Our baked ziti is a mouthwatering and ultra-tasty comfort food, it's easy to make, and you can even make it with plant-based meats.
Baked pasta is perfect as a special meal for a Sunday, it's great for kids and adults alike, and it's a handy meal-prep-idea as you can keep the leftovers for days.
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Baked ziti is a baked pasta cooked in a casserole dish inspired by the Italian "pasta al forno" and similar to an Italian Lasagna.
It's a staple in American-Italian cooking across the USA, and it's a tasty, meaty, cheesy recipe that most people love.
There are three main components to a great baked ziti recipe:
- 1) Pasta: ideally, it should be a good-quality (Italian imported if you can) short tubular pasta such as ziti, penne, or rigatoni.
- 2) Sauce: a simple tomato sauce often enriched with Italian sausage and ground meat, veggies, or other types of meat (yes, you can use plant-based meats).
- 3) Cheese: mozzarella, ricotta, and parmesan cheese (you can use dairy-free or lactose-free cheese).
If there's one thing you should take away from reading this baked ziti recipe is to "undercook the pasta by at least 3 minutes" so that when you bake it, it won't turn into a mash.
You can make this easy baked ziti recipe with ziti pasta or with most other types of short pasta, like rigatoni, penne, fusilli, rotini, etc.
Long-shaped pasta noodles like spaghetti are not suitable for this recipe.
You'll need 1 gallon (about 4 liters) of water and 2 tablespoons (about 30 grams) of salt, to cook 1 pound (about 500 grams) of pasta.
Tip: remember to undercook the pasta by at least 3 minutes.
Traditional baked ziti has a mix of Italian sausage and ground beef (and sometimes ground turkey or pork).
However, if you are trying to reduce your meat consumption like us, you'll be happy to know that you can easily substitute plant-based sausage and plant-based ground beef for animal-based ones.
We made this recipe with plant-based meat, and the cooking process is the same as if you were to use real meat.
Of course, they won't taste the same, but the baked ziti is still delicious and an excellent alternative if you want to try it.
Onion and Garlic
To add flavor to the meat and the overall dish.
Parmesan cheese, mozzarella cheese, and ricotta cheese are the holy trinity of Italian cheese in baked ziti.
You can substitute their dairy-free alternatives if you want to make the recipe vegan.
Pick your favorite marinara at the grocery store, or make our quick and easy marinara sauce with olive oil, onion, garlic, red pepper flakes, whole peeled tomatoes, salt, black pepper, dried oregano, and basil. Homemade sauce is unbeatable.
Fresh basil is the best fresh herb for baked ziti because it's a perfect flavor match with the tomato sauce and the cheeses.
You can substitute chopped parsley for the basil.
Optionally, you can add a sprinkle of Italian seasoning to the tomato sauce to make it tastier. Of course, this depends on how well-seasoned your marinara sauce is.
Salt and pepper
We recommend sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper. If you like a spicy baked ziti recipe, you can add a pinch of red pepper flakes.
Step 1: The Sauce
Warm up a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat.
Add the (plant-based) sausage and the ground plant meat to the pan, break lumps up with a fork, and brown for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add chopped onion, grated garlic, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper to the meat mixture and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now, pour in the marinara sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off, stir in the basil, then taste and adjust for salt.
Important: set aside 3 cups of sauce in a bowl, and keep the remaining sauce in the skillet! You'll need 1 cup of sauce for the bottom of the baking dish and 2 cups on top of the pasta.
Step 2: Cook the pasta
Boil 1 pound of pasta in a large pot of salted water.
Cooking time should be as instructed on the package minus 3 minutes. Set a timer.
Note: If the package says 10 minutes, cook the pasta for 7. That's because we want the pasta much harder than "al dente" since we finish cooking it in the oven.
Tip: you'll need 1 gallon of boiling water with 2 tablespoons of salt to cook 1 pound of pasta to perfection.
Reserve one cup of pasta water, drain the pasta, and toss it in the sauce until thoroughly coated (off the heat).
Step 3: Build the dish
Preheat the oven to 350°F or 180°C. Cover the bottom of the baking dish or casserole with 1 cup of reserved tomato sauce. Then add 6 dollops of ricotta cheese (about ½ cup of ricotta).
Add in the pasta and arrange it evenly across the baking dish. Drizzle with 4 tablespoons of reserved pasta water.
Tip: the pasta water will ensure your baked ziti won't dry up in the oven.
Cover with the reserved 2 cups of tomato sauce, then with the remaining ricotta, grated parmesan, and shredded mozzarella cheese.
Bake at 350°F or 180°C for 20 minutes, or until the cheese melts and browns.
Let sit out of the oven for 10 minutes before portioning it and serving it.
This hearty pasta bake pairs well with vegetable side dishes and a fresh salad. Take your pick from this list of green sides:
- Raw and fresh zucchini salad
- Roasted broccoli with garlic and lemon marinade
- Rainbow roasted vegetables
- Baked asparagus: perfectly tender and crisp
- Steamed artichokes with lemon and fresh herbs
- Easy side salad ready in 5 minutes, a perfect palate cleanser!
Refrigerator: once cooked, store leftovers in the fridge still in the casserole, covered with foil, for up to 3 days. Reheat in the microwave.
Freezer: assemble the dish, let it cool down, and freeze it before baking. It keeps in the freezer for three months. Then thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and bake in the oven for 30 minutes at 350°F or 180°C.
More pasta recipes
If you like creamy pasta recipes, take a look at our other pasta ideas that are perfect for lunch and dinner:
- Tofu meatballs in marinara sauce: serve with spaghetti for a restaurant-worthy meal
- Spaghetti aglio e olio: an Italian classic ready in 15 minutes!
- Tomato and basil pasta: easy-peasy pasta with a rich tomato sauce and fresh basil
- Easy mushroom pasta with cherry tomatoes - a weeknight dinner ready in 30 minutes
- Chickpea pasta salad: meal-prep-friendly and a colorful lunch idea
- Pasta e Ceci: a family-friendly and tomato-rich pasta with chickpeas
- Broccoli pasta: with mashed and creamy broccoli sauce - ready in 20 minutes
- Roasted red pepper pasta with a quick almond pesto is an easy dinner for busy weekdays
- Butternut squash pasta: this cheesy bake-and-mix pasta recipe is ready in about 30 minutes!
More Sunday dinner recipes
If you love comfort food and Sunday dinner recipes, take inspiration from these rich and creamy favorites:
- Eggplant Parmigiana with roasted and tender eggplant slices and real Italian flavor
- Gnocchi with tomato sauce and just 3 ingredients!
- Lentil curry: ready in 30 minutes, a curry that you can easily make at home
- Braised tofu with stir-fried vegetables and Asian-inspired flavors
- Pumpkin pasta bake: a fall and winter favorite with pumpkin sauce and roasted pumpkin cubes
For many more pasta ideas, check out our pasta category page.
- Baking dish or casserole dish (8 x 11 inches | 21 x 29 cm) or (9 x 13 inches | 23 x 33 cm)
- 36 ounces marinara sauce (4½ cups)
- 1 pound ziti cook pasta in 1 gallon of water and 2 tablespoons of salt
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- ½ pound Italian sausage or vegan sausage
- ½ pound ground beef or vegan ground meat
- 1 white onion
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning or 1 teaspoon dried oregano + 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon salt or more to taste
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 10 leaves basil
- 1 cup ricotta or vegan ricotta
- 1 cup parmesan or vegan parmesan (grated)
- 1½ cup mozzarella or vegan cheese (shredded)
MAKE THE SAUCE
- Warm up a tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet on medium-high heat.Add the sausage and the ground meat to the pan, break lumps up with a fork, and brown for a few minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Add in chopped onion, grated garlic, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, salt, black pepper, and cook for 4 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Pour in the marinara sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Turn the heat off, stir in the basil, then taste and adjust for salt.Important: set aside 3 cups of sauce and keep the remaining sauce in the skillet! You'll need 1 cup of sauce for the bottom of the baking dish and 2 cups on top of the pasta.
COOK THE PASTA
- Cook 1 pound of pasta in 1 gallon of boiling water with 2 tablespoons of salt. Cooking time should be as instructed on the package minus 3 minutes.Note: If the package says 10 minutes, cook the pasta for 7. That's because we want the pasta much harder than "al dente" since we finish cooking it in the oven.
- Reserve one cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta, and toss it in the sauce until thoroughly coated (off the heat).
BUILD THE DISH
- Preheat the oven to 350°F or 180°C. Cover the bottom of the baking dish with 1 cup of reserved tomato sauce. Then add 6 dollops of ricotta cheese (about ½ cup of ricotta).
- Add in the pasta and arrange it evenly across the baking dish.Drizzle with 4 tablespoons of reserved pasta water.
- Cover with the reserved 2 cups of tomato sauce, then with the remaining ricotta, grated parmesan, and shredded mozzarella cheese.
- Bake at 350°F or 180°C for 20 minutes, or until the cheese melts and browns. Let sit out of the oven for 10 minutes before serving it.
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Delicious! Thank you as always Nico 🙂
Glad you liked it Saff! Thanks for the comment 🙂
I just discovered your blog and I am absolutely in love with it.
Unfortunately this was the first recipe I had my difficulties with :/
1. I chose farfalle instead of fussili and I hope this was not the big mistake.
2. I needed 50% more tomatoes to cover all the noddles while cooking them.
3. I needed 35 minutes for cooking the noodles in the tomato sauce, eventhough it was on high heat.
4. I was quite confused as the pepper in the bechamel sauce wasn't mentioned in the text. Furthermore there was a cup of water mentioned in the text in the part of the tomato sauce, without being mentioned in the ingredients.
5. My cheese needed 25 minutes to became as dark as your's on the picture.
I hope I could help. The creaminess of the sauce was outstanding.