Best-Ever Baked Ziti

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We know it’s pretty bold to refer to this dish as the best of its kind. But, wait until you make it.

There are so many things to love about this iconic Italian-American dish. It can be made in advance. It feeds a lot of hungry people. Leftovers are amazing. But, more than anything, it is incredibly delicious. The homemade marinara sauce is what puts it over the top! Serve it with a Caesar salad and cheesy garlic bread for a meal your guests won’t soon forget!

A straight-on view of a steel lasagna pan filled with baked ziti with about one third of the casserole gone and a large spoon inserted off to the side.

How To Make Baked Ziti

Though the history of baked ziti goes back for generations and generations, this recipe delivers that authentic taste that we all love so much!

We love that so many of the elements of this dish can be made in advance.

 

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The Ingredients You Will Need

This is one of those dishes that has more than a handful of ingredients, but, none of them are exotic.

Here Is What You’ll Need to Have on Hand

Marinara sauce – This can be made well in advance. It freezes beautifully. It should be repeated, this marinara is key to making a best-ever dish.
Oil – Olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil is recommended.
Mirepoix – Onions, celery, carrots – chopped.
Italian sausage – We love a combination of sweet and hot, but that’s up to you.
Ground beef – 85% lean has lots of flavor. Be sure to discard rendered grease responsibly.
Seasonings – Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper is all you need. 
Red wine – Not 100% necessary, but it definitely adds a depth of flavor to the sauce.
Tomato paste – Adds more to the flavor profile and helps to slightly thicken the sauce.
Ricotta – Whole milk, please.
Mozzarella – Shredded is fine, just use a top-notch variety.
Parmesan cheese – Grated.
Dried pasta – Any small tubular pasta will work, but, obviously, ziti is traditional.
Parsley – Freshly chopped, for a pretty garnish.

EXPERT TIP: 99.5% of the alcohol from the wine will evaporate out during the simmering process. If you prefer to not cook with wine, just omit it. You’ll still get a delicious sauce.

A person pouring red wine from a small carafe into a large silver skillet filled with cooked ground beef, Italian sausage, and sautéed vegetables.

Tips for Perfect Baked Ziti

Use High-Quality Ingredients – For the best flavor, use high-quality ingredients, including fresh herbs, San Marzano tomatoes, and good quality ricotta and mozzarella cheese.

Make the Marinara SauceHomemade marinara sauce is easy to make and tastes much better than store-bought versions. Use San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, onion, and fresh herbs to create a rich and flavorful sauce.

Cook the Pasta Until It Is al Dente – Overcooked pasta will become mushy and won’t hold up well in the baked ziti. Be sure to cook the pasta until it is just tender, then rinse it under cold water to stop the cooking process.

EXPERT TIP: Use a ladle or large spoon to add the layers of meat sauce. Add it in dollops and then use the back of the spoon (or your fingers) to spread the sauce over the cheese and noodles. Be sure to leave plenty of sauce for the top of the ziti.

A person using a small ladle to transfer a Italian meat sauce over a pan filled with ziti noodles, ricotta cheese, and shreds of mozzarella.

How To Serve and Store

As mentioned, the ziti can be prepared several days in advance before baking. Simply wrap in plastic wrap or foil and keep refrigerated for no more than 3 days. It can also be frozen (before baking) for up to 2 months. Let thaw completely before baking.

This dish is perfect for serving right from the pan. If passing tableside, be sure to include hot pads, or kitchen towels to grip the warm handles.

Leftover baked ziti is spectacular. You can easily heat it up in the microwave on HIGH for 1 to 2 minutes. Or, cover the pan with foil and cook in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes, or until warm all the way through and bubbling.

For wine, a good solid red is ideal, such as a cabernet or zinfandel.

An overhead view of a lasagna pan filled with an undisturbed pan of baked ziti with glasses of red wine nearby.

Other Classic Italian-American Dishes to Try

Some of these dishes are strictly Italian, and some of them are Italian-American. All of them are authentic and truly spectacular. Give them all a try!

