Moussaka

Moussaka is to the Eastern Mediterranean what lasagna is to Italy: A very rich, special casserole that is perfect for Sunday dinners or potluck gatherings. The recipe takes some time to put together, but like a good lasagna, it’s worth it.

This version is Greek, although every country in the region makes its own version of moussaka. Even the Greek versions have endless variety, from different ingredients in the meat sauce, choices of meat, amount of béchamel, how they cut and cook the eggplants, whether to use potatoes, etc.

The best way to make moussaka is in steps. Start with the meat sauce, and while that is simmering, prep the potatoes and eggplant. Make the béchamel last because it is not a sauce that holds very well. Don’t be intimidated by the number of steps, we’ve just detailed the process carefully to make it easier to follow.

Do you have a favorite way of preparing moussaka? Please let us know about it. Also check out the links to more moussaka approaches from other food bloggers in the link list below the recipe.

Moussaka Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 8.

A word on the cheese: All sorts of cheese can be used here, and to be most authentic, use kefalotyri. We used mizithra, which is becoming increasingly available in supermarkets. No need to search the globe for these cheeses, however, as a pecorino or any hard grating cheese will work fine.

Ingredients

Meat sauce

  • 2 pounds ground lamb or beef
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 chopped onion
  • 4 chopped garlic cloves
  • 1 teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp dried oregano
  • 2 Tbsp tomato paste
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • Zest of a lemon
  • 2 Tbsp or more of lemon juice
  • Salt to taste

Bechamel sauce

  • 1 stick unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

The moussaka

  • 3 large globe eggplants
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 8 cups water
  • 2-3 Yukon gold or other yellow potatoes
  • 1 cup grated mizithra cheese (or pecorino or Parmesan)
  • Olive oil

Method

Prepare the meat sauce

1 Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and brown the ground meat. By the way, the meat will brown best if you don't stir it. Add the onions about halfway into the browning process. Sprinkle salt over the meat and onions.

2 Once the meat is browned and the onions have softened, add the garlic, allspice, cinnamon, black pepper, oregano and tomato paste. Mix well and cook for 2-3 minutes.

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3 Add the red wine and mix well. Bring the sauce to a simmer, reduce the heat and continue to simmer gently, uncovered for 20 minutes. Turn off the heat. Taste for salt and add more if needed. Add the lemon zest and the lemon juice. Mix well and taste. If the sauce needs more acidity, add more lemon juice.

Set the sauce aside.

Prepare the potatoes and eggplants

4 Mix the 1/2 cup salt with the 8 cups of water in a large pot or container. This will be the brine for the eggplants.

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5 Slice the top and bottom off the eggplants. Cut thick strips of the skin off the eggplants to give them a striped appearance. A little skin on the eggplant is good for texture, but leaving it all on makes the moussaka hard to cut later, and can add bitterness, which you don’t want. (Some moussaka recipes leave the skin on and have you slice the eggplants lengthwise, which is an option if you prefer.) Slice the eggplant into 1/4 inch rounds and drop them into the brine.

6 Let the eggplants sit in the brine 15-20 minutes, then remove them to a series of paper towels to dry. Place a paper towel down on the counter, layer some eggplant on it, then cover with another sheet of paper towel and repeat.

7 As the eggplants are brining, peel and slice the potatoes into 1/4 inch rounds. Boil them in salted water for 5-8 minutes – you want them undercooked, but no longer crunchy. Drain and set aside.

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8 To cook the eggplant, broil or grill the rounds. You could also fry the eggplant rounds but they tend to absorb a lot of oil that way. To grill the eggplant rounds, get a grill very hot and close the lid. Paint one side of the eggplant rounds with olive oil and grill 2-3 minutes. When they are done on one side, paint the other side with oil and flip. When the eggplants are nicely grilled, set aside. To broil, line a broiling pan or roasting pan with aluminum foil. Paint with olive oil. Place the eggplant rounds on the foil and brush with olive oil. Broil for 3-4 minutes until lightly browned on one side, then flip them over and broil for a few minutes more. Set aside.

