The Best Baked Ziti recipe that’s rich, satisfying, comforting with pools of cheesy goodness and easier to make than lasagna!
This Baked Ziti recipe is a classic Italian American pasta bake that rivals any restaurant at a fraction of the price. It is essentially an easy twist on lasagna that’s every bit as cheesy and decadent without all of the fuss. To make Baked Ziti, ziti pasta is smothered in homemade Bolognese with Italian sausage and layered with creamy ricotta (with a secret trick), buttery mozzarella and nutty Parmesan. Each and every bite is hot, meaty, cheesy, saucy perfection. It’s the epitome of comfort food that tastes like you’ve been cooking all day but is surprisingly easy to make. Best of all, this Baked Ziti recipe is perfect to make ahead and it also reheats and freezes well. In this Baked Ziti post, I’ve included everything you need to know about Baked Ziti ingredients, how to make Baked Ziti, how to make ahead and how to freeze.
How to make Baked Ziti Recipe Video
What is Baked Ziti?
My Best Lasagna Recipe has been hugely popular ever since I posted it last year with hundreds of adoring comments. The only problem with lasagna, however, is it’s not an easy weeknight dinner – the answer? Baked Ziti!
Baked Ziti is an American classic pasta bake commonly made with ziti pasta, Bolognese, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan. These ingredients may vary, however, from region to region and household to household. Some recipes use Italian sausage, some all-beef, others all-pork, some a combination and some ziti recipes are even meatless. The cheeses can also vary from ricotta and mozzarella to mascarpone, provolone and Gruyere.
What stays consistent, however, is the use of ziti. “Ziti” is a type of pasta that looks similar to penne, except it is smooth instead of ridged and is cut straight across instead of on the diagonal. Baked Ziti is also consistently deliciously decadent and a must for your recipe binder!
How is Baked Ziti different from lasagna?
Both Baked Ziti and lasagna are classic baked pasta dishes and uses many of same ingredients. Baked Ziti, however, is way easier to throw together in more of a freeform way. It is like lasagna’s chill cousin that doesn’t require wrestling with delicate lasagna noodles or smoothing any layers. The magic comes from utilizing ziti pasta instead of long lasagna noodles.
The ziti is tossed with the meat sauce, and half is layered into the casserole dish. It is topped with dollops of ricotta (no need to smooth) followed by a layer of mozzarella – repeat the ziti, mozzarella and ricotta layers then top with Parmesan – that’s it! Total comfort in a bowl without tedious perfect layers- just laid-back layers of gooey, yummy, saucy cheesiness.
BAKED ZITI RECIPE
There are a few Italian staples that everyone should have a superb homemade recipe for, namely Lasagna, Chicken Parmesan, Italian Meatballs, Fettuccine Alfredo, Shrimp Fettuccine, Macaroni and Cheese, Cacio e Pepe, Baked Penne, Italian Pasta Salad and of course, Baked Ziti!
My mom always made Baked Ziti growing up, especially for make ahead meals for our own family or to bring to new mothers, new move-ins, those who recently had surgery and on and on. Why? Because everyone LOVES Baked Ziti! Here are just a few reasons why you need this Baked Ziti recipe in your cooking repertoire:
- Crowd pleaser. CARBS! Everyone loves hot, cheesy, meaty, saucy, gooey goodness. It’s the kind of meal that even the pickiest eater loves so you can serve it with confidence to any audience.
- Makes a ton. This Baked Ziti recipe makes such a hearty casserole it is perfect for large crowds, dinner parties or company or for leftovers.
- Less Expensive. It tastes every bit as delicious as your favorite restaurant but you get an entire pan instead of just a restaurant serving for the same price.
- Make Ahead. I love making Baked Ziti the night before and allowing it to sit in the refrigerator overnight. This further develops the flavors and makes dinner time as easy as a push of the oven button.
- Freezer friendly. This easy Baked Ziti recipe freezes well so you can it freeze it for busy days ahead or for gifts for new moms or when someone has had surgery. You can also double the batch and eat one casserole for dinner and freeze the other.
