Baked Ziti is one of the most comforting and classic Italian-American pasta dishes. Tender cooked ziti is baked to perfection with an incredibly flavorful homemade pasta sauce, savory and spiced Italian spicy sausage, and decadent ricotta mixture! This is an easy weekend dinner your family and friends will love.
Table of Contents
Why We Love This Dish
What makes this baked ziti a step above the others is that it’s homemade. Between the mouthwatering homemade sauce, the juicy Italian sausage, and the creamy ricotta mixture, you have full control over every element of this baked pasta dinner.
There are no corners to be cut in this recipe, but don’t worry! The steps here are still wonderfully simple, can be prepped ahead of time, and it still fits nicely into my category of easy weeknight dinners.
One of the best aspects of baked ziti is how family friendly it is. You can adjust the spice level of the Italian sausage mixture to best suit your family’s needs, but other than that, this dinner recipe is delightfully kid friendly!
If you’re a busy parent, you can easily make this meal ahead of time as dinner prep and keep it in your refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to eat it. Whether you have a big family or just want to make enough for the week, this baked ziti is perfect for just about everybody!
Pasta – Ziti is obviously the most common pasta to choose, but penne, fusilli, or rigatoni will also work.
Olive Oil – you can use a mild and smooth olive oil or another neutral oil like avocado oil.
Garlic – It’s important to use fresh garlic, not pre-minced.
Tomatoes – Use a can of crushed tomatoes, fire roasted or San Marzano will yield the best flavor.
Tomato Sauce – make sure to use plain tomato sauce, without any flavor added. If you can find low sodium or no salt added one, that will be your best bet.
Herbs – Dried oregano and fresh basil and fresh parsley will create a great aroma and flavor.
Sugar – White granulated sugar adds just a touch of sweetness and balances out the acidity in the sauce.
Meat – I like to use mild Italian sausage, but you could use sweet or spicy if you’d prefer.
Crushed Red Pepper Flakes – Add more or less depending on how spicy you’d like to dish to be.
Cheeses – A blend of whole milk ricotta, shredded mozzarella, and freshly grated parmesan are what you’ll need to make this mixture deliciously cheesy.
Cheeses – The more, the merrier, right? You’ll need freshly grated parmesan cheese and shredded mozzarella to top this dish.
Italian Herb Seasoning – if you don’t have Italian seasoning on hand, you can substitute with herbs you most likely have in the pantry already. The most important ones are basil and oregano. Most Italian seasonings on the market have the same general mix of basil, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and sage.
See recipe card for complete information on ingredients and quantities.
How To Make Baked Ziti
There are four components to this dish – the pasta, the sauce, the meat mixture, and the ricotta mixture. Once they’re all made, just assemble, and bake!
Make the pasta sauce (You can also make Instant Pot Pasta Sauce):
Let’s start with the pasta sauce. Preheat your pot and add a little olive oil, then sauté the onion and carrots. Stir in the garlic before adding crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, seasonings and herbs.
Cook covered on medium-low temperature for about 20 minutes, until veggies are all soft. Make sure to stir from time to time. Take off heat. Use an immersion blender or transfer it into a blender to blend smooth.
Cook the pasta: While that’s cooking, go ahead and boil the pasta! Cook until the pasta is al dente, then strain, and set aside.
Make the meat mixture:
To make the meat mixture, first preheat a pan with a little olive oil. Sauté onions until soft, stir in the garlic, and cook until fragrant. Add the Italian sausage and break it up as as you can while it cooks (1). Cook the sausage until it’s completely cooked through, then remove from the heat.
Stir 3 cups of the homemade pasta sauce into the meat mixture and add some red pepper flakes (2).
Mix cooked pasta with meat mixture until evenly coated (3).
Make the ricotta mixture: To make the ricotta mixture, simply mix together the cheeses with the herbs and seasonings until smooth (4).