Prepare the béchamel

9 Heat milk in a pot on medium heat until steamy (about 160 degrees). Do not let simmer.

10 Heat the butter in a small pot over medium heat. When the butter has completely melted, slowly whisk in the flour. Let this roux simmer over medium-low heat for a few minutes. Do not let it get too dark.

11 Little by little, pour in the steamy milk, stirring constantly. It will set up and thicken dramatically at first, but keep adding milk and stirring, the sauce will loosen. Return the heat to medium. Add about a teaspoon of salt and the nutmeg. Stir well.

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12 Put the egg yolks in a bowl and whisk to combine. Temper the eggs so they don’t scramble when you put them into the sauce. Using two hands, one with a whisk, the other with a ladle, slowly pour in a couple ladle’s worth of the hot béchamel into the eggs, whisking all the time. Slowly pour the egg mixture back into the béchamel while whisking the mixture. Keep the sauce on very low heat, do not let simmer or boil.

Finish the moussaka

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13 Preheat the oven to 350°F. Layer a casserole with the potatoes, overlapping slightly. Top the layer of potatoes with a layer of eggplant slices (use just half of the slices).

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14 Cover the eggplant slices with the meat sauce. Then layer remaining eggplant slices on top of the meat.

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15 Sprinkle half the cheese on top. Ladle the béchamel over everything in an even layer. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top.

16 Bake at 350°F for 30-45 minutes, or until the top is nicely browned.

Let the moussaka cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Links:

Lamb moussaka burger from Chef John of Food Wishes
Lamb moussaka from Tasty Eat At Home
Moussaka from Grow. Cook. Eat.
Moussaka, Circa 1961 a Julia Child version posted by Not Eating Out in New York
Moussaka with ground beef - from the king of Greek cooking, Peter Minakis of Kalofagas

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45 Comments

  1. Magda

    Thanks for your wonderful recipes! I’ve cooked and enjoyed many of them over the years.

    My moussaka is similar to yours but I use thinly sliced raw potatoes, which I think have better flavor and texture. I put a layer of thinly sliced raw onions on the potatoes and, in season, a layer of tomato slices before the bechamel. I sprinkle each layer with salt and pepper. I don’t want my moussaka to be very rich, so I use half the amount of bechamel and omit the cheese.

    I found that there is no need to heat the milk when making bechamel. I heard on some cooking show that one should whisk cold liquid into hot roux and I’ve always followed this rule. The bechamel made that way is very smooth and doesn’t get lumpy.

    I’d like to make moussaka with lamb but the lamb I’ve gotten at Whole Foods has a very strong, almost sweetly floral flavor that I’m not a fan of. Does anyone have tips about buying lamb in the US?

  2. Cheri

    I, too, noticed a few years ago that lamb seemed to have gotten very gamey-tasting. Someone told me that what I’d been eating was imported from New Zealand, and that US lamb was much milder. Since then I’ve been careful about the source, and it tastes the way it used to, so I think they were probably right.

    My moussaka recipe comes from the old Time-Life cookbooks; it doesn’t use the potatoes and has more tomatoes in the meat sauce–it is delicious (but I think I’ll try your recipe the next time, to expand my horizons a little).

  3. michael bash

    I’m US living, working and cooking in Greece for 35+ years. Mousaka (Arabic word, accent on 2nd syllable) is the most labor-intensive dish I’ve ever made. Tip = make the meat sauce another time and freeze it (I do the same for Pastitsio). One step out of the way. Two, there is no ground lamb in Greece; animals are too small. All use beef. Three, using pots and zukes with eggplant is not a copout, it’s better. Four, mousaka bechamel has eggs in it except on ferryboats. But that’s Tselemedes which is another story.

