What is Moussaka? Moussaka is a traditional Greek eggplant casserole made with baked or pan fried eggplants (aubergines) and potatoes, a rich, tomatoey beef or lamb mince sauce and topped off with a deliciously creamy béchamel sauce. In other words, the ultimate comfort food.
Greek Moussaka Key Preparation Steps
Many people believe that making Moussaka is difficult. However, that could not be further away from the truth! Making your Moussaka comes down to the below four very simple steps:
- preparing the moussaka eggplants (aubergines) and potatoes,
- preparing the lamb or beef tomato sauce,
- preparing the béchamel sauce
- And of course, assembling it and baking it until perfectly golden brown! You’ll need to dirty up some pans, but the end result is well worth it!
Preparing the eggplants and potatoes
The eggplants (aubergines) and potatoes are the foundation of a Greek Moussaka and they serve two very different purposes. The sliced potatoes are the base for the dish, give it robustness and make it easy to cut and serve. On the other hand, the aubergines act like little sponges. They soak up the delicious tomato sauce and give the dish its incredible juiciness and creaminess. These are my top tips to prepare them to perfection!
Preparing your moussaka potatoes
- Get yourself some starchy potatoes like Russet, Idaho, Yukon gold or Marris Piper.
- Peel and slice them in uniform disks of about the same thickness as your little finger (around 1cm).
- Finally rinse them under some running water to get rid of the excess starch.
Preparing the moussaka eggplants (aubergines)
Firstly, you’ll need to buy yourself some large eggplants – the largest you can find at the supermarket! Slice the eggplants, without peeling them, in uniform disks of about the same thickness as your potatoes. Rinse them thoroughly with water until the water runs clear and season them with a good sprinkle of salt. Finally, let them sit in a colander for half an hour.
Tip: Some eggplants (aubergines) can be bitter so it is important to prepare them correctly. Rinsing them, salting them and letting them rest removes that bitterness and they will taste deliciously sweet, creamy and with no hint of bitterness whatsoever!
Baking or frying the Moussaka eggplants (aubergines) and potatoes?
Traditionally, the Moussaka eggplants and potatoes are shallow fried until golden brown. This is how most taverna’s make their moussaka because shallow frying adds an incredible lusciousness to the dish that is hard to resist. However, there is a lighter moussaka that is not too oily and greasy.
Bake my moussaka aubergines and potatoes instead. Your moussaka will turn out to be lighter, with less calories and will taste just as amazing! Now you can enjoy more of your moussaka guilt free! So, drizzle your sliced aubergines and potatoes with some olive oil, season with a good pinch of salt and pepper and bake them in sheet pans for 20 minutes at 180C/350F until they are part way cooked and slightly browned on the outside.
Tip: Don’t forget your eggplants (aubergines) will shrink when baked, so make sure you slice enough to give you around 3 layers of coverage. When baked, they will shrink down to just the right amount for 2 luscious layers!
Tip: When baked, sliced aubergines tend to stick to the sheet pans. To prevent that from happening, bake them in non-stick sheets or overlap the slices a little bit so they are partially lifted from the bottom of your sheet pan. They will then come right off without any of their flesh sticking to the sheets!
Tip: You can bake the potatoes in the same baking tray that you’ll use to bake your Moussaka in. Not only will you slice and layer the exact number of potatoes, but you’ll also end up with less washing up to do!
Adding potatoes to your Moussaka (or not)?
Over the years I’ve witnessed plenty of debate whether Moussaka should be made with just eggplants or also with potatoes. From my experience, I find that adding potatoes as the base layer of my moussaka makes the dish, more complete. The starchiness of the potatoes perfectly complements the tanginess of the sauce, the sweetness of the aubergines and the creaminess of the béchamel cream.
Adding potatoes to the moussaka makes the dish more robust, balanced and flavorful! So, I must admit that I am a fan of making my moussaka with potatoes! If you haven’t tried it, give it a go next time and I’m sure you’ll love them too!
Preparing the Greek Moussaka Meat Sauce
Traditional Greek Moussaka calls for either lamb mince or a mix of lamb and beef. However, if you can’t handle or don’t like the strong flavour of lamb or if you prefer a lighter Moussaka, you can substitute lamb mince with good quality beef or veal mince.
After you’re done preparing your vegetables, it’s time to prepare your Moussaka meat sauce. In essence, a Moussaka meat sauce is very similar to a basic Bolognese sauce. The ground meat is sautéed in olive oil, onions and garlic. It is then deglazed with some red wine and, finally, it is simmered with chopped tomatoes until thickened.
