Delicious baked ziti prepared with a rich, flavorful meat sauce, a touch of creamy ricotta cheese and a sprinkle of gooey mozzarella is the perfect meal when something extra cozy and warming is what you’re hungry for!
Baked Ziti, Comfort Food in a Hot and Cheesy Pasta Bake
Some days simply call for genuine comfort food, the kind that is homemade, ultra cozy, and soul-warming. And when that comfort food is easy to whip up, that’s even better!
For me, that kind of meal usually means a scrumptious pasta bake of some sort, one in which all of the saucy, cheesy, slightly creamy ingredients are gently combined and turned out into a baking dish, then baked to hot and bubbly perfection. I absolutely love to cook that up, and find it an absolute pleasure to dig into!
One of my favorite pasta bake recipes to prepare is baked ziti, a delicious and easy pasta recipe that wonderfully combines the little tube-shaped pasta with the savory flavors of a rich tomato sauce, some ricotta cheese, and a generous topping of mozzarella.
In my mind it’s the perfect dish to prepare as a hearty mid-week dinner, or any time a cozy Italian-American classic is what the tastebuds crave!
The Ingredients for an Extra Tasty (and Easy!) Baked Ziti
I love homemade baked ziti because of its simplicity, and since it really only requires three main components—the pasta, the sauce and the cheese—I like to prepare those components with a bit of extra TLC sprinkled in to make sure that every bite is extra tasty!
Because I love a nice, rich meat sauce, I use a combination of ground beef and either spicy or sweet Italian sausage in this recipe. I also add in lots of garlic and dried herbs, and even a little splash of red wine! This creates a sauce with lots of depth and flavor that is also a bit heartier.
I also fold into my recipe some whole-milk ricotta cheese that has been combined with a touch of parmesan. I also sprinkle in some whole-milk mozzarella in the middle and on top to make it extra gooey and cheesy.
Fresh herbs such as basil and parsley sprinkled over top, perhaps even a little touch of red pepper flakes for kick, offer a little pop of extra flavor and makes this cozy pasta dish even more delicious looking and ready to be tucked into!
How to Make Baked Ziti
Once the delicious meat sauce is prepared and the pasta is cooked, then all that’s left is to combine everything together and bake!
Typically, the sauce is combined with the pasta and then turned out into the baking dish followed by big dollops of the ricotta cheese being added in. But because ricotta tends to become a little bit liquid-y or grainy, I prefer to prep things a little differently.
Here’s a glance at how I make my baked ziti:
- Spread 1 cup of the prepared meat sauce on the bottom of the baking dish.
- Gently stir together the cooked ziti pasta with the rest of the meat sauce, then fold in the ricotta cheese (which has been combined with a touch of parmesan cheese), leaving a few little clumps/streaks spread throughout.
- Spoon half of the pasta mixture into a baking dish, and sprinkle over half of the grated mozzarella cheese; then, spoon the rest of the pasta mixture into the dish, and top with a bit more parmesan and the remainder of the mozzarella cheese.
- Bake for about 25-30 minutes until hot and bubbly, and finish by topping with fresh basil and parsley (perhaps even a touch of red pepper flakes) before serving.
(The full recipe is below…)
Tips & Tidbits for an Easy Baked Ziti:
- Hearty meat sauce: For my sauce, I use lean ground beef in combination with a touch of spicy (or sweet) Italian sausage; but you can use all ground beef, all sausage, or even substitute ground turkey or pork.
- Whole milk cheeses: Using whole milk ricotta and mozzarella will make a creamier baked ziti, and add a little more richness to balance out the tomato sauce. It also helps create that “stringy” cheese topping!
- Fold in the ricotta: To help reduce the graininess of the ricotta cheese, it works best to fold it directly into the pasta/sauce mixture, leaving a few clumps or streaks spread throughout. This way it is mostly blended in and creates creamy, more even texture.
- Make ahead for easy baked ziti: You can prep this recipe ahead by simply allowing the components to cool before combining them. You would then proceed with spooning everything into the baking dish, topping with cheese, and simply wrapping with plastic wrap and keeping in the fridge until ready to bake.
- Make vegetarian baked ziti: To make this recipe vegetarian, simply leave out the meat. If you’re looking for a substitution for the meat, you can use ground soy or tempeh, or even add in white beans.
Feast your eyes on these, or just jump to the recipe:
by Ingrid Beer
Yield: Serves 8
Nutrition Info: 481 calories
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour (includes 30 minute baking time)
Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
• Olive oil (about 2 tablespoons)
• 1 small onion, diced
• 1/4 cup minced roasted red bell pepper (from a jar)
• 1/2 pound lean ground beef
• 1/4 pound spicy or sweet Italian sausage, casing removed and crumbled into chunks
• Black pepper
• 6 cloves garlic, pressed through garlic press
• 1 1/2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
• 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
• Pinch red pepper flakes
• 1 tablespoon tomato paste
• 1/4 cup red wine
• 1 (28 ounce) can plus 1 (15 ounce) can organic crushed tomatoes
• 12 ounces (3/4 pound) uncooked ziti pasta
• 1 tablespoon chopped parsley, plus extra for garnish
• 1 cup whole-milk ricotta cheese
• 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided use
• 2 cups shredded whole-milk mozzarella
• Basil leaves, for garnish
-Preheat the oven to 350°, and have a medium-large baking dish ready.
-To prepare the meat sauce, place a large skillet over medium-high heat, and drizzle in the olive oil; once hot, add in the diced onion and minced roasted red bell pepper and saute for a several minutes until softened.
-Add the ground beef and sausage in, along with a pinch or two of salt and pepper, and cook the meat, breaking it up, until browned and cooked through; add the garlic, Italian seasoning, dried oregano and pinch of red pepper flakes, and stir to combine.
-Once fragrant, add in the tomato paste and stir to combine, followed by the red wine; allow the wine to bubble and reduce for a moment.
-Add in all of the canned tomatoes, plus another pinch of salt and pepper, and allow the sauce to simmer gently for about 20 minutes.
-While the sauce simmers, cook your ziti pasta according to package instructions, and keep warm.
-To finish the sauce, stir in the 1 tablespoon of chopped parsley, and check to see if any additional salt/pepper is needed; reserve 2 cups of the sauce, one to spread on the bottom of your baking dish, and one to spoon over top of the last layer of pasta before topping with the cheese and baking.
-In a small bowl, combine the ricotta cheese with 1/4 cup of the grated parmesan, and set aside for a moment.
-Add the cooked ziti pasta to the remaining meat sauce, and stir gently to combine; add the ricotta/parmesan mixture, and gently fold that in until mostly combined, leaving some streaks.
-Spread 1 cup of the reserved meat sauce on the bottom of your baking dish, and spoon half of the pasta mixture into the dish; sprinkle over half of the remaining grated parmesan cheese, and about 1/2 cup of the mozzarella cheese.
-Add the remainder of the pasta mixture into the baking dish, spoon over the remaining 1 cup of reserved sauce, and sprinkle over the rest of the parmesan cheese and the remaining 1 1/2 cups of the mozzarella cheese.
-Bake for 25-30 minutes, until hot, bubbly and gooey; sprinkle with fresh basil and parsley, and serve.