How to Make Perfect Baked Ziti Every Time
Sunday evenings call for spectacular dinners, and we think baked ziti is one of the dishes that best fits the bill. Armed with a fabulous recipe and a foolproof technique, we think you'll see that this dish can be so much more than a standby family supper. Here, we're sharing two recipes for the classic baked pasta dish (one that's best for weekend suppers, when you have time to put together a more involved meal, and one that's fast enough to make even on busy weeknights) and the steps to follow for success every single time.
How to Make Our Perfect Baked Ziti with Sausage and Béchamel
When you have time to spare, make our refined Baked Ziti with Sausage and Béchamel, pictured above. In this version of baked ziti, the pasta is stirred into a sausage-studded tomato sauce, then layered, like lasagna, between nutmeg-scented béchamel sauce and topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella cheeses. The technique pans out beautifully every time. Here's how we make this best-in-class baked ziti and expert tips from our food editors for acing this recipe every time.
First, Make the Tomato-Sausage Sauce
Brown one pound of sweet or spicy Italian sausage, removed from their casings, in a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, breaking them up as they cook through, about eight minutes. Add one tablespoon minced garlic and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about one minute. Place a 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes and their juices in a bowl and squeeze with your hands to break up. Add to pot along with a 15-ounce can of tomato sauce and 1⁄2 cup water. Season generously with salt and pepper and simmer until flavors meld, about 20 minutes.
Prep the Parmesan Béchamel Sauce
Melt two tablespoons of unsalted butter over medium heat and and two tablespoons all-purpose flour, whisking until combined and lightly toasted, two to three minutes. Slowly whisk in 2 1/2 cups whole milk. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, until sauce has the consistency of slightly thickened cream, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir in 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cover surface of sauce with plastic wrap. We do this because creamy sauces like this one will form a skin if they are exposed to the air. (It's not an issue with the Tomato-Sausage Sauce.)
Cook the Pasta
Preheat oven to 425°F. Cook your pasta in a pot of salted boiling water. Be sure to undercook the pasta because it will go on to cook more in the oven. We recommend cooking it about five minutes less than the time specified on the package, as this means the pasta will still have some bite in the center when you drain it prior to baking.
Reserve one cup pasta water, then drain and rinse noodles under cool water to stop cooking. Why save some of the pasta cooking water? It's an ingredient in this dish! We add 1/2 cup of pasta water to the sauce and cheese mixture to thin it a little. If your sauce is really thick, add more pasta water but no more than one cup total. Pasta water has starch from the pasta so it's got superpowers as a binder and a thickener in a way regular water doesn't.
In a large bowl, toss past a with three cups tomato sauce, 1/2 cup Parmigiano, 1/2 cup reserved pasta water, and basil. Season with salt and pepper.
Fill the Dish
Spread half of béchamel in the bottom of a 3-to-3 1/2-quart baking dish. Top with half of pasta mixture, one cup tomato sauce, half of mozzarella, and 1/2 cup Parmigiano. Layer with remaining pasta and one cup tomato sauce. Spoon the last of the béchamel evenly on top, followed by remaining mozzarella and 1/2 cup Parmigiano; top with a few spoons of tomato sauce. Sprinkle with more Parmigiano.
Bake and Serve
Place dish on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake, uncovered, until browned in places and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let cool 20 minutes, top with basil leaves, and serve.
Speedy Baked Ziti
For those days when you have less time but still crave baked ziti, try our shortcut
version Speedy Baked Ziti. This weeknight winner calls for store-bought sauce and skips the béchamel, which translates to much less time and effort (and one fewer pot to clean).
More Baked Ziti Tips
One of the things we love most about baked ziti is how endlessly adaptable it is. Want to go meatless? Senior food editor Lauryn Tyrell, who developed these recipes, says, "To make the recipe vegetarian, sauté one pound chopped mushrooms and a pinch of fennel seeds in 1/4 cup oil in place of the sausage." We also prefer to chop the mozzarella instead of grating it results in pockets of cheese in the middle and pools of gooey goodness on top.
Here's a tip grandma would approve of: When measuring 1/2 cup water to add to the Tomato-Sausage Sauce, pour it into the can that held the tomato sauce and swirl, then add to the pan with the sausage and sauce. That will help you catch any remaining bits left in the can.
When making any baked pasta like this, we recommend placing the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment to catch spills—it's a smart step that'll help you with cleanup down the line.
Food Styling by Greg Lofts; Prop Styling by Suzie Myers