Do you like lasagna, but not the fuss? Make baked ziti instead! It’s a lot like a classic lasagna casserole, but easier to make and without lots of layers or broken noodles.
It makes for a perfect midweek or weekend meal, or a hot dish to bring to a potluck. Make extra and freeze for later.
This recipe is a pretty basic version, but everyone who makes baked ziti has their own unique tricks and twists to it. Some vary the cheeses, some the meat, some make meatless versions, and some people leave out the tomato sauce for a truly cheese-tastic casserole.
This version uses bulk Italian sausage, as well as a key fresh herb. In summer, that would be basil. In winter, rosemary. You could also easily use savory, sage, thyme or parsley.
Ziti is a pretty common pasta shape in most areas, but you can substitute penne pasta if you can’t find it. You want a substantial short pasta shape with places to hold the sauce and meat. You can assemble this ahead, and either refrigerate or freeze before you do the final baking.
How to make Baked Ziti
- 1 pound ziti (can sub penne) pasta
- Olive oil
- 1 pound bulk Italian sausage or ground beef or pork
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 3-4 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1 Tbsp fresh rosemary (or basil), minced
- 1 Tbsp Italian seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 large jar of marinara sauce (about 32 ounces) or make your own tomato sauce
- 1/2 pound of mozzarella cheese, grated
- 1 heaping cup of ricotta cheese
- 1 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
1 Boil the pasta: Heat a large pot of water (2 quarts of water) to a strong boil. Add a tablespoon of salt. Add the pasta and cook at a rolling boil, uncovered, until the pasta is al dente—edible but still a little firm to the bite.
Drain the pasta through a colander. Toss with a little olive oil so the pasta does not stick together while you make the sauce.
2 Brown the meat: While the water is heating in the previous step, start on the sauce. Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large sauté pan on medium-high heat. When the oil is shimmering hot, add the bulk sausage or ground meat. Break up any large chunks of sausage as it cooks. Brown well.
Don’t stir that often or it will be more difficult for the meat to brown. If you are using ground beef or pork instead of sausage, sprinkle with a little salt.
3 Add onions and sauté, then add garlic, spices, then tomato sauce: When the meat is mostly browned, add the onions and stir well to combine. Sauté everything until the onions are translucent and beginning to brown, about 4-5 minutes.
Add the garlic, rosemary or basil, Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes and stir to combine. Cook 1 minute, then add the tomato sauce and stir well. Bring to a simmer.
4 Preheat the oven to 350°F.
5 Layer sauce, cheese, pasta in casserole dish: Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of a 9×13-inch casserole pan, then dot the surface with half the ricotta cheese. Ladle a spoonful of sauce into the pasta, stir it well and then add the pasta into the casserole.
Pour the rest of the sauce over the pasta, dot the remaining ricotta cheese over the pasta, and sprinkle on top both the mozzarella and the Parmesan cheese.
6 Bake 20 min: Bake in oven at 350°F until the top is lightly browned and the cheese melted, about 20 minutes.