Easy Baked Ziti

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

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.

Ziti pasta with marinara sauce

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!

Baked ziti recipe

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.

Easy baked ziti

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!

This baked ziti also freezes well, see this post for tips.

How to make baked ziti

Baked Ziti Serving Suggestions

Serve this baked ziti with crusty bread or homemade focaccia and a big salad like my Caesar salad, broccoli salad, kale salad, or any of these salad recipes.

Alternatively, skip the salad and serve it alongside a simple veggie side dish like roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted butternut squash, or lemony green beans!

Baked ziti

If you love this baked ziti recipe…

Check out this post for more easy dinner ideas or try one of these delicious pasta recipes next!

Easy Baked Ziti

rate this recipe:
5 from 13 votes
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 20 mins
Total Time: 35 mins
Serves 6 to 8
Made with plenty of marinara sauce, creamy ricotta, and bubbly, golden brown mozzarella cheese, this baked ziti recipe is a guaranteed hit!

Ingredients

  • 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
  • cups smoked mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
  • Chopped fresh parsley and/or torn basil leaves, for garnish

Instructions

  • 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.

 

31 comments

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  1. Melanie Hastings
    12.19.2019

    Looks amazing! Do you think this would work with gluten free pasta or would they past get to mushy?

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      12.19.2019

      I think it’ll be great with brown rice pasta – I love tinkyada‘s brown rice penne and jovial’s brown rice pastas. I haven’t loved baked pastas with the legume pastas. Hope that helps!

      • Melanie Hastings
        12.19.2019

        Thank you! I will give it a try.

  2. Bri
    12.19.2019

    Would love to make this, but hoping to do so in a Vegan way. If using your vegan ricotta recipe, would that work instead? Any modifications I should try specific to this recipe?

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      12.20.2019

      Hi Bri, the vegan ricotta will be great – you can skip the cheese on top and then I’d bake it covered with foil so that the pasta doesn’t dry out.

    • Hayley
      12.21.2019

      I was planning to make this with your vegan ricotta too! Going to make it for a relaxing boxing day dinner after Christmas 🙂 would you use the whole ricotta from your roasted vegetable lasagna recipe or 1/2?

      • Jeanine Donofrio
        12.22.2019

        Hi Haley, I’d use half in here. I hope you love it!

  3. Paulina
    12.20.2019

    I will do it for dinner. Thanks for this recipe!

  4. Tarra
    12.22.2019

    Hi there! Is this a dish that could be made ahead of time and baked layer or do you think it will dry out?
    Thank you so much!

    • Tarra
      12.22.2019

      Oops later (not layer)…
      Thank you!!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      12.22.2019

      Hi Tarra – it’ll be great made made ahead and baked later! The ricotta middle and cheese on top will keep it from drying out.

      • Genevieve Moran
        10.30.2020

        Hi, can’t wait to try this! If I would like to prep it about one-two hours before cooking, should I refrigerate? And if so, should I cook it for longer?

        Thank you!

        • Jeanine Donofrio
          10.30.2020

          Hi Genevieve, yep, refrigerate it. You might want to bake it a couple of minutes longer but it shouldn’t affect the timing to much.

          • Genevieve
            10.30.2020

            Thank you!

  5. E
    12.23.2019

    The recipe looks great.
    Where are those baking dishes from? I love the handles and clean white look.
    Happy holidays!

  6. Sarah
    12.25.2019

    5 stars
    I made this for our Christmas Eve dinner, using the tofu ricotta recipe. Yummy and filling. All the spinach and basil make this dish very green without being overwhelming. I went with fresh mozzarella on top for the kiddo. Another great recipe! Thank you.

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      12.25.2019

      Hi Sarah, I’m so glad you loved it. Merry Christmas!

  7. Wanda Melebeck
    12.29.2019

    5 stars
    Vegan ricotta recipe turned out great!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      01.03.2020

      I’m so glad you loved it in this recipe!

  8. Mary
    01.02.2020

    5 stars
    This was so good! I made it last night and cannot wait to eat the leftovers for dinner tonight. I loved how it felt healthy-ish (all that spinach! The lemon!)… but also had the great cheese and pasta!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      01.03.2020

      Hi Mary, I’m so glad you loved it!

  9. Janice
    01.05.2020

    5 stars
    Thank you for posting this terrific baked ziti recipe. I made 2 pans of it yesterday for a family get-together and everyone loved it. It’s the best recipe I’ve ever used for ziti.

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      01.05.2020

      Hi Janice, I’m so glad everyone loved it!

  10. Chris
    01.20.2020

    5 stars
    OMG. I just made this and that lemony ricotta is awesome! Delicious recipe!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      01.27.2020

      Yay – I’m so glad you loved it!

  11. Bri Schneider
    01.30.2020

    5 stars
    I made this last night and it was INCREDIBLE! Hands down my favorite pasta recipe I’ve ever made! The flavored ricotta makes it so so tasty! And it’s so easy to throw together. Thank you for sharing Jeanine!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      02.03.2020

      Yay, I’m so glad this one was a hit too 🙂

  12. Christina
    05.24.2020

    Made this for my family last night and it was a huge hit! The spinach adds a nice element of greens but the star was the lemony ricotta! Will definitely be making this again!

  13. Jeanine Donofrio
    06.16.2020

    I’m so glad you loved it!

  14. Kristen
    08.04.2020

    Do you have any suggestions on how to make this a freezer meal?

    Thanks!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      08.04.2020

      Hi Kristen, you can freeze the entire dish (cover in foil once it’s cooled) or slice it into individual portions and freeze it in glass containers.

      To reheat an entire frozen casserole, cover it with foil and bake for about 1 hour at 350, or until warmed through. To brown the cheese on top, uncover the dish for the last 20 minutes of baking. If the cheese is getting too browned before the middle is thawed, simply cover it back up and continue to bake. Reheat individual slices in the microwave (the timing will depend on your microwave) or in the oven for 20-30 minutes.

      Hope that helps! I also have more freezer tips (for other recipes) in this post: https://www.loveandlemons.com/freezer-meals/

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Photograph of Jeanine Donofrio and Jack Mathews in their kitchen

Hello, we're Jeanine and Jack.

We love to eat, travel, cook, and eat some more! We create & photograph vegetarian recipes from our home in Chicago, while our shiba pups eat the kale stems that fall on the kitchen floor.