Classic Baked Ziti

As soon as the weather turns cool, I grab the cozy sweaters and start cooking the comfort food, like this Classic Baked Ziti. It’s rich and gooey with its layers of pasta, homemade red sauce with Italian sausage, and three types of melty cheese. Total comfort in a bowl. And the best part is that Baked Ziti is not fussy. You don’t have to worry about delicate sheet pasta or getting your layers perfect. It’s freeform, messy goodness at its best!

Classic Baked Ziti with Sausage

Can I Use a Different Pasta Shape?

If you can’t find ziti (a smooth, tubular shaped pasta), you can substitute penne or rigatoni in this recipe. Rigatoni is the most similar to ziti, the only difference being that it has a ridges and is slightly shorter and wider. 

Can I Add Vegetables to Baked Ziti?

Yes! I almost always add extra vegetables to whatever I’m cooking, but today I decided to go with the classic form of Baked Ziti. If I were to add vegetables, I would probably add some fresh spinach into the sauce and stir until it is wilted. Or, roast some broccoli, zucchini, or eggplant, and then toss that into the sauce. 

Can I Substitute the Sausage?

The Italian sausage adds a lot of flavor to this dish, but there are still a few options for substituting the sausage. You can use ground beef, turkey, or chicken, but you’ll probably want to double the Italian seasoning blend to make up for the herbs that are found in Italian sausage. You can also use a vegetarian Italian sausage alternative, or substitute with a pound of chopped mushrooms.

Front view of a wooden spoon lifting a scoopful of Baked Ziti from the casserole dish

What Should I Serve with Baked Ziti?

Homemade Garlic Bread is awesome with baked ziti, but if you want some vegetables on the side I would go with something like Oven Roasted Frozen Broccoli, or do a simple side salad of mixed greens with Italian dressing, and whatever vegetables you have in your fridge (tomatoes, mushrooms, carrots, etc.). 

How Long Does This Last?

This Baked Ziti will keep in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. I highly suggest dividing the leftovers into single servings so they cool quickly in the refrigerator. This recipe makes 8 large servings, so once the servings are cooled completely in the refrigerator, you can transfer a few to the freezer for longer storage. Then each serving is just a quick microwave away from being a filling last-minute dinner!

 

Classic Baked Ziti

Like a freeform lasagna, this Baked Ziti has layers of pasta, homemade red sauce with Italian sausage, and three types of melty cheese!

  • 1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet, mild, or hot) ($3.49)
  • 1 yellow onion ($0.27)
  • 3 oz. tomato paste ($0.27)
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes ($1.00)
  • 1 Tbsp Italian seasoning blend ($0.30)
  • 1/2 cup water ($0.00)
  • 1 lb. ziti ($1.67)
  • 1/2 Tbsp salt (for pasta water) ($0.05)
  • 15 oz. ricotta ($1.69)
  • 1 cup Italian cheese blend* ($1.15)
  • freshly cracked black pepper ($0.05)
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella ($2.29)
  • 1 handful chopped parsley (optional, for garnish) ($0.20)
  1. Brown the sausage in a large skillet or pot over medium heat, until it's brown and crispy on the edges (pork sausage contains a lot of fat, so I didn't add any extra to the skillet).

  2. While the sausage is browning, finely dice the onion. Add the onion to the skillet once the sausage has browned, and continue to sauté over medium heat until the onion is soft and translucent.

  3. Add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and 1/2 cup water to the skillet with the sausage and stir to combine. Place a lid on the skillet and allow it to come up to a simmer. Once simmering, turn the heat down and allow it to continue to simmer while you cook the ziti. Stir the sauce occasionally as it simmers.

  4. After getting the sauce started, begin the ziti. Bring a large pot of water with 1/2 Tbsp salt to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, add the ziti, and let it continue to boil until the ziti is tender (about 7-8 minutes). Drain the ziti in a colander. Shake the colander a bit to shake excess water out of the pasta.

  5. While the pasta and sauce are cooking, prepare the cheese filling. Add the ricotta, Italian cheese blend, and some freshly cracked black pepper (about 10 cranks of a pepper mill) to a bowl and stir to combine. Begin to preheat the oven to 350ºF.