Rustic Bolognese Lasagna
Homemade Stuffed Manicotti
Spinach and Cheese Cannelloni
Best-Ever Eggplant Parmesan
Chicken Piccata
Baked Eggplant Rollatini
Classic Spaghetti and Meatballs
Penne alla Vodka
Spaghetti Vongole (Pasta with White Clam Sauce)
Shrimp Marinara
Salmon Puttanesca

These are so classic and through-the-roof delicious! But, in the meantime, isn’t this dish grabbing your attention?

Two white pasta bowls filled with a dinner-sized portion of baked ziti topped with grated Parmesan cheese and sitting next to a stemless glass of red wine.

There is truly something magical about this dish.

You can easily cut the recipe in half if not serving a group. But, remember, leftovers are excellent and will keep in the refrigerator for up to 5 to 7 days.

Just wait until you lift that first steaming spoonful from the pan. Get ready for big anticipation!

A person lifting a large silver spoon filled with a gooey helping of baked ziti.

When we serve this, we love to garnish the top of the dish with freshly chopped parsley.

And be sure to have plenty of Parmesan cheese available for guests and family to add more, if they desire.

We pass a block of Parmesan and a cheese grater, for a nice touch.

This dish is truly about as good as it comes when you’re looking for Italian-American comfort food.

A close-up view of a white pasta bowl filled with baked ziti with a person grating a block of Parmesan cheese above it.

Ready to make the best baked pasta dish this side of Little Italy? Go for it!

And when you do, be sure to take a photo of it, post it on Instagram, and tag @HowToFeedaLoon and hashtag #HowToFeedaLoon!

A person lifting a large silver spoon filled with a gooey helping of baked ziti.

Best-Ever Baked Ziti

This Best-Ever Baked Ziti recipe really is the best ever. Go with quality ingredients and be sure to make the marinara from scratch, and you won't believe the results. This meat sauce can be made a day in advance and kept in the fridge or freeze up to 2 weeks. The dish can also be made a day in advance and kept in the fridge or freeze for up to 2 weeks. Just let thaw before baking. This is one to serve to people you really love and want to make them happy.
5 from 11 votes
Print Pin Rate
Course: Entree
Cuisine: Italian, Italian / American
Keyword: baked pasta recipe, how to make homemade baked ziti
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Marinara making: 35 minutes
Total Time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Servings: 8
Calories: 624kcal

Equipment

  • Lasagna pan or large casserole dish (9x13, or larger)

Ingredients

Make Ahead

For the Meat Sauce

  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 2 stalks celery chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • 1 medium carrot peeled and chopped (about 1/2 cup)
  • ½ lb sweet Italian sausage casings removed, if links
  • ½ lb hot Italian sausage casings removed, if links
  • 1 lb ground beef 85% lean
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup red wine
  • 5 cups fresh marinara sauce click for recipe
  • 3 tbsp tomato paste

For the Baked Ziti

  • 16 oz ziti dried, or rigatoni
  • 16 oz ricotta cheese whole milk
  • 3 cups mozzarella cheese shredded
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese grated
  • 2 tbsp Italian parsley chopped, for garnish

Instructions

Do Ahead

  • Prepare the marinara sauce (see link to recipe in Ingredients List)
    fresh marinara sauce

Make the Meat Sauce

  • Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion, celery, and carrot and cook until soft, about 7 - 10 minutes.
    ¼ cup olive oil, 1 medium onion, 2 stalks celery, 1 medium carrot
  • Crumble the sausage with your hands into the pot and then add the beef. Cook until almost no longer pink.
    ½ lb sweet Italian sausage, ½ lb hot Italian sausage, 1 lb ground beef
  • Season with 1 tsp salt and ½ tsp pepper.
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • At this point, if too much grease has been rendered, tilt the skillet and use a spoon to remove excess fat. Discard safely. Leave a little in the pan for added flavor.
  • Add the wine and cook until the liquid is almost all gone, about 3 to 4 minutes.
    ½ cup red wine
  • Add the prepared marinara and tomato paste and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside.
    5 cups fresh marinara sauce, 3 tbsp tomato paste