But there are also some key differences. Firstly, the spices used for the Moussaka meat sauce infuse the meat and give it a deliciously fresh taste and smell that characterises this traditional Greek dish!
Secondly, the Moussaka meat sauce needs to be very thick,so it doesn’t soak through the vegetables. Once you’ve added the spices let the sauce simmer over low heat until it has reduced and thickened. This will also help the flavours fully develop. Just remember to occasionally stir it so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of your pan.
Finally, your Moussaka meat sauce needs to be well seasoned. Once the Moussaka sauce has thickened season with salt and pepper. Add some, stir, taste and add some more if needed. Seasoning in the end will help you avoid over or under seasoning your sauce!
Prepare the Béchamel sauce
A traditional Greek Moussaka recipe needs a luscious bechamel sauce. However, this is also the trickiest part to get right! So how to make it to perfection? It’s all down to having the right thickness, whisking constantly while it is cooking, enriching it with eggs and cheese, and, adding just the right amount of salt in the end.
Moussaka needs a thick and creamy béchamel. A thin béchamel sauce will soak through the meat sauce and won’t give you that creamy thick layer that sits on top and makes your Moussaka stand out! So, when preparing your béchamel, make sure you cook it long enough, until it resembles a thick custard.
To prepare your Moussaka bechamel sauce start by first melting your butter on high heat. Add all of the flour, whisk it until the butter is fully absorbed into the flour and let it cook for a couple of minutes until it slightly browns. Turn down the heat to medium and add the milk a little bit at a time. Wait for the milk to absorb into the flour, add some more and repeat until you’ve used all the milk in the recipe. Your béchamel sauce is ready when it has thickened and resembles a custard, like the picture below.
Tip: You’ll need to be constantly whisking while you’re adding the milk. Cooking your béchamel sauce while whisking over a low heat will prevent it from burning and sticking to the bottom of your pan. I always use a hand mixer with the whisk attachment to help me with the whisking as I find it quite tiring to do it all by hand!
Now it’s time to season and enrich your béchamel. Remove the pan from the stove and add the cheese, the nutmeg and two teaspoons of salt. Whisk until combined, taste your béchamel and add one more teaspoon of salt if it still tastes bland. I find it amazing how a little bit of salt can really lift the flavour of your béchamel and make the moussaka taste amazing all the way through!
Finally add your egg yolks and quickly whisk so the eggs fully incorporate in the mixture. When your Moussaka is baking, the eggs will thicken your béchamel and give you a more distinct and creamy layer over your aubergines!
Assemble your Traditional Greek Moussaka!
Now that your vegetables, your béchamel and your meat sauce are ready it’s time to assemble your dish! Firstly, pick the deepest baking dish that you have at hand to make sure you can use all your meat sauce and béchamel without fear that it won’t fit and spill over! For my recipe below a 20x30cm/8x12inch and 8cm/3 inch deep baking dish is ideal.
To assemble your Moussaka, start by layering your potatoes at the bottom of your baking dish. Split your aubergines in two lots. You’ll need the first lot to layer over the potatoes and the second lot to cover the meat sauce. Spread the first layer of aubergines over your potatoes. If you have too few aubergines space them out a bit. If you have too many, overlap them a bit so they all fit!
Using a large ladle or spoon, pour your meat sauce over your aubergines and spread it evenly. Spread your second aubergine layer over the meat sauce, spacing them out evenly. Finally using a large ladle add the béchamel and spread it out evenly, making sure your whole moussaka is covered!
Finally sprinkle a bit of grated cheese on top. When your moussaka is baked, the cheese will melt and give it a delicious golden brown color! Your traditional Greek Moussaka is now ready to bake or to store it in the fridge and bake it later!
Preparing your Moussaka in advance
There are three ways to prepare your Moussaka in advance. You can bake it and reheat it, store it in the fridge unbaked and bake it on the day or bake it from frozen.
Bake and reheat: This is the way to go if you are short on time on the day you want to serve your moussaka. Bake it the day before, let it cool down, wrap it in cling film and store in the fridge. When you want to serve it, just pop it in the oven for 30 minutes at 150C / 300F to reheat.
Bake on the day: This is the way to go if you want your moussaka to be piping hot and fresh for your big day! When you have assembled your moussaka, let it cool down, wrap it with cling film and store it in the fridge uncooked. Then go ahead and bake it on the day for about 1 hour at 180C/350F.
