I do not cook my pasta sheets beforehand when making lasagna; there, I've said it. No, I do not, and have various reasons for it; not just out of convenience. Now there are folks out there who will cry "Blasphemy!", but there will be others who will sigh in relief that they're not the only ones. Then there are those who have never made lasagna, and rely on the frozen variety. Poor souls, they thought it was too difficult, especially the part about manipulating long sheets of pasta without creating chaos. Dear friends, consider yourselves saved; saved from freezer burn and microwave lasagna.
My reasons for not cooking the pasta sheets beforehand: 1 - convenience of course; 2 - pasta cooks more evenly inside the baking dish; 3 - it absorbs the flavors of the tomatoes, herbs and garlic from the sauce it is simmering in; 4 - by leaving gaps and layers between the sheets gives them ample room to not stick together and become gummy (the sheets will expand during the baking process also). Your question might be, "Do I need to buy lasagna sheets that specifically say "no cook" on the box?" The answer is no! You can use those pretty, curly ended sheets; they are cooking in a liquid medium anyway, but in a manner that ensures they will not be over or undercooked. I purchase both types only because the smaller "no cook" sheets fit perfectly in 9" x 5" x 3" aluminum loaf pans which I can freeze for a later meal (2-3 servings); or give away. I can use either/or in the 9" x 12" x 3" aluminum baking pans. The number needed depends on which type of pans being used: 30 curly ended for 2 - 9" x 12"; 20 no cooks for 4 - 9" x 5" loaf pans; or 15 curly for 1 - 9" x 12" and 10 no cooks for 2 - 9" x 5" loaf pans. Too much? Double wrap the pans in aluminum foil and freeze them; reheat at 350F for a half hour, remove the foil and heat for another 30 minutes. Why the aluminum pans and not glass casserole dishes? Simple answer is, "No clean up!" Oh sure, they have that new liner paper out for the glass dishes, but it takes up room and I'd rather have more sauce than paper.
Making lasagna is artwork; creation of a beautifully tasty dish using vegetarian, meat, tomato, or Alfredo sauce of your choice; cheeses of ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, provolone, and even cottage cheese. Or be truly adventurous with a variety of seafood, or vegetables, using thin slices of zucchini instead of a grain pasta. For those who like cheddar cheese within their Italian dishes, including pizza; I slap you with my glove and cry out, “Infidels, have you no respect!” Keep the cheddar cheese for macaroni and cheese dishes, keep it out of Italian cuisine!
I'm warning you now that this will be a fairly long article, making a great lasagna takes time. It's not as simple as Gordon Ramsay (Kitchen Nightmares, Hell’s Kitchen) makes it seem on his shows; sauce is already prepared, noodles cooked, cheese is either cool or at room temperature. That's why it can be layered together quickly, placed under a broiler and done in about 10 minutes; it's more of a warming process than a cooking one. You need to have a great sauce for Italian dishes; homemade with your own hands and that means made with love! You will need a minimum of 14 cups, perhaps 16, especially if you want to serve a bowl on the side; and at room temperature. When the game plan is lasagna, making a 6 quart crock pot of sauce (didn’t you read my article on processing tomatoes and making sauce!!??!!) I will add 2 pounds of ground beef that has been browned with onions, garlic and 2 teaspoons of ground black pepper.
A mixture of cheeses truly enhances a dish like lasagna: 12 cups of Ricotta (I use half whole milk, half part skim; but you can use all whole or all part skim). 1 bag (8 ounces) each of shredded Mozzarella and shredded Provolone, 1 cup shredded Romano cheese. The cheeses should be cool, but not cold; mix them all together in a large bowl, except for half the Mozzarella and half the Provolone. Take those halves, mix together and set aside. I was not introduced to “cottage cheese lasagna” until I moved into Utah. While ricotta is made from the whey of milk; curds become cottage cheese. The pioneers, not being of Italian descent, fed whey to the animals while using the curds and cream to create dairy products. I have used small curd cottage cheese in my lasagna cheese mixture if I could not find enough ricotta to use.
Preheat the oven to 375F; lightly spray the pan interiors with nonstick cooking spray (we don't want to leave any yummy sauce sticking to the pan). Spread one cup of sauce over the bottom.
Place one sheet over the sauce and press down slightly. See that space at the ends of the sheet; this is going to allow the liquids in the sauce to simmer up the sides, be absorbed by the sheets and cook them to tender perfection. The sauce will thicken up with the absorption of the excess liquid. By the way, for the 9" x 5" loaf pans, each layer will have one sheet of pasta, while the larger pans will have 3 sheets, side by side, for each layer.
From the cheese mixture in the large bowl, spread a thickness of between 1/4" and 1/2" over the pasta sheet only. Spread a half cup of sauce over the cheese as evenly as possible. Now we begin to repeat the layering process with a pasta sheet over the sauce; press down slightly; spread cheese, sauce, sheet, cheese, sauce, sheet, (however a slight change) sauce, sheet. We will end up with three layers of cheese filling total; and a top layer of sauce only between the sheets. Now that final pasta sheet you laid down; spread sauce evenly over it, but do not fill in the sides of the pan. Remember, the liquids from the sauce need that space to move around in; not enough free space and you'll have an overflow onto your oven floor. Bake the lasagnas for one hour; spread the remaining Mozzarella and Provolone mixture over the tops of each and return to the oven for 20 minutes. Beautiful works of art!
Let the lasagna rest for 15 minutes before cutting into squares; the longer you wait, the firmer the servings will become. While I may have patience in creating this most outstanding meal, I have none with waiting to eat it! The longer you wait though, the cooler it is becoming also; so your big decision is do you want it pretty, but cold; or hot, messy and absolutely out of this world delicious? Stop thinking, start eating!