Bake

Baked Ziti

March  5, 2021
16 Ratings
Photo by Ty Mecham Prop Stylist: Brooke Deonarine. Food Stylist: Anna Billingskog.
Author Notes

This baked ziti—or penne, or rigatoni, or whatever shape you like—is extra in every single way. There’s sausage and there’s bacon. There’s mozzarella and there’s Parmesan. There’s tomato sauce so delicious, you might be tempted to eat it on its own. Heck, there’s even crème fraîche.

But the true beauty of our best-ever baked ziti is in its layering. We took the usual construction (sauce, noodles, cheese—then repeat) and mixed it up, for two reasons. One: because beginning with a bottom layer of creamy, melty mozzarella and ricotta and crème fraîche beneath the pasta provides lots of insurance against dryness, which is as bad as baked ziti gets. And two: because the way ours works, you have two distinct cheese moats, and it’s very fun to say “cheese moat.” There’s one on the bottom, and one between the two pasta layers, and you’re encouraged to mention both to your guests as many times as seems socially appropriate.

Now, for a very official word on noodles. If you’re a purist, by all means use regular old ziti here. The recipe itself calls for ziti rigati, which is ribbed, and we think all the better for sauce-clinging. But you could also call in rigatoni (our favorite), or calamarata, or penne, or even fusilli. Just don’t forget to pull out a few noodles around the edges, for baking, because nobody ever said “no” to extra crispy bits. —Ella Quittner

  • Prep time 25 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 30 minutes
  • Serves 6 to 8
Ingredients
  • 2 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 8 ounces thick-cut bacon, sliced into pieces roughly 1/2-inch wide
  • 1 pound (about 4 to 6) sweet Italian sausage, casings removed (you can substitute half for spicy Italian sausage)
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for salting water, and more to taste
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound ziti rigati (see Author Note)
  • 1 1/4 cups whole-milk ricotta
  • 1 cup crème fraîche
  • 2 cups (about 7 ounces) finely grated Parmesan or Grana Padano, divided
  • 1 1/2 pounds fresh mozzarella, shredded or roughly cut into 1/2-inch cubes, and patted dry with a clean dish towel
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Make the sauce. In a large bowl, use your hands to break up the whole peeled tomatoes into small bite–sized pieces, in the juices from the can. Set aside. (Note: If the juices are thin like water, versus thick like a Bloody Mary, remove and toss about 1/2 cup.)
  2. Make the meat sauce: Place a 6-quart Dutch oven or large, heavy pot over a medium-high flame and heat the olive oil until glistening. Add the bacon and cook until the fat renders and the meat is crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. To the rendered fat, add the uncased sausage and brown thoroughly—don’t jostle too much!—while breaking it up with a wooden spoon into small, shaggy pieces. When it’s fully browned, remove and set aside. Carefully, pour out about two-thirds of the rendered fat from the pan into a heatproof bowl to discard later, then place the pan back over the flame. Add the onion to the pan, and reduce the heat to medium. Sauté about 6 to 8 minutes, until the onion’s mostly translucent. Add the red pepper flakes and allow them to bloom for about 30 seconds, until you can smell them. Add the crushed tomatoes, their juices, 1 teaspoon salt, 2 tablespoons butter, and the reserved bacon and sausage. Let the sauce come to a rolling simmer before turning the flame to medium-low, and simmering, uncovered, about 25 to 30 minutes, until reduced by about a fifth, darkened, and jammy. (While this is happening, you can tackle the next few steps.)
  3. Cook the noodles: Set a large, covered pot of heavily salted water on the stove and bring it to a boil. Add the noodles and cook 3 minutes less than indicated for al dente on the package—they’ll continue to soften in the oven.
  4. Heat the oven to 450°F. Use the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter to grease a 9x13-inch metal baking dish. (You could use glass, too, though metal will get the edges crispier!) Set dish aside.
  5. Prepare the ricotta mixture: Combine ricotta, crème fraîche, a pinch of salt, and 2/3 cup of Parmesan. Set aside.
  6. When sauce is ready, turn off heat, and season with salt salt as needed. Reserve 2 cups of the tomato sauce in a separate bowl and set aside. Toss the drained pasta with the rest of the sauce.
  7. Time to assemble. Yay! First thing’s first: Grab your buttered baking dish, and swirl about 1 cup of the tomato sauce and 1 cup of the ricotta mixture on the bottom. Sprinkle evenly with 1/2 cup mozzarella and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Add half of the sauced noodles on top of that, and spoon 1/2 cup of reserved sauce over the noodles.
  8. Next, dot the rest of the ricotta mixture over the sauce, and gently smooth it out. Sprinkle half of the remaining Parmesan and half of the remaining mozzarella on top of that. Top the cheesy layer with the rest of the sauced noodles, spread evenly, and the remaining sauce. Top with the rest of the Parmesan and mozzarella. If you live for crispy noodle bits, be sure to rearrange so as many noodles as possible are sticking out.
  9. Place into the oven on the middle rack, uncovered, and bake until the cheese is speckled with brown spots, the sauce is bubbling up around the sides, and the noodles sticking out look nice and crisp—about 25 to 30 minutes. (For oven–floor insurance you can stick a baking sheet on the floor or the rack below to capture any drips.) Let baked ziti cool for at least 10 minutes, so the sauce has a chance to set a bit, before serving warm.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Greg Crawford
    Greg Crawford
  • Hannah Rose Haslam
    Hannah Rose Haslam
  • tastysweet
    tastysweet
  • Sabine Gagnon
    Sabine Gagnon
  • Ella Quittner
    Ella Quittner

