John Chandler has a secret, and he guards it carefully, lest yet another friend or co-worker ask him to make it for a dinner party.
Chandler is, by day, a 43-year-old salesman and father of two, a self-proclaimed "Southern boy" who lives outside Dallas and grew up on college football and barbecue. Online, Chandler's fans know him differently: He is the creator of the World's Best Lasagna, an artery-clogging tower of sweet Italian sausage, ground beef and ricotta cheese that has reigned as the most popular recipe on AllRecipes.com for more than a decade. It has earned 10,423 ratings and been "pinned" to Pinterest more than 25,000 times. AllRecipes estimates that 12 million people viewed it in the past five years alone.
Given the wild popularity of AllRecipes.com — it averages 20 million visits each month, according to analytics firm SimilarWeb — it's entirely possible that Chandler's lasagna is the most popular recipe on the English-speaking Internet.
"How are you calculating that?" asked a startled Chandler, who has posted only one other dish on AllRecipes since the day he submitted the lasagna in 2001. He still can't believe the recipe's popularity. Neither can his friends.
"Most of them didn't know I had this recipe," Chandler said. "It's not something I go around beating my chest about. But it makes an interesting icebreaker, you know?"
Lasagna does seem out of character for Chandler, who grew up in Atlanta, moved to the Dallas suburbs a decade ago and describes his heritage as "entirely Anglo-Saxon." He learned to cook from his mother — the lasagna is his version of her recipe — and began cooking in earnest as an underage college student, when he realized dinner parties made good proxies for nights spent out on the town.
In 2001, his then-girlfriend, an avid AllRecipes user, urged him to put the lasagna recipe online, where others could make and review it. The dish quickly earned a string of five-star reviews and climbed to the top of AllRecipes' rankings. Her own submissions, meanwhile, never quite caught on.
"We ended it soon after that," Chandler jokes.
In the 12 years since, both Chandler's lasagna and AllRecipes itself have seen their popularity balloon several times over. AllRecipes, still a ragtag start-up in the early '00s, struggled to convince its critics that the Internet was cooking's next frontier. Esmee Williams, now vice president for brand marketing, left her job at a software company that made recipe CD-ROMs in 1999 to become employee No. 18. Friends questioned the career move.
"No one understood why people would want to read recipes by their peers and not by professional chefs," Williams said.
But history has sided with Williams. The Seattle company estimates it has more than 7 million registered users and 30 million unique visitors annually, which makes it the largest English-language food site in the world, ahead of Food.com, Cooks.com and Taste of Home, all of which operate on a similar home-cook-submitted model.
"I personally wouldn't go to the Internet for a recipe … but I know that's not fashionable," said Jan Longone, the 80-year-old curator of the American culinary history collection at the University of Michigan and a longtime friend of Julia Child and James Beard. "I'll put it this way: 20 years from now, I'm probably going to be obsolete."
She is definitely in the minority. According to a survey AllRecipes commissioned last year, cooks now turn more to the Internet for recipes than to cookbooks or family members. Last year, according to Nielsen, sales of cookbooks fell for the first time since 2007.
That could signal a slight break from the previous 217 years of American culinary history, and it undoubtedly influences the way Americans eat. AllRecipes users tend toward the harried and middle-aged, people who enjoy cooking for their families but are hustling to get a quick Tuesday dinner on the table. That means they have priorities, said Williams: They prefer five to seven ingredients that they can find in their pantries or at a mid-range grocery store. They want nice, clean pictures of each dish. They don't want to spend more than an hour cooking.
No simple recipe
As a result, AllRecipes' best-loved dishes — the ones that bubble to the top of millions of Google searches, spiral around Pinterest and end up, eventually, on countless kitchen tables — tend to be classic and easy, verging on unsophisticated. Just behind Chandler's lasagna are a basic pancake, banana bread and sugar cookie, each made with seven ingredients. The site's top-rated pot roast, which in August was briefly one of the most-discussed pieces of content on Facebook, calls for two cans of cream of mushroom soup, a package of dried onion soup mix and a 5 1/2-pound roast. That's it.
