Total time involved: 8 hours (or longer, depending on how long you leave your sauce in the crockpot)
Hands-on: 1.5-3 hours (depending on your pasta making experience)
Making lasagna from scratch is extremely rewarding. While it is an effort, it's one worth doing and it's not that hard. You can certainly follow this recipe using store-bought noodles to make it easier, and you don't have to simmer the marinara sauce in a crockpot all day, but trust me, the texture of the homemade noodles is so much better and something magical happens to a sauce that has been simmering all day.
If you are at all curious about the vegan options, I strongly encourage you to give them a try. I made the lasagna for some foodie friends, and I didn’t tell them it was vegan. They guessed that I had made the ricotta from scratch (which I used to do when I ate dairy) but were surprised to find out it was made from tofu.
Above all, the sauce simmering in the crockpot all day is what gives the dish its flavor. The vegan sausage or even just mushrooms imparts the umami just as well as meat.
Step 1: Equipment
- Chef's knife, sausage knife (optional)
- Cutting board
- Frying pan for browning onions, garlic, and protein
- Crockpot for simmering marinara sauce
- Medium mixing bowl
- Pasta machine
- Large stock pot for boiling noodles
- Slotted spatula for lifting noodles from boiling water
- 8 x 13 baking pan
- Tin foil
Step 2: Ingredients
For marinara sauce: (first picture)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion
- 4 large cloves of garlic
- Protein of choice: carnivores use ½ to 1 lb ground beef or Italian sausage; vegans use 2 Field Roast Italian sausages
- 2 cans fire roasted organic tomatoes (I froze tomatoes from my garden, so I will use 6-8 tomatoes from the freezer)
- 1 small can tomato paste plus 3 cans water (or 1 can tomato sauce)
- 2 tbsp chopped basil
- 1-2 tsp red pepper flakes
- 1 tbsp agave nectar or honey
For pasta: (second picture)
- 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (can use unbleached white or combination of white and wheat and/or semolina flour)
- Scant 3/4 cup water
For filling: (third picture)
- 2 10-ounce packages of frozen spinach or 2 packages of fresh spinach
- 16 oz ricotta cheese (dairy or vegan)
- 1 egg (omit if making it vegan)
- ¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
- 8 oz mozzarella (dairy or vegan)
- 1/8 to 1/4 cup grated Parmesan (dairy or vegan)
Step 3: Making the Marinara Sauce
- In the morning, make the marinara sauce.
- Chop the onion, garlic, and basil.
Note: Click on the box in the upper left of each picture for specific onion and garlic chopping techniques.
Step 4: Brown the Onions and Slice Sausage
- Preheat the pan on medium heat. When pan is getting hot, add oil and swirl. When it shimmers and covers the bottom of the pan easily, add onion and toss to coat with oil. You can shake the pan or just stir with a wooden spoon.
- Saute the onion for about five minutes until the onion has softened. Be careful not to burn the onion; turn down the heat if necessary. If you like, you can add chopped mushrooms here. You will need to cook the mixture for about ten minutes until the water has released and evaporate from the pan.
- Meanwhile, if using sausage (vegan* or carnivorous in casing), slice sausage with a sausage knife (serrated edge) or other knife. If using ground meat, proceed to step 3.
*Note: for vegan sausage you will need to remove the plastic casing first.
Specific instructions for slicing sausage are available if you click on the box in the upper left corner.
Step 5: Brown the Protein and Add Garlic
- Add protein to the onions. If using ground meat, crumble it as you add it to pan. Otherwise, add the sausage you sliced in step 2.
- Stir the meat/sausage until browned, about five to ten minutes.
- Add the garlic and stir for 30 seconds. Don’t let the garlic burn or it will taste bad.
Step 6: Add the Tomatoes
Add 2 cans of diced tomatoes and their liquid. If using frozen tomatoes, you will see special instructions in step 9.
Note: Because I used frozen tomatoes and they are too frozen to release moisture immediately, I added the tomato sauce (or tomato paste and 2 cans water) first. If you are using canned tomatoes, add them first, as they will work better for step 7, which is deglazing the pan.
Step 7: Deglaze the Pan
Deglaze the pan with the liquid from the tomatoes. This means that you will stir the tomatoes around so that their liquid releases the browned bits that have stuck to the pan from sautéing the onions and protein. These brown bits give flavor to the sauce.
Note: Because I am using frozen tomatoes, I am using my tomato sauce to deglaze the pan as noted in step 6. I hope this isn't too confusing, but I figured most people would use canned tomatoes and they work better to deglaze the pan.
Step 8: Put the Sauce in the Crockpot and Add Seasonings
- Pour mixture into a crock pot.
- Add tomato paste and three cans of water. Use the small can from the tomato paste to measure the water. You can also use a 14 oz can of tomato sauce (which is what I did because I was out of tomato paste). I prefer paste.
- Add 1 tbsp of agave nectar, honey, or sugar, 2 tbsp of chopped basil and 1 tsp of red pepper flakes. Stir.
- Place lid on crockpot and heat on low until the evening when you are ready to make dinner. If you can program your crockpot, choose the low setting and a time of 8 hours. You can go more or less time, but 8 hours should be enough to keep it simmering until you are ready to use it in your lasagna. If you are gone for more than eight hours, the program switches to "keep warm" when it is complete.
Step 9: Frozen Tomatoes Instructions
If using frozen tomatoes, you will add them to the crockpot along with the seasonings. However, you will need to remove the skins first. Run each tomato under hot water and rub off the skins. Add the tomato to the crockpot and discard skins.
