I turn to this easy baked ziti recipe anytime I'm serving a crowd. Filled with creamy ricotta, tomato sauce, and fresh spinach, it's comfort food at its best.
Baked ziti is a dish that has a special place in both Jack’s heart and mine. Growing up, I ate it at all sorts of gatherings – graduation parties, holidays, and more – and Jack’s mom makes it every year on Christmas Eve. With the holidays right around the corner, I thought now would be the perfect time to share my baked ziti recipe.
Easy to make and perfect for serving a crowd, it’s the recipe I turn to whenever we’re hosting family or friends, one we’ve made and loved time and time again. Whether you serve it at a holiday feast or on a regular weeknight, I hope you enjoy it too.
My Baked Ziti Recipe
My baked ziti recipe is a fresher take on the versions I ate growing up, which were often filled with ground beef or Italian sausage. I swap homemade marinara sauce for the meat sauce, and then, I amp it up with these three key components:
- Fresh spinach – I sauté a full pound of spinach to make this recipe extra fresh. I love the way it mingles with the noodles, and it adds such a gorgeous pop of green.
- Lemony ricotta – In between the layers of noodles and spinach, I dollop big spoonfuls of lemony ricotta cheese. It gives this baked ziti an incredible creamy richness and a burst of bright flavor. Note: for the best creamy texture, be sure to use whole milk ricotta in this recipe!
- Smoked mozzarella – If it’s what you have on hand, regular mozzarella cheese will work here, but using smoked mozzarella really takes it over the top. It adds a delicious savory flavor to the pasta’s Italian seasoning. You won’t be able to get enough!
Of course, I always finish the whole thing with a big handful of fresh basil and parsley!
How to Make Baked Ziti
Making this baked ziti recipe is easy! Here’s what you need to do:
First, cook the pasta! Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until it becomes al dente. Be careful not to overcook it! It will soften more while it bakes.
While the pasta cooks, make the lemony ricotta. Mix the ricotta cheese with lemon zest, oregano, garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes for a touch of heat.
Next, sauté the spinach. Drain the pasta, and heat a glug of olive oil in the same pot. Sauté the spinach until it’s just wilted. I work in batches here, cooking 1/2 pound of spinach at a time, so that I can take it all off the heat while it’s still vibrant green. Remove the sautéed spinach from the pot, roughly chop it, and set it aside.
Then, mix everything together! Return most of the spinach and all the pasta to the pot, along with all but 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce. Stir until everything is well combined.
Finally, layer it up. Spread the remaining sauce on the bottom of a large casserole dish, and spread half of the pasta mixture over it. Dollop in the ricotta and the reserved spinach, and scoop the rest of the pasta on top. Cover it all with a layer of grated smoked mozzarella and a bit of grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Drizzle with olive oil, and bake until the cheese is golden brown and bubbling.
Serve hot, and enjoy!
Baked Ziti Serving Suggestions
Check out this post for more easy dinner ideas!
Easy Baked Ziti
- 4 cups (32 ounces) marinara sauce
- 2 cups (16 ounces) ricotta cheese
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
- ¾ teaspoon sea salt, more for the pasta water
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound ziti pasta
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- 1 pound fresh spinach
- 1½ cups smoked mozzarella cheese
- ¼ cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
- Chopped fresh parsley and/or torn basil leaves, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. Spread ½ cup marinara in the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish.
- In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, garlic, lemon zest, oregano, red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of fresh pepper.
- In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain.
- Return the pot back to the stove. Over low heat, drizzle the bottom of the pot with a little olive oil and add the spinach. Toss and sauté 1 to 2 minutes until just wilted, working in batches if necessary. Turn off the heat, remove the spinach from the pot, and gently squeeze out some of the excess water. Coarsely chop it and set aside.
- Add the pasta back to the pot along with the remaining marinara, most of the chopped spinach, ¼ teaspoon sea salt, and more fresh pepper and toss until combined.
- Add half the pasta to the baking dish, top with dollops of the ricotta, the remaining spinach, and scoop the remaining pasta on top. Top with the mozzarella and pecorino cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and bake until the cheese is browned, 16 to 22 minutes.
- Garnish with fresh basil or parsley and serve hot.