Nothing says Italian comfort food like a plate of lasagna. A hearty and wholesome dish, lasagna is made of thin pasta sheets, layered with tomato sauce, cheese, and meat in a casserole pan, baked to perfection and served warm.
There are many ways to make lasagna and just as many ways to get it wrong. As most recipes don’t really tell you what to watch out for, it can be (and often is) frustrating when you follow everything they said — and still have your lasagna come out wrong.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the top mistakes that almost everyone makes when cooking lasagna at home. By its end, you’re going to know what exactly to look out for and at what step, so that your lasagna comes out perfect every single time.
Why Is My Lasagna So Oily?
One of the top questions home cooks often ask is, Why is my lasagna so oily?
You Used Ground Beef With High Fat Content
Lasagna can come out oily if you’ve used ground beef with too much fat content for the meat sauce. Fat liquefies and drips off of the meat when heated, which is why higher fat content produces greasier sauce. For the best meat sauce for lasagna, use lean ground beef (90% lean/10% fat or 92% lean/10% fat).
When you cook ground beef to an internal temperature of 130-140°F, the fat starts to liquefy and drip off of the meat and into the sauce. The higher the fat content, the greasier the sauce. Instead of using regular beef for lasagna sauce, which has 30% to 15% fat content, use lean ground beef, which contains 10% fat or less.
Just don’t go to the other end of the spectrum and buy 100% lean beef for your lasagna (known as extra lean beef). If there’s little to no fat content in the meat, the sauce is going to come out tough and dry.
Lean ground beef has a fat content of 10%, which is just enough to give tenderness and juiciness to the beef itself without making the sauce excessively greasy.
Here’s how to always buy the right ground beef for any recipe:
When you look at a package of ground beef, you’re going to see a ratio like 73/27 or 92/8. This ratio represents the lean-to-fat content of the meat, also known as the “lean point.”
Based on its lean point, ground beef in the U.S. is classified into three varieties: regular, lean, and extra lean ground beef.
Find the differences — and what recipes each variety is best for — in the table below.
|Ground Beef||Lean Point||Best For|
|Regular ground beef||73% lean, 27% fat or|
83% lean, 17% fat
|Burgers, meatloaf, meatballs, chilli|
|Lean ground beef||90% lean, 10% fat or|
92% lean, 8% fat
|Lasagna, spaghetti, tacos, burritos, enchiladas|
|Extra lean ground beef||93% lean, 7% fat or|
96% lean, 4% fat
|Asian lettuce wraps, cabbage rolls, stuffed peppers|
You Topped the Lasagna With Cheddar Cheese
You only have cheddar cheese in the fridge and don’t really feel like going to the grocery store right now. Can’t you top the lasagna with cheddar instead of mozzarella?
Don’t top lasagna with cheddar cheese instead of mozzarella. Cheddar cheese not only has a taste and texture that doesn’t pair well with lasagna. It also comes with a higher fat content, which can cause your lasagna to come out oily.
Above all, certain cheeses just don’t belong to certain cuisines. Cheddar cheese has a taste and texture that goes really well with English and Mexican food. The same simply can’t be said about using cheddar as a substitute for Italian cheeses in Italian (or Italian-American) recipes.
Second — and most relevant to the reason why you’re reading this post — cheddar has a higher fat content (33%) than mozzarella (22% when made from whole milk and 16% when made from part skim milk).
When troubleshooting lasagna that came out oily, the same reasoning applies for the cheese topping as for the ground beef. The higher the fat content, the oilier the lasagna.
Why Is My Lasagna So Watery?
You did everything the recipe said and you still ended up with soupy lasagne. What happened?
When making lasagne, excess moisture can come from four sources: the tomato sauce, the ground beef, the pasta noodles, and/or the cheese.
You Didn’t Reduce the Tomato Sauce Enough
Lasagne is typically baked between 350° and 375°F. In a preheated oven and covered with aluminium foil, it takes 30-45 minutes to make lasagna at this temperature.
If you haven’t reduced the sauce in the sauce pan before adding it to the lasagne, the time and temperature in the oven are simply not enough to thicken it.
The sauce that goes into lasagne tends to contain tomatoes, red or white wine, ground beef, and beef broth. Home cooks often make one mistake with lasagne sauce: they don’t let it simmer for enough time before layering the lasagne.
To make thick lasagne sauce, brown the meat in extra virgin olive oil first, then add crushed tomatoes from a can and 1 tablespoon tomato paste, pour beef broth in the sauce pan, and let simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes until thick.
When the sauce reaches a consistency that isn’t soupy, you know you can use it to make lasagne that isn’t watery.
You Browned the Ground Beef at a Low Temperature
Gray and soupy meat doesn’t count as browned. And when you add it to meat sauce, it produces soupy sauce, which makes watery lasagne.
Simply said, when you brown ground meat on the stove top, it should always come out golden brown, slightly crispy, and without excess water.
Before browning meat, take it out from the fridge and let it come to room temperature for about 15-20 minutes.
Never try to brown frozen meat; it won’t work. Thaw the meat by moving it from the freezer to your fridge the night before.
Preheat your pan on medium high. This can take anywhere between 2-3 to 4-5 minutes depending on the material that you pan is made from.
If you’re using a teflon or ceramic pan, 2-3 minutes are enough. 4-5 minutes are best for stainless steel and cast iron pans.
Brush a little extra virgin olive oil on the preheat pan, then add your meat. Then let it sit for a while until it gains some color and texture. You shouldn’t start breaking up the meat immediately after you’ve added it to a preheated pan.
Once you see browny crispiness on the edges of the meat, break it up with a spatula or spoon and keep cooking it until it’s browned on all sides.
If there’s more water or grease than necessary in the skillet, drain it before adding the rest of the ingredients (canned tomatoes, tomato paste, beef broth, seasoning) to make tomato sauce.
You Boiled the Lasagne Sheets (And You Shouldn’t)
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no need to boil lasagne sheets before baking lasagna in the oven. As you bake the lasagne, the pasta sheets will absorb moisture from the sauce and cheese.
Without boiling, the lasagne sheets will cook just enough to al dente, but remain firm enough to give your lasagna structure and help it stay together when serving. This applies to fresh and homemade lasagne sheets, as well as dried lasagne sheets you can buy at any grocery store.
If you have never tried this method before, I know it sounds scary. Trust me on this. Test it out for yourselves and let me know how it turned out in the comments below.
You Used (Too Much) Fresh Mozzarella
Fresh mozzarella, the one that’s sold in the form of mozzarella balls soaked in a cloudy and watery substance, can sometimes add too much moisture to a lasagna.
Unlike the dried mozzarella blocks and mozzarella slices, fresh mozzarella retains as much as 52% of its water contents. Instead of slicing the cheese immediately and using it to layer or top your lasagna, let the slices rest on top of a tea towel for about 15 minutes.
The tea towel will soak up most of the excess moisture and the cheese is going to be just right to help you get the texture and dryness you want for your lasagna.
Now you know how to make the perfect lasagna every single time, no matter what recipe you choose to follow.
Home cooking is all about knowing what steps and moments to pay attention to. Try the tips and tricks for making lasagna from this post — and your family and friends are going to think that you went to an Italian cooking class and never really told them about it.