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This baked ziti recipe is a mouthwatering Italian American favorite that has pasta and Italian sausage in tomato sauce along with three kinds of cheese! It’s a crowd-pleasing pasta bake that you can easily make ahead of time.

Can’t get enough baked pasta recipes? Try this Classic Homemade Lasagna or Million Dollar Spaghetti.

close-up of a metal spatula with a serving of cheesy baked ziti

Why you’ll love it

Want to know our secret to making the best baked ziti? The sauce is made completely from scratch instead of opening up a jar of marinara sauce, yet it’s still incredibly simple to make. The difference is amazing. You’ll never again make it another way!

Baked ziti with ricotta is on many restaurant menus, but it’s way better homemade. This iconic dish is sure to become a new family favorite. Whenever I make it, everybody can’t get enough since it’s so cheesy and comforting with no fancy ingredients.

What you’ll need

  • Ziti – it’s a hollow tube-shaped pasta that’s a little longer than penne and isn’t cut on an angle. It can either be smooth or have ridges.
  • Sausage – you can buy sausage meat or just take it out of the casings. I used mild, but you can use hot if you prefer.
  • Onion and garlic – classic aromatics to give a great savory base
  • Italian seasoning – it comes in a single jar and has a blend of dried herbs
  • Crushed red pepper flakes – they don’t make it spicy, but you could double them if you do want this pasta bake to have some heat! Or omit them entirely.
  • Tomatoes – we’re using canned crushed tomatoes for the base of the tasty sauce since they’re thick and smooth
  • Cream – heavy cream gives the sauce its totally luxurious quality!
  • Salt and pepper – it’s important to be generous with the seasoning
  • Sugar – adding a pinch of sugar is a tried and true tip for countering the acidity of tomatoes. It’s even used in restaurants for that signature taste.
  • Ricotta – I made this baked ziti with ricotta so that there’s a cheesy middle layer that makes each bite deliciously creamy!
  • Parmesan and mozzarella – these two cheeses make up our irresistible melty topping
ingredients laid out on a marble surface to make baked ziti

Tools for this recipe

Check out Natasha’s favorite kitchen essentials, gadgets, and cookware!

  • A heavy duty 9×13 casserole dish is useful for so many recipes, including pasta bakes like this one! Don’t need to feed a crowd? Halve the recipe and use an 8×8 baking dish.
  • My garlic press is awesome for quickly crushing garlic in recipes that call or minced or crushed garlic.
  • Want to freeze this baked ziti when making it ahead? It’s easiest to do that in disposable aluminum foil baking pans.

How to make baked ziti

This is an overview with step-by-step photos. Full ingredients & instructions are in the recipe card below.

cooking sausage in a dutch oven for baked ziti

Preheat oven to 375F. Boil the ziti pasta for 2-3 minutes less than the package directions say, and set aside. In a large pot or Dutch oven, sauté the onion and sausage meat until browned. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes.

making the tomato sauce and adding ziti to the pot

Stir in the crushed tomatoes, cream, salt & pepper, and sugar. Let it heat through for a few minutes, and then add in the drained ziti and toss.

making the first layer of baked ziti in a baking dish and topping with ricotta

In a 9×13 baking dish, spread in an even layer half the pasta mixture. Top with ricotta to make the cheesy inner layer.

adding the second pasta layer to baked ziti and topping with cheese

Add the remaining pasta to make a second layer, and then top with the parmesan and mozzarella cheese. Bake, uncovered, until hot and bubbly, or about 20 minutes. Broil until the cheese is golden. Serve with fresh basil if desired!

Can you make baked ziti ahead of time?

  • You can definitely make it ahead of time. Simply prep it according to the instructions until the baking step, cover it tightly with aluminum foil, and refrigerate for a day.
  • You could also freeze it for up to a month. If frozen, let it thaw in the fridge overnight before baking. Since it’ll be starting out cold, it’ll need a bit of extra time than in the original instructions. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes, and then uncover it cook for another 15-20 minutes until hot. Broil after that so the cheese is bubbly.
  • Keep in mind that fresh is best and the pasta might soak up a bit of the sauce if you make it ahead, but it’ll still taste great!

