Cheesy and saucy, Baked Ziti is an Italian-American pasta recipe and one of our favorite comfort food casserole dishes ever. The tubular ziti pasta soaks up the deliciously sauce and is perfect with the crumbled Italian sausage for a weeknight dinner that's also incredibly freezer-friendly. Serve it with a crisp salad with Italian dressing and some garlic bread for a soul-satisfying meal!
I lived in New Jersey for a couple of years where there are many Italian-Americans and homemade baked ziti is one dish that reminds me so much of that time of my life. It took me years to get my baked ziti recipe just perfect so it tasted like the version I remember and love so much!
The secret is really in the sauce because the rest of the dish is just perfectly al dente ziti noodles and crumbled Italian sausage. One of the key elements is adding some heavy cream to the sauce, which makes it extra rich. And the other was including cottage cheese along with the mozzarella and parmesan. It melts into this pasta bake and you would never guess there was cottage cheese in this dish if you didn't know it! My husband loathes cottage cheese, but he definitely agrees that this is the best baked ziti anywhere.
Why You'll Love This Easy Baked Ziti Recipe
- Easy to make. There's hardly any skill required to brown some Italian sausage, add the rest of the sauce ingredients, then toss everything in a large casserole dish and bake.
- Make-ahead. You can assemble in the morning (or even the night before), then pop the ziti in the oven to bake so it's ready for dinner when you are.
- Freezer-friendly. I almost always double the batch and use a disposable aluminum baking pan to freeze one casserole to have on hand for taking to a friend in need or using on days when I know I'm going to be busy and want a surefire dinner ready to go.
Baked Ziti Ingredients
This is a quick overview of some of the important ingredients you'll need for this baked ziti recipe. Specific measurements and full recipe instructions are in the printable recipe card below.
- Pasta: Ziti noodles are smooth round tubes, perfect for sucking up all the delicious cheese and sauce, but penne or rigatoni would be good substitutes.
- Marinara sauce: We usually use our favorite jarred marinara sauce (Rao's) rather than making homemade marinara sauce, but both work great.
- Tomato sauce: We boost the fresh tomato flavor even more by adding some canned tomato sauce. A little tomato paste thinned with water or even crushed tomatoes could also work.
- Mozzarella cheese: I like fresh mozzarella for shredding and sprinkling on top of the baked ziti because it gives chewier bites as the cheese melts in puddles, but you could just do grated mozzarella for the whole thing.
- Cottage cheese: This is my secret ingredient for the best flavor and texture to your baked ziti! Don't skip it! Some people use ricotta cheese instead, and while it would work I actually think cottage cheese melts better, smoothier, and has less or a grainy texture that's more enjoyable in this recipe.
- Heavy cream: We're actually making a version of pink sauce for our baked ziti where you add cream to tomato sauce for a richer sauce for the pasta.
- Mild or Sweet Italian sausage: If they are in casings, just remove the casings first and tear the sausage apart into clumps for easier browning.
- Fresh basil: This is really mostly for garnish, but I love the burst of flavor from thin strips of this herb sprinkled over the top of the finished dish.
You will also need a large pot for boiling the pasta, a skillet for making the sauce, and a 9x13-inch casserole dish to bake the ziti in.
How to Make This Recipe
This is a quick overview with step-by-step images to help you visualize the process of making and assembling baked ziti. Scroll down to the recipe card for printable, detailed instructions. Here is the basic approach:
- Cook the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil on the stove. The rule is approximately 1 tablespoon of salt for every 4 quarts of water. Add the ziti noodles and cook according to package directions until al dente (or even stopping just 1 minute shy of al dente). The pasta will continue to soften slightly as it baked with the sauce, so be sure not to overcook the pasta or it will be mushy by the time the casserole is out of the oven.
- Brown the sausage. Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat, then add the mild Italian sausage, using a wooden spoon or meat chopper to break it up into small clumps. You might want to add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan first to keep the sausage from sticking, but I find that it's usually unnecessary. Let the sausage cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until browned and no longer pink.
- Make the sauce. Add the marinara sauce, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper to the cooked sausage. Reduce the heat to medium-low and stir to combine, then stir in the cream.
- Make cheese mixture. In a large bowl, combine the beaten eggs, cottage cheese, shredded mozzarella cheese, and parmesan cheese. Stir well until everything is mixed together.
- Combine everything in a large pot. To the pot of cooked ziti noodles, add the meat sauce and cheese mixture. Stir to evenly coat the pasta.
- Top & bake. Dump everything from the pot into a large 9x13-inch casserole dish and sprinkle with some grated parmesan cheese and torn fresh mozzarella (or additional grated mozzarella). Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake 40-45 minutes, removing the foil halfway through, until everything is hot and the cheese is completely melted.
- Garnish and serve. Let the baked ziti sit for 10 minutes before sprinkling with some fresh chopped basil and serving.
