This stuffed Manicotti recipe is 5 STARS comfort food right in your own home!
This baked Manicotti recipe is creamy, cheesy, meaty, saucy, and deeply satisfying. It’s stuffed with beef, Italian sausage, ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan but I’ve also included recipe variations for Cheese Manicotti, Spinach Manicotti, Chicken Manicotti etc. I’ve included everything you need to know about how to make Manicotti as well as how to make ahead and how to freeze. Let’s manicotti!
I knew I wanted to deliver this stuffed Manicotti recipe to you in time for Valentine’s Day because it is like bringing a taste of Italy home without the expense and with plenty to go around. It belongs with the Italian classics of my Lasagna, Chicken Parmesan, Italian Meatballs, Shrimp Fettuccine, Macaroni and Cheese, Baked Penne, Pasta Al Forno – and in your mouth.
Because really, does it get any better than stuffed and smothered pasta AKA luscious creamy, cheesy meaty filling made with 3 cheeses cocooned in tender shells enveloped in a to-live-for homemade marinara sauce and topped with more cheese? Not in my world.
This easy Manicotti recipe tastes gourmet enough for special occasions and company but is also fabulous for weeknights because you can make the entire Manicotti recipe in advance, refrigerate and cook at dinner time!
Here are a few more reasons to love Homemade Manicotti:
- Family Friendly. Pasta, cheese meat, marinara – even the pickiest eaters will love this comforting combo.
- Makes a large quantity. This easy Manicotti recipe makes 14 manicotti, so its perfect for everyone to indulge or for large crowds, dinner parties or company.
- Less Expensive. A casserole of Manicotti feeds the whole family and makes fabulous leftovers for a fraction of the price of dining out.
- Make Ahead. Manicotti tastes even better if assembled ahead of time. This makes for a hassle free, no fuss dinner! Just pull it out of the fridge and press “bake” when everyone’s ready to eat.
- Freezer friendly. This Manicotti freezes well, making it ideal for busy days, dinners for new moms or when someone has had surgery. You can also double the batch and eat one manicotti casserole for dinner and freeze one for later.
WHAT IS MANICOTTI?
So, with all this Manicotti talk, what exactly is Manicotti? Manicotti is a popular Italian-American dish inspired by Italian cannelloni. It appropriately means “little sleeve” in Italian. It is made with large, tubular pasta shells (sleeves) that are boiled until al dente, cooled then stuffed with various fillings, usually ricotta mixed with mozzarella, ground beef, Italian sausage and/or spinach.
The stuffed manicotti shells are lined in a baking dish and either marinara or bechamel sauce is poured over top. The Manicotti is then covered and baked to bubbly deliciousness.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CANNELLONI AND MANICOTTI?
Both Manicotti and Cannelloni are stuffed pasta shells covered in sauce and baked. What sets the two apart is the actual pasta used in constructing the dish.
Cannelloni (which loosely translates to “big reeds” or “big tubes”), uses either fresh crepes or pasta sheets, like lasagna noodles, that you stuff then roll into a tube. Homemade Manicotti, on the other hand, uses dried, pre-made pasta tubes specifically called “manicotti,” rather than cannelloni pasta sheets.
About Stuffed Manicotti
This easy Manicotti Recipe is one of the best I’ve ever devoured – restaurant or homemade. Here are a few reasons that set it apart:
- Soaked Classic Noodles. There is no need to settle for no boil manicotti shells or boil your manicotti shells. Instead, the shells soften just in hot tap making them WAY easier to stuff
- Marinara Sauce. For the ultimate Manicotti, you need to smother it in the ultimate sauce. It takes a few extra minutes to make marinara from scratch but is SO worth it AND most of the time is just simmering.
- Beef, Sausage & Cheese. My favorite combination is of multiple cheeses, beef and sausage. The combination of beef and Italian sausage is sublime and adds the ideal texture so you don’t feel like you’re just taking a big bite of oozing cheese. Although, I’m not entirely opposed to that.
- Depth of Flavor. The use of 3 cheeses, both beef and Italian sausage as well as plenty of seasoning in both the filling and the marinara add a depth of flavor that cannot be achieved any other way
- No Grainy Ricotta! Instead of using all ricotta, we combine ricotta with sour cream for the creamiest ricotta you ever did taste. This will make a ricotta lover out of you!
WHAT Is in Manicotti MADE OF?
- Manicotti Shells: dried pasta shells that are approximately 4-inches long and 1-inch wide. You will need one 8 oz. package Manicotti Shells which contains 14 shells.
