What is a Baked Ziti?
Baked ziti is a casserole type of dish that uses ziti pasta noodles and a tomato sauce to be baked in the oven (al forno). It is a terrific way to serve a large group and it’s perfect for groups where there may be vegetarians or kids. Interestingly, baked ziti has been a staple in Italian meal prep since the late middle ages and came about as a great dish to use in entertaining large groups for the nobles in Italy. The trend caught on quickly and soon was a common dish for any large gathering.
Alison Roman, famed columnist for the New York Times cooking section gives us both a recipe and a video to see how she puts her personal spin on this popular baked pasta dish. With fresh mozzarella, creamy ricotta, and tangy tomato sauce, this recipe is the epitome of comfort food.
One of the best things about this recipe is that it is hearty without being costly as this makes a large portion of pasta. The ingredients are a mix of both pantry staples like canned tomatoes and pasta, with the addition of whole cream and fresh mozzarella that might need to be added to your shopping list.
To help you in making this recipe, we bring you 11 great tips to making this wonderfully tasty and homey comfort meal.
NY Times / Alison Roman’s Baked Ziti Recipe
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped finely
- ¼ c olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped finely
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 (28-ounce can) tomato purée or sauce
- 1 (28-ounce can) whole peeled tomatoes, packed in juice
- ¾ tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 16 oz/1 pound ricotta
- ½ c heavy cream
- ½ c finely grated Pecorino or Parmesan, plus more for on top
- 1 pound of short, tubular pasta like ziti, penne, or rigatoni
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pcs
- Make the tomato sauce: Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over low-medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and salt and pepper. Cook until the onion is softened and translucent (stirring occasionally, without letting it brown), 8-10 mins. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until it has turned a deeper brick-red color (about 2 mins). Crush the whole tomatoes by hand and add them (including the juice) along with the tomato purée to the pot, making sure to scrape up any bits from the bottom of the pot. Season with salt and pepper and add in the red pepper flakes (optional). Bring to a simmer and cook, until the tomato sauce has thickened (20 to 30 minutes).
- Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta, heavy cream, and 1/2 c Pecorino / Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
- Preparing the pasta: While the sauce is cooking, heat the oven to 425 degrees, and place a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove.
- Cook the pasta until it’s nearly al dente. (Make sure to undercook the pasta as it will continue to cook in the oven. The best way to do this is to cook it 2 minutes less than you normally would when making it al dente.) Drain the pasta (reserving 1 cup of the pasta water) and rinse with cool water. Set this aside while the tomato sauce finishes.
- Once the tomato sauce is completed, stir in the remaining pasta water.
- Place the pasta in a large bowl and add 2 cups of the sauce. Stir to coat the pasta evenly which will help encourage the sauce to go inside each tube of pasta.
- Spoon some of the remaining sauce and place it on the bottom of a 3-qt baking dish, then top it with 1/3 of the pasta. Spoon 1/3 of the remaining sauce on top, then half of the ricotta mixture, then place 1/3 of the mozzarella cheese on top of that. Repeat all of those steps again, beginning with the pasta, one more time. For the last layer, add the last 1/3 of pasta and the last of the sauce. Place the remaining mozzarella on top and grate a bit more Parmesan on top of that. Place the baking dish on top of a sided sheet pan (lined with parchment paper to catch any drips). Place in the oven and bake until the top has browned nicely and the edges are golden brown / bubbling, 30 to 40 minutes.
- Let cool slightly before eating.
- Baked ziti can be assembled 2 hours before baking. It can also be baked 1 day ahead and rewarmed before serving.
Recipe courtesy of NY Times
1. Use Any Pasta
Don’t let the fact that you don’t have ziti or rigatoni keep you from this amazing dish. The chef for this recipe uses rigatoni instead of the typical ziti, but you could use anything on hand that would help to hold sauce – so a penne or a cavatappi or even a macaroni could work. The point of the chef using rigatoni is so that she ends up with crispy ends of the pasta to add texture to the dish.
2. Don’t Overcook Your Pasta
Make sure to undercook your pasta slightly or it will be too soft once baked. Alison recommends to make sure that it’s almost underdone and has a bit of a bite to it as well. She recommends undercooking it by about 2 minutes. The sauce will keep cooking the pasta as it is baked and the benefit is the flavor of the sauce melds into the pasta!
3. Save the Pasta Water
The water that the pasta is cooked in is full of starch and can help to pull your sauce together and thicken it. It’s a step that in a rush, people tend to forget, (present company included) and once you strain your pasta, it’s too late. Alison’s recipe calls for 1 cup reserved to add to the sauce later. Not only does it help thicken the sauce, but it also helps ‘glue’ the pasta and the sauce together.
4. Crush the Canned Tomatoes
The recipe calls for whole canned tomatoes and they need to be crushed. In her video she does this by hand, but this could definitely be done using a fork as well (though the hand-crushing is definitely more fun!) Crushing them helps the tomatoes to be in smaller bite-sized pieces in the final dish.
5. Toast the Tomato Paste
Tomato paste is best used to bring out the flavors of other dry herbs and aromatics such as onions and garlic. It takes an extra couple of minutes, but really helps to meld the flavors together and make the tastes all come out. The trick is to add the paste to the onions and garlic until it browns, being careful not to burn it. The caramelization makes all the difference.
6. What if You Don’t Have Fresh Mozzarella?
The recipe tastes best with fresh mozzarella which adds a nice creamy texture, but if you can only get regular mozzarella make sure to reduce the amount of salt you use in other places in the recipe. Regular mozzarella tends to be much saltier than fresh, which is why you would need to adjust the salt.
7. Modify the Cheese to Your Preference
There is a generous amount of cheese in the recipe so you can modify the amount specifically to your preference. While this recipe is designed to be super ooey gooey and cheesy, we definitely felt like it had a bit too much cheese (even for us). So definitely ‘eye-ball’ this part to determine how much you want in yours.
8. Use Heavy Cream – Instead of Half and Half
Let’s face it, baked pasta isn’t something one would typically choose to make when counting calories. The heavy cream is a must to add to the ricotta cheese, so we don’t recommend swapping it out for half and half. In fact, when half and half is mixed with tomato sauce, it tends to separate. So it’s best to just stick to the full-fat heavy cream – it also tastes so much better!
9. Adding Meat
While this dish is vegetarian, you could easily add in any meat of your preference. You could use Italian sausage, ground beef, or pancetta, but it would really work well with any kind. To add the meat to this recipe, add 1/2 pound of it to the pan while sautéeing the onions, and then resume with the rest of the recipe. Not only does this add some protein to the dish, but it also adds a nice pop of flavor!
10. Add Some Wine
The pasta water does serve a purpose in that it helps to thicken your sauce up. If you feel like your sauce isn’t too loose, you can add wine to help create a deep flavor profile. We recommend starting with ½ cup of wine, and testing it out before trying to add more.
11. Use a Sided-Baking Sheet
More specifically, for under your baked dish when in the oven. We recommend putting a sheet pan under your baked ziti – which really is a great tip for any baked dish that might spill over. If you happen to have parchment paper, then we also recommend to line the sheet pan on the bottom, to ensure fast and easy clean up. Any tip that makes clean up easier is a win in my book!
We hope these tips help make your baked ziti or rigatoni the best it can be. This is just the dish to become your go to when trying to decide on a crowd-pleasing dish. Enjoy!
If you like Alison’s recipe for the baked ziti, then you definitely need to check out her caramelized shallot pasta recipe.