Taco Stuffed Shells combine taco night with delicious pasta for a satisfying meal that the whole family is sure to enjoy.
This is a delicious Tex-Mex version of stuffed shells that comes together really quickly due to a couple of prepared ingredients (salsa, taco seasoning, and pre-shredded cheese!). While the cheesy, meaty shells bake, you’ll get some of your favorite taco toppings ready (tomatoes, green onions, avocado) and get ready for a really fun and tasty dinner.
Additional details about this Taco Stuffed Shells dish are below or you can click here to jump straight to the recipe.
What Kind Of Pasta?
Look for the jumbo pasta shells in the pasta aisle. These should be at least two inches long (but probably closer to 2 and 1/2), which are the best size for stuffing. If jumbo pasta shells aren’t available in your area, the filling can also be stuffed into manicotti or cannelloni shells instead.
Once you’ve got your pasta shells, there’s just a few more ingredients to grab. A packet of taco seasoning, prepared salsa, a jar of tomato sauce, and pre-shredded cheese help the entire dish come together quickly.
If using homemade taco seasoning, you’ll just need two tablespoons, which is the same amount found in a store-bought taco seasoning packet.
Other than that, you just need toppings – think about all your favorite taco ingredients. In the recipe below, I’ve called for freshly diced tomato and green onion which I highly encourage you to use. But you can mix it up or add more taco fixings to yours. I really like mine with shredded lettuce and crushed tortilla chips for some crunch. Want to add some sour cream, guacamole, or more salsa? I won’t stop you!
How Long To Boil Pasta Shells
I have researched a lot for this recipe (and for my more classic Beefy Stuffed Shells recipe). I’ve looked in about 20 cookbooks, and all over the internet, and I’ve read the instructions on numerous boxes of shells too. The amount of time that is recommended for boiling shells before stuffing them is all over the place, ranging from boiling them to fully soft (around 12 minutes) to not boiling them at all!
At least one brand of jumbo shells has you only boil them for 5 minutes, until only just pliable. The idea is that you then stuff the shells and put them in sauce, and then they bake and finish cooking in the oven. I gave this a try and it ended up taking about 40 minutes for the pasta to get soft enough in the oven. I think it’s because the sauce is at room temperature and needs to heat before the shells really start absorbing it.
When testing, I found the 5 minutes of boiling followed by 45 minutes of baking to be really inconvenient. And so, I am recommending that you fully cook your pasta shells when you boil them. If you like your pasta al dente, cook it to al dente. If you like it a bit softer, go an extra minute or two.
Once the shells are cooked to your liking, you’ll be draining them, letting them cool a bit so you can handle them, and then filling them. But now, since they’re fully cooked, when you put them into the oven, you’re just heating everything through, not trying to get the shells to soften. This will only take about 20-30 minutes, with no guess-work or worry: “Are the shells soft yet? How about now?” You know they’re soft enough because they were already soft enough. Yay!
So, then, the answer to how long you boil the jumbo pasta shells for before baking them is about 8-10 minutes, until they’re the softness you prefer for eating pasta. If you really really prefer al dente pasta and are worried that they’re going to end up overcooked after baking, then shave 1 minute off of the cooking time, taking them out when they’re nearly al dente, but just know that that’s not what I would recommend here because my experience when taking them out too soon was not good at all.
How To Make Taco Stuffed Shells
To make the Taco Stuffed Pasta Shells, begin by preheating the oven to 400°F and greasing your baking dish. Bring a large pot of salted water to boiling, and boil the pasta shells until they are cooked to your liking (see above).
While the pasta is cooking, cook the ground beef over medium-high heat in a medium skillet until nicely browned. Note that you can also cook the ground beef in the air fryer. That’s an easy hands-off alternative that I love to use to save time and energy.