- Marinara Sauce: You can use store bought or homemade, but I HIGHLY suggest homemade.
- Filling: Manicotti is ALL bout the filling. And the filling is ALL about the cheese. You can add beef, Italian sausage, spinach, mushrooms, etc., TO the cheeses, but they do not take the place of any of the cheeses. I’ve described the filling in detail below.
WHAT Is Manicotti FILLING MADE OF?
In this Stuffed Manicotti recipe, we use ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, beef, Italian sausage, eggs, herbs and sour cream.
The main ingredient of authentic Manicotti filling is always ricotta. Many individuals, however, don’t like ricotta because the ricotta we buy in our American grocery stores tends to taste grainy and nothing like ricotta you purchase at an Italian market. To solve this dilemma, I did a side by side taste with my lasagna recipe of:
- ricotta mixed with sour cream
- cottage cheese
- cottage cheese mixed with sour cream
Ricotta mixed with sour cream was the clear winner – it is culinary changing. It is smooth and lusciously creamy without tasting grainy! You will find a newfound love of ricotta and of homemade Manicotti with this new hack.
Manicotti filling usually includes mozzarella because it’s creamy, buttery and melts beautifully. It’s milky richness cuts through the tangy tomato sauce.
Please use freshly grated mozzarella cheese as it tastes far superior and equally important, melts better. Pre-shredded cheeses contain chemicals that keep the cheese strands from clumping together – these same chemicals prevent the cheese from melting as smoothly.
Parmesan cheese infuses the Manicotti filling with its salty, nutty flavor. You don’t want to use the powdered or pre-shredded Parmesan cheese. As in with mozzarella, freshly grated Parmesan cheese tastes far superior and melts much better.
You will see some baked Manicotti recipes with eggs and some recipes without eggs, but I think eggs are essential. The eggs act as a binding agent and, along with the sour cream, give our ricotta an ideal creamy texture.
Beef and Sausage
In this Beef Manicotti Recipe, I’ve chosen this meaty filling because I wanted to create the best Manicotti recipe and it doesn’t get better than meat + cheese + pasta + marinara!
We are going to use half ground beef and half Italian sausage. The combination results in a superior texture and flavor. The meats are cooked with onions, garlic, salt and pepper for a juicy, tantalizing addition to our filling.
Finally, the filling mixture is seasoned with basil, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper to round out the flavor because, like all recipes, every element should be seasoned independently so it is stand-alone flavorful. Add the ricotta, sour cream, mozzarella, parmesan, beef, sausage, eggs and herbs together and we have creamy, meaty, herby, cheesy deliciousness!
Can I use Store Bought MARINARA Sauce?
Other than the filling and pasta shells, the other important element in the best Manicotti is Marinara Sauce. Using quality Marinara Sauce is HUGELY important because it is where most of the flavor comes from.
You can use store bought Marinara Sauce for this recipe but I HIGHLY recommend my Marinara Sauce recipe. It is 1000X better than jarred and is done in less than 30 minutes – half of that time is simmering. It boasts rich, bright tomato flavor and is make ahead and freezer friendly so you can even make it days or months in advance!
I won’t go into too much detail because I have an entire post dedicated to my Marinara Sauce recipe. In that post, I have included my BEST Marinara recipe with onions, carrots and celery AND super easy, lazy day Marinara Sauce which eliminates the carrots, and celery and uses garlic and onion powders so there is NO chopping – so there is no excuse not to make Marinara Sauce from scratch!
That being said, if you use store bought Marinara, you will need about 3 3/4- 4 cups, enough to generously cover the top of your Manicotti. You also might want to spruce up your store-bought Marinara Sauce like I do in my Spaghetti Bolognese. It is amazing what a few seasonings can do.
Do you have to cook the manicotti before stuffing it?
Manicotti shells are traditionally boiled until al dente, cooled before filling, covered in sauce and baked. Boiling the shells not only produces one more step, but if your noodles are overcooked, they become flimsy, tear easily, and super hard to fill.
In this easy Manicotti recipe, you don’t have to bake the shells before filling them. Instead, I use the easy trick I use for my lasagna noodles and let them soak in hot tap water while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
The noodles soften slightly but still retain their shape so they are super easy to work with. The Manicotti shells will finish cooking in the oven for the perfect texture every time – no flimsy, tearing manicotti shells!
Can I use No Boil Manicotti Shells?