Best Baked Ziti recipe
We’ve just established why you will love Baked Ziti – but what sets this recipe apart form the hundreds of thousands out there? It comes down to seasonings, proportions, quality of ingredients and the best meat sauce.
To be honest, this Baked Ziti recipe is one of the best I’ve ever devoured in my entire life. I used my Lasagna recipe as the guide (which took tons of experimenting to perfect) and slightly modified the proportions to create the perfect ratios of sauce to cheese to pasta.
This means this Best Baked Ziti recipe has the most intoxicatingly flavorful Bolognese and the creamiest ricotta – no dry or grainy ricotta here! Together, combined with gooey mozzarella and nutty Parmesan, we end up with the Best Baked Ziti recipe!
Here’s what makes it the BEST Baked Ziti recipe:
- Bolognese Sauce. Many Bakes Ziti recipes rely on store-bought marinara sauces. This is totally fine for a quick, standard pasta casserole but if you’re looking for the BEST Bakes Ziti recipe, you need the best homemade meat sauce AKA homemade Bolognese made with onions, carrots, celery and robust Italian seasonings. It is SO worth the extra 10 minutes to make homemade sauce that is loaded with flavor.
- Shortcut Sauce. Of course, not everyone has the time or patience for homemade Bolognese, so I’ve also included the shortcut options of skipping all the chopping and using onion powder and garlic powder instead.
- 15 Minute Simmer. Whether you make the complete Bolognese recipe or the shortcut version, both only require 15 minutes on the stove but the flavor will blow your mind!
- Beef and Sausage. The combination of beef and Italian sausage is rich and sublime with immense flavor you can’t achieve in any other way. The Italian sausages immediately adds a zesty flavor boost without any extra effort on your part.
- Depth of Flavor. We use plenty of seasoning in our Bolognese Sauce as well as soy sauce and beef bouillon to enhance the flavor. We also season our ricotta filling with Parmesan, nutmeg and basil. Every element should be seasoned and flavorful.
- No Grainy Ricotta! Instead of using all of ricotta, we combine ricotta with sour cream for the creamiest ricotta you ever did taste.
- No dry pasta! The trouble with many ziti recipes is they become dry when baked because the pasta sucks up a lot of sauce. This best Baked Ziti recipe is generous with the sauce so it emerges nice and saucy AKA immensely comforting.
BAKED ZITI INGREDIENTS
For this Bakes Ziti recipe, you will need:
- Ziti pasta
- Meat Sauce
- Mozzarella Cheese
- Ricotta Cheese
- Parmesan Cheese
- Italian Seasonings
I’ve outlined the ingredients below and hopefully answered any questions you might have.
Baked Ziti is named after ziti pasta and therefore the favorite pasta to use in this dish. It is a medium straight-cut smooth tube of pasta. The hollow shape traps in the sauce and oozing cheese.
If you want the Best Ziti recipe, then use homemade Bolognese! Bolognese is known in Italy as ragù alla bolognese, and gets its name because it originated in Bologna, Italy. Bolognese is a meat-based sauce which includes a sofrito of onion, celery and carrots. I love this recipe so much (and so do reader) that it’s become the base of my Marinara Sauce that I use in my Manicotti and many other recipes sans meat.
Our Bolognese recipe only requires 15 minutes simmering, so it is SO worth making. The results are exponentially more than the time and effort required. It’s meaty, saucy, flavorful and everything a meat sauce should be.
- VEGETABLES: The vegetables should be finely diced so they become tender in the sauce and aren’t chunky. You are welcome to dice them in your food processor for an easy shortcut. After the sauce is simmered you shouldn’t notice any chunks of vegetables but you WILL notice the depth of flavor. If you skip the sofrito, you are skipping a key element of Bolognese and skipping out on tons of flavor.
- MEATS: I’ve used both lean ground beef and ground Italian pork Sausage for an extra dimension of flavor. For the lean ground beef, take care you are using (93/7) so that the sauce doesn’t end up greasy. You will also want to drain your meat of any excess grease after cooking
- SEASONINGS: This Bolognese sauce is seasoned to perfection. It boasts tons of fresh garlic, red pepper flakes, basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, salt, pepper and a bay leaf. For additional depth of flavor, I’ve added splashes of soy sauce, beef bouillon, and balsamic vinegar all balanced by a tablespoon of sugar.
