26 September, 2009

Frozen Lasagna - A Side-By-Side Taste Test

Note: This entry was updated on 04-21-2012 and 10-29-12.

Have you ever noticed how many companies make frozen lasagna meals? I have - in my area alone, there are eleven brands commonly found in the supermarkets here. Although at least one of them is a smaller Boston-based company, most of the others are national brands which can be found anywhere. So, much like I did recently with frozen Swedish Meatball meals, I decided to sample all the available brands and review them.

No frozen lasagna can hold a candle to homemade, so my expectations weren't too high going into this. But there were four characteristics in the frozen lasagnas upon which I based by reviews:
  1. At least three layers of pasta - Two sheets of wide noodles don't make a lasagna. There should be at least three layers of pasta, and the center layer should be separated from the top and the bottom by cheese.
  2. Good ricotta filling - Ricotta in a proper lasagna is light and fluffy. It's best if seasoned with a touch of parmesan or romano and some finely minced parsley, but I understand the limitations of quantity preparation and took no points off if the ricotta was plain. However, using cottage cheese instead of ricotta is not acceptable. Italian cuisine is not exotic or unfamiliar and there's no excuse for cottage cheese.
  3. Decent, flavorful sauce - The sauce should be tangy and tomatoey and robust with flavorful aromatics: garlic, onion, basil, oregano, marjoram - they don't all have to be there for the sauce to be authentic, but if serving the sauce to my Italian grandmother would embarass me, the lasagna lost points. Same goes for sauce that is thin, watery, bland, sugary, and/or contains a lot of cheap adulterants like carrot concentrate. A frozen lasagna meal shouldn't taste like Franco-American Spaghetti-Os.
  4. Honesty In Packaging - Of course I don't expect to be able to gorgeously plate a microwaved frozen lasagna the same way a corporate food stylist does. But if the food pic shows a generous spread of melted mozzarella oozing seductively across the top layer of saucy pasta, it had better be there when I take the laz' out of the microwave. And if the package says "Five Cheese Lasagna," three of those cheeses shouldn't be present in such a small amount that they have to appear in the ingredients under a special disclaimer.
So, with the ground rules set, let's take a look at frozen lasagna, from WORST to BEST.

BAD:

Michelina's Lean Gourmet Five Cheese Lasagna by Bellisio Foods: Utter, irredeemable crap, this so-called "lasagna" consists of four layers of pasta glued to one another by the barest thin film of ricotta cheese, swimming in a bland and spiceless tomato sauce with a stingy sprinkle of tiny mozzarella shreds on top. It simply boggles the mind that the manufacturer, Bellisio Foods, has the temerity to label this as "five cheese" lasagna when a check of the ingredients panel reveals that three of the cheeses - parmesan, asiago, and romano - appear after a "contains less than 1% of" disclaimer. Less than one percent?? Are you kidding me? There is absolutely nothing "gourmet" about this stuff. Don't waste your money, this lasagna sucks.

Link: Michelina's website.

Mendelsohn's Lasagna - No ricotta - in fact, the only cheese here is the mozzarella on top. Tomato sauce contains so much sugar it tastes like syrup. Nasty.

Weight Watchers Smart Ones Traditional Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Heinz: Three layers of pasta separated by thin smears of ricotta cheese in a bland, oversweetened sauce that was augmented with carrot juice concentrate. It tasted like Franco-American canned pasta and sauce. Bits of meat in the "meat sauce" were soft and not identifiable. Decent mozzarella topping and a non-deceptive label boosted this lasagna above the inferior Michelina's. I would not buy this one again.

Link: Weight Watchers Smart Ones website.
Stouffer's Lean Cuisine Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Nestle: Despite the lovely photo on the box, Lean Cuisine is actually one of the stingiest of the pastas I tried. Although topped with an honestly-depicted sprinkle of mozzarella cheese, the three layers of pasta are separated only by sauce and the barest amount of flattened cottage cheese curds - hardly enough even to taste, it was like they were individually placed onto the noodles using a pair of tweezers. The small amount of meat also in the top layer was flavorful and had a good texture, but what really saved the Lean Cuisine from a worse rating was the sauce - tangy, spicy, and authentic, it tastes like the same sauce used on the far superior Stouffer's Homestyle Selects lasagne. Still, the higher price and abominable use of cottage cheese curds as a ricotta stand-in means Lean Cuisine still fails.

