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Baked ziti with sausage, three types of cheese, and homemade marinara sauce is a classic pasta bake that’s pure comfort food! Pair the hearty, satisfying casserole with a Caesar salad and garlic bread for the ultimate family meal. It’s also an easy make-ahead dinner for busy days!

Close overhead image of a serving spoon in a dish of homemade baked ziti with sausage

Baked Ziti Recipe with Italian Sausage

Baked ziti is a casserole that’s made with ziti and a Neapolitan-style tomato-based sauce that’s popular in Italian-American cuisine. Ziti is a tube-shaped pasta, which gets its name from the word “zita,” or bride. In Naples, ziti is the classic pasta served for weddings as the “zita’s pasta.”

To make Baked Ziti, the pasta is typically boiled first, while the sauce is prepared separately. The cooked and drained ziti is then layered with the sauce and other ingredients such as cheese, sausage, mushrooms, peppers or onions. The whole dish is then baked in the oven and served warm. Baked ziti is very similar in taste to lasagna, but uses the ziti-shaped pasta instead of the long, flat lasagna noodles.

Is Ziti the same as penne?

While the two pasta shapes look very similar, ziti is not the same as penne. Penne originates from Campania, a region in southwestern Italy. Penne is shorter than ziti, and larger in diameter. Ziti’s ends are cut straight, unlike penne’s diagonal ends. While penne is rarely used in Italy for baked dishes, ziti is typically used for oven-baked casseroles.

All of those differences aside, we’re not too particular around here. If you need to substitute penne for the ziti in this recipe, feel free! The pasta bake will still be delicious. Just make sure that you follow the cooking instructions for very al dente penne, according to your specific package.

The Best Pan for Baked Ziti

Regular readers know that I love cooking with my cast iron skillets or Dutch ovens! That’s why I prefer to make my baked ziti with sausage in a deep 12-inch cast iron skillet (or in a Dutch oven). It saves me from washing extra dishes at the end, because cast iron skillets go from the stovetop to the oven. The sausage and sauce cook in the same skillet that you use to bake the casserole! More importantly, though, cast iron retains and evenly-distributes the heat better than any other type of pan. As a result, your baked ziti heats through evenly and you get those delicious crisp edges on the pasta and cheese. It’s heavenly!

Don’t worry, though — you don’t actually need a cast iron skillet or a Dutch oven to prepare this dish. Feel free to transfer the mixture to a standard 9 x 13-inch baking dish for the final step in the oven. The baking dish is ideal if you plan to make the casserole in advance and keep it in the fridge or freezer before baking, too.

Fork on a plate of baked ziti with sausage

Ingredients

This is just a quick overview of the simple ingredients that you’ll need for an easy baked ziti recipe. As always, specific measurements and step-by-step instructions are included in the printable recipe box at the bottom of the post.

  • Ziti pasta: use an entire one pound ziti box.
  • Italian sausage: sweet or spicy, any variety will work. You can buy a pound of ground Italian sausage, or purchase the links and remove the casings yourself.
  • Garlic and crushed red pepper flakes: add flavor and a bit of kick to the sauce.
  • Red wine: adds a nice depth of flavor to the sauce. Pick a dry red, such as Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.
  • Canned crushed tomatoes: the base of the homemade tomato sauce.
  • Kosher salt: to enhance the other flavors in the dish. Make sure to use plenty of salt in the pasta cooking water, too.
  • Granulated sugar: helps to balance the acidic nature of the tomatoes, yielding a sauce with more complex, deep flavor. You can adjust the amount of sugar that you use to suit your taste.
  • Ricotta: adds a thick, creamy, cheesy component to the dish. You can substitute with cottage cheese or softened cream cheese, or omit the ricotta altogether.
  • Mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese: these additional cheeses add flavor to the casserole and hold it all together. The more cheese the better, right?!
  • Fresh basil: a classic Italian seasoning. Fresh herbs always have the best flavor, but you can substitute with about 1 ½ tablespoons of dried basil when necessary.