I do not suggest no boil manicotti shells. They tend to bake up chewy instead of tender and you run the unpalatable risk of crunchy, noodles if they are not adequately submerged in the sauce. Instead, use traditional Manicotti shells and soak them in hot water per directions.
HOW TO MAKE MANICOTTI
SOAK MANICOTTI SHELLS
- Place manicotti shells into the bottom of a long pan. Pour hot tap water over the noodles until they are submerged. Let them soak for 30 minutes, but not much longer or they can become too soft. You can chop your veggies, make marinara and filling during this time.
- Alternatively, you can cook your shells for 4-6 minutes in a large pot of salted water, just until al dente then place them on a lightly greased cooling rack. Don’t wait too long to stuff your shells because they will soften as they cool.
Cook Beef and Sausage for Filling
- In a Dutch oven or large pot, brown ground beef, sausage and 1/2 onion, over medium heat until cooked through. Season with salt and pepper then add garlic and cook 30 more seconds.
- Transfer to a paper towel lined plate to cool.
- You can substitute the meat with all beef, all chicken, spinach, etc. See my recipe variations below.
Make Marinara Sauce
- In the same pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onions, carrots and celery and cook for 7-10 minutes or until soft. Add garlic and red pepper flakes and cook 30 more seconds.
- Stir in crushed tomatoes, pureed tomatoes, and all remaining Marinara ingredients. Simmer on the lowest heat for 15 minutes.
- How easy was our homemade Marinara Sauce? The ingredient list is lengthy but after you cook your sofrito for 7-10 minutes, it is just a dump and simmer recipe!
- While sauce is simmering, add eggs to a large bowl and whisk. Add ricotta, sour cream, mozzarella, Parmesan and all remaining Cheese Filling ingredients including cooled meat. Stir until evenly combined.
- Spread 1 cup of Marinara sauce on the bottom of the prepared pan (layer will be thin).
- Pat manicotti shells dry with paper towels and generously fill each shell with the cheese-meat mixture (see tips on how to pipe using a freezer bag below).
- Arrange the stuffed manicotti in a single layer in the baking pan – it will be tight but you should be able to squeeze them all in there.
- Evenly top with remaining sauce followed by 1 ½ cups mozzarella and ½ cup Parmesan.
- Tightly cover manicotti with foil and bake for 40 minutes. Uncover and bake and an additional 10 minutes or until heated through and Parmesan is golden.
How do you fill manicotti shells?
Making Stuffed Manicotti doesn’t have to be messy or time consuming. For hassle free stuffing: 1) use firm al dente noodles (we are using the soaking method) and, 2) put the meat and cheese mixture in a piping bag or plastic bag, snip the corner and pipe it into the shells.
To pipe the filling into the shells, make sure you make a large enough cut so the meat can easily squeeze through. Hold one shell with one hand and with your dominant hand, gather the top of the bag and squeeze the filling into the corner of the bag and into the shell. Fill half way, flip the shell over and repeat. The shells should be very full, with some filling coming out both ends.
STUFFED MANICOTTI VARIATIONS
The possibilities are endless when it comes to stuffed Manicotti. The ground beef and Italian sausage in this recipe equal about 3 cups, so you can replace them with anything that equals the same volume. Here are a few ideas:
- Chicken Manicotti: substitute the ground beef and sausage with 3 cups shredded cooked chicken or 3 cups ground chicken. You can use marinara sauce or replace it with béchamel/Alfredo sauce.
- Beef Manicotti: replace the Italian sausage with lean ground beef.
- Ground Turkey Manicotti: replace the ground beef and sausage with ground turkey.
- Spinach Manicotti: replace the ground beef or sausage with one 10 oz. package frozen, thawed spinach that has been well drained. Use two 10 oz. packages if omitting all of the meat. You can also use fresh spinach, see below.
- Spinach and Mushroom Manicotti: replace ground beef and sausage with 12 oz. chopped baby bella mushrooms and 4 cups fresh baby spinach. Melt 2 tablespoons butter with 2 tablespoons olive oil in a Dutch oven or large pot. Add onions and cook 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté 4-6 minutes or until golden. Add garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add spinach and cook on low for 1-2 minutes or until wilted.
- Vegetable Manicotti: use any variety of vegetables from spinach, mushrooms, bell peppers, zucchini, carrots, etc. Chop vegetables and sauté them until crisp-tender.
- Seafood Manicotti: replace meats with one-pound lump crab meat or a combination of crab meat and cooked, chopped shrimp. Replace Marinara Sauce with Bechamel/Alfredo Sauce.