Link: Lean Cuisine website.

UNREMARKABLE:

Amy's Cheese Lasagna by Amy's Kitchen: With lots of organic ingredients and costing $6 for a package a little over 10 ounces, I expected much better from this one. The pasta was good, not tough or chewy, but just like it would come out in a home kitchen, and the ricotta filling between pasta layers was fairly generous if somewhat underseasoned. But the sauce (described on the box as a "tangy marinara") was so plain it bordered on bland, and the small amount of mozzarella I was led by the package art to believe would be on top was completely subsumed by the ocean of sauce in the container. A little wet and watery on the bottom. Too bad - Amy's is a fairly high-quality product, but it's as bland as a can of Chef Boyardee ravioli.

Link: Amy's Kitchen website.
Boston Market Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Heinz: Bland sauce had some hints of basil, but was mostly just salty. there was a fair amount of ricotta between the sort-of-tough pasta layers, a little wet, but acceptable. I kind of liked the meat bits that were distributed throughout the sauce; they were sausagey in both taste and texture, though I found out from the ingredients panel that it was "seasoned beef" and not the pork that I half expected. Overall, while better than the Amy's product, it couldn't quite push out of the "meh" category.

Link: Boston Market Frozen Foods website.



Priano Vegetable Lasagna by ALDI: This was probably one of the strangest of all the frozen lasagnas I tried. Both the box art and the ingredients very clearly indicate that it should be made with spinach pasta, but this was not the case with the actual product, which was made with very good and al dente standard pasta sheets. Each layer was separated by decently-seasoned but rather pale tomato sauce with absolutely no cheese to be found. However, the top of the lasagna was a huge thick layer of mozzarella studded with bits of carrot, onion, and tiny broccoli florets. Failure to deliver any ricotta cheese at all, along with the lack of the advertised spinach pasta, kept this lasagna from breaking into the "GOOD" category, but I admit that I probably would buy it again.

GOOD:
Marie Callender's Meat Lasagna by ConAgra: This one cooks up really ugly; there was sauce and mozzarella on top when I put the tray into the microwave, but when it came out there was just sauce with a thin cheesy film. Unlike some of the other products which were made with "meat sauce" this one actually had a layer of seasoned beef/pork mixture along with some cheese between the bottom two pasta layers. On the "wet side" and kind of salty, but the sauce was authenically "Italian-tasting" and I'd buy it again if it were on sale.

Link: Marie Callender's Foods at ConAgra's site.
Stouffer's Homestyle Selects Lasagna Italiano by Nestle: With three layers of pasta, a generous amount of mozzarella topping, and excellent authentic sauce, Stouffer's is a decent frozen lasagna. The meat in the meat sauce was also good, nice and spicy and with a touch of fennel (unexpected and welcome.) But the bottom two layers of pasta are separated only by some sauce, not ricotta, which prevented it from getting a higher ranking. It was tough to decide whether Marie Callender's or Stouffer's lasagna was better, but in the end Stouffer's better sauce pushed it ahead. I'd buy it again.

Link: Stouffer's website.

Bremer Selects Vegetable Lasagna by ALDI: Layers of tomato sauce and cheese augmented with finely cut zucchini and carrot (the vegetable part) between pasta sheets. Just the right amount of authentically-flavored sauce keeps the lasagna from being soupy or runny. I took points off, however, for using cottage cheese instead of ricotta, which kept this lasagna from breaking out into the "very good" category.



VERY GOOD:

Eating Right Lasagna with Meat Sauce by Lucerne Foods (the dairy division of Safeway Stores): Although not the cheesiest nor the meatiest of the lasagne I tried, the excellent sauce - robust and authentic, with flavorful notes of garlic, oregano, basil, and spicy heat - pushed this dish into the "Very Good" category above Stouffer's or Marie Callender's. Marketed as a "healthy" sort of meal, I gave it props for the sauce, for having more ricotta in the second layer than any other "lean" laz', and for cooking up better than most of the other lesser brands (notice in the photo how well it held its shape and how the pasta and cheese didn't get lost in a huge deep pool of runny sauce.) Meat layer was tasty, even though it turned out to be a sort of seasoned beef-and-TVP combo.

Note: At one time, Eating Right frozen foods were only available at Safeway-owned stores; they seem to be branching out and selling them in unaffiliated supermarkets here in New England.