Bake from frozen: This is the way to go if you want to bake and serve your moussaka more than a couple of days later. When you have assembled your moussaka and it has fully cooled down, wrap it in cling film and store it in the freezer uncooked. Be careful to store it flat so the bechamel doesn’t pour out! It will keep for up to a month and be just as fresh when baked and served! To serve, heat up your oven to 180C/350F and bake it for about 1 hour 30 minutes, until it’s cooked through.
Moussaka leftovers: If you just have some leftovers that you’d like to keep for more than a couple of days, cut them up in individual portions and store them in airtight containers in the freezer. To serve them, pop them in the oven for about 45 minutes at 150C/300F until they have defrosted and heated up throughout.
Tip: You can use a kitchen knife to check if your Moussaka has defrosted. Poke the center of your piece/tray with your knife, pick out some of the meat sauce and check if it is piping hot.
The Greek Moussaka Recipe
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 60 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Yield: 8 portions
- 6 eggplants
- 5 potatoes (optional)
- vegetable oil (for frying the eggplants)
For the meat sauce
- 750g beef or lamb mince (26 oz)
- 2 red onions (chopped)
- 2 cloves of garlic (chopped)
- 1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g / 14oz)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1 glass of red wine
- Pinch of sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 bay leaf
- A pinch of cinnamon or one cinnamon stick
- 1/4 of a cup olive oil
For the bechamel sauce
- 900ml milk (31 fl.oz)
- 120g butter (4 oz)
- 120g flour (4 oz)
- a pinch of nutmeg
- 2 egg yolks
- 100g Parmigiano-Reggiano or Kefalotyri or your favourite hard cheese (3.5oz)
- salt to taste
Prepare the Vegetables
- Remove the stalks from the eggplants and cut them into slices, 1 cm thick.
- Season with salt and place in a colander for about half an hour.
- Rinse the eggplants with plenty of water and squeeze with your hands, to get rid of the excessive water.
- Pat them dry and fry in plenty of oil, until nicely colored. Place the fried eggplants on some paper, in order to absorb the oil. (
For a lighter version of the traditional Greek moussaka try drizzling the aubergines with some olive oil and bake them for 20 minutes instead of frying them). Set aside when done.
- If you are adding potatoes to your moussaka, now its time to slice them into 0.5cm, half a finger width slices.
- Fry them or bake them in the same way as the eggplants. Season with some salt and set them aside when done.
Prepare the meat sauce
Heat a large pan to medium-high heat and add the olive oil.
Stir in the chopped onions and sauté, until softened and slightly colored.
Stir in the mince breaking it up with a wooden spoon and sauté.
When it starts to brown, add the the garlic and tomato paste and sauté until the garlic starts to soften.
Pour in the red wine to deglaze the meat juices and wait to evaporate.
Add the tinned tomatoes, the sugar, a pinch of cinnamon, 1 bay leaf and a good pinch of salt and pepper.
Bring to the boil then turn the heat down and simmer with the lid on for about 30 minutes or until most of the juices have evaporated. Set aside when done.
Prepare the béchamel sauce
- Use a large pan to melt the butter over low-medium heat.
- Add the flour whisking continuously to make a paste.
- Add warmed milk in a steady stream; keep whisking in order to prevent your sauce from getting lumpy.
- If the sauce still needs to thicken, boil over low heat while continuing to stir. Its consistency should resemble a thick cream.
- Remove the béchamel pan from the stove and stir in the egg yolks, salt, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and the most of the grated cheese. Reserve some cheese to sprinkle on top!
- Whisk quickly, in order to prevent the eggs from turning an omelette! Season with salt to taste.
- Take one spoon full of béchamel and stir it in the meat sauce.
- Set the béchamel sauce aside.
Assemble the moussaka
- For this moussaka recipe you will need a large baking dish, approx. 20x30cm / 8x12inch and 8cm/3 inch deep).
- Butter the bottom and sides of the pan.
- Layer the potatoes first (if you’re using them), then half the eggplants. Pour in all of the meat sauce and spread it out evenly.
- Add a second layer of eggplants, top with all of the béchamel sauce and smooth out with a spatula.
- Sprinkle with the remaining grated cheese. Preheat you oven at 180C/350F and bake your Moussaka for about 60 minutes or until its crust turns light golden brown.
- Even though it will be really hard to do so, you should wait for the moussaka to cool down and be just warm to the touch before cutting into pieces. This will prevent the béchamel sauce from pouring out when you’re cutting your pieces.
- Serve the Moussaka with a refreshing Traditional Greek Salad and enjoy over a glass of wine!