Assemble Baked Ziti:
Spread the remaining pasta sauce evenly across the bottom of a casserole dish. Add half of the cheese mixture in dollops (5).
Spread the pasta/meat mixture evenly over the sauce and ricotta (6). Add the remaining ricotta mixture in dollops across the pasta (7). Sprinkle some fresh grated parmesan cheese and shredded mozzarella (8).
Bake at 350°F for 20-25 minutes (9).
Recipe Substitution Notes:
Cheeses – For the best results, use shredded whole milk mozzarella and fresh grated parmesan. You can also use shredded Italian cheese mix for an even cheesier flavor variety! You can mix in some Asiago with parmesan or Fontina with mozzarella. Both flavorful options.
Meat – If you don’t want to use Italian sausage, you could opt for ground beef, ground pork, ground turkey, or a combination of beef and pork, or beef and sausage. If you choose turkey, use lean, not extra lean meat, or it’ll dry out. For beef, use 85/15, as leaner options will also be dry.
To Make This Baked Ziti Gluten Free: You only need to make one gluten free substation and that is pasta. Use gluten free penne pasta and I recommend the brand Tinkyada over most other brands. Many gluten free pasta options break apart and crumble easily and this brands stands up to cooking extremely well. All other ingredients should be gluten free already but double check the packaging just in case.
This recipe calls for 12 oz of ricotta, and the container is usually 15 oz. If you like ricotta cheese, feel free to add the whole 15 oz of ricotta. However, I find it a to be a bit too much and it overpowers the other flavors.
Personally, I’d rather use the leftover 3 oz. (which is really not that little) in other ways! Use for leftover ricotta in delicious recipes like Ricotta Pancakes, Easy Ricotta Doughnuts, and more! You can even toss it into pound cake batter, add it to a quiche or breakfast egg muffins, make a flatbread for lunch, or use it to stuff French toast.
Whole these two dishes do share a flavor pallet and very similar ingredients, the dishes are quite distinct.
Lasagna is a layered pasta dish made with softer pasta sheets. There are distinct layers of pasta, meat, and ricotta mixture.
In Baked Ziti, there is mush sturdier and smaller pasta like ziti, fusilli, penne, or rigatoni. You also mix pasta with the meat mixture and sauce and then create pockets of ricotta mixture with dollops of it throughout.
Both dishes can feature different meats like Italian sausage, ground beef, or ground pork.
You can store baked ziti right in the casserole dish you baked it in. Just make sure it is completely cooled before refrigerating, and make sure to cover it airtight. Keep the dish refrigerated, and it should stay fresh for 3 to 5 days. Use a clean spoon to scoop out the desired amount each time you’d like to enjoy a serving.
Reheat individual portions in a microwave or you can reheat larger portions in the casserole dish in the oven at 325° covered with aluminum foil. To reheat in the oven, it could take up to 20 minutes.
Make Ahead Instructions
You can make just the pasta sauce ahead of time, or you can even make the whole meat sauce ahead of time. Store the sauce in the refrigerator, in an air-tight container for up to 24 hours before making baked ziti. Reheat before mixing with pasta.
If you have extra time to prep, you can prep and assemble the whole dish up to the step of actually baking it. Cool it and cover it airtight, then refrigerate it until you’re ready to bake it. Don’t make it more than a day ahead.
When you’re ready to bake it, pull the casserole dish out of the refrigerator while the oven is preheating, remove plastic wrap, and bake as stated in the recipe. You may need to add about 5-10 minutes to bake time since the casserole will start off cold.
You can easily make this a meal prep dinner and prepare a few batches for freezing! If you plan to freeze your baked ziti, use aluminum pans to assemble the dish. Prepare the baked ziti as instructed in the recipe, but just up to the step of baking. Instead of baking, assemble it in an aluminum pan and let it cool to room temperature.