- SAUCE: We use crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste and water to create the tomato base for the Bolognese. The crushed tomatoes provide texture, the tomato sauce smooths out the texture, the tomato paste adds concentrated flavor and the water thins the sauce so it has some room to thicken as it simmers and the flavors concentrate.
- SIMMER: The simmer time for this Bolognese Sauce is only 15 minutes! Most homemade Bolognese recipes require hours of simmering time, but I promise the flavors developed in 15 minutes will blow your mind. If you choose to simmer your sauce longer, you will need to add more water or the sauce will become too thick to spread and reduce to the point you don’t have enough of it.
There are three cheeses in this Baked Ziti recipe: mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan, so let’s talk cheese!
Mozzarella is creamy, buttery and melts beautifully. It’s milky richness cuts through the tangy tomato sauce. I prefer shredded mozzarella cheese over fresh mozzarella balls because I find them too watery for the ziti.
I also prefer shredded mozzarella cheese over sliced mozzarella because it’s so much easier to evenly distribute. If you want to use mozzarella slices, then I suggest asking your deli counter to very thinly slice the mozzarella.
There is a love-hate relationship with ricotta because it can turn grainy when dried out in baked pastas such as Baked Ziti or lasagna. Some even turn to cottage cheese because they don’t like the grainy texture of ricotta. Well, I’ve solved that dilemma by doing a side by side test of:
- ricotta mixed with sour cream
- ricotta mixed with cottage cheese
- cottage cheese mixed with sour cream
The Baked Ziti with ricotta mixed with sour cream was the clear winner with cottage cheese mixed with sour cream as the second runner up.
I was AMAZED by the ricotta mixed with sour cream. The sour cream prevents the ricotta from drying out so it still tastes like ricotta filling but is so smooth– seriously culinary changing.
That being said, I have heard that the ricotta we buy in our American grocery stores tastes nothing like ricotta you purchase at an Italian market. If you have the chance to purchase either brands Sierra or Polly-O ricotta cheese at a specialty market, then you might not need the sour cream trick – but I think I’d still do it because – tangy, silky sour cream!
Lastly, you will need freshly grated Parmesan cheese to infuse your Baked Ziti with its alluring salty, nutty flavor. Parmesan is mixed into the ricotta cheese mixture as well as the final crowning layer of cheese. You don’t want to use the powdered or pre-shredded cheese. Freshly grated Parmesan cheese tastes far superior and melts much better.
Ricotta Filling Ingredients
The filling is created by bubbling pools of ricotta mixed with sour cream. You will need:
- ricotta cheese: please use whole milk ricotta -you can taste the difference! It melts far better than skim ricotta for a much creamier texture.
- sour cream: full fat please – again it melts much better.
- Parmesan cheese: adds nutty, salty goodness. Use freshly grated Parmesan for its superior melting ability and not powdered or pre-shredded cheese.
- eggs: act as a binding agent and prevents the filling from being runny; but don’t worry, you can’t taste the egg, just the luxurious texture.
- basil: 1/4 cup fresh basil or 1 tablespoon dried basil will do the trick – but fresh is always best!
- seasonings: nutmeg is a secret authentic ingredient to ricotta filling.
HOW TO MAKE BAKED ZITI
Here’s a snapshot of How to Make Baked Ziti:
- Cook ziti pasta
- Make Bolognese sauce
- Make ricotta cheese mixture
- Assemble ziti
Let’s break each step down:
Cook ziti pasta
- Cook the ziti in generously salted water just until al dente. Do NOT overcook your pasta because it will continue to cook in the oven.
MAKE BOLOGNESE SAUCE
- In a Dutch oven or large pot, brown ground beef, sausage, onion, carrots and celery over medium heat. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 30 more seconds. Drain grease.
- Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, water and all seasonings.
- Cover, and bring to a boil. Remove lid and reduce heat to low. Simmer gently uncovered for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Mix cooked pasta with sauce.
MAKE RICOTTA CHEESE MIXTURE
- While sauce is simmering, mix together ricotta cheese, sour cream, fresh basil, nutmeg, egg and Parmesan cheese.