  4. my little expat kitchen

    Moussakas is one of the greatest Greek dishes and almost every household has its own recipe. Moussakas usually has one layer of every ingredient and in my version, a layer of gourgettes is always added as well.
    The bechamel on top needs to be thick and creamy and of course mizithra or kefalograviera is a must!
    Your version is really good! Love the step by step instructions!
    Magda

  5. Audrey

    For the topping try using yoghurt mixed with the egg yolks and then fold in the stiffly beaten egg whites. Sort of like a souffle on top.

  6. Mary

    This moussaka looks fabulous. I agree that to make a bechamel one doesn’t need to heat the milk, I never have and always get a nice thick sauce. I have never put potatoes in my moussaka, but may give it a try. When my children were little I used to lessen the amount of sauce then cover the mix with warm mashed potatoes 10 minutes or so before the end of cooking. They would brown nicely. It was reminiscent of Sheperd’s Pie. Very tasty.

  7. Peter

    A good take on Moussaka and I too also peel the skins off the eggplant.

    As for comparisons to lasagna-Moussaka isn’t that close but rather the Greek Pastitsio which does contain pasta. Next recipe perhaps?

  8. Julia

    This looks like a great recipe — I really like the addition of the potatoes.

    And thanks for linking to my recipe for moussaka. It should be noted, though, it is not vegetarian. I used lamb in my tomato sauce. Though I see no reason why I couldn’t have thickened the sauce with potatoes instead.

    Hi Julia, thanks for the correction! ~Elise

  9. Judy West

    Sounds delicious! I used to use potatoes too but when I stopped pre-frying the veggies, switched to zucchini and eggplant drizzled with olive oil. I also add about a cup of crumbled feta to the bechamel. I have made it beef only, beef and lamb mixed and lamb only. It is all good!

  10. Gennefer

    Wow, I do not know why everyone thinks this is so hard to make. I had it once at a restaurant and fell in love with it. Tried some recipes but found the best one in the “Little Greek Cookbook”. The difference was in the spices. I may try adding the potatoes but I think they were a recent addition since this has been around since before potatoes were discovered in the Americas.
    Love your bolg.

  11. amatuer cook

    My Mom and I ate Moussaka a few years back in Africa (yes, I know it’s a Greek dish) and have been trying to find a recipe with no luck. I must say you made her day! If you were here she would name you her favorite kid, but for now you will have to settle for the dance she can’t seem to stop (be happy you can’t see it!).

    Big hellos to your mom from us! ~Elise

  12. jclahue

    After having moussaka at a Greek festival recently, I scoured the Internet looking for a good recipe (no knowing what a good moussaka recipe would look like) and then considered asking you to make one (because I’ve loved every recipe of yours that I’d tried and I trust no other when it comes to testing new recipes). I will so definitely try this one! Thanks Elise!!!

  13. Merve K

    I’m Turkish and the “musakka” we make is quite different from this! I guess the only real difference is that we don’t use any cheese or bechamel, the rest is similar. Interesting to know what the Greeks do! This isn’t a hard dish, but it’s very labor intensive to make, even my mom would make it only a couple of times a year. If I were to make it, I’d definitely stick with our version, I’ve always felt that it’s a very unhealthy dish to begin with – don’t want to add even more fat! :) Oh, I should have mentioned, we *always* fry the eggplants. Maybe I should try broiling, but definitely no one in Turkey does that. I imagine it would taste very different.

  14. Amanda

    This sounds amazing and I intend on trying it this week. Just one question though, I am cooking for two, do you think I can safely half the recipe and make it in a smaller dish? Thanks for all the great recipes, Elise!

    Great question. I don’t see why not, though you might just want to make a full batch and freeze what you don’t eat. ~Elise

  15. Courtney

    When I saw this recipe this morning, I knew I had to make it for Sunday dinner-and it did not disappoint. I ended up cutting the recipe in half and using a 9×13 pan and it turned out divine. Thank you!