Once cooled, cover it first with plastic wrap or wax paper so that it’s touching the pasta. Then, wrap it in aluminum foil completely airtight. You can even wrap it in a couple of layers if you need to. Label and date the dish and freeze it for up to 2 months.
It’s best to thaw the frozen dish slowly, in the refrigerator, for about 24 hours prior to baking. Once it’s thawed, bake it at 350°F, uncovered, for 30-35 minutes. If the top is browning too fast, loosely cover it with aluminum foil.
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Baked Ziti Recipe
- 1 lb ziti pasta
Easy Pasta Sauce:
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 small onion
- 2 medium carrots
- 5-6 garlic cloves
- 28 oz can crushed tomatoes fire roasted or San Marzano
- 8 oz can tomato sauce
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 5-6 fresh basil leaves, minced
- 2 tsp white granulated sugar
- 1-1.5 tsp coarse or sea salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/2 small yellow onion
- 4 garlic cloves
- 1 lb mild Italian sausage or other Italian sausage, ground beef, ground pork, ground turkey
- 1/2-1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 12 oz whole milk ricotta
- 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 tbsp fresh minced parsley
- 1 tbsp fresh minced basil
- 1/2-1 tsp coarse or sea salt
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 oz shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 tsp Italian herb seasoning
- Preheat a cooking pot over medium heat and add olive oil.
- Add chopped onion and carrots. Sauté vegetables for a few minutes, until starts to soften, and then stir in garlic. Add crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, seasoning, and herbs.
- Lower the heat to low, cover with a lid, and let it all cook while preparing pasta and meat. (Give it 15-20 minutes to cook.)
- To blend the sauce, you can use an immersion blender or transfer it into a standing blender. Pulse until the sauce is smooth, or you can leave it a little chunky if you wish.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add pasta. Cook until pasta is al dente (tender but still has a little bite to it in the very center).
- Strain pasta in a colander and set aside.
- Preheat a cooking pan over medium heat and add olive oil.
- Stir in diced onions and let them sauté until starts to soften. Stir in garlic and sauté just until fragrant. Add Italian sausage and break it up as much as you can.
- Cook, breaking up sausage chunks, until sausage is completely cooked through. Take off heat.
- In a small bowl, mix together ricotta, mozzarella, Parmesan cheeses with herbs and seasoning. Mix until smooth.
- Stir in 3 cups of pasta sauce into the cooked meat mixture and add some crushed red pepper flakes. Add cooked pasta and mix until evenly combined.
- In the bottom of a casserole dish, spread remaining cup of pasta sauce and add half of ricotta mixture in dollops.
- Spread the pasta/meat mixture evenly over the sauce and ricotta.
- Add remaining ricotta mixture over the pasta, in dollops.
- Spread grated parmesan and shredded mozzarella evenly over the top and then sprinkle Italian herb seasoning over the it.
- Bake at 350° for 15-25 minutes, depending on the casserole dish you used. (If you use a larger casserole dish, like 9×13, you will probably need 15-20 minutes. If you use a smaller but deep casserole dish, you may need to bake it for up to 25 minutes.)
- Cheese Options: For the best results, use shredded whole milk mozzarella and fresh grated parmesan. You can also use shredded Italian cheese mix for an even cheesier flavor variety! You can mix in some Asiago with parmesan or Fontina with mozzarella. Both flavorful options.
- Meat Options: If you don’t want to use Italian sausage, you could opt for ground beef, ground pork, ground turkey, or a combination of beef and pork, or beef and sausage. If you choose turkey, use lean, not extra lean meat, or it’ll dry out. For beef, use 85/15, as leaner options will also be dry.
- To Make This Baked Ziti Gluten Free: You only need to make one gluten free substation and that is pasta. Use gluten free penne pasta and I recommend the brand Tinkyada over most other brands. Many gluten free pasta options break apart and crumble easily and this brands stands up to cooking extremely well. All other ingredients should be gluten free already but double check the packaging just in case.