside have time to redistribute — just like they do when meat is taken off the heat. While the dish is resting, everything else, such as the cheese, is setting and firming up so that they hold together once they're cut. Take these few minutes to let your lasagna rest, and you'll get a lasagna that keeps its layers and sits high on your plate.
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