Note: if you used canned tomatoes, you can skip this step.
Step 10: Make the Filling
Your sauce has been simmering for hours and your entire house smells delicious! You should be able to tell already that your efforts are going to be worth it. So let's get started on the filling.
- Thaw 2 packages of frozen spinach or if using fresh, wilt 2 packages in a pan on medium low heat with a little water.
- Chop spinach and squeeze out as much water as possible. I reserved my squeezed out water to use for making the pasta, though it is not necessary.
- If you are using dairy ricotta, stir spinach into the ricotta along with a beaten egg and 1/4 tsp of freshly ground nutmeg; season with salt and pepper and skip to step 12.
Step 11: Making Vegan Ricotta
If you are using vegan ricotta, here's how to make it from scratch. You can always use store-bought vegan ricotta.
- Drain the water from a 16 oz package of extra firm tofu and crumble it into a medium mixing bowl.
- Add the juice from half a lemon and 4 tbsp of nutritional yeast. Stir with a fork.
- Add 2 tsp olive oil and massage tofu mixture with your hands until it has the consistency of ricotta.
- Mix with spinach and 1/4 tsp of freshly ground nutmeg; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Step 12: Making the Lasagna Noodles
Now let's make some noodles from scratch.
- Begin this process about two hours before you want to serve dinner.
- Mix 1 1/2 cups flour with scant 3/4 cup of water. Don’t pour in all the water unless you need to. I mix gently and quickly with my fingers to see if the mix will come together. If it’s too dry, I add a little more water. You'll notice my water is green; that's because I reserved the liquid I squeezed out from my spinach. It didn't impart much color or taste but perhaps a few nutrients.
- Shape into a ball and knead the mixture several times.
Step 13: Rolling Out the Noodles
- Separate your dough into eight pieces.
- Flatten a piece into a disc and roll through machine on the largest number setting. For mine, it’s #7. Roll the dough through again. Sometimes, I’ll fold it in half to get a better shape. It takes a little experience to figure out what shape in needs to be in now to get the right length noodle later for your pan. I go for something a little longer than it is wide at this point, around a 3 x 5 ratio.
- An important note about the feel of the dough. It shouldn't be too wet because it would stick to the roller and the pieces would stick to each other. It also shouldn't be too dry or it can fall apart when you roll it through the machine. You are going for just right, Goldilocks, and this takes a little practice. The good news is that lasagna noodles are pretty forgiving. Just do your best and make note of what could go better next time!
- Roll the dough through the machine at progressively smaller settings (roll through twice at each setting) until you reach the number four setting. The thinner it is, the harder it will be to get it out of the boiling water without tearing. It really doesn’t matter in the end, but it’s a little annoying when it tears.
- The reason you roll it through twice at each setting is to mix the dough and water better. There's a lot of information on the internet about making pasta from scratch.
- Feel free to fold your pasta in half at any setting to get the shape you want. You may have to roll it through a third time, but it won’t hurt a thing.
- When you get to #4, you’ll have a long noodle. Have a floured surface ready so that you can lay it out and it won’t stick. Roll out the rest of your noodles.
Note: If you don't have a pasta machine, you can simply use a rolling pin to roll out your noodles. This is the old-fashioned way and it works just as well. It just takes a little more time and effort. Pasta machines are handy to have if you like to make your own pasta and can easily be found in a kitchen store or online.
Step 14: Taste Your Sauce
Taste your sauce for salt and pepper. Adjust to your preference. Start with a teaspoon of salt and grate some fresh pepper. Stir and taste.
Step 15: Boil Your Noodles
- Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
- Put a large stock pot of water on to boil. Salt it if you wish (I add a generous pinch), which will make it boil faster. If you are watching your sodium intake, you may want to skip the salt.
- When the water has reached a rolling boil, add enough noodles to make one layer in your pan, about two to four noodles.
- Boil for only TWO MINUTES. Once the noodles float, they are done. If you boil too long, they tear easily.
Step 16: Assemble the Lasagna
- While the noodles boil, spread a little of your sauce onto the bottom of your baking pan.
- Gently remove the noodles from the water with a slotted spatula and lay in the bottom of the pan.
- Add half the ricotta mixture and spread it across the noodles. Add 1/3 of the remaining sauce.
- Meanwhile, boil three more noodles. When they’re ready, add over the sauce and the remaining ricotta and 1/3 more of the sauce.
- Boil the final three noodles and lay them atop your creation. Spread the remaining sauce on top of the final layer of noodles. Be sure to cover the noodles completely with sauce so they don’t get too hard when you bake it.
- Top with 8 oz of mozzarella and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan. If you are using fresh mozzarella, you can slice it thinly and place it evenly across the noodles. Otherwise grate the cheese and sprinkle it on.
Step 17: Bake the Lasagna
- Bake for 30 minutes. Check on the lasagna occasionally. If the cheese is browning too quickly, cover with foil.
- Check lasagna after 30 minutes; if the cheese is browned and the sauce is bubbly, remove it from the oven. If not, cook another 10 minutes at a time.
Step 18: Remove the Lasagna to Cool and Serve
- When the cheese is brown and the sauce is bubbly, remove the lasagna from the oven to cool for 15 minutes. If you can wait that long, it will be easier to slice and serve. If you try to slice into it sooner, it doesn’t hold its shape when you try to serve it.
- Enjoy with a nice glass of red wine and celebrate your labors!