LAYER BAKED ZITI
- Transfer half of the ziti coated in sauce to a 9×13 baking dish.
- Dot half of the ricotta mixture over the top in little blobs. This will leave beautiful pillows of ricotta that your taste buds will relish sinking into.
- Top evenly with half mozzarella. Repeat layers:
- Top with all of the remaining ziti.
- Top with remaining ricotta mixture.
- Top with and mozzarella.
- Top evenly with Parmesan.
- Cover the baking pan with aluminum foil, creating a “tent” with the foil so it’s not touching the top of the casserole or the cheese will stick.
- Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes.
- Remove the foil and bake an additional 15 minutes.
TIPS FOR THE BEST BAKED ZITI RECIPE
These simple tricks will ensure the Best Baked Ziti every time:
- Cook pasta in salted the water. You should always salt your pasta water – it is the one chance you have for the flavor to penetrate the pasta and enhance the subtle pasta flavor – you can taste the difference. Use 1 tablespoon salt for 6 quarts of water.
- Don’t overcook pasta! I recommend testing your ziti about 2 or 3 minutes before the box recommends – pasta should be al dente– meaning it should still be a little firm in the center/ have a “bite” to it especially in this recipe because the ziti will continue to bake in the oven.
- Stop pasta from cooking. Strain and rinse your ziti with cold water to prevent it from continuing to cook, because again, it will continue to cook in the oven.
- Prevent pasta from clumping. If you’re not adding the cooked pasta to the sauce right away, toss it with a little olive oil. This will prevent it from sticking together.
- Combine pasta when ready to assemble. Don’t combine the ziti with the Bolognese sauce until you’re ready to assemble the casserole or else the warm sauce will start to cook your pasta – you want to wait for the oven to do that or you’ll end up with mushy pasta.
- Use homemade Bolognese. This Bolognese sauce is the BEST! The combination of Italian sausage, and lean ground beef along with the robust seasonings will elevate your Baked Ziti into restaurant delicious or beyond.
- Use lean ground beef. Take care you are using (93/7) lean ground beef so that the sauce doesn’t end up greasy. You will also want to drain your meat of any excess grease after cooking.
- Mozzarella. I prefer shredded mozzarella cheese over fresh mozzarella balls because I find them too watery for lasagna. I also prefer shredded mozzarella cheese over sliced because it’s so much easier to evenly distribute. If you want to use mozzarella slices, then I suggest asking your deli counter to very thinly slice the mozzarella.
- Parmesan. You don’t want to use the powdered or pre-shredded Parmesan cheese. Freshly grated Parmesan tastes far superior and melts much better.
- Shred cheeses yourself. Always avoid pre-shredded bagged cheeses because the cheese is coated in anti-clumping chemicals used to prevent the strands from clumping together in the bag. These same chemicals inhibit the cheese from melting beautifully.
- Thin sauce if needed. If the sauce appears too thick after simmering for 15 minutes, you can stir in a little bit of water. Alternatively, if it appears too thin, then continue simmering for another 5 minutes or so.
EASY BAKED ZITI RECIPE FACTS
CAN I SUBSTITUTE THE SAUSAGE?
You can substitute the sausage with more lean ground beef, ground turkey, or ground chicken. Italian Sausage comes seasoned with Italian seasonings, primarily fennel. Fennel is crucial for authentic Italian flavor so if you skip the Italian sausage, make sure you add some fennel to your meat sauce as well as a little extra Italian seasoning.
What can I use instead of ziti?
Recommended alternative – Penne: If you can’t find ziti, you can successfully substitute with penne pasta in equal amounts. Penne can be easier to find at your grocery store. It is very similar to ziti, the only real differences being it is cut on the diagonal and has ridges on the outside.
Other pasta shapes: If you can’t get your hands-on penne, you can use other pasta shapes that have texture such as grooves or ridges so the sauce has something to cling to. Some good options are cellentani/cavatappi, radiatori. medium shells, rotini, rigatoni, or fusilli.
Pastas types: You can use classic pasta, whole-wheat pasta, gluten free pasta.