32 Reviews

Greg C. February 20, 2021
Hands-down the best ziti I've ever made. I let the sauce simmer for a few hours; it was not bland at all. I used half sweet, half spicy sausage. Combined, the hearty sauce and cheese mix put this one over the top. Mixing creme fraiche with ricotta...genius. We loved, of course, the crispy bits of pasta around the edges! Not surprisingly, it was even better on day two!
 
warbler4306 October 29, 2020
This was a pretty solid recipe, but the sauce on its own was a little bland. Any ideas to punch it up besides more spice?
 
Kristin K. September 13, 2020
Could you add cremini mushrooms to the sauce or would that change it completely? We always love mushrooms in our red sauce.
 
diane September 9, 2020
Made this for our viewing of the last episode of our COVID binge watch of the Sopranos. Great flavor - I didn't love the sauce by itself, but it was great when mixed with the ricotta/parmesan. Only thing I would change is the temp - mine burned in 20 minutes at 450. (I used really fresh mozz on top - maybe try cheaper shredded stuff next time.) Salvaged it by covering top with foil, but the cheese on top wasn't ooey gooey, just hard. Next time I'll turn down to 400 and bake a little longer.
 
Christine July 19, 2020
Saw the recipe. Invited family for dinner just so I could make it. Sauce was a bit too spicy at first (red pepper flakes I presume) until I made the ricotta sauce and baked it. All the flavors mix so well that even my grandchildren loved it! It's definitely a keeper recipe.
 
Marty H. July 13, 2020
OH MAN, this was good! I was concerned it would be too rich with that much cheese and the creme fraiche: but it works really, really well. The sauce is fantastic. Make it! I used bow ties because that's what I had on hand, so now I have an excuse to make it again with penne, which I think would be a better vehicle for the sauce. THANK YOU! A new go-to for sure.
 
Leslyj June 11, 2020
I decided to make Ziti after seeing and hearing about it so often on the Sopranos!! The first recipe I made didn't have enough flavor and was boring. This recipe was wonderful! I used what I had on hand. I too cooked the sauce twice as long. I wanted to use all the ricotta from the pint I bought so I just added some sour cream to even up the amount. I used all hot Italian sausage a little less red pepper flakes.. I baked it longer as well ,45 minutes or so. I ate 3 days in a row and froze the rest. Thank you for this recipe!!!
 
Hannah R. April 9, 2020
THis is some of the best pasta I've ever had. It's so good! I used pancetta instead of bacon, because it's what I had on hand, and I i found that I needed to cook the sauce for several more hours than the 25-30 minutes suggested to get the sauce as thick and jammy as I wanted it to be. Other than that I left everything the same. It is truly an amazing recipe- it freezes well too, which is great for leftovers.
 