Assemble and Bake the Dish

  • Preheat the oven to 350°F.
  • Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the ziti according to package instructions for al dente. Drain and set aside.
    16 oz ziti
  • In a lasagna pan (or a deep casserole dish), ladle a thin layer of the meat sauce on the bottom of the dish, about 2 cups.
  • Add a layer of cooked ziti, a little more than a third of the pasta.
  • Top with dollops of half of the ricotta and then 1 cup of the mozzarella.
    16 oz ricotta cheese, 3 cups mozzarella cheese
  • Sprinkle about ¼ cup of Parmesan on top of that.
    1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • Repeat this process again. (You'll want to leave a handful of the cooked pasta and then several cups of the sauce for the topping of the dish).
  • Top with a handful of pasta, then another layer of the sauce, 1 cup of mozzarella, and another ¼ cup of Parmesan on top.
  • Baked, uncovered, for 45 to 50 minutes, until lightly browned on top and bubbly.
  • Garnish with chopped parsley. Let rest for about 5 minutes, and then serve with additional grated Parmesan on the side.
    2 tbsp Italian parsley

Notes

See the video near the top of the blog post for visual guidance. If you liked the video, please subscribe to our YouTube channel
The marinara sauce can be made several days in advance or frozen for up to 2 months (thaw completely before using). The meat sauce can be prepared up to 3 days before assembling the ziti.
The dish can be assembled and then refrigerated (covered) for several days. If chilled, you will need to add another 15 to 20 minutes of baking. Cover with foil if getting too brown on top.
Leftovers are fantastic and we keep covered in the fridge for up to 5 days. You can freeze leftover baked ziti, but the cheese will lose its creamy texture. We don't recommend freezing once baked. 

Nutrition

Calories: 624kcal | Carbohydrates: 49g | Protein: 42g | Fat: 31g | Saturated Fat: 9g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 3g | Monounsaturated Fat: 8g | Trans Fat: 1g | Cholesterol: 132mg | Sodium: 822mg | Potassium: 610mg | Fiber: 3g | Sugar: 4g | Vitamin A: 2129IU | Vitamin C: 5mg | Calcium: 519mg | Iron: 3mg
Tried this recipe? Take a Picture!Mention @HowToFeedALoon or tag #HowToFeedALoon!

POST UPDATE: This recipe was originally published in April 2018, but was updated with improved tweaks to the recipe with new tips and photography and a fabulous new video in July 2023!

35 Comments

  • 5 stars
    Another absolute winner!! I respectfully recommend choosing oregano as one of the herbs in the marinara.

    • Hi Nancy! Yay!! Sure! Oregano would be a great addition to the marinara!!! Thanks for sharing and for the wonderful review! We always appreciate that so very much! All the best, Kris & Wesley

  • 5 stars
    You added milk? Don’t see that. I didn’t. Everything ready, waiting for pasta to cook. Let you know if the completed project is as wonderful as the marinara and meat sauce. Love that the marinara recipe size is good for second casserole.
    Keep thinking about milk.

    • 5 stars
      Oh my! Great flavor. Next time I’m going to check at 40 minutes for my oven. At 45 minutes it’s a delicious chew in the corners. Truly a scrumptious ziti.

    • 5 stars
      I am anxious to try this recipe, but for me 2 lbs of meat for 6 servings is too much. I will reduce the meat by half. If this sounds like it will be a failure, please say so.

      • Hi Patti!

        Sorry for the delayed response! It’s definitely 6 large servings. You can reduce the meat to 1 lb, no problem. Let us know how it turns out and what you think!

      • 5 stars
        I put this together in 2 smaller casseroles and froze one. I had a few noodles and a tiny bit of sauce leftover and thought, “What would Wesley do?” Yep, one by one I scooped some sauce onto a few noodles. That alone was fantastic! As always, this recipe was amazing!!! No recipe ever disappoints!!! Thanks Kris! XOXOXO to both of you and the pups!!!

