A saucy, cheesy Baked Ziti Recipe! With a robustly flavored homemade tomato sauce (made with Italian sausage), ricotta and melty, bubbly mozzarella cheese, this is comfort food at its finest.
The Best Baked Ziti Recipe
I swore over the weekend that it was going to be nothing but spinach salads and lean protein for me from then on out. The weather in Florida was 75 degrees and sunny and it was easy to promise myself a future of leafy green dinners. Then, I flew home. I arrived to a car covered in 6 inches of snow, an icy driveway, and threats of even more snow this upcoming weekend and I can’t get my comfort food/baked ziti cravings out of my head.
If I’m being honest, I’m sure I’ll be eating baked ziti in the summer, too. Even when it’s 75 degrees here and my shorts are (still) begging me to go green with my diet. But there’s something about chilly winter weather and meteorologists throwing around words like “polar vortex” and “punishing winter weather” that has me craving carb-y comfort food. And this baked ziti checks all the boxes when it comes to comfort food.
It’s cheesy and saucy and you’re going to want a crusty piece of bread for sopping up your plate (spoiler alert! Something very sop-worthy coming Friday!).
There are a lot of different components that make this baked ziti the best I’ve ever had. That gooey, melty, bubbly cheese, the creamy layer of thick ricotta… but what really makes this ziti next-level good is the sauce. We’re not using just any old jar of marinara sauce here. Today we’re making our sauce from scratch. Only one pan is needed to make the sauce and the flavor is worth all 45 seconds it will take for clean-up (and then some).
How to make sauce for baked ziti
We start by cooking our finely diced onion and garlic before adding and browning Italian sausage. You can use sweet or mild Italian sausage depending on your preference, and I’ve been meaning to try it with hot Italian as well.
Add your spices before the meat is totally browned, stirring well as you crumble and cook the sausage. Adding the spices at this point will help to really develop the flavor of the sauce (I use a similar technique with my favorite chili).
Add tomato sauce and diced tomatoes; fire roasted are a big plus and definitely worth traveling to a second grocery store for if your regular grocery store is out (at least that’s what I told Zach). We’ll also add a Tablespoon of sugar at this point. Not because I’m a demonstrable sugar addict, but because this will help to cut the acidity from the tomatoes as well as develop the flavor of the sauce.
Cook everything at a simmer until your sauce is thickened then remove from heat and stir in a handful of thinly sliced basil leaves. Voila, a robust and fully-flavored sauce ready for layering in the best baked ziti ever.
Can You Prepare Baked Ziti Ahead of Time?
You can prepare baked ziti ahead of time. Prep, assemble, cover tightly with plastic wrap and this baked ziti will keep in the fridge for up to two days prior to baking. More time in the oven will likely be required when you are ready to bake, and I recommend letting the ziti sit on the counter while your oven preheats.
What are the Ingredients in Baked Ziti?
Classic and simple, mostly. The fresher the better (my mom likes to make her own homemade pasta noodles, maybe someday I’ll be as ambitious). To be more specific, you’ll need:
- Ziti noodles (see below for substitutes)
- Bulk Italian sausage (sweet or mild, depending on your own preference)
- Diced onion & minced garlic
- Tomato sauce and fire roasted diced tomatoes
- Fresh basil
- Ricotta, Mozzarella, and Parmesan cheeses
Can I Use Penne Instead of Ziti?
If you can’t find ziti noodles, penne ones will work just as well! Look, there are plenty of ingredients worth being snobbish about, but using ziti vs penne in baked “ziti” is not one of them. In fact, just about any shape of pasta will work well with this recipe if you can’t find ziti noodles.
Other Hearty Recipes You Might Enjoy:
How to Make Baked Ziti
- 1 lb Ziti or Penne noodles 455g
- 2 Tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil divided
- 5 cloves minced garlic 1 heaping Tablespoon
- 1 onion finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 1 lb Italian sausage I’ve used Sweet Italian and Mild (455g)
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- ¾ teaspoon garlic powder
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 3/4 teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes optional
- 28 oz tomato sauce 680g
- 14 oz can fire roasted diced tomatoes undrained (400)
- 3 teaspoons sugar
- ¼ cup thinly sliced fresh basil loosely packed
- 1 heaping cup ricotta cheese 280g
- 1 1/2 cups shredded Mozzarella cheese 170g
- ⅓ cup grated parmesan cheese 60g
- Preheat oven to 350F and lightly butter the sides and bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish. Set aside.
- Prepare pasta according to package instructions, cook al dente. Drain, rinse under cold water, and mix with two teaspoons of olive oil.
- Meanwhile, prepare your sauce. Heat 2 Tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat in a large saucepan. Add onion and cook until translucent (3-5 minutes). Add garlic and cook until fragrant (30 seconds).
- Add italian sausage and cook, crumbling, until mostly browned. Once sausage is mostly browned, add Italian seasoning, onion powder, garlic powder, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, stirring and cooking until sausage is entirely browned.
- Add tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and sugar. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring frequently, until slightly thickened.
- Remove from heat and stir in basil.
- Spread a small amount of pasta sauce (several spoonfuls, see image in the post or video for visual) on the bottom of prepared casserole dish.
- Layer the sauce with half of the noodles (if some have stuck together while sitting, they should be easy to break apart with your hands). Top with half of the remaining sauce and use a spoon to spread evenly over noodles.
- Dollop ricotta evenly over sauce. Top evenly with remaining noodles and then remaining sauce.
- Top with mozzarella cheese and grated parmesan. Spray a piece of foil lightly with cooking spray, cover ziti and bake for 15-20 minutes. Uncover and continue to cook another 5-10 minutes or until bubbly.
- Serve warm & enjoy!