As soon as the weather turns cool, I grab the cozy sweaters and start cooking the comfort food, like this Easy Baked Ziti recipe. It’s rich and gooey with its layers of pasta, homemade red sauce with Italian sausage, and blend of melty cheeses. It’s total comfort in a bowl. And the best part is that homemade Baked Ziti is not fussy at all. You don’t have to worry about delicate sheet pasta or tedious layering. It’s all the great flavors of lasagna in a freeform delicious casserole!
What Is Baked Ziti?
Baked ziti is a super cozy pasta casserole made with ziti pasta (a smooth tube-shaped pasta), red sauce, and a mix of cheeses (ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan). It has many of the same ingredients as a classic lasagna, but the structure is much more freeform, making it really fast and easy to make.
Ingredients for Baked Ziti
Here’s all you’ll need to make our awesome baked ziti recipe:
- Italian Sausage: This recipe starts with a homemade meat sauce that is made with Italian sausage. The sausage is stuffed with tons of herbs and spices, which brings a lot of flavor to the dish. You can use hot, mild, or sweet Italian sausage.
- Onion: A little onion cooked down into the red sauce gives it a delicious subtle sweetness.
- Tomato Paste and Crushed Tomatoes: We use two types of canned tomatoes to give the red sauce a rich flavor and texture. The crushed tomatoes create the body of the sauce without being too chunky while concentrated tomato paste thickens the sauce and makes the tomato flavor extra rich.
- Italian seasoning: To keep this recipe simple, we use an Italian seasoning blend to season the sauce rather than several individual herbs and spices.
- Ziti: Ziti is a smooth, tube-shaped pasta that is perfect for this cozy casserole. If you can’t find ziti pasta at your local store, you can use rigatoni, which is similar but has a ridged texture on the outside. Penne will also work in a pinch.
- Cheese: This hearty pasta casserole contains a blend of several cheeses: ricotta, mozzarella, and a shredded Italian cheese blend.
- Parsley (optional): For extra color, you can top baked ziti with chopped parsley. If you happen to grow basil, you can garnish with chopped basil for extra color and flavor.
Can I Add Vegetables?
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.
What to Serve with Baked Ziti?
How to Store the Leftovers
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!
Easy Baked Ziti
- 1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet, mild, or hot) ($3.49)
- 1 yellow onion ($0.27)
- 3 oz. tomato paste ($0.27)
- 1 28oz. 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)
- 1/4 tsp freshly cracked black pepper ($0.05)
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella ($2.29)
- 1 handful chopped parsley (optional, for garnish) ($0.20)
- 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).
- 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.
- Add the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and ½ 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.
- After getting the sauce started, begin the ziti. Bring a large pot of water with ½ 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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Scroll down for the step by step photos!
How to Make Baked Ziti – Step by Step Photos
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Repeat with a second layer of pasta, ricotta mixture, and sauce, then top with 2 cups shredded mozzarella.
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.
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.
Garnish with a little chopped parsley, if desired, then serve!