Substitutions and variations

  • If you can’t find ziti, try penne.
  • You could try subbing the sausage meat for ground beef if you prefer.
  • The cream makes the sauce extra silky and delicious, so I don’t recommend subbing it, but if you really want to, I’d sub it for a cup of crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, or even Marinara Sauce vs. something with a lower fat content than heavy cream like half-and-half or milk that could easily curdle due to the acidity of the tomatoes.
  • Feel free to omit the ricotta. Some people love it, and it does add creaminess, but you could definitely make it without! Cottage cheese also makes a good substitute for ricotta cheese.
  • Want to add in some vegetables? Zucchini, mushrooms, or even eggplant would be good.

What to serve with baked ziti

Leftovers and storage

  • If you have any leftovers, they will keep in the fridge for 3-4 days in a covered container.
  • Reheat in the oven for best results, but you could also microwave until it’s heated through.
  • Baked ziti leftovers can also be frozen. I like to portion them up in individual containers for hassle-free meals later on.
a casserole dish with baked ziti

Did you have any questions about this baked ziti recipe? Let me know in the comments below! Please leave a star rating and review. You can also find me on Instagram.

close-up of a metal spatula with a serving of cheesy baked ziti
4.95 from 38 votes

Baked Ziti

This baked ziti recipe is a mouthwatering Italian American favorite that has pasta and Italian sausage in tomato sauce along with three kinds of cheese! It's a crowd-pleasing pasta bake that you can easily make ahead of time.
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Total: 1 hour
Servings: 8

Ingredients 

  • 1 pound uncooked ziti or penne pasta
  • 1 pound Italian sausage see note
  • 1 medium onion chopped
  • 4-5 cloves garlic minced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes optional
  • 1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 cup heavy/whipping cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon white sugar see note
  • 8 ounces ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
  • 2 cups shredded mozzarella
  • For serving: chopped fresh parsley and/or basil optional

Instructions 

  • Preheat your oven to 375F and move the rack to the top third of the oven. Boil a salted pot of water and cook the ziti for 2-3 minutes less than package directions indicate. Drain and set aside once it's done.
  • Meanwhile, add the sausage meat and onion to another pot and cook until browned (about 7-10 minutes), stirring occasionally.
  • Add the garlic, Italian seasoning, and red pepper flakes to the pot and cook for about a minute.
  • Stir in the crushed tomatoes, cream, salt & pepper, and sugar. Let it heat through (about 5 minutes).
  • Drain the pasta, add it to the pot with the sauce, and toss.
  • Add half the pasta mixture to a 9×13 casserole dish (spread it out evenly to create your bottom layer).
  • Spoon the ricotta over the pasta for the cheesy middle layer (you don't need to be too neat… I just put dollops here and there).
  • Spoon the remaining pasta into the casserole dish to create an even top layer (I don't stir it).
  • Sprinkle the parmesan and mozzarella over top.
  • Bake, uncovered, for 20 minutes (or until hot & bubbly), and then broil (watch it closely) to brown the cheese.
  • Serve with some fresh basil and/or parsley if desired.

Notes

  • Use either ground sausage meat or buy sausages and take the meat out of the casings. Anything up to about 1.5 pounds will work.
  • The sugar helps enhance the sweetness of the canned tomatoes. You may leave it out if you prefer, but it helps give this recipe that “restaurant quality” taste.
  • If you need to sub the cream (I don’t recommend it), I would sub it with a cup of crushed tomatoes, tomato sauce, or even marinara (not something like half-and-half or milk because the acid will likely curdle it).
  • Want to skip the ricotta? This recipe will still be delicious without it. 
  • See blog post for more tips, step-by-step photos, and answers to FAQs (including make-ahead tips).