Link: Safeway's "About Eating Right" page.


THE BEST (Three-Way Tie for First Place):

Each of the following lasagne landed in first place for different reasons.

Michael Angelo's Lasagna with Meat Sauce, by Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods: Obviously developed using a lot of time and care, Michael Angelo's lasagna is truly premium stuff. The mozzarella topping is generous and the sauce is well-seasoned and distinctive. I was surprised to find that the cooked product had some excess water in the bottom of the pan, but that might have been because I didn't let it rest long enough after heating it. Alone among the lasagne containing "meat," Michael Angelo's uses real, 100% ground beef - no TVP or any other filler. I would definitely buy this again.

Link: Michael Angelo's Gourmet Foods
Mama Rosie's Cheese Lasagna by Mama Rosie's Co. : Three layers of pasta separated by thick layers of fluffy ricotta cheese and topped with a decent layer of mozzarella. Just the right amount of sauce - not too much, but not dry either - seasoned nearly perfectly. Not only is Mama Rosie's one of the best tasting frozen lasagne, it's priced extremely competitively (it goes on sale routinely for less than $2.00 a package) but a 10-ounce package has just 290 calories (that's cheaper and leaner than the lousy Lean Cuisine.

Link: Mama Rosie's Foods
Celentano Lasagne with Sauce by Rosina Food Products: A straightforward lasagna product with no frills - not even a mozzarella topping. It's also got one of the best-tasting sauces of any frozen laz', and - like Mama Rosie's - layers of delicious, fluffy ricotta just like you'd get if you were making it yourself. Though I didn't do it this time for the sake of the picture and the review, I like to top Celentano lasagna with some mozzarella before the final heating stage in the microwave.

Link: Rosina Products, Inc. website.

Even though I've got reviews of eleven different lasagne here, I wish that there had been more available in the stores around me (Michelina's, for example, makes at least two other varieties of lasagna that I would have liked to include but couldn't because the stores around me just don't carry it; that's too bad, because I'm betting that their "regular" lasagne would be hands-down better than that awful diet stuff.) But I think that this selection provides a pretty comprehensive overview of what's out there.

Edit: I'm really sorry about the wonky layout of this page. I absolutely hate the way Blogger handles tables, and there is no easy way to get a good layout for multiple picture/entry blog posts.

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10 comments:

Mr. Dave said...

My god man! That is a whole lot of lasagna. Your dedication is admirable.

Mary said...

Awesome! How fortuitous that you posted this today since I was just looking up frozen lasagna reviews because we were going to pick one up today, and my experience is that most frozen lasagna is hideous! Unfortunately, I live in the south, and have never heard of any of the lasagnas that got your top reviews, but since Stouffer's rated pretty well, we'll probably just go with them. Thanks!

zoe p. said...

How long did this study take?

Your review of Mama Rosie's was almost enough to inspire a trip to the supermarket - a big deal for me.

Dave said...

zoe p.: I reviewed the lasagna over a period of about three weeks, taking frozen lasagna to work for lunch three or four days a week.

zoe p. said...

I was able to get Stouffer's lasagne delivered by Peapod, on sale for $2. Not a bad $2 lunch. I'd rate it better than most $2 hotdogs . . .

On the strength of your rec for Mama Rosie's lasagne I also bought a bag of Rosie's ravioli. 13 oz for 2.50, regular price. We'll see how that goes . . .

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Very, very helpful. I will be up at the crack of dawn on a Holiday Monday to see if I can find some of these in our locale grocery stores. Guests coming at 11:00 am tomorrow!
Joan, Salmon Arm, BC

Anonymous said...

Marie Callender's Meat Lasagna i can pick it on sale 2/$5.00. The best way to cook is in the oven. 30 min @ 350 then remove top add some 4 cheese blend a little olive oil and a few drops of water then back in for 12-14 min or till the cheese browns.The oven baking makes a big difference i have tried both ways.

Shadelle said...

Thanks so very much for this post!!!! You have saved me valuable time and disappointment. I am on my way to purchase a frozen lasagna now!! :D

Anonymous said...

This is one of the great benefits of the internet: the sharing of useful info by unselfish people.

Brien Downes said...

I was happy to see my fav Michael Angelo's in the top. In my area,only avail at Walmart and at a good price.