  16. Nevadamtnbear

    Looks wonderful and sounds delish! Will definitely try it.

    Though, I had the best laugh with this recipe. Yes, I’m a total nerd, but when I read the titled, all I could think of was the scene from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”… “Moose ca-ca.” *snicker*

  17. June

    My version (from Nick Stellino’s Mediterranean Flavors) is very similar although I also add nutmeg and thyme to the sauce and saute the potatoes rather than boiling them so they’re golden brown on the outside. I like to double the recipe and freeze one without the Bechamel which can be made and added just before baking.

  18. Shelly

    I just had moussaka for the first time when I went to Greece this summer. (pic here: http://www.pbshellytime.com/2010/10/why-im-obsessed-with-greek-food.html ) I’m so glad you posted a recipe I can try, yours are always the best!!

  19. Mary K.

    When I saw this today, my heart turned over; I’m half Bulgarian (my dad), and moussaka is a dish dear to my heart and stomach! Dad made it with either eggplant or potatoes–never both– no lemon, nutmeg in the meat sauce and the bechamel, and grated kashkaval cheese sprinkled over the bechamel before baking. He’s been gone for 13 years, but cooking the dishes of the old country keeps his memory alive for me and my family.

  20. sarski

    Hi! I’ve been a fan of your food blog since I had chanced upon it while searching for easy-to-follow recipes. I tried to recreate bulgarian mousaka, a version of which my boyfriend showed me how to make (he’s bulgarian, by the way). The recipe, which he learned from his mom, has ground pork cooked in V8 vegetable juice, to which he mixed in roasted peppers. The topmost layer was made of mashed potatoes, which made the whole thing looked similar to a shepherd’s pie. A classic version of the dish, which I ended up making, has ground pork and potatoes cooked in tomatoes, onions and garlic topped with a yogurt-based souffle and spiced up using savory, which gives it that authentic bulgarian flavor. The dish is typically served with cold yogurt.

    I’ve been planning to make a greek version next but I haven’t found a good recipe to start out with. Although I’m not a big fan of most eggplant dishes (I’ll only eat it if it’s roasted and cooked scrambled with eggs, ground meat and potatoes), I’ll definitely try out your recipe one of these days.

  21. Alta

    This is the ultimate end-of-summer, it’s getting chilly food. So comforting. I love the option of grilling the eggplant – I bet that adds a lovely smoky note to the dish. And thanks for sharing my link!

  22. Karen

    This looks soooo good. I keep kosher and would only be able to make a vegetarian version because we don’t mix meat and milk. Any suggestions?

    I sometimes use the morningstar farms veggie crumbles that is similar to browned ground beef.

    Look at the links provided for more ideas for moussaka. If I couldn’t mix the meat and dairy I would skip the meat and make a tomato-based sauce. ~Elise

    • Louise Loomis

      I find brown lentilsto be a wonderful substitution for meat in any recipe to make it either kosher or vegetarian. Lentils actually work very well in Moussaka.

  23. Bethany

    Made this for a party the other night. It was a hit. A bit time consuming so I don’t know if I’ll be making it anytime soon after this but worth the effort. Wish I had made 2 dishes of it because there wasn’t any left!

  24. Lisa

    I made this last night and boy, talk about an undertaking. I make lasagna all the time but this was a little intense I think because of the bechemel sauce and timing of everything. But it was sooooooooooooo worth it! I would definitely make it again for sure! Thanks for the great recipes on your site. And the pictures are great too!

  25. Alice

    I made this yesterday and WOW it’s great! I had to use beef as I couldn’t get my hands on ground lamb but if the beef is any indication as to how good the lamb is…I’ll find it next time! Thank you for your amazing recipes. I’ve been a participant of many recipe blogs/sites and since I’ve found your site and I receive your recipes I’ve never had one fail or been disappointed. Thank you for the yummys you share!