      • Claire!! That sounds absolutely perfect! Do as Wesley would do and you’ll usually be just fine (usually…LOL!). We are so happy you loved the baked ziti and thank you so so much for letting us know and for the wonderful review. That honestly means so much to us!!! xoxoxo Kris, Wesley, Ebenezer, and Florence (Eb and Flo).

  • I am thinking about making this to take to a Thanksgiving gathering. Usually I make macaroni and cheese, but was considering doing something different this year. What are the dimensions of the “large baking dish?”

    • Hi Chris, any dish ranging from 9×13 or a size larger will work. As Joe mentioned, a little extra depth is nice to have. There’s really not a science to this dish, regarding layering. We just layer the pasta, cheese, and sauce until the dish is filled then add another layer of shredded mozzarella on top. Depending on the size of your dish, you may have a little extra pasta or sauce, which is great to have on the side! Hope this helps and Happy Thanksgiving!

      • 5 stars
        Thank you. So far, so good. I made the marinara this evening and plan to make the meat sauce tomorrow evening. Then, I will put everything together and probably bake it Thanksgiving morning. Thank you for sharing the recipe! Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  • I made your recipe tonight for Best-Ever Baked Ziti. It was outstanding!!! Seriously the best I have ever made, I did make my own sauce but made this exactly as your recipe. For sure will be making this many more times. Thank You, Carol

    • Carol! That’s so awesome to hear! We love baked ziti, it’s so comforting and yummy. And so glad you made the sauce! We think it’s what makes the ziti so special. And thank you so much for letting us know and for the great review! We always appreciate that so very, very much! All the best!!! Kris & Wesley

    • It should be a lasagna pan. 9×13 is large enough, but it needs to be at least 3 inches deep. Most 9×13 pans are only 2 inches deep. The depth is more important than the other dimensions. Since I don’t have a lasagna pan, I use three 9×4 loaf pans. That gives me the depth, and I can freeze some for later.

  • 5 stars
    My whole family loved your Best ever Ziti bake recipe. I substitute the ground beef for ground turkey.

    P. S. You both are so cute!

    • Hi Renée! That is so wonderful to hear!! That’s a big win pleasing the whole family and we are so very happy you all enjoyed the recipe! That is a family favorite in our house, for sure!! (Making a big batch tonight for an extended family getaway this weekend, in fact!). And thank you so much for letting us know. That means so very much to us!! Please stay in touch!! All the best, Kris & Wesley

    • 5 stars
      Hi My name is Maureen and Love this recipe!being Italian this recipe is the best way to make baked ziti! Ty for sharing it!!

  • 5 stars
    I love to cook and combed the Internet for a really good ziti recipe and stumbled onto your site. First of all, your video is hilarious. The ingredient list had my mouth watering and The marinara sauce IS to die for. I made it for Super Bowl Sunday and it truly is the best ever baked ziti and I will never try any other recipe. Can’t wait to make it again and try some of your other dishes. I love it when a recipe does not disappoint! Wish you both continued success in the culinary world!

    • Hi Nancy!! Thank you for making our day, weekend…heck, our month!! We are SO thrilled that you had success with the baked ziti! We absolutely love it, too, and it’s always so great to serve to a gathering of loved ones!! And thank you so very much for taking the time to let us know. That means the world to us. Please stay in touch!!! All the best, Kris & Wesley

  • I’m trying this recipe for the men and women working at our local fire department on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day(including my son-in-law)! So far it smells delicious! I will let you know their response!!

    • Hi Katie!! So sorry for the delayed response!! We are so glad you made this ziti. It’s one of our all-time favorite dishes. How did it turn out? Hope you all enjoyed it!! Best, Kris & Wesley

  • Ha. This recipe is delicious, but it doesn’t say where to add the ricotta, so I forgot. I bet it would be even better with it!

  • I’m looking forward to trying this recipe! Can you substitute with Ground Turkey and Turkey sausages?

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