Baked ziti with ricotta is Italian comfort food at its finest! This easy recipe is simple to bake up and feeds a crowd.
Here’s a dish that will be a winner any day of the week: Baked Ziti! This Italian American casserole is packed with savory flavor and cozy nostalgia. Its surface is filled with pockets of seasoned ricotta, lakes of garlicky tomato sauce, and punctuated by strands of gooey mozzarella. Side benefit: the wafting aroma makes your kitchen smell like a dream! This baked pasta is ideal for feeding a crowd, or a half recipe works for a cozy romantic dinner. What are you waiting for?
Ingredients in baked ziti
Baked ziti appears to be an Italian American invention, though the tradition of baked pasta dates back to the late Middle Ages in Italy. As with any classic recipe, there are many ways to make baked ziti. Most recipes include pasta, tomato sauce and a filling of ricotta cheese and Parmesan, topped with mozzarella and baked until bubbly. Many include sausage, but ours is a vegetarian spin that’s one step easier but still full of flavor. Here’s what you’ll need for this baked ziti recipe:
- Ziti pasta (or penne or rigatoni)
- Fennel seeds
- Olive oil
- Marinara sauce and fire roasted tomatoes
- Ricotta, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese
- Lemon zest
Keys to the flavor
This baked ziti recipe is easy, with a few simple tricks for big flavor. Here’s what to note about this recipe:
- It uses both marinara sauce and canned fire roasted tomatoes. This way, you can round out the flavor of the purchased marinara with some homemade flavor of your own. See below for some notes on fire roasted tomatoes.
- Fennel evokes the flavor of sausage. You can skip the sausage here: using fennel seed adds a meaty, hearty flavor to the interior (fennel seed is also used in Italian sausage!).
- Lemon zest adds brightness. The lemon adds a nice lift to the flavors!
Find fire roasted tomatoes for best flavor
This baked ziti uses a combination of purchased marinara sauce and homemade flavors to make a quick homemade sauce. The key? Canned fire roasted tomatoes. Here’s what to know about this variety:
- Fire roasted tomatoes are a type of canned tomato that’s roasted over a flame before canning. They’re sold by several different brands; look for them in the canned tomato section in your local grocery. We like Muir Glen.
- Fire roasted tomatoes taste sweet right out of the can. This means you can cook them for less time than standard tomatoes.
- What’s a substitute for fire roasted tomatoes? Use the highest quality canned tomatoes you can find. Consider adding 1 teaspoon sugar and a hint of smoked paprika (½ teaspoon) if you have it to round out the flavors.
Cook the ziti to just before al dente
The key to a baked pasta? Cook the pasta to just before al dente. Baked pasta cooks while it’s in the oven, so you’ll want to pull it out of the boiling water just before you normally would. Try about 1 to 2 minutes before it’s al dente: so it should still have some crunch.
As a note: typically the pasta package instructions indicate to cook a little too long! So cook it about 3 minutes before the package instructions indicate.
Make a half recipe in a 9 x 9
This baked ziti recipe makes a big 9 x 13″ pan that feeds at least 8 servings. Not in the mood for such a huge portion? Make a half recipe in a 9 x 9! It works just as well, especially since this pasta is tastiest the day of making. But it works as leftovers too!
Leftover baked ziti lasts for up to 3 days refrigerated. This baked pasta does taste best the days it’s made, as the noodles can become a bit soggy over time. (That’s another reason to make sure not to overcook the pasta!) When you’re eating the leftovers, add a few pinches of salt and reheat it in a skillet to revive the flavors.
What to serve with baked ziti
This baked ziti works as a meal for a crowd, or an intimate romantic dinner (as a half recipe). Here are a few side dishes that pair well:
- Try a green salad like Perfect Italian Salad, Favorite Chopped Salad, Pear Salad, or Kale Salad
- Opt for bread like Garlic Toast or an artisan loaf
- Keep the oven free and go for for sautéed veggies like Sauteed Green Beans, Ultimate Sauteed Vegetables, Sauteed Peppers and Onions, or Pan Fried Broccoli
This baked ziti recipe is…
Vegetarian. For gluten-free, use gluten-free pasta.
Baked ziti with ricotta is Italian comfort food at its finest! This easy recipe is simple to bake up and feeds a crowd. Make a half recipe in a 9 x 9 baking dish if you prefer!
- 1 pound ziti pasta (or penne or rigatoni)*
- 4 garlic cloves
- 2 teaspoons fennel seeds
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 24-ounce jar marinara sauce
- 28-ounce can crushed fire roasted tomatoes
- 1 pound ricotta cheese
- ¾ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 6 ounces shredded mozzarella cheese
- Zest of 1/2 lemon
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
- Basil leaves, for garnish (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta 2 minutes less than al dente (about 3 minutes before the package instructions indicate). Drain the pasta and return it to the pot. If it’s cooked before the sauce is done, stir in a drizzle of olive oil to prevent sticking.
- Meanwhile, mince the garlic. In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil. Add the garlic and fennel seeds, crushing the fennel with your fingers as you add it, and sauté for 1 minute. Add the marinara sauce and fire roasted tomatoes and stir to combine. Simmer for 10 minutes, then taste and add a pinch of salt if the flavor doesn’t pop (this will depend on the marinara brand). Then pour the tomato sauce into the drained pasta and stir to combine.
- In a medium bowl, mix the ricotta cheese, ½ cup of the grated Parmesan cheese, ¾ cup of the mozzarella cheese, the lemon zest, ¾ teaspoon kosher salt, and a few grinds of black pepper.
- Grease a 9″ x 13″ baking dish*. Pour in the pasta mixed with the tomato sauce. Add large dollops of the ricotta mixture to the top of the pasta, then use the side of a large spoon to swirl it into the top of the pasta, leaving some larger pockets of ricotta. Top with the remaining ¾ cup mozzarella cheese and ¼ cup Parmesan cheese.
- Bake for 30 minutes until the cheese on the top is melted and browned. Allow to stand for 10 minutes prior to serving. If desired, top with basil leaves and serve. Leftovers last for up to 3 days refrigerated, though they taste best the day of (add a few pinches of salt and reheat in a skillet to revive the flavors).
*Want to make a half recipe? Use half the ingredients and make it in a 9 x 9″ baking dish.
- Prep Time: 15 minutes
- Cook Time: 30 minutes
- Category: Main dish
- Method: Baked
- Cuisine: Italian American
Keywords: Baked ziti, baked ziti with ricotta