Drain the pasta, and set the shells aside for a minute so they’re cool enough to handle. While they cool, into the cooked beef stir the taco seasoning, salsa, and a half cup of the cheese. The taco seasoning should contain all of the salt and seasoning you need. But some brands are low-sodium and some homemade recipes don’t contain salt. So, go ahead and give this a taste and make sure you like the flavor. Add salt if needed, and you can also add a pinch of cayenne pepper or ground chipotle for extra heat, if you’d like.
Add the tomato sauce to the bottom of a 9×13-inch baking dish. Spread it out across the bottom of the dish. Then stuff the shells by putting about 1 heaped tablespoon of the ground beef mixture into each pasta shell, and nestle the stuffed shells right in the sauce. But they won’t be submerged in sauce, which is fine because we already made sure that they’re fully-cooked, remember?
If you have more filling leftover after stuffing all the shells, you can try to add more to each shell, or just sprinkle it in the sauce around the shells.
Top the stuffed shells with the remaining cheese, feel free to add extra if you really love cheese. Spray a large piece of foil with cooking spray or oil it lightly, and use it, oiled-side-down, to cover the dish. The oil will stop the cheese from sticking to the foil. Bake, covered like that until the cheese is melted and the meat inside the shells is heated through, about 20-25 minutes. If you’d like, you can then uncover the dish and bake it until the cheese browns slightly, or even use the broiler for a minute or two to do that.
While the stuffed shells are baking, chop the tomato and slice some green onions. Remove the baking dish from the oven, top the shells with the tomatoes and green onion, and serve immediately.
Can I Freeze Stuffed Shells?
Absolutely, you can! The easiest way to freeze these taco stuffed shells is to assemble them according to the recipe and then freeze before baking. You can find specific instructions for freezing and thawing in my Beefy Stuffed Shells post.Print
Taco Stuffed Shells combine taco night with delicious pasta for a satisfying meal that the whole family is sure to enjoy. I love the tomatoes and green onion on top, but feel free to switch out or add extra toppings to yours!
Listen to learn how to make this recipe, along with some great tips from Christine:
- 1 and 1/3 lb. lean ground beef
- 20 uncooked jumbo pasta shells (about 6 oz.)
- 1 (1 oz.) packet taco seasoning (about 2 Tbsp.)
- 1 cup prepared salsa
- 1 and 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese, divided
- 1 (24 oz.) jar prepared tomato sauce (about 3 cups)
- 2 medium tomatoes, finely diced
- 2 green onions, sliced thin
- Preheat oven to 400°F. Lightly grease a 9×13 inch baking dish and one side of a large piece of aluminum foil with oil or cooking spray. Set both aside.
- In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook pasta shells until al dente (or to preferred tenderness*) according to package instructions. Drain shells.
- While water comes to a boil and pasta cooks, prepare the filing by heating a medium skillet over high heat. Add the ground beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until cooked through, 5-8 minutes. Stir in taco seasoning, salsa, and ½ cup of the cheese. Taste and add salt if needed.**
- Pour the tomato sauce into the prepared 9×13 baking dish, spreading it evenly across the bottom.
- Fill each cooked shell with a heaping tablespoon of the beef filling. Nestle stuffed shells into the tomato sauce as you fill them. If there is beef filling remaining after stuffing all shells, scatter it into the sauce around the shells.
- Sprinkle top of shells with remaining 1 cup of cheese.
- Cover the baking dish tightly with the prepared foil, greased-side-down.
- Bake until cheese is melted, sauce is bubbling, and ground beef is heated through, 20-25 minutes. Optional: Remove foil and broil for 1-2 minutes to brown the cheese a bit.
- Remove dish from oven. Top with tomato and green onion. Serve.
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*You want the shells to be the softness that you like pasta to be for eating. Don’t undercook the shells since they’re not going to be baking for very long and they’re not going to get much softer.
**Since not all taco seasonings and salsa have the same amount of salt, you will taste it here and add more salt if needed. If you find the mixture too salty at this point, don’t worry too much. We’re not adding salt to the tomato sauce so it will balance out.