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Baked Ziti, cheesy pasta comfort

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I love a good baked pasta dish.

Something that makes the kitchen smell like garlic with a tomato sauce that burbles around a top layer of deeply burnished cheese.

And while there are plenty of ways to get there, this baked ziti is my take on the Italian-American classic, and it’s a good one.

Whole peeled tomatoes, a garlic bulb, a yellow onion, and rigatoni

(I know, ahem, that the picture shows rigatoni, which is not exactly ziti, but it’s similar and sometimes easier to find. Any tubular pasta you like works.)

This one eschews the jarred sauce options out there, but still keeps the ingredient list short and the effort level low compared to the payoff here.

Rigatoni soaking in water

This one starts with a trick I learned from Ideas in Food, which is that instead of boiling pasta for baked pasta or starting with specially made no-boil pasta, you can soak the pasta in cold or room temperature water before adding it to your sauce and baking it.

It prevents the problem with some no-boil recipes, where the pasta soaks up all the liquid from the sauce during the baking process leaving your final baked pasta dish too dry.

It’s less work than boiling, and I find it’s more reliable for getting pasta with a pleasant al dente chew after the baking process. So I basically never boil pasta for baked ziti or any other baked pasta dish like lasagna anymore, I just soak, drain, and add to the sauce.

Diced onions, crumbled Italian sausage, and sliced garlic in a skillet with a can of tomatoes nearby

The sauce itself has a classic Italian-American flavor profile.

Onions and Italian sausage get sauteed in a glug of olive oil along with some crushed red pepper flakes, bashed up fennel seeds, and dried thyme. (Vegetarians can skip the sausage and still have a great dish.)

Then a pile of sliced garlic goes in and cooks just until it starts smelling amazing.

Then you empty a can of whole peeled tomatoes over the whole thing, break them up with a wooden spoon, and let the whole thing simmer for a few minutes while the flavors get to know each other.

Whole peeled tomatoes added to a skillet with onions, garlic, and sausage

I skip ricotta here, and instead add a generous dollop of crème fraîche, a trick I learned from Julia Turshen’s excellent Small Victories.

It adds richness without the hassle of making a bechamel, and the resulting sauce has a wonderful velvety quality.

(If you don’t have crème fraîche, you can substitute sour cream or mascarpone or even a splash of heavy cream. )

Ziti in tomato sauce with a block of parmesan cheese and mozzarella nearby

Then the pasta gets drained and added to the sauce, and then everything gets assembled in a baking dish.

Half of the pasta and sauce go in, then you grate a layer of parmesan cheese over that and add a handful of shredded mozzarella. Then you add the rest of the pasta and more of both cheeses and send this baby into the oven.

Baked Ziti in an off-white baking dish with basil on the side

There it gets browned and the sauce gets bubbly and the pasta gets tender with just enough bite.

You can add some thinly sliced basil over the top if you like. It’s not necessary, but it’s nice. (I’ve been thrilled to have a steady supply in the cold and dark months from the aerogarden on my kitchen counter.)

And then, after you’ve let it cool long enough that you won’t burn yourself, you can dig in.

Baked Ziti in an off-white baking dish, close up
Yield: 4 servings

Baked Ziti

Baked Ziti in an off-white baking dish, close up

This classic Italian-American baked pasta is rich and comforting and fragrant with garlic. It's a flexible recipe. Vegetarians can leave out the sausage. You can swap in sour cream, mascarpone, a splash of heavy cream, or a bit of butter for the crème fraîche. Or you can leave that out if you want something a tad lighter.

I like this best with ziti or rigatoni, and penne would be great too.

The cheese melts best if you grate it yourself because there's no anti-clumping additives (but I'm not going to tell on anyone for using the pre-shredded stuff).

This bakes in a 2-quart baking dish such as an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish or a 10-inch round casserole. You can double it and make it in a 9"x13" pan for a crowd.

Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 40 minutes

Ingredients

  • 8 ounces ziti or rigatoni
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
  • 1/4 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fennel seed, crushed
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 4 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
  • 1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup crème fraîche
  • 6 ounces mozzarella cheese, grated
  • 1 ounce parmesan cheese, grated (or to taste)

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Add the pasta to a medium bowl and cover with water. (Room temperature or cold, from the tap is fine.) Add a pinch of salt. Set aside while you make the sauce.
  2. Heat a large skillet or saute pan over medium heat and add a little olive oil. Add the diced onions, sausage, crushed red pepper flakes, fennel, and thyme along with a generous pinch of salt. Saute, stirring occasionally and breaking up the sausage into bite-sized bits, until the onions are translucent and the sausage is browned in spots.
  3. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the whole peeled tomatoes along with their juices and break up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 5 minutes. Stir in the crème fraîche.
  4. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce. Stir.
  5. Add about half of the pasta and sauce to a 2-quart baking dish. Grate parmesan over the pasta in a thin layer. Add about half of the mozzarella over the pasta in an even layer. Repeat with the remaining pasta and cheese.
  6. Bake until the cheese is browned in spots and the sauce is bubbling, about 20 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

4

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 559Total Fat: 33gSaturated Fat: 18gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 92mgSodium: 668mgCarbohydrates: 42gFiber: 5gSugar: 8gProtein: 25g
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Liz

Monday 30th of November 2020

I love baked ziti! Such a staple dish when I was growing up!

Luci

Monday 30th of November 2020

I loved your baked ziti recipe, it was so cheesy and delicious! Baked ziti has always been my favorite pasta dish so I was excited to make this! Plus, it's perfect to enjoy on those cold fall and winter nights.

CLARA

Monday 30th of November 2020

This was delish, I made it with Rigatoni as well because Ziti is basically nonexistent in Canada. Love the addition of fennel seeds, it just added a little something extra.

Sharon

Monday 30th of November 2020

When you are looking for comfort food, this dish is it! Everything bakes so perfectly together.

Beth

Monday 30th of November 2020

Yummy! This looks so delicious and tasty! I'm so excited to give this a try! My family is going to absolutely love it!