  26. Ellen

    I made this over the weekend, and it was so delicious! I love good Greek food, and it’s often hard to find (most restaurants either make it too greasy, too bland, or too expensive.) This was a bit time-consuming, but not too hard, and I like that it can be done in steps, so it essentially can be made ahead. The one problem I had was that the bechamel I made turned out syrupy, not thick and fluffy – do you have any suggestions on the bechamel technique? I didn’t have quite as much butter in the house as the recipe required (but I used the specified amounts of flour, milk and eggs) – I’m guessing that was the problem? Though honestly, it was so tasty that if I was to skip any step, it would be the bechamel – just top it with the cheese in order to make a “weeknight dinner” version.

  27. Janine

    Wow, this was work. I was stirring in 3 pots at the same time. My first time for Bechamel sauce also. I went to a Greek store the night before and bought a $20 KEFALOGRAVIERA cheese. Sounded similar to the one you suggested so I took it. I still have lots left over so I think I will make Saganaki this week some time – fried cheese. Never had it, but the store owner recommended it when I was hestitant about buying so much cheese. I fried the eggplant in oil, which made the moussaka a bit greasy. Overnight in the fridge the grease settled on one side of the pan so I was able to remove most of it. Delicious, but time-consuming. For sure.

  28. Trish Bayless

    This recipe was so well done! The step-by-step instructions were perfect. Truly! So, thank you for that.

    It was a bit fussy and took a bit of time, but it is really worth the effort. My husband LOVED it. I mean really loved it. He grunted all through dinner as if he was a starved Viking having his first meal.

    I ended up having to use bone-in lamb shoulders because the ground lamb I purchased from the grocery was bad. It ended up being a blessing because it truly was spectacular. I just put the lamb shoulders with all the spices and ingredients the meat portion required into a Le Cruset cast iron pot and set it in the oven at 325 until the meat fell off the bones. Discarded the bones and chopped up the meat and proceeded with the rest of the recipe using the “sauce” from the slow roasted meat. Divine!

    Great recipe and I highly recommend it to anyone.

  29. calli

    There is no authentic Greek version, there are as many “Greek” versions as there are Greek cooks. I cannot speak for anyone else, but in my family anything but eggplant is anathema. Ground meat (mixture of lamb/beef if you can manage) with some finely chopped onion, Mavrodaphne wine, salt/pepper. Eggplant very carefully sauteed in olive oil then well drained. Light béchamel (no eggs) scented with freshly ground nutmeg. No cheese, no tomatoes, no gloppy sauces, no frills. Just layers of eggplant and meat. Since I adore eggplant, this is my favorite version.

  30. Matt

    I guess maybe I’m a little spoiled living in Greece (well, Crete) where you can get fresh home-made moussaka at just about any taverna. I am a little curious about the mizithra you are talking about, though. The mizithra you buy here is a very, very soft and spreadable cheese (and oh so fresh and delicious!) – not something you could even consider grating. What does the mizithra look like back in the states that it could be grated?

    There are many varieties of mizythra in Greece, and they all start out as the spreadable cheese you mention—very white, mostly sheep’s cheese. What we get most often in the United States is a pressed and dried version, a lot like ricotta salata in Italy. It is solely for grating. We would suggest using any hard dried cheese, ideally a sheep’s cheese. Italian Pecorino is a good substitute, and, of course, so would ricotta salata. ~Elise

  31. calli

    Re Matt’s mizythra question:

    What you want is “xeri (dry) mizythra”. Any good cheese-monger or supermarket carries it. Usually in spheres like a large, off-white softball. It’s frequently grated over pasta or trahana instead of Parmesan.

  32. Leigh

    Re: mixing meat and milk (Karen)

    I am making this for dinner tonight and didn’t have any full-fat milk. I subbed boxed unsweetened coconut milk (So Coconut brand, I think) and the bechamel turned out A-mazing. Can use Earth Balance margarine or similar to keep in the no dairy vein.