  6. After draining the ziti, return it to the pot and add 1 cup of the red sauce. Stir to coat the cooked pasta in sauce.

  7. Pour half of the ziti to a 9×13" baking dish. Add half of the ricotta mixture on top of the ziti in small dollops. Finally, spoon half of the red sauce and sausage over the pasta and ricotta. It's okay if the ingredients don't cover in a solid layer. Repeat these layers with the second half of the pasta, ricotta mixture, and sauce. Finally, top with 2 cups shredded mozzarella.

  8. Cover the baking dish with foil, making sure it's slightly tented so that it doesn't touch or stick to the melted cheese. Transfer the covered casserole to the oven and bake for 20 minutes.

  9. After baking for 20 minutes, remove the foil, and turn the oven on to broil (keep the casserole on the middle rack, about 10-12 inches from the broiler). Broil for 5 minutes, or just until the cheese is slightly browned. Keep a close eye on the baked ziti as it broils, because broilers can vary in intensity. Top with chopped parsley, if desired, then serve.

*In place of Italian cheese blend you can use a mix of mozzarella and Parmesan.

Scroll down for the step by step photos!

A white plate with baked ziti, garlic bread, and a black fork.

 

How to Make Baked Ziti – Step by Step Photos

Browned Italian sausage in a skillet

Begin by browning 1 pound Italian sausage in a skillet until it is brown and crispy on the edges. Pork sausage has quite a bit of fat in it on its own, so I didn’t add any extra to the skillet.

Diced onion added to the skillet with the sausage

While the sausage is browning, finely dice a yellow onion. Add it to the skillet with the browned sausage and continue to sauté for a few minutes more, or until the onion is soft and translucent.

Crushed tomatoes being poured into the skillet, with sausage, onions, tomato paste, and Italian seasoning

Add 3 oz. tomato paste (half of a 6 oz. can – don’t forget to freeze the rest of the can!), 1 Tbsp Italian seasoning blend, one 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes, and 1/2 cup water. Stir to combine, place a lid on the skillet, and let it come up to a simmer. Once simmering, turn the heat down to low and let it continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, while you begin cooking the ziti.

Boiled ziti in a pot of water with a wooden spoon

Once the sauce is simmering away, begin cooking the ziti. Bring a large pot of water with 1/2 Tbsp salt to a boil over high heat. Once boiling, add 1 lb. ziti. Continue to boil the ziti until tender, then drain in a colander. Shake the colander a bit to shake out the excess water.

Ricotta, Italian cheese, and black pepper in a bowl

While the ziti is boiling and the sauce is simmering, make the ricotta cheese blend. Add 15 oz. ricotta, 1 cup Italian cheese blend, and some freshly cracked black pepper to a bowl. Stir to combine. Also begin to preheat the oven to 350ºF at the time.

Sauce being added to cooked ziti in the pot.

After draining the ziti, return it to the pot and add 1 cup of the red sauce. Stir to coat the ziti in the sauce.

First layers of pasta, cheese, and sauce in the casserole dish

Pour half of the sauce coated ziti into a 9×13″ casserole dish. Add half of the ricotta mixture on top of the ziti in small dollops, then add half of the red sauce on top. Don’t worry if the layers don’t cover each other in a solid layer. It doesn’t have to be perfect!

Second layers of pasta, ricotta, and sauce, and final layer of mozzarella

Repeat with a second layer of pasta, ricotta mixture, and sauce, then top with 2 cups shredded mozzarella.

Baked ziti with melted cheese and foil peeled back

Cover the casserole with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Make sure the foil is slightly tented so it doesn’t touch the cheese and stick when it melts.

Broiled baked ziti with browned cheese on top

After baking for 20 minutes, remove the foil, turn the oven to broil, and return the casserole to the oven (keep it on the middle rack, about 10-12 inches from the broiler). Broil for about 5 minutes, or just until the cheese is browned on top. Keep a close eye as it broils because broilers can vary in intensity.

Finished baked ziti casserole topped with chopped parsley and a wooden spoon on the side

Garnish with a little chopped parsley, if desired, then serve!

Overhead view of a spoon just beginning to dig into the baked ziti casserole

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