Yes! If you make this ahead you can bake it directly from frozen without thawing first. You will just need to add an additional 60 minutes baking while covered at 350 degrees F along with the regular bake time of 40-45 minutes to heat it all the way through.
You don't have to cook the ziti covered, but I prefer to bake the ziti partway with a large piece of foil loosely placed over the top. This helps prevent the pasta noodles on top from drying out and the cheese getting browned too quickly before the rest of the casserole has a chance to heat all the way through. Uncover halfway through or toward the end of baking to finish melting the cheese on top all the way and let it brown up a bit.
Yes, you will want to cook the ziti in boiling, salted water until just shy of al dente before baking. Not only does the pasta water help cook the ziti so you don't end up with crunchy noodles, but it also seasons and flavors the ziti from the salt.
Yes, if you prefer to just use ground beef, you could do that. We just like the flavor of baked ziti with sausage better because it is more flavorful and authentic to what I ate while living in places where this was a popular dinner choice.
Recipe Tips & Tricks
- Spray your baking dish with cooking spray. This just makes it much easier to clean afterwards because the pasta and sauce don't stick to the sides as much.
- Smaller batch. If you're are a smaller family and don't want as many leftovers, you could easily halve the batch, or assemble and bake one in an 8x8-inch square pan while freezing the rest in another disposable 8x8-inch pan for future use.
- Spicy baked ziti. Want to up the ante? Use hot or spicy Italian sausage or add ½ teaspoon of red pepper flakes to the sauce if you like your pasta with a little heat.
What to Serve With Baked Ziti
Something like baked ziti can pretty much be a complete dinner all on it's own, but we usually like to serve either a salad or some veggies for a side.
- Caesar Salad
- Soft Garlic Parmesan Homemade Breadsticks
- Oven Roasted Broccoli
- Tender Roasted Green Beans
- How to store: Leftover baked ziti can be kept in an airtight container for up to 5 days in the fridge. The leftovers are amazing and just as good (if not better!) the next day.
- How to freeze: This meal freezes really well. You can assemble and freeze before baking, or freeze leftovers for up to 3 months in a freezer-safe dish. Just cover well with foil to prevent freezer burn. You can thaw overnight in the fridge before baking, or bake straight from the freezer by decreasing the oven temp by 25 degrees F and baking for an additional 60 minutes, covered.
- How to reheat: We recommend warming individual servings in the microwave, or you can reheat larger amounts in a 350 degrees F oven for 15-20 minutes until warmed through.
More Pasta Recipes
- Cajun Pasta with Sausage and Peppers
- Instant Pot Creamy Penne Alfredo
- Penne Alla Vodka
- One Pot Bruschetta Chicken Pasta
Did you make this recipe?
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- 1 pound ziti pasta
- 1 (16-ounce) container cottage cheese
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- 1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
- 1 ½ cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 pound mild Italian sausage, casings removed
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 (28-ounce) jar marinara sauce (we like Rao's)
- 1 (14-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon coarse Kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, torn into pieces
- 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, sliced into thin strips
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a 9x13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
- Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Season the water with 1 tablespoon of salt and add the pasta. Cook, stirring occasionally, just until barely al dente, according to package directions, usually about 5 to 7 minutes. Drain and set aside.
- In a medium bowl, combine the cottage cheese, eggs, grated mozzarella cheese, and 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine. Set aside.
- In a large skillet or the same pot used to cook the pasta, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage and garlic. Cook, breaking up the meat, until browned, about 4-5 minutes. Drain excess fat.
- Add the marinara sauce, tomato sauce, heavy cream, Italian seasoning, Kosher salt, and black pepper to the browned sausage. Stir to combine.
- Add the cooked pasta and cottage cheese mixture to the sausage, stirring until combined. Transfer the pasta and meat sauce to the prepared baking dish. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese and torn fresh mozzarella.
- Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20-25 minutes until lightly browned and bubbling.
- Remove the baked ziti from the oven and let it sit for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with fresh basil before serving.
- Freezing: Use a disposable aluminum pan. Assemble, then freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw in the fridge overnight, then bake as usual, adding an additional 10-15 minutes if needed to heat all the way through. If baking straight from frozen, decrease oven temperature to 350°F and bake for 60 minutes, covered, then remove foil and bake another 30-40 minutes until hot and bubbly.
- Storage: Leftovers will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Pasta shape: If you can't find ziti, penne or rigatoni will work.
- Italian seasoning: If you don't have Italian seasoning, you can make your own by using 2 teaspoons dried oregano, 1 teaspoon dried basil, and ½ teaspoon each dried rosemary and thyme.
- Marinara sauce: If you don't have marinara sauce, you can just use a 28-ounce can of tomato sauce and double the amount of Italian seasoning. Simmer the sauce with the cooked sausage for 10 minutes to let the flavors combine.
- Cheese: You can use 2 cups of grated mozzarella cheese instead of half grated and half fresh mozzarella. Or use cubed mozzarella cheese.
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