    After I made the roux and added the coconut milk dribble by dribble to thicken, I tossed in half a leek, a stalk of celery, a bay leaf and two baby carrots. Simmer on low for 10 minutes, season with salt and pepper – yum!

    Elise -this recipe is fantastic!! Thank you!

  33. donna

    I followed your recipie step by step :) it’s in the oven now, thanks for the great recipie, i can’t wait to eat it!!

  34. sofia

    About freezing moussaka: if it has potatoes, it doesn’t freeze well. Better make half the recipe.

    To Matt’s mizythra question: in
    Crete, “mizythra” refers to a soft, spreadable cheese, like fresh ricotta. In athens, we mean the dry variety, similar to ricotta salata (and call “anthoturos” the soft one). I don’t put cheese in my moussaka, but if i did i’d choose a milder one, like gryuere. Dry mizythra is too strong and salty, and masks the sweetness of the eggplants -but then ricotta salata is the cheese of choice for pasta alla norma!

  35. rebecca paustell

    This dish is wonderful, labor intensive but well worth it. I was wondering if I could make a day ahead and reheat the next day without compromising the texture and flavor. Also, how long would you recommend reheating the dish and at what temp? Thank you for all the great recipes!

    Hi Rebecca, I ate this for days as leftovers and loved it. Don’t know what to recommend on the temperature for reheating, I used the microwave. ~Elise

  36. jcb

    This dish is odd. Not delicious or great- but odd. I probably will not make it again. Definitely doesn’t taste like moussaka at any Greek or Lebanese restaurant I have ever eaten at. Sorry, no disrespect or anything.

  37. Layla

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’ve been making this by heart (I’m middle eastern my husband is Italian)for years, but I stopped cooking a while back and since then have forgotten a lot of recipes.

    I looked through the net and none of the recipes I found “clicked” until yours. It’s very complete and has a good step by step instructions.

    I don’t use oregano, or potatoes. And I do fry my eggplant (and I’m not a fan of globe eggplant so I use smaller sweeter eggplants). And I add bay leaf to my sauce, because that’s what we like.

    As for the cheese. I combine steps and stick the cheese (I use pecorino cause that’s what I have in my house) in the bechamel and give it a stir before ladling it on the casserole.

    Thank you so much though. I couldn’t remember how I made bechamel that didn’t taste like custard (too much egg) or boiled milk (no egg at all). Or many of the ingredients (nutmeg, allspice, wine, lemon zest) in my sauce so you jogged my memory and we are going to be eating well tonight!

  38. Emma

    Love Moussaka, one of the best dishes around. I add a little paprika as well, it adds a little kick, but nothing too bad.

  39. Laura Miller

    Fabulous recipe! I agree with all the posters that said it was a lot of work, but oh what great results. I bought the kefalotyri cheese and it was fabulous with this dish. Too many Greek restaurants use parmesean and the results are more Italian than Greek. I can’t say enough good things about this recipe.

  40. Kathy

    Hi! Thanks for this great recipe! I used the meat sauce and grilled eggplant cooking tips to turn this into Moussaka Potato Skins for a Bday BBQ and they were a big hit! To save time and make this easily gluten free, I replaced the béchamel with slices of fresh mozzarella cheese. I’ve cut way back on salt in my cooking, but followed this recipe as written (well I didn’t have tomato paste, so used diced tomatoes, about 1 cup and I had leftover roasted garlic, so put about 4 cloves of that instead of raw) – the sweet cheese balanced out the saltiness well for me. Loved the meat sauce! The guest of honor was part Greek and these met with her stamp of approval! Thank you!!

  41. Judy

    Am I mssng the tempature it should be cooked at?

    • Elise

      Step 13, preheat oven to 350°F. To make it easier, I’ll add the baking temp in the later step too.

      • Judy

        Thanks foir the quick response..You recipe is awesome and I will be making it again next weekend for my in-laws :)

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