Nutrition

Calories: 738kcal, Carbohydrates: 55g, Protein: 32g, Fat: 43g, Saturated Fat: 22g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 4g, Monounsaturated Fat: 15g, Cholesterol: 131mg, Sodium: 1098mg, Potassium: 679mg, Fiber: 4g, Sugar: 7g, Vitamin A: 1095IU, Vitamin C: 12mg, Calcium: 422mg, Iron: 3mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

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Hi! I’m Natasha.

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104 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I commented once before but I changed a few things this time. I used both ground beef and spicy Italian sausage and subbed fresh mozzarella for the ricotta. I doubled red pepper flakes because we like spicy! My hubby said it was the BEST Ziti he’s ever had! The heavy cream is absolutely key in this recipe so don’t leave it out. Thank you Natasha for another great recipe!!😍

  2. 5 stars
    I was looking for a ziti recipe that wasn’t just pasta, sauce, and cheese and this was a perfect find! It is such an easy recipe and so delicious! We had a lot of leftovers which were even better the next day.

  3. I have made this a couple of times and it is absolutely delicious. My question is do you think this would work using gluten free pasta? My celiac daughter is coming home for the holidays and I thought she would love this.

    1. I’m so glad you like it! So, I haven’t really cooked much with gluten free pasta. I don’t see why it wouldn’t work, but I haven’t made something like this with it before. Let me know if you try – I am sure other readers are curious too.

  4. Natasha,
    I am making your recipe for the first time. Would you recommend waiting to put the cream in until I am ready to put the dish together and cook it? It will be tomorrow and I don’t want the sauce to separate.

    Thank you!
    Jenne

    1. Hi Jenne! I think that might be a good idea to be totally safe, but you should be ok even with adding the cream as long as it’s full fat vs. something like half and half. Hope you enjoy the recipe – let me know! 😀

      1. 5 stars
        Made this last year for Christmas dinner and the whole family raved. Looks like that’s what’s for dinner this Christmas too, can’t wait!

  5. Hi Natasha…
    The package directions for my ziti says to cook the pasta for 8-12 minutes. Now I’m confused. Could you refine your directions a little bit more? How should I determine if the pasta is cooked to the proper degree of doneness?

    1. Hi Paul! I know every brand varies a bit, so that’s why I don’t put a blanket statement like “cook for 10 minutes”. That is quite the range they list on the package! I have never seen such a large range written on one that I’ve bought before, and that is not very useful to their customers, is it? Haha. Does it say anywhere on the package any more specifics? I am assuming the 8 minutes will produce a very al dente pasta, and that is likely what you want. I would test it at the 7-8 minute mark and ensure it’s nice and firm but not rock hard, basically, as it will cook in the oven. I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes!

      1. Natasha,
        The ziti I purchased was “Great Value”(Walmart) and no, it doesn’t have any further details other than 8-12 minutes cook time. I agree with you that that seems a little vague to be sure!
        I do however get what you’re driving at as far as doneness. You (I) need to undercook it slightly because it will continue to cook in the oven. I’ll check it at 7 minutes and go from there.
        I made the meat sauce in advance. It is delicious! I WILL let you know how it turns out.
        Thank you for your speedy response and for sharing this recipe.

          1. 5 stars
            Natasha, Well I boiled the ziti until it was slightly undercooked and completed the recipe. It came out of the oven picture perfect. I even took a picture of it. I wish you could see it.
            My wife, son and I all loved it. It was delicious! Good job Natasha!
            You commented that even your husband, who doesn’t care for pasta that much, really enjoyed it. He’s obviously a man of impeccable taste. After all, he married you…right? LOL!

  6. 5 stars
    SO GOOD! The perfect combination of hearty, creamy, and flavorful. I made this for dinner tonight and my husband had three helpings! I will for sure be making this again. 😇