- Cheese Manicotti: You keep your manicotti super simple and just stuff with the cheese filling. You will want to increase the ingredients to make up for the 3 cups lost volume of meat.
- Cottage Cheese Manicotti: keep the sour cream but replace the ricotta with cottage cheese. I love the added texture of cottage cheese if I am skipping the meat and using spinach instead.
WHAT GOES WITH Manicotti?
This Manicotti is all you are going to want to eat but you can make it complete meal with a big green salad, Caesar salad and some garlic bread. Manicotti is also great served with:
- Buttery Breadsticks (new pics coming soon!)
- Soft and Fluffy Dinner Rolls
- Roasted Parmesan Broccoli
- Sautéed Brussels Sprouts with Garlic, Lemon, Butter
- Tomato Cucumber Salad
- Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Brown Butter
- Wedge Salad with Blue Cheese Ranch
- Berry Salad with Honey Mascarpone
- Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Vinaigrette
- Winter Fruit Salad with Honey Lime Poppy Seed Vinaigrette
CAN I MAKE Manicotti IN ADVANCE?
Yes! Manicotti is make-ahead friendly so you can assemble and refrigerate then pull it out of the fridge and bake for a no fuss dinner!
Making Manicotti in advance is actually my preferred method because it tastes even better as the flavors have time build and meld further. To make in advance:
- Assemble and Refrigerate. You can make and assemble the entire Manicotti a day in advance (without baking). Cover the Manicotti tightly with foil and refrigerate until ready to bake.
- Make Sauce in Advance. As previously mentioned, I HIGHLY recommend homemade Marinara Sauce. You can make the sauce up to 3 days in advance and refrigerate it or freeze it for up to 3 months. Grab and dump pre-made Marinara Sauce makes this Manicotti recipe come together super quickly.
- Make Filling in Advance: You can make the filling in advance and keep tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
How long does cooked manicotti last in the refrigerator?
Baked Manicotti should be tightly covered with foil or transferred to an airtight container. When properly stored, cooked manicotti will last for approximately 5 days. As in all leftovers, use your best judgement and if it smells off, then toss it.
How do you reheat manicotti?
- Full Casserole: cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake at 350° F for approximately 20 minutes or until heated through.
- Microwave: Add individual servings to a microwave-safe plate and cover with a paper towel so the sauce doesn’t splatter. Microwave 1 ½-2 minutes or until heated through.
CAN you FREEZE uncooked manicotti?
Yes! You can freeze uncooked or cooked Manicotti. Freezing homemade Manicotti 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 uncooked Manicotti, but both methods will work.
HOW TO FREEZE UNCOOKED manicotti
- Assemble Manicotti according to recipe directions in a freezer safe dish. It is best if your noodles are more on the al dente side.
- Wrap the dish twice tightly in plastic wrap.
- Cover tightly with one layer of aluminum foil.
- Label Manicotti.
- Place evenly in the freezer for up to 3 months.
- When ready to bake, place Manicotti in the refrigerator to thaw completely, 24-48 hours.
- Remove plastic wrap and cover tightly with foil.
- Let Manicotti stand at room temperature while the oven preheats.
- Bake Manicotti according to directions, adding an additional 10-15 minutes.
HOW TO COOK MANICOTTI FROM FROZEN
- Remove plastic wrap from Manicotti and cover tightly with foil.
- Bake Manicotti 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 LEFTOVERS
If you forget to thaw your Manicotti the night before, it can also be baked from frozen:
You can freeze the entire baking dish of Manicotti (see How to Freeze Cooked Manicotti) if you are going to be reheating the dish all at once, or I prefer freezing individual servings of Manicotti. Individual servings are super convenient for on-the-go work lunches or small portion dinners.
To freeze Manicotti leftovers:
- Let Manicotti cool completely then divide into individual portions.
- Freeze separate servings in airtight containers or you can even use plastic bags – a little messier but it’s convenient and gets the job done.
- To reheat in the microwave: transfer to a microwave-safe dish and microwave from frozen for approximately 5-7 minutes or until heated through.
- To reheat in the oven: preheat oven to 350 degrees. Transfer serving to an oven-proof baking dish. Cover, and bake at 350 degrees for 15 minutes or until heated through.
Looking for more Italian Recipes?
- Fettuccine Alfredo
- Lasagna Soup
- Cheesy Chicken Bacon Ranch Pasta
- Sun Dried Tomato Pasta
- Minestrone Soup
- Cheesy Skillet Penne
Want to Try this Manicotti Recipe?
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