If you’re like recipe developer Michelle McGlinn and love adding ricotta to pasta dishes, then this is the recipe for you. This classic (and never dry) baked ziti is loaded with an abundance of flavors, from the Italian sausage to the tangy tomato sauce, and of course, the delicious, silky ricotta. "Ricotta is ever-so-slightly sweet and so, so creamy," McGlinn explains. "After baking, the ricotta gets super gooey, so the pasta is cheesy and melty all the way through."
As if McGlinn’s description wasn’t tempting enough, there are plenty of other things to love about this recipe. For starters, this is a great recipe to feed a crowd, but if you’re making it for yourself or just one other person, you’ll enjoy leftovers all week long. The prep time here is pretty minimal, and once you get past some basic cooking steps, you can count on the oven to handle it from there. The result is a large-and-in-charge pasta dish that has so much flavor, depth, and texture, you’ll be going back for seconds — and maybe even thirds!
Gather the classic baked ziti ingredients
There are quite a few ingredients that go into this dish, but once they all come together, it will be well worth it. You’ll need ziti pasta, sweet Italian sausage, an onion, garlic, tomato paste, dry red wine (McGlinn uses Cabernet Sauvignon), and tomato sauce. As for seasoning, you’ll need some dried herbs (oregano, thyme, and basil), plus salt and pepper. And this dish wouldn’t be complete without the cheese; you’ll be using three kinds: ricotta, Parmesan, and fresh mozzarella. Finally, you can optionally top the dish off with some fresh chopped parsley.
Boil the pasta and cook the sausage
The first thing you’ll want to do is preheat the oven to 350 F, then cook the pasta. Follow the package’s instructions for boiling the pasta, but be sure to cook it just shy of al dente — typically about 2 minutes less than the package’s cook time. Once the pasta is cooked, drain it and set it aside.
Now, it’s time to focus on the sausage. Place either a deep skillet or Dutch oven on your stovetop over medium heat, then add the Italian sausage and allow it to brown. The more it cooks, the easier it will be to crumble and break down. Once the sausage finishes cooking, remove it from the skillet using a slotted spoon so all of the grease remains.
Begin building the tangy tomato sauce
In that very same skillet with the leftover sausage grease, add the diced onion; allow it to sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute, until it becomes fragrant. Then toss in the tomato paste and use a spoon to incorporate it into the onion and garlic. Cook the tomato paste until it begins to darken, which should take about 2 minutes, then add the red wine. Stir the wine in and allow it to reduce completely (about 2 or 3 minutes).
"I used red wine to deglaze the pan after letting the tomato paste caramelize a bit, which adds a great depth of flavor to the tomato sauce," McGlinn explains of her special ingredient.
Fold in the sausage, ziti, and ricotta
Finish up the sauce by mixing in the tomato sauce, oregano, thyme, basil, salt, and pepper. Add the cooked sausage back into the pan, followed by the cooked pasta. Stir those ingredients in, then fold in the ricotta, allowing it to incorporate into the sauce. McGlinn notes that this will turn your sauce into a rosy pink color.
Finish assembling the ziti
Transfer the mixture from the skillet to a 9×13-inch (or larger) baking dish. Sprinkle on the Parmesan cheese, then cover the top of the pasta with slices of fresh mozzarella. Pop the dish into the oven and bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melty. If you’d like to get a crust on the cheese (this is optional, but who doesn’t love a cheesy crust?), turn the broiler onto high and place the dish on the top rack, so the pasta is about 5 inches from the broiler. Broil the dish for about 3 to 5 minutes, just so the cheese starts to brown and gets crispy (keep a close an eye on it to avoid it burning).
Serve the hot baked ziti
All that’s left to do is serve and enjoy your classic baked ziti! Top the dish off with fresh parsley if you like, then portion it out onto individual plates. Because this is such a "heavy dish" (McGlinn’s words), she recommends keeping the sides light and serving this alongside a leafy green salad or fresh vegetables. Okay, and some buttery garlic bread to soak up all of the creamy, savory sauce.
While this dish tastes wonderful straight from the oven, you can easily store leftovers. "The fully baked ziti lasts for up to a week in the fridge and is very easy to reheat as portions in the microwave or in the casserole dish in the oven," McGlinn explains. She also notes that you could start the dish (up until adding the ricotta), then freeze it in individual portions. Once thawed, mix in the ricotta and top with cheese right before baking.
There’s nothing like digging into a hot pan of cheesy, saucy, and creamy baked ziti. This simple recipe for the indulgent pasta dish is sure to hit the spot.
- 1 pound uncooked ziti pasta
- 1 pound sweet Italian sausage
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- ½ cup Cabernet Sauvignon or other dry red wine
- 2 (15-ounce) cans tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon pepper
- 1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
- 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 8 ounces (½ pound) fresh mozzarella, torn or sliced
- fresh parsley, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Cook pasta just under al dente — about 2 minutes under package directions. Drain and set aside the pasta.
- Meanwhile, cook the sausage in a deep skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat, crumbling as it cooks. Once browned, remove the sausage from the skillet with a slotted spoon, leaving the grease in the skillet.
- Sauté the onions in the skillet over medium heat until softened, about 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the tomato paste and combine it into the onions and garlic, using the back of your spoon to incorporate. Cook until the tomato paste darkens slightly, about 2 to 3 minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with red wine, stirring to incorporate. Allow the red wine to reduce completely, for 2 to 3 minutes; do not allow anything to burn.
- Once the wine is reduced, add the tomato sauce and seasonings, including salt and pepper. Stir to combine.
- Add the reserved sausage and cooked ziti back into the sauce. Stir to combine.
- Fold in the ricotta. The sauce should take on a rosy pink hue.
- Transfer the pasta mixture to a 9×13-inch (or larger) baking dish. Sprinkle on the Parmesan, then top with mozzarella slices. Bake for 20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
- If a crust is desired, turn the broiler to high and place the dish on the top rack, with the ziti 5 inches from the heat source. Broil for 3 to 5 minutes, or until cheese is browned and crispy on top. Remove from oven.
- Top with parsley (if desired) and serve.