When no-boil "instant" lasagna noodles first hit supermarket shelves five years ago, some home cooks were skeptical. How can you layer sheets of raw pasta into a lasagna pan without boiling them first? Rather than risk a trayful of precious ingredients, they passed up the convenience and continued to parboil their noodles the usual way.
Others threw caution to the wind and boldly substituted the stiff-as-a-board pasta into their lasagna recipes. It worked. And those home cooks have never looked back. Ronzoni, the largest U.S. maker of "oven-ready" no-boil lasagna noodles, now sells one box of no-boil for every five boxes of traditional lasagna noodles.
"Our oven-ready noodles have been one of our best pasta introductions, and it's an item that's growing," said Gary Lauerman, marketing director at Ronzoni. "It has exceeded our wildest expectations in terms of consumer acceptance."
Barilla America, the U.S. division of Italy's top dried-pasta brand, introduced its instant lasagna noodles in the New York area 18 months ago and is now rolling them out nationally. "We're off to a fast start," said Sergio Pereira, director of marketing for Barilla America.
Barilla introduced the no-boil noodles three years ago in Italy, where cooks are accustomed to making their lasagna noodles by hand. Younger Italians, apparently sold on the virtues of making lasagna more quickly, have taken to the product, Pereira said.
American lasagna mavens approve of the no-boil pasta, too. Clifford Wright, author of several cookbooks, including one on lasagna, actually prefers the no-boil version to the regular supermarket one.
"It's a terrific product," he said. "The traditional commercial lasagna tends to be a wee bit too thick, and as a result, you get a pasty lasagna. It's nicer to have leaf-like layers like a mille-feuille" or multilayered napoleon.
Melanie Barnard, who writes Bon Appetit's "30-Minute Main Courses" column, said, "The no-boil thing is the cat's meow. Cooking the noodles is the absolutely worst part about making lasagna. They stick together, they slop around. Any way you can make it without having to cook the noodles is great."
Jack Bishop, a Sag Harbor, N.Y., author of several cookbooks including one on lasagna, is more of a purist. His gold standard is the handmade lasagna noodle. He calls the traditional dried variety only 50 percent as good and the no-boil type only 30 percent as good. But, he admits: "They've got to save you 30 to 40 minutes. If that's the difference between making lasagna and not making lasagna, then it's worth it."
When substituting oven-ready noodles in recipes that call for the cooked ones, Bishop suggests making some adjustments.
"There are ways to make them work and ways to make a mess," he said.
First, he said, make your sauce more watery than usual. This can be accomplished simply by not cooking down the tomato sauce. Instead of simmering it for 30 minutes, for example, leave it on the stove for just 10 minutes or so. And once the lasagna has been assembled, make sure to cover the pan with foil so that the noodles steam and the edges don't dry out.
Don't, he warned, rinse or soak the noodles first. "That just makes them mushy," he said.
Mary Ann Esposito, an Italian cookbook author and host of the PBS cooking series "Ciao Italia," said the secret to making your favorite lasagna with no-boil noodles isn't thinner sauce but more sauce -- up to 50 percent more than when using the regular noodles.
Make sure every inch of the pasta is covered with sauce, she said. And don't overlap the noodles. Most no-boil noodles have ridges or pleats that allow them to expand as they bake. Alternate the direction of the pleats from one layer to the next. And don't worry about the gaps between the noodles. "No one is ever going to see the inside of your unbaked lasagna," Esposito said. "Afterward, it's all going to be filled in with sauce."
Some home cooks had been layering regular, uncooked noodles in their lasagna long before the advent of no-boil noodles. That can work too, although the results are less predictable and it requires more adjustment of the recipe to make a good lasagna. Barnard used to soak the regular lasagna noodles in a sink full of hot water until they were pliable.
The no-boil noodles are supposed to make life easier, so don't over-analyze it, said Barnard. She recently saw a young woman in the pasta aisle of her supermarket reading the backs of the no-boil noodle boxes. "She was so perplexed she was ready to send out for pizza."
Lasagna is always a little tricky, she said. "Sometimes it's too dry, sometimes it's too wet. Just remember that lasagna always tastes good, so don't worry."
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup flour
3 cups low-fat (1 percent) milk
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
2 (9-ounce) packages frozen creamed spinach, thawed
4 cups shredded part-skim mozzarella cheese (1 pound)
1 (15-ounce) container part-skim ricotta cheese