Sylvia April 7, 2020
This was absolutely delicious! I made it vegetarian by omitting the bacon and using a plant based hot Italian sausage. It's very, very cheesy and filling :)
 
Kathy March 29, 2020
This recipe is so easy that my husband made it without any difficulty. It was great for the 3 of us and there were enough leftovers for another meal, something that is important during these trying times. We are making it again next week as it was such a favourite! Thank you for the recipe.
 
Jennifer March 28, 2020
My ricotta layer broke and it ended up super grainy. Did anyone else have this issue? I used high-quality ricotta and creme fraiche. The flavors were lovely but the texture was not.
 
Michele March 28, 2020
Hi Jennifer ! Mine was a bit grainy but the ricotta I use always does that a bit usually anyway in most dishes. I use the "regular" ricotta, but I know the brand I like also offers an "extra smooth", maybe that consistency might yield the texture you are looking for if your brand offers it as well? I am making this dish tomorrow actually, a special request. So delish!
 
Hannah R. April 9, 2020
I made my own ricotta (it's super easy! check out smitten kitchen's recipe for it) and the texture was heavenly!
 
Michele March 8, 2020
Among the best baked pasta dishes that I’ve had, I wouldn’t change a thing! The sauce/ricotta mixture/cheese layer on the bottom is brilliant and it did yield a gorgeously juicy ziti. Great tip re undercooking the pasta by 3 min- perfect texture in the finished dish. Worth seeking out the crème fraîche. Test drove it last night; it rates a gold star in my entertaining rotation! Cheers from Ottawa, Canada!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 15, 2020
This makes me so happy! Thrilled to hear you enjoyed it.
 
tastysweet March 7, 2020
How can this best be made ahead? Prepare and refrigerate, then cook later after coming to room temp?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 15, 2020
If I were being really finicky about the noodles getting soggy, I'd make the sauce and the ricotta mixture in advance, then do the noodles and assemble and bake day of.
 
tastysweet March 15, 2020
Thanks. Great idea
 
Mary February 14, 2020
Your thoughts on reheating this pasta dish? I would like to assemble, bake and reheat the next day, ideas? Suggestions?
Thanks
M
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. March 15, 2020
I have done this—made it and served it on day 1, then refrigerated and reheated on subsequent days. Noodles will be a little less firm/crispy on top than the fresh version, but it's still delicious. Recommend popping it under the broiler after reheating in the oven for crispiest top. Or, if you want to prep in advance to make the next day, here's what I noted above:

If I were being really finicky about the noodles getting soggy, I'd make the sauce and the ricotta mixture in advance, then do the noodles and assemble and bake day of.
 
Rnzhen January 20, 2020
Great recipe! Super easy and my family devoured it! I used part skim ricotta, sweet Italian chicken sausage, and used half the mozzarella and Parmesan cheese as one of my sons is not a cheese lover. It was great. Will definitely make again. Thank you.
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. January 30, 2020
Yay!!! Thanks for the note, so pleased you liked it.
 
marcy K. January 19, 2020
Is there any reason not to start with chopped tomatoes rather than whole since you are breaking them up anyway?
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. January 30, 2020
Nah, it's a pretty flexible recipe! You could use chopped.
 
bhilz February 4, 2020
A lot of recipes recommend whole peeled tomatoes for sauces or soups because the quality spec for them is higher than for chopped/diced. I've definitely used both, depending on what's on sale that day or if I want fire-roasted, which are usually only available chopped. But if there's not much heat or other ingredients happening in the dish, I'll stick with whole peeled.
 
marcy K. February 4, 2020
That’s interesting - thanks
 
Treebird February 27, 2020
Canned Whole tomatoes always taste better than canned chopped
 
Michele March 8, 2020
I agree Treebird. My faves are San Marzano!
 
tastysweet March 8, 2020
I recently found out on of my fav canned San Marzano are actually from CA. They truly need to be from Italy.
 
Michele March 8, 2020
We have that issue here in Canada too, often they are labelled “San Marzano Type” and they are actually grown here. I am with you - I always look for imported. Huge difference and worth the difference in price.
 
Sabine G. January 18, 2020
Made this tonight- it was indeed the best dang baked ziti EVER. Incredible! My girls (2 &5) couldn't get enough of it. Fab dish for the whole family. Layering this as recommended really makes for little gold mines of deliciousness! The bacon in this adds so much flavor & depth!
 
Author Comment
Ella Q. January 30, 2020
Thrilled to hear it was a hit!!