Need a dinner to feed the whole family, plus have plenty of leftovers? This easy baked ziti recipe is a classic Italian casserole dish to feed a crowd. The tender noodles are layered between an Italian sausage marinara sauce and creamy ricotta cheese mixture.
When you’re craving lasagna, but love that airy chew of tubular pasta. Baked ziti is the best of both worlds. It takes common pantry staples like dried pasta, herbs, and canned tomatoes then transform these ingredients into a stunning Italian feast. No doubt that simply coating the noodles with the sauce is delicious. But, taking a little extra time to layer them in a casserole dish and bake until lightly browned and bubbly makes dinnertime more interesting.
This recipe easily feeds a hungry family or provides leftovers for the next day. You can even make the components ahead of time, and bake it later in the week for a stress-free meal. While this hearty dish is the star of the plate, I always recommend having a few slices of garlic bread on hand to dip into the tasty sauce.
What is baked ziti?
There are three basic parts to this simple pasta casserole. The baking dish is loaded up with layers of the short cut tubular noodles, a savory meat sauce, and a three-cheese filling.
I find that having little pockets of creamy cheese adds a nice surprise to each bite instead of just mixing everything together where the individual flavors are lost. Mozzarella cheese is sprinkled on top and then baked until the noodles are hot underneath the molten topping.
Cooking the pasta
With several types of pasta to choose from, the name says it all, Ziti is the base. It’s narrow with a hollow center and a smooth surface which makes it ideal for trapping the tasty sauce inside. I boil the noodles with salt to season and enhance the taste of the pasta.
The Ziti will essentially be cooked twice. The first time is in the hot water until al dente so that there’s a firm bite. If the pasta is cooked until very soft it will break apart easier when mixed with the sauce. Then finally, it will cook in the oven and absorb the moisture from the tomato sauce.
Make a flavorful meat sauce
I use Italian pork sausage to add protein and flavor to the sauce. However, you can use ground beef or leave out the meat entirely for a vegetarian option using a simple marinara sauce. I use three types of canned tomatoes to make a quick, yet well-developed tomato sauce.
Crushed tomatoes are the base for a nice pulpy texture, tomato paste helps to add thickness and sweetness, while diced tomatoes provide nice chunks you can bite into. The tomatoes briefly simmer for 10 minutes with sauteed garlic, chopped onions, and Italian seasoning to build and intensify the flavors.
Use three kinds of cheese
A combination of aged Parmesan, sweet ricotta cheese, and melty mozzarella adds luxurious textures to the dish. I use them to create a mixture that will be dolloped onto the pasta.
They are combined with egg, parsley, dried herbs, and savory seasonings to add dimension to the neutral taste. Make sure to save some shredded mozzarella to sprinkle on top right before baking to create a cheesy golden crust.
How to make baked ziti
Once the noodles, meat sauce, and cheese components are prepared, it’s time to layer the components. If you mix everything together, the fat inside the cheese will dull the sweet and slightly acidic sauce. The ziti pasta is combined with a large portion of the sauce so that it gets evenly coated before adding to the casserole dish.
There will be two layers; half of the pasta, followed by dollops of the ricotta cheese mixture and then some reserved sauce. This is then repeated and topped with mozzarella and parmesan to lock everything together.
What to serve this with
How long to bake the pasta
This pasta casserole bakes for a total of 45 minutes. This ensures that the center is piping hot, the egg cooks, and all of the cheese melts. Unlike lasagna, you don’t have to wait to serve since you’re not concerned about a tall, stacked pasta presentation. Just grab a big spoon and dig in!
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- 4 quarts water
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt, for seasoning pasta water
- 1 pound ziti pasta
- 1 pound Italian sausage, removed from casing, mild or spicy
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ cup yellow onion, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning, divided
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 28 ounces crushed tomatoes, Cento Brand or San Marzano tomatoes
- 14.5 ounces diced tomatoes, do not drain
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- ½ teaspoon black pepper, divided
- 2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese, freshly shredded
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese, divided, plus more for garnish
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley, plus more for garnish
- Set the oven rack to the middle position. Preheat oven to 375°F (190ºC).
- In a large dutch oven or pot bring water and salt to a boil. Add in the ziti, cook according to package directions until al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes. Drain the noodles in a colander, and rinse with cool water for about 30 seconds to stop the cooking. Separate the noodles with a spoon so they do not stick together, leaving some excess water on the surface and set aside.
- Heat olive oil in the dutch oven or pot over medium heat. Add the sausage and cook until browned, breaking up the meat into smaller pieces, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onion, garlic, and 1 teaspoon Italian seasonings, sauté until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.
- Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, 1 teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Stir and simmer for 10 minutes. Season tomato sauce with more salt and pepper to taste. Reserve 2 cups of meat sauce.
- Add the ziti pasta to the meat sauce in the dutch oven or pot, stir to combine.
- In a medium-sized bowl stir together ricotta cheese, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, ¼ cup parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, parsley, and egg.
- In a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish add half of the pasta. Evenly dollop half of the ricotta cheese mixture on top of the pasta. Spread half of the reserved meat sauce on top.
- Spread the remaining pasta on top, followed by the ricotta cheese mixture, and the remaining meat sauce.
- Evenly sprinkle 1 cup of mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup of parmesan cheese on top of the ziti casserole.
- Loosely cover the baking dish with foil so that it does not touch the pasta.
- Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake until the cheese is melted and lightly golden brown, 15 minutes.
- Garnish with chopped parsley and parmesan cheese.
- Make-Ahead: The casserole can be assembled 3 days in advance, then bake the day you are ready to serve.
- Storing and Reheating: The baked ziti can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Reheat individual servings in the microwave until warmed through, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes.
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