Baked Ziti

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Comfort food at its finest — Baked Ziti made with tender pasta noodles, irresistible ground beef and tomato sauce, and a combination of three different kinds of cheese! 

 

Overhead image of Baked Ziti.

Baked Ziti

Baked Ziti is irresistibly cheesy, robustly flavored, and an all-around comforting meal. When the weather cools down, there’s nothing like a good hearty casserole and this dish delivers big time! Tender ziti noodles are generously covered in a well-seasoned meat sauce and plenty of cheese — in fact, three kinds of cheese!

We’ve got mozzarella, Parmesan, and mascarpone cheese in this ziti and once you try this combination, I doubt you’ll ever want to make it any other way! 

I’ve had my fair share of dry or lackluster baked pasta dishes, and I can assure you this is neither one of those. The pasta is generously coated with a sauce that is seasoned with myriad seasonings including basil and oregano; the cheeses add dimension and creaminess to the dish. Below I’ve got all the tips for success in making this recipe and answer frequently asked questions below that. Enjoy!

Process shots: sautee onion and garlic in olive oil; add ground beef; cook and crumble. Mix seasonings and add to the pan. Recipe tips

  • Use good-quality canned tomatoes. By using fire-roasted tomatoes, we’re adding layers of flavor and a hint of smokiness with no extra work. Score! I love Muir Glen® or Cento® fire-roasted crushed tomatoes best (not sponsored).  For the tomato paste and sauce, I recommend the best-quality tomatoes you can find, since these really form the flavor base of the sauce. 
  • Under-boil the ziti noodles. Since we’ll bake the ziti after it’s been boiled, make sure to drain it 2 minutes before the package suggests it’s al dente. This way, as it bakes it will end up perfectly tender instead of potentially mushy.
  • Season at every step. Seasoning is very important for this dish and we want to season as we cook (while also keeping in mind that the Parmesan cheese adds more saltiness to the dish as a whole). I like to salt the pasta water as the ziti cooks (thus seasoning the ziti), seasoning the meat, and seasoning the meat sauce. Taste all the elements as you cook and add a dash more if any of the flavors seem flat.

Mascarpone cheese

This is one of the secrets to this phenomenal Baked Ziti. If you aren’t familiar Mascarpone cheese, it’s similar to cream cheese, but uses a base of whole cream rather than milk (so you know this is going to be good!) It’s an unaged fresh cheese and can be found usually in one of three places in the grocery store: the deli counter, in the dairy section (near the cream cheese, sour cream, etc.), or in the specialty foods section (near fancier cheeses like brie). 

If you have a grocery store app, I recommend using that to quickly locate it in your specific store. While you can use ricotta in place of the mascarpone cheese, I can’t recommend the mascarpone enough — it makes this Baked Ziti irresistibly creamy with a heightened flavor. (Ricotta tends to dry out and get spongy when baked, while a mascarpone cheese more closely resembles a béchamel sauce without all the trouble of making it!)

Process shots: combine tomatoes, sauce, paste and Worcestershire sauce and simmer; cook pasta an drain; toss meat sauce with pasta; add half of the pasta to a casserole dish.

Baked Ziti FAQs

What is the difference between lasagna and baked ziti?

The biggest difference is the pasta used. Lasagna is made with flat sheets of pasta, while baked ziti is made with a tubular pasta.

Is ziti the same as penne?

Ziti is similar to penne, but they aren’t the same. While both are generally the same shape and size, ziti is cut at square angles while the penne is cut at sharp angles. Penne has ridges and ziti is smooth.
 
There are lots of different types of pasta that will work in this recipe — ziti, penne, rigatoni, or rotini.

What goes with Baked Ziti?

There are so many sides that pair nicely with Baked Ziti. Below are our favorites:

Should I cover Baked Ziti while it’s baking? 

Yes, I recommend covering the baked ziti with foil for the first 10 minutes. Then, uncover the dish and bake without foil to allow the cheese to melt on top!

Process shots: add mascarpone to the first layer of pasta; top with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese; layer on two more layers of meat sauce and cheeses; cover and bake, add more cheese and garnish.

Storage/Make Ahead

  • Make ahead: Follow recipe directions, letting the pasta and sauce cool to room temperature before assembling the dish. Once cool, assemble and cover tightly. Place in the fridge (or freezer) and bake when you’re ready to serve it. When baking from the fridge, you’ll want to add on about 10-15 minutes baking time (covered with foil).
  • Freeze: Assemble the dish when the pasta and sauce are cooled to room temperature and make sure the dish as a whole is completely cooled before freezing. Cover the (freezer-safe) filled casserole dish with a double layer of heavy-duty foil. Label and freeze the casserole for up to 3 months.
  • Heating from frozen: Reheating the frozen ziti is easy. Bring the casserole dish from the freezer to room temperature for about 30 minutes and then put it in the oven (covered) for 1 hour. Uncover and bake for another 10-15 minutes or until melted and bubbly around the edges and on top. 

