If you think that this is another ordinary moussaka recipe, you are so tragically wrong. This is the real thing. Layers of thinly sliced potato, meltingly soft eggplant, cinnamon-spiced ground lamb meat and a luscious, creamy, light, gluten-free (kind of) béchamel. This is what we call moussaka in Greece. Once you taste it, you come back for more and you never ever forget its name. It is an extremely famous Greek recipe and I am going to show you all my secrets and tips for the ultimate traditional Greek moussaka. The one that those cute old ladies (yiayia = grandma in Greece) serve to the drooling over the table family on Sunday dinners. Exactly that!
The authentic recipe right from a master home cook of its kind. Sadly, not me. Again. (Lol). My mother is beyond a shadow of a doubt the ultimate moussaka master chef. Potatoes and eggplant are sweet and soft, the ground meat is perfectly seasoned and extra juicy and the (kind of) béchamel sauce is … pure magic. She is particularly proud of her version of this sauce because in quest of the perfect béchamel sauce after decades she came down to the most tasteful and light version of it. Delicious and gluten-free too which is so important for many people. So stay tuned and off we go!
The history of the dish
No? Ok, no problem. Jump to Recipe
Otherwise, keep on reading.
Eggplants were introduced to Greece during the Ottoman’s occupation and until the independence from the Ottoman Empire, they were cooked in olive oil, mixed with many seasonal vegetables (check out this recipe called Briam) and flavored with fresh herbs and some spices if available.
The famous chef Nikolaos Tselementes introduced new elements from French cuisine to the simplicity of Greek dishes and created a whole new culinary chapter to the modern Greek cuisine. Throughout the twentieth century, his cookbook was so popular in the middle-class that is still in print. Its influence was huge and resulted in the creation of a new urban cuisine that combined the traditional Greek cooking with French sauces like béchamel and ingredients like butter, broth, cream, etc. That’s how dishes like moussaka, pastitsio, and stuffed eggplant (papoutsakia) are part of the Greek cuisine.
No more history stuff. Let’s jump into the details of the recipe.
The authentic recipe calls for potatoes and eggplant. Note down that first it is better to sprinkle eggplant with salt and set aside for about 30 minutes (preferably 1 hour but well …) to draw out the bitterness and some of the moisture. This way eggplant is sweeter and it keeps a perfect shape. Nevertheless, the most important is that pre-salting allows the eggplant to soak up less oil resulting in a lighter version without sacrificing flavor. This is optional but highly recommended for a perfect moussaka.
Then you have two options. Either you fry the veggies or you bake them. In terms of taste, I don’t find a huge difference between those methods. Nevertheless, my sensible stomach appreciates the lightness of the baked vegetables. It’s up to you what to choose.
The authentic recipe calls for ground lamb simply because Mediterranean livestock consisted of sheep and goats grazed on hillsides and that was the meat of choice. Take my word for it, the perfect meat for this recipe is ground lamb. Easy to say but difficult to purchase. I know. So, choose pretty much whatever red meat you can find. However, I should mention that eggplant and ground lamb combo is out of this world. Just saying.
Our vegan and vegetarian friends will find some variations below. The Mediterranean way of eating isn’t 100% vegetarian-vegan but bear in mind that the traditional Greek cuisine contains countless vegan and/or vegetarian dishes born out of the almost 200 days of the fasting periods in the Orthodox Church year. Greeks cook excellent vegan and vegetarian dishes, take my word for it, people!
So, skip the traditional recipe with meat and go for the vegan/vegetarian variation.
The (kind of) béchamel sauce
Let’s not beat around the bush, here. The classic béchamel sauce calls for flour, butter, and milk (do you know that it is called mother sauce in French cooking? Impressive name). It is a delicious, luscious sauce and an important component of the authentic moussaka recipe. Nevertheless, it is a calorie bomb and it is not recommended for people with diabetes and other health-related issues. I will recommend a healthier alternative to béchamel sauce but it won’t be the real thing. However, I assure you it will be delicious too. Not as creamy as the main recipe but tasteful enough to enjoy and make it again and serve it to your friends and family.
My mother’s (kind of) béchamel sauce calls for cornstarch instead of four. I can hear you thinking “But cornstarch is highly processed”. It is true that the health benefits of cornstarch are limited with little or no fiber, protein, or vitamins. Using cornstarch instead of plain flour you get the lightest and finest sauce you can make at home. Its texture is silky-smooth and the taste is slightly nutty and creamy and it doesn’t taste like raw four which can ruin the whole moussaka experience. At least for my vision for the perfect moussaka. Additionally, cornstarch is totally gluten-free so it can be a substitute for those with celiac disease or another form of gluten intolerance.
If you want to make neither the classic béchamel sauce nor my mother’s cornstarch sauce, I’ve got you covered. Go for a lighter vegetarian version which is a yogurt sauce. It is super easy to make and all you need is yogurt and eggs. Jump to the recipe and check out the notes.