CAN I ADD VEGETABLES TO BAKED ZITI?
Yes! Mushrooms, zucchini eggplant would be particularly delicious cooked with the sauce or you can stir some fresh spinach into the sauce at the end of cooking. You can also add any leftover vegetables at the end of cooking and warm through. See my Tortellini al Forno for some scrumptious veggie ideas.
Should I cover Baked Ziti while it’s baking?
Yes! If you leave your lasagna uncovered in the oven, it will become dry. I like to create a tent with my foil by raising it high in the middle so the top of the casserole remains untouched then tightening the foil around the baking dish. If your foil isn’t large enough to do this, then spray the foil with cooking spray to keep the cheese from sticking to it.
How long to leave Baked Ziti in the oven?
Bake ziti for 30 minutes then remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or so.
BAKED ZITI RECIPE VARIATIONS
This Baked Ziti is delicious as written or you can use the recipe as a base to customize it. Here are a few ideas:
- Swap protein. Swap the beef and pork for ground turkey or ground chicken along with some fennel and Italian seasonings. You can even use sliced sausage, shredded rotisserie chicken, roasted or sautéed shrimp. You can follow my recipe for butter garlic shrimp for an easy add-in.
- Add cheeses. Swap some of the mozzarella for Gruyere or provolone to mix up the flavor profile.
- Add veggies. Add mushrooms, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, green beans, or spinach to the sauce. You can also stir roasted veggies such as roasted broccoli, roasted cauliflower or zucchini into the sauce at the end of cooking.
- Add artichokes. For the artichoke loves! Artichokes are tender, slightly sweet and nutty. Purchase artichoke hearts in water NOT marinated. The marinated ones often have an acrid taste. Chop and add to the simmering sauce.
- Make gluten-free. To make gluten free Baked Ziti, use your favorite gluten free pasta and tamari instead of soy sauce.
HOW LONG DOES THIS BAKED ZITI RECIPE LAST?
This Baked Ziti should be covered tightly with foil or transferred to an airtight container and stored in the refrigerator. When stores properly, it will keep for 4-5 days.
HOW DO I REHEAT BAKED ZITI?
- Microwave: Microwave individual portions for 90 seconds, then continue to heat at 30 second intervals until warmed through.
- Oven: Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees F for 20-25 minutes or until heated through.
CAN I MAKE BAKED ZITI AHEAD OF TIME?
Yes! Baked Ziti is the perfect make-ahead meal to either refrigerate and bake the next day or to assemble and freeze.
- Assemble and refrigerate. You can make and assemble the entire Baked Ziti casserole a day in advance and refrigerate (without baking). I actually think the casserole tastes better this way because the flavors have more time to develop and meld.
- Make sauce in advance. You can also make the Bolognese sauce up to 3 days in advance and refrigerate it or freeze it for up to 3 months. If you use cold, thawed sauce in your ziti, you will need to add an additional 15 minutes or so to the baking time. Alternatively, you can warm the sauce before baking.
CAN I FREEZE BAKED ZITI?
Yes! You can freeze Baked Ziti baked or unbaked. Freezing is a great way to enjoy a bake-and-eat dinner any night of the week without any prep! For best results, I recommend freezing unbaked ziti; freezing baked ziti should be reserved for leftovers.
HOW TO FREEZE BAKED ZITI UNCOOKED (RECOMMENDED FOR PREP)
- Assemble Baked Ziti according to recipe directions in a freezer safe dish.
- Wrap the dish tightly all around with 2 layers of plastic wrap.
- Cover tightly with one layer of aluminum foil.
- Label and freeze for up to 3 months.
- When ready to bake, place ziti in the refrigerator 48 hours ahead of time to defrost completely.
- Remove plastic wrap and cover tightly with foil.
- Bake ziti according to directions, adding an additional 10-15 minutes.
HOW TO FREEZE LEFTOVER BAKED ZITI RECIPE
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at lease one hour before freezing (this will prevent an unpleasant texture).
- Cover tightly with a second layer of plastic wrap all the way around the dish.
- Cover tightly with one layer of aluminum foil.
- Label and freeze for up to 3 months.
- When ready to bake, place ziti in the refrigerator 48 hours ahead of time to defrost completely.
