Lasagna Noodles

by Elizabeth Skipper | December 26th, 2012 | Ask the Chef

What’s the difference with lasagna noodles? At the grocery store, I can buy the no-cook noodles or the regular, “old-fashioned”, boil before using noodles. I know that the fresh pasta is best (but expensive). Is there a difference in using the no-cook or need to boiled lasagna?

No-boil lasagna has only been on the market for a few years. Before that, the only kind available was the well-known ripple-edged strips of dried pasta, which are about 2 ¼” wide by 10″ long. This kind must be parboiled before using.

Two readily available brands of no-boil lasagna sheets, American Ronzoni (or Prince, which is made by the same parent company, New World Pasta) and Italian Barilla, measure 3 ½” wide by 7″ long. The manufacturer has done the parboiling, which is a time and energy saver, and then dehydrated the sheets. They will rehydrate when baked with sauce in the assembled dish. However, because this is so, additional liquid is required in the recipe! So there certainly is a difference between these two choices; and in recipes that call for one or the other, the different kinds of lasagna are not interchangeable.

In Italy, lasagna is made with fresh pasta, which is more readily available than it is in the States (and at least by the older generation, is often homemade.) Pasta fresca is made with egg rather than water, and a softer flour than the semolina used for dried pasta. This means it’s softer than dried pasta, with a more delicate consistency. Here’s what Marcella Hazan, the doyenne of Italian cookbook authors, has to say about lasagne (the plural of lasagna):

“Properly made lasagne consists of several layers of delicate, nearly weightless pasta spaced by layers of savory, but not overbearing filling made of meat or artichokes or mushrooms or other fine mixture. The only pasta suitable for lasagne is paper-thin dough freshly made at home… there is nothing packed in a box that can lead to the flavor of the lasagne you can produce in your kitchen. Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.”

The first time I had lasagna in Switzerland, which shares a border and a cultural heritage with Italy, I was shocked by how different it was from what I was accustomed to. It was a revelation, sort of a city mouse type of dish compared to its rustic country mouse counterpart. The New World version is stick-to-your-ribs fare, a hearty casserole to inexpensively feed a crowd with. In fact, it’s hard to make a small amount.

Interestingly, looking at the packages of Ronzoni/Prince and Barilla pastas, I see that the American brands are made without egg and the Italian one contains egg. All three can be soaked in hot water for 10-15 minutes and used like fresh pasta for roll-ups or what have you. When reconstituted, the Barilla sheets more closely resemble the fresh pasta of Italy. All three give good results in lasagna, though, and one I suspect Marcella might find acceptable. I give no-boil noodles a “thumbs up” as a stand-in for fresh pasta.

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