This is an extra aromatic recipe. It contains nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon. If it is the first time you taste those spices, I suggest you skip nutmeg in béchamel sauce and keep it only in the meat sauce. If you don’t add allspice won’t make such a huge difference. However, I strongly (strongly, strongly have I said strongly enough?) recommend going for cinnamon especially if you use ground lamb. It will definitely add an exotic dimension to your plate that you will highly appreciate.
How to bake it?
You may use a large deep ovenproof dish, rectangular or round. I used a deep round 15.5 inch (40cm) baking pan. It doesn’t matter if it is slightly smaller or bigger.
Step by step tutorial
Let’s make it vegan
Skip the meat. There are a lot of delicious ideas out there on the web with pulses like lentils and chickpeas mixed with tomato. However, my favorite is with mushrooms. In a nutshell, skip the meat and make an easy and super quick sauce with finely chopped mushrooms that I usually sauté with a lot of garlic and onions and simmer in tomato sauce and white wine (optional).
While researching for the vegan alternatives to the classic béchamel sauce, I found out quite interesting options. Béchamel with cashews and tahini caught my attention though. I am so tempted to make it.
Let’s make it vegetarian
Skip the meat again and replace it with the mushroom sauce.
Let’s make it lighter and healthier
To begin with, bake the veggies. Frying is out of the question here. Then, replace the béchamel sauce with a super delicious yogurt sauce. You will find it below on the recipe card (notes).
Ready! Now what?
Before cutting up your piece, it needs to set for a while. If too hot you won’t get a well-cut out piece, everything will fall apart and it is such a pity because moussaka needs time and effort to make. Why not serve a beautiful piece?
- 3-4 eggplants
- 3 big potatoes
- ½ cup (100g) Parmigiano-Reggiano or Kefalotyri
THE MEAT SAUCE
- 2 large onions finely chopped
- 2pound (1kg) ground lamb or/and beef
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 bay leaves
- 1 cup (250g) chopped tomatoes fresh or canned or passata
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 6 whole allspice berries or ½ teaspoon ground allspice
FOR THE BECHAMEL SAUCE
- 6 cups (1.5 lt) whole milk
- 1 cup (250g) cornstarch
- ¼ cup (50g) unsalted butter
- 3 eggs lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Freshly ground pepper
- ½ cup (120g) Parmigiano-Reggiano or Kefalotyri or pecorino, grated
- 1 pinch nutmeg optional
FOR THE VEGGIES
- Remove the stalks from the eggplants and slice them lengthways into 1/2-inch (1 cm) slices. Place them in a colander, season with salt and cover with an inverted plate. Place the colander in the sink and leave it for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
- Peel the potatoes and slice them into 1/2-inch (1 cm) rounds.
- Heat the oven to 392°F (200°C). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
- Rinse the eggplants with plenty of water and dry with paper towels. Place the slices on the baking sheets and brush with olive oil. Season and bake for about 20 minutes. Place them on paper towel to dry them.
- Repeat the same procedure with potatoes. Place them on the baking seed, brush with olive oil and season. Bake for about 20-30 minutes and place on paper towel to dry.
FOR THE MEAT SAUCE
- Meanwhile, in a large pan or heavy-bottomed pot, over medium to high heat, brown the ground meat until the pink color disappears about 10 minutes. Add onion and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice and cook for a further couple of minutes cooking, until the mixture is quite dry.
- Add the tomato paste and sauté for a couple of minutes until incorporated. Stir in the tomato, bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down low and cook for 30–40 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated. Season to taste.
FOR THE BECHAMEL SAUCE
- Place a big pot over medium heat. Add the milk and let it warm up for a while. Add the butter and let it melt.
- Add 2 cups of the warmed milk to another pot and stir in the cornstarch. Whisk until the cornstarch is incorporated. When the cornstarch mixture is ready, pour it in the big pot with the milk-butter mixture.
- Simmer over low-medium heat and whisk continuously about 10 minutes until it thickens a bit.
- Remove from heat, and stir in the beaten eggs, the cheese and a pinch of nutmeg (optional). Stir well. Return to the heat and stir until sauce thickens a bit more but not too much. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 392°F (200°C).
- Lightly grease a large deep baking pan. Spread a layer of potatoes and season. Cover with a layer of eggplants and sprinkle with grated cheese.
- Spread the ground meat over the vegetables. Cover with another layer of eggplants. Then finish with the béchamel smoothing the top over with a palette knife or spatula. Sprinkle with grated cheese (optional).
- Put in the center of the oven and cook for 60-75 mins until deep golden brown. If it browns too much during cooking, cover the dish with parchment paper. Set aside for at least 20 mins to cool before slicing and serving.