- Remove plastic wrap and cover tightly with foil.
- Bake Ziti according to directions, adding an additional 10-15 minutes.
HOW TO COOK FROM FROZEN
- Remove plastic wrap from the casserole and cover tightly with foil.
- Bake covered at 350 degrees F for 1 ½ hours.
- Uncover and bake an addition 15-30 minutes or until hot and bubbly.
HOW TO FREEZE INDIVIDUAL SERVINGS OF BAKED ZITI
- Bake Ziti according to directions.
- Let cool completely then slice into individual servings.
- Transfer servings to freezer safe plastic bags or separate airtight containers.
- To reheat in oven: transfer serving(s) to a baking sheet. Bake from frozen at 350 degrees F for 30-35 minutes.
- To reheat in microwave: transfer serving to a microwave safe plate. Microwave on high for 3 minutes then continue to microwave at 30 second intervals until heated through.
WHAT TO SERVE WITH BEST BAKED ZITI RECIPE?
This best Baked Ziti recipe is a real showstopper and doesn’t require any fancy sides. We love it with warm, crusty bread to mop up the sauce or with a big green salad. If you want to get a little more ambitious, it is also delicious with any of the following:
- Green salad: you can’t bet the freshness with the cheesiness! Some of our favorite salads to serve with Baked ziti include Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Ranch, Cucumber Tomato Salad, Strawberry Salad with Balsamic Vinaigrette, Green Bean Salad. and Strawberry Avocado Broccoli Salad.
- Vegetables: you can skip the salad, and instead opt for cooked veggies – or serve both! Roasted Parmesan Broccoli, Roasted Parmesan Asparagus, Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Brown Butter, Roasted Parmesan Asparagus, Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Garlic, Lemon, Butter or Roasted Brussels Sprouts are all superb.
- Bread: mopping up leftover Baked Ziti with soft bread is a must! We love Soft and Fluffy Dinner Rolls, Garlic Parmesan Butter Breadsticks or homemade Garlic Bread for this purpose – and the purpose of stuffing our face.
- Fruit: bright, fresh fruit is a must either in the form of fresh grapes, melon, etc. or in fruit salad form. We love Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Vinaigrette, Winter Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Poppy Seed Vinaigrette and Berry Salad in Honey Mascarpone.
LOOKING FOR MORE ITALIAN RECIPES?
- Homemade Mac and Cheese
- Linguine in Sun-Dried Tomato Cream Sauce
- Rigatoni in Tomato Cream Sauce
- Loaded Zuppa Toscana
- Italian Vegetable Soup
- One Skillet Cheesy Meaty Penne
- Italian Sausage Tortellini Soup
- Skinny Fettuccine Alfredo
HELPFUL TOOLS TO MAKE Baked Ziti RECIPE
- 9x 13 Rectangular Baking Dish: glass dishes are an easy, inexpensive go-to but they are not broiler-safe and don’t conduct heat evenly. Instead, ceramic is the way to go. I love this Staub 9×13 because not only is it elegant enough to seamlessly transition from oven to table, but the beautiful glass porcelain-enamel finish is highly scratch resistant, and most importantly, it diffuses heat gently and retains heat exceptionally well for even cooking. Note that different colors vary in price. This less expensive Modern Classics 9×13 is also extremely quality.
- Pasta Pot and Strainer: I LOVE this pasta pot with a removable strainer and use it every time I make pasta! The set allows you to simply lift out the strainer when the pasta is done cooking. The stainless steel also does not discolor, react with food or alter flavors.
- Cheese grater: I use this kitchen tool constantly because FRESHLY grated cheese as opposed to bagged shredded cheese is always the way to go! Using freshly grated cheese also saves money, tastes better, and MELTS better.
- Garlic press: I use this every single day! It is the ultimate garlic press- it is easy-to-use, easy-to-clean and minces garlic with one squeeze.
- Onion chopper: onions make me cry like crazy so I LOVE this onion chopper! It’s made with stainless steel discs for chopping/dicing the hardest vegetables/cheeses with 1 easy motion. It’s also backed by a lifetime warranty – and I can guarantee way less tears!
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