Need a delicious dinner to feed the whole family, plus have plenty of leftovers for the week? This baked ziti casserole will do the trick!
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Baked ziti is the best of both worlds when you’re craving lasagna but love that airy chew of tubular pasta. Everyday pantry staples like dried pasta, herbs, and canned tomatoes transform into a stunning Italian feast. Tender noodles are layered between a sausage-filled marinara sauce and creamy ricotta cheese mixture.
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 them later 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?
This simple casserole has three essential components: Short-cut tubular pasta, a savory meat sauce, and a three-cheese filling. Having little cheese pockets adds a pleasant surprise to each bite instead of mixing everything where the individual flavors are lost.
Mozzarella is sprinkled on top and baked until the noodles are hot underneath the molten topping.
With several types of pasta to choose from, the name says it all. Ziti is narrow with a hollow center and a smooth surface, ideal for trapping tasty sauce inside. Penne would also work since it has a similar shape, just with ridges on top.
Cooking the pasta
The ziti cooks twice. The first time is in hot, salted water until al dente so that there’s a firm bite. If you cook the pasta until soft, it will break apart easily when mixed with the sauce. Lastly, it will cook in the oven and absorb the flavorful liquid from the tomato sauce.
I use Italian pork sausage to add protein and flavor to the tomato sauce. Use a whole pound of mild, or grab spicy for lingering heat. However, you can use ground beef between 80 to 90% lean to get the flavor from the fat. A mixture of both would also taste delicious! Otherwise, you can omit the meat for a vegetarian option using a simple marinara sauce.
Canned tomato selection
I use three types of canned tomatoes to make a quick yet well-developed tomato sauce. Crushed tomatoes are the base with a nice pulpy texture, while tomato paste adds thickness and sweetness. Diced tomatoes further enhance the taste and texture.
The tomatoes briefly simmer for 10 minutes with sauteed garlic, chopped onions, and Italian seasoning to build and intensify the flavors. For a spicier sauce, feel free to add red pepper flakes.
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 I dollop onto the pasta.
They are combined with egg, parsley, dried herbs, and savory seasonings to add dimension to the neutral taste. Save some shredded mozzarella to sprinkle on top right before baking to create a cheesy golden crust.
Layering baked ziti
Once you prepare the noodles, meat sauce, and cheese, it’s time to layer the components. If you mix everything, the fat inside the cheese will dull the sweet and slightly acidic sauce. Combine the ziti with a large portion of the sauce to coat before adding it to the casserole dish.
There will be two layers; half of the pasta, then dollops of ricotta cheese mixture, and some reserved sauce. Repeat the process, and then lastly, top with mozzarella and parmesan to lock everything together.
This pasta casserole bakes for a total of 45 minutes. The duration 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 presentation. Just grab a big spoon and dig in!
Serve this with
Lasagna uses flat sheets of pasta layered with red or white bechamel sauce (or a mixture), ricotta cheese, and mozzarella. Ziti uses short, tubular pasta as the base. It’s mixed with marinara sauce then layered with different types of cheese, taking less time to assemble. Both bake in a casserole dish until hot, and the cheese melts.
To prevent mushy pasta, cook the ziti until al dente. It will be chewy and slightly firm in the center. This doneness allows the pasta to absorb some of the liquid from the sauce as it bakes.
The best substitute is cottage cheese. It has a soft curd texture, but it is saltier. Mascarpone also works well. It’s creamy, slightly sweet, and gives a more velvety consistency as it heats up in the casserole.
Bake covered and uncovered
I use both methods to ensure that the pasta is hot and the eggs mixed with the cheese cook through. I loosely cover the casserole with greased foil so that the trapped steam cooks the pasta quicker, prevents drying of the noodles, and gradually melts the cheese. After 30 minutes, the dish is uncovered, which helps the cheese lightly brown on the surface.
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- 4 quarts water
- 5 teaspoons kosher salt, divided
- 1 pound ziti pasta
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 pound Italian sausage, casing removed, mild or spicy
- ½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
- 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
- ½ teaspoon black pepper, divided
- 2 cups whole-milk ricotta cheese
- 2 cups mozzarella cheese, freshly grated
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
- 1 large egg
- Preheat the Oven – Set the oven rack to the middle position and the temperature to 375°F (190ºC).
- Cook the Pasta – In a large dutch oven or pot, bring water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and stir to dissolve. Add in the ziti. Cook it according to package directions until al dente, about 9 to 10 minutes. Drain in a colander, and rinse with cool water for about 30 seconds to immediately stop the cooking process. Separate them with a spoon so they do not stick together. Leave some moisture on the surface and set it aside.
- Brown the Sausage – Heat olive oil in the dutch oven or pot over medium heat. Add the sausage. Break into smaller pieces, and cook until browned, about 4 to 5 minutes.
- Cook the Aromatics – Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onion, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of Italian seasoning. Sauté until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.
- Add the Tomatoes – 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 with more salt and pepper to taste. Reserve 2 cups of the meat sauce.
- Sauce the Pasta – Add the ziti to the meat sauce and stir to combine. Set aside.
- Make the Cheese Mixture – In a medium-sized bowl, stir together ricotta cheese, 1 cup mozzarella cheese, ¼ cup parmesan cheese, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning, 1 teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon pepper, parsley, and egg.
- Layer the Casserole – In a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish add half of the pasta. Evenly dollop with half of the ricotta cheese mixture. Spread half of the reserved meat sauce on top. Add 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.
- Bake – Loosely cover the baking dish with greased 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, about 15 minutes.
- Serve – If desired, garnish with chopped parsley and parmesan cheese.
- Make-Ahead: The casserole can be assembled 3 days in advance, then baked the day you are ready to serve.
- Storing: The baked ziti can be refrigerated for up to 5 days.
- Reheating: Reheat individual servings in the microwave until warmed through, about 1 to 1 1/2 minutes.
- Freezing Unbaked Ziti: Tightly cover assembled ziti casserole in plastic wrap and foil for up to 2 months. Remove plastic, cover with foil, and bake until pasta is hot, about 45 to 50 minutes. Remove foil and bake until cheese is lightly browned.
- Freezing Baked Ziti: Cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and foil or transfer to a container. Freeze for up to 3 months. Cover with foil and reheat at 350ºF (177ºC) until hot. Alternatively, cover with plastic wrap and microwave individual portions on high in 15 to 30-second intervals.
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