Baked ziti didn’t come to us from Italy even if most of the ingredients did. Instead, it’s an Italian-American creation. I don’t know how or why it was first made but it seems quite similar in flavor and ingredients to lasagna, except it’s a bit easier to make because you don’t do as much layering. It is only a guess that lasagna was the original inspiration for ziti, but certainly, if you love lasagna you’ll love this.
It’s really easy. What you do is to cook up some ziti noodles according to the package directions. While they cook, you mix some cheeses (mozzarella and Parmesan) with ricotta, egg, parlsey and seasoning. (I’ve seen recipes online for baked ziti that call for sour cream instead of ricotta. I haven’t tried it. But if you dislike ricotta, that would be a good substitution to try).
Once the pasta is cooked, you drain it and then mix it with that cheese mixture. This makes sure that every noodle in your dish has some delicious cheese coating it. You’re going to add some tomato sauce to this mixture too. This keeps it nice and moist. What kind of sauce? Hang on. Info coming up! First, get out your casserole dish. You’ll need a nice big one. I use a deep dish lasagna pan like this one.
Put some sauce into the bottom of the pan. You can use a basic tomato sauce, store-bought from a can or a basic homemade tomato sauce like this. If you use a tomato sauce, it will be a vegetarian dish. If you want it meaty, you can use a meat sauce or spaghetti sauce instead. Here’s my basic spaghetti sauce recipe, which works great here. As a general guide, what you’ll need is 2 pounds of ground meat (beef, pork, chicken, turkey or a combination) cooked and then mixed with 4 cups of tomato sauce.
Some sauce goes into the bottom of the lasagna pan. Then you add half of your ricotta-coated pasta, a layer of sauce and a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese. Then another layer of pasta, sauce and cheese.
Pop it into a 375ºF oven uncovered until heated through and bubbling, about 30 minutes (it will take longer if you started with cold pasta).
There are three options for making this ahead.
Note about baking make-ahead ziti: If you’re putting your ziti into the oven for 45 minutes or longer, then you need to cover it with foil first otherwise it will dry out. So if you assemble it and refrigerate it, or if you are using cold noodles to make the dish, cover it for for the first 30 minutes and then uncover and continue baking until hot.