Overhead view of a bowl filled with Baked Ziti.

QUICK TIP

Allow this baked ziti to rest for 5-10 minutes before digging in. This will give a chance for that delicious sauce to settle into all the nooks and crannies of the pasta and thicken slightly. By digging in and serving it up immediately, the juices will pool at the bottom of the casserole dish, leaving the sauce tasting a bit thin.

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Baked Ziti

0 from 0 votes
Comfort food at its finest -- Baked Ziti made with tender pasta, irresistible ground beef and tomato sauce, and a combination of three different cheeses! 
Print Recipe

Baked Ziti

0 from 0 votes
Comfort food at its finest -- Baked Ziti made with tender pasta, irresistible ground beef and tomato sauce, and a combination of three different cheeses! 
Course Dinner, Main Course
Cuisine American, Italian
Keyword baked ziti
Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 5 minutes
Servings 8 servings
Calories 445kcal

Ingredients

  • 4 cups uncooked ziti pasta
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 heaping tablespoon finely minced garlic (~4 cloves)
  • 1 cup (130g) finely diced yellow onion (~1 medium onion)
  • 1 pound lean (93/7g) ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds optional
  • 2 teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon EACH: fine sea salt, pepper, dried basil, dried oregano, white granulated sugar, beef bouillon powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 cans (15 oz. EACH) tomato sauce
  • 1 can (14.5 oz.) crushed fire-roasted tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 container (8 oz.; 226g) mascarpone cheese (See Note 1)
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 and 1/2 cups freshly grated mozzarella cheese, divided (1 cup (104g); 1/2 cup (59g))
  • 1 cup (94g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese divided
  • Finely chopped Italian parsley or basil optional

Instructions

  • PREP: Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly grease a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray and set aside.
  • ZITI: Follow package directions to cook ziti, but subtract 2 minutes from the recommended time. Make sure to season the pasta water (I add 2 teaspoons fine sea salt to the water). Drain the pasta and then return it to the pot and set aside.
  • SAUCE: Add oil in a large skillet over high heat. Once the oil is hot, add onion and sauté for 5-6 minutes. Add in the garlic and cook for 30 more seconds. Press onion and garlic to the side and add the beef to the middle of the pan. Cook the beef until browned through, crumbling it as it cooks. Add in all the seasonings: 1 tablespoon paprika, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, 2 teaspoons onion powder, and 1 teaspoon of each of the following: fine sea salt, pepper, basil, oregano, sugar, beef bouillon powder. Add 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (omit or reduce if sensitive to heat). Stir and cook for 1 minute. Add in the tomato paste, both cans of tomato sauce, crushed tomatoes, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir. Bring to a simmer and then reduce the heat and cook for 10-15 minutes or until slightly thickened.
  • CHEESES: Freshly grated the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese on the large holes of a cheese grater. Open the mascarpone cheese and stir in the 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder.
  • TOSS PASTA AND SAUCE: Add about 2 and 1/2 cups of the meat sauce into the pot with the cooked ziti. Stir to coat.
  • ASSEMBLE: Spread half of the sauced ziti noodles into the prepared baking dish. Dollop with mascarpone and gently spread (it's okay if it doesn't spread smoothly). Add 1/2 cup of mozzarella cheese and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese. Add another 2 cups of the meat sauce and the rest of the sauced ziti. Cover with 1/2 cup mozzarella, remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, and finally the rest of the meat sauce.
  • BAKE: Cover loosely with foil and bake for 10 minutes. Remove foil, and top with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Bake another 10 to 15 minutes until cheese is melted and edges are bubbling. Let stand for 5-10 minutes at room temperature.
  • SERVE: Top with some additional grated Parmesan, fresh basil or parsley, and/or freshly cracked black pepper, and serve hot!

Video

Recipe Notes

Note 1: Marscapone is one of the secrets to this recipe. If you aren't familiar, Mascarpone cheese is similar to cream cheese but uses a base of whole cream rather than milk. It's a fresh, unaged cheese and can be found usually in one of three places in the grocery store: the deli counter, in the dairy section (near the cream cheese, sour cream, etc.), or the specialty foods section (near more exotic cheeses like brie).  If you have a grocery store app, I recommend using that to quickly locate it in your grocery store. While you can use ricotta in place of the mascarpone cheese, I can't recommend the mascarpone enough!

Nutrition Facts

Calories: 445kcal | Carbohydrates: 29g | Protein: 31g | Fat: 22g | Saturated Fat: 11g | Cholesterol: 74mg | Sodium: 702mg | Potassium: 426mg | Fiber: 2g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin A: 883IU | Vitamin C: 4mg | Calcium: 490mg | Iron: 3mg

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