Chandler's lasagna is the exception. It takes 2 1/2 hours to cook, excluding prep time, and its 20 ingredients cost $40 at a Washington area grocery store. After an hour and a half on the stove, the sauce tastes good the way a jar of Bertoli sauce tastes good: bright and acidic, but not particularly nuanced. And the ricotta filling, which Chandler makes with cheese, one egg and a bit of parsley, seems flat next to, say, the bechamel sauce that's traditional in parts of Italy, or the nutmeg- and mint-tinged varieties that exist elsewhere on AllRecipes. Other cooks have suggested hundreds of tweaks: less salt and fennel, a cup of red wine, an extra pinch of Italian seasoning — even a wholesale healthful makeover that substitutes lean turkey and low-fat mozzarella for the ground beef and sliced cheese.
Chandler doesn't mind the changes; in fact, he has used some of them himself. One of his sons has a gluten allergy, and his wife is what Chandler terms a "health nut," which has forced him to invent different versions of the dish. Chandler also hates following recipes; he'd never even measured the ingredients in the World's Best Lasagna until he decided to put it online.
"I like blending the flavors and coloring outside the lines," he said. "The sauce is best when you salt it to taste and then, once you get it going, just flavor it as you go."
His other advice for cooks who want to make his lasagna: Let it sit in the fridge overnight; it's better the next day. And be careful whom you cook it for, because you could end up making it regularly. Chandler takes the dish to events 12 to 15 times a year, often at the request of someone who discovers it's the "world's best." Although he generally doesn't let on about his Internet fame, it comes up from time to time — such as when he wrote on Facebook about his interview with The Post.
"Well look at you all published in the recipe world. … Who knew!?" one friend wrote.
Chandler has since changed his profile picture to an illustration of a mustachioed Italian chef — facetiously, it turns out, because true to his Georgia roots, Chandler's favorite things to cook are steak, barbecue and "anything else that can go on a grill."
"I'm definitely not a foodie," said Chandler, a man who has probably taught Americans as much about lasagna as Mario Batali has. "I don't have aspirations to be on 'MasterChef' or anything. But I love to cook."
World’s Best Lasagna (Tweaked)
According to AllRecipes.com, this is the website’s most popular recipe and possibly the most viewed among English-language sites. We tested it with a few tweaks to reduce the sodium, as recommended by many comments attached to the original recipe. MAKE AHEAD: You’ll have leftover sauce, which can be refrigerated for up to three days or frozen for up to three months. The unbaked lasagna can be refrigerated for up to two days, or it can be wrapped well and frozen for up to three months. Defrost in the refrigerator before baking. Adapted from a recipe by AllRecipes.com member John Chandler of Dallas and from its accompanying AllRecipes.com video.
1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
12 ounces lean ground beef
1/2 cup minced white or yellow onion
2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped or minced
28 ounces canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes and their juices
12 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato paste
13 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons sugar
1½ teaspoons ground dried basil
1/2 teaspoon fennel seed
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the cooking water
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish
12 pieces dried lasagna pasta (each 2½ to 3 inches wide and about 13 inches long)
1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese
1 large egg
12 ounces low-fat mozzarella cheese, sliced
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for optional garnish
Heat the sausage in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, using a spatula to break up any large clumps, until the meat is browned with no trace of pink. If desired, drain and discard the fat. Add the ground beef, onion and garlic, stirring to combine; cook until the beef is thoroughly browned and the onion has softened, breaking up any clumps as needed.
Stir in the crushed tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, tomato sauce and water, then add the sugar, basil, fennel seed, Italian seasoning blend, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, the pepper and half of the parsley, stirring to incorporate. Cover and cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. The yield is about 6 1/2 cups.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and then the lasagna. Cook not quite as long as the package directions indicate, so the noodles are al dente. Drain and rinse under cool water; separate them and lay them on a clean surface.
Combine the ricotta, egg, the remaining parsley and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl until well incorporated.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand.
Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce evenly over the bottom of the baking dish, then arrange half of the cooked lasagna noodles lengthwise so they completely cover the sauce, overlapping them a bit. Use an offset spatula to spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then use half of the mozzarella slices to completely cover the ricotta layer. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce over the mozzarella, then scatter half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly over the sauce.
Next, repeat the layers using the remaining lasagna noodles, the remaining ricotta mixture and the remaining mozzarella slices. Top with 11/2 cups of the sauce, spreading it to cover the mozzarella, then scatter the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese evenly over the sauce.
Use cooking oil spray to coat the underside of a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the lasagna; seal the foil tightly around the edges of the baking dish. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for 25 minutes so the lasagna’s top layer of cheese is nicely browned on top.
Cool for 15 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Per serving: 530 calories, 33 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 760 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar.