My Best Ever Baked Ziti Recipe serves a crowd and is sure to receive rave reviews! Today I’m spilling my secrets on how to master this classic pasta dish and make it better than you ever have before. Including how to achieve perfectly cooked noodles, make delicious homemade sauce, get golden brown gooey cheese pockets, and so much more.
Best Baked Ziti Recipe
Baked Ziti… love it or leave it? Personally, I love it! But that wasn’t always the case.
Up until a few years ago, I thought baked ziti was a total waste of calories. Not that I really count calories, but let’s be honest, baked ziti is definitely a “splurge” recipe. It’s literally pasta layered with meat sauce, cheese, more sauce, more cheese, and then MORE cheese. So yeah, it better be good!!! Otherwise, what’s the point?!
Don’t Over Cook the Pasta…
My main issues with baked ziti in the past? Well to start, the pasta was always over baked or under-baked.
Like who wants rock hard burnt noodles? Not me and I’m pretty sure not you! But on the other hand, soggy noodles are just so sad and once they’re over cooked, there’s literally nothing you can do to save them.
The solution? Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil, cook the noodles for only 4 minutes, and then drain the pasta! That’s right: you’re only going to cook for EXACTLY 4 minutes. After multiple rounds of testing, I’ve found this is the magic number!
Yes, your pasta will still be very firm when drained. But by the time you’ve covered it in sauce and cheese and baked it for 30 minutes, it’ll be perfectly cooked! Not overdone and not underdone!
Most recipes will tell you to cook your pasta until al dente, or a minute before al dente, which is 9 to 10 minutes. Don’t do it!!! This is way too much time and you’ll end up with super mushy ziti by the time it’s done baking!
So I beg you to set the timer and trust me on the 4 minutes! Once the pasta has been cooked and well drained, mix it with 1 and 1/2 cups of the sauce and set aside.
How to Make the BEST Meat Sauce…
Ok moving on. The next thing that can ruin baked ziti? Bad sauce! Ok, maybe ruin is strong. But mediocre tomato sauce is always going to equal a mediocre baked ziti recipe. And who wants that?
To remedy this issue, we’re making a super flavorful meat sauce that’s loaded with olive oil, garlic, onions, ground beef, Italian sausage, a pinch of red pepper flakes, red wine, salt and pepper, Italian seasoning, and fresh basil! So you know with all of those ingredients this sauce is going to be AMAZING!!!
Full disclosure, the sauce will take about an hour! You’ll want to let it simmer in a large pot over medium heat for 45 minutes once all of the ingredients have been added. This is when the flavors meld and all of the magic happens. But you can make the sauce up to 3 days in advance and store it in the fridge so it’s ready to go when you are!
Let’s get CHEESY…
And finally, we get to the cheese! Like most recipes, this baked ziti recipe features ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, and mozzarella cheese.
But I also add in Fontina cheese, too! I LOVE fontina cheese because it tastes delicious and melts beautifully. So it’s perfect for a baked dish like this! If you cannot find it, just use an equal amount of low-moisture mozzarella!
The ricotta cheese mixture includes an egg, an egg yolk, fresh basil, fresh parsley, parmesan cheese, fontina cheese, salt, and pepper. You’ll fold all of the ingredients together gently, but don’t over mix!
Another little cheese trick I like for baked pasta recipes is to grate some of the cheese, and cube the rest! This ensures an even coating of cheese plus tons of big gooey cheese pockets. All you need to do is finely grate half of your mozzarella (or Fontina) and then cube the remaining mozzarella.
How to Assemble Baked Ziti:
Assembling baked ziti is super easy and I beg you not to take these steps too seriously. After all, everything is going to end up blending together in the oven anyway. But here’s the way I do it:
- Pour 1 cup of sauce on the bottom of a large baking dish. Then add half of the ricotta mixture on top, dropping it in random dots all over the bottom of the baking dish.
- Pour the partially sauce coated pasta on top. Then top with remaining sauce. Dot on the remaining ricotta cheese. Then sprinkle with shredded cheese and finally scatter on the cheese cubes.
- Baked for about 30 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.
If your cheese doesn’t look super golden when you’re ready to pull it out of the oven (and this is something you want) simply fire up the broiler and let it sit under there for 30 seconds or so. Just be careful, it’s easy to burn!
To serve, I’ll often add a sprinkle of freshly chopped parsley for a pop of color and a little parmesan cheese on top for sharpness. Pair with a big salad and a good bottle of wine and enjoy! Also delicious with my easy baked meatballs and garlic knots!
More Baked Pasta Recipes:
- Baked Rigatoni Fra Diavolo with Sausage and Zucchini
- The Best Homemade Lasagna Recipe
- Baked Rigatoni with Beef
- Lightened Up Chicken Parmesan Lasagna
Best Ever Baked Ziti Recipe
For the Sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 pound 85% lean ground beef
- 1 pound Italian sausage
- 3 Tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup red wine (or beef broth)
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, add more to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, add more to taste
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup fresh basil, chopped
- 3 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
For the Ricotta Mixture:
- 15 ounces ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
- 5 ounces fontina cheese, grated
- 1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
- 2 Tablespoons parsley, finely chopped
- 2 Tablespoons basil, finely chopped
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the Baked Ziti:
- 1 pound ziti noodles (or penne)
- 4 ounces low-moisture mozzarella cheese, finely shredded
- 4 ounces Fontina cheese, cut into small cubes
- 1 Tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped, for serving
For the Sauce:
- Warm the oil a large saucepan over medium heat. Add in the onion and cook until softened, about 6 to 8 minutes.
- Add in the garlic and crushed chili flakes and cook for another minute, or until fragrant.
- Add in the beef and sausage and, using a wooden spoon, break the meat up into pieces. Cook until meat is browned and no pink remains, about 5 minutes. Drain out half of the fat, leaving half behind for flavor.
- Stir in the tomato paste. Then add in the wine and stir to combine. Cook for 5 minutes. Then stir in the Italian seasoning, crushed tomatoes, salt, and pepper, stirring well to combine.
- Bring sauce to a boil, then reduce to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 45 minutes.
- Stir in the sugar, basil, and parsley and cook for another 15 minutes. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
- Remove from heat allow to slightly cool before using it in the baked ziti. Sauce can be made up to 3 days in advance and stored in the fridge until needed.
For the Ricotta Mixture:
- In a large bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, fontina cheese, parsley, basil, egg, egg yolk, salt and pepper. Stir together until just smooth. Set aside until needed.
Assembling and Baking the Baked Ziti:
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees (F). Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Once boiling, add 1 teaspoon of salt, then add in the ziti and cook for exactly 4 minutes. The pasta will still be very hard. Drain the pasta and quickly run it under cold water to stop the cooking.
- Pour the pasta back into a large bowl, then stir in 1 and 1/2 cups of the meat sauce. Set aside.
- Spread 1 cup of meat sauce onto the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Then spoon 1/2 of the ricotta mixture on top of the sauce, dropping it in random spoonfuls all over the sauce.
- Pour the pasta on top of this mixture. Then pour the rest of the sauce over the pasta.
- Evenly dot the remaining ricotta cheese over the pasta. Sprinkle on the shredded mozzarella and cubed fontina cheeses. At this point you can bake as directed blow, or cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before baking or freeze for up to 2 months before baking.
- Bake for 30 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbling. If you want extra crispy/golden cheese, turn on the broiler for 30 seconds to 1 minute before removing the baked ziti from the oven.
- Garnish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and serve warm!