What can I substitute for ricotta cheese?

If you don’t care for ricotta cheese, you can omit that ingredient entirely from this recipe. You can also substitute with some extra mozzarella stirred into the dish, or swirl in dollops of softened cream cheese or cottage cheese.

Do I need to add eggs to baked ziti with sausage?

A typical baked ziti recipe calls for layers of pasta, sauce, meat and ricotta. The ricotta layer usually includes eggs as as a binder to give the ricotta mixture more structure. Since we’re not layering the ingredients in our skillet, there’s no need for an egg in this particular recipe. Instead, you’ll just swirl large dollops of ricotta throughout the pasta. You don’t want to mix it in entirely, because those pockets of warm, melty cheese are delicious in the finished dish!

Pan of the best baked ziti recipe garnished with fresh basil

How to Make Baked Ziti with Sausage

While there are quite a few steps involved in preparing this dish, none of it is difficult! This recipe doesn’t need to be too time-consuming either, so long as you have various components cooking at the same time. For instance, you can brown the sausage and simmer the sauce while the pasta boils. Let’s get started…

  1. Boil the ziti in a large pot of salted water for about 1 minute less than al dente, about 9 minutes. Drain.
  2. Meanwhile, brown the Italian sausage in a large skillet or Dutch oven.
  3. Use a slotted spoon to remove the sausage from the pan, reserving about 1 tablespoon of drippings in the skillet.
  4. Simmer the marinara sauce in the skillet.
  5. Stir in the cooked sausage, cooked pasta, half of the mozzarella, and the basil.
  6. Add dollops of ricotta and stir gently to swirl.
  7. Top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.
  8. Bake uncovered in a 425°F oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted.
  9. Garnish with additional basil and serve!
Ziti pasta draining in a colander
Overhead shot of a skillet full of browned Italian sausage
Homemade marinara sauce in a skillet
Process shot showing how to make baked ziti with sausage
Skillet of baked ziti before baking
Horizontal overhead image of a pan of the best baked ziti recipe with sausage, ricotta and fresh herbs.

What to Serve with this Easy Baked Ziti Recipe

Here are some good side dishes for baked ziti with sausage:

Front shot of a plate of baked ziti

Make Ahead

Assemble the dish up to 2 days in advance. Keep it covered with plastic wrap or foil in the refrigerator. When ready to bake ziti pasta, allow the skillet or baking dish to sit on the counter and come to room temperature for at least 30-60 minutes before baking according to the recipe instructions. If the dish is cold when it goes into the oven, you will likely need to add some extra baking time. Keep a close eye on the skillet and cover the pasta loosely with foil if it starts to get too brown on top before it’s heated through.

To Freeze

Baked ziti can be frozen either before or after baking. The quality is best if you assemble the casserole in advance (in a 9 x 13-inch freezer-safe dish) and freeze before baking. Wrapped tightly, the baked ziti will last in the freezer for up to 3 months. When you’re ready to cook it, defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours, then proceed with the Make Ahead instructions above.

Storage

Leftover baked ziti will keep in the refrigerator for 3-4 days. Cover and reheat leftovers in a 350°F oven for 20-25 minutes, or until warmed through. You can also reheat individual portions in a microwave for 1-2 minutes on high power.

Overhead shot of baked ziti with Italian sausage in a cast iron skillet

Baked Ziti Recipe Variations

  • If you don’t have a 12-inch cast iron skillet or a large Dutch oven, you can transfer the pasta mixture to a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish before baking.
  • Don’t have ziti pasta on hand? Substitute with penne pasta or rigatoni.
  • Add baby spinach to the sauce. It will wilt almost instantly and blend into the casserole.
  • A splash of heavy cream will give the sauce creamy richness.
  • Use ground beef, ground chicken, or ground turkey instead of the Italian sausage. Since you will be missing the extra flavor boost from the herbs and seasonings in the sausage, you might want to add some extra herbs and seasonings to the sauce.
  • Vegetarian Baked Ziti: For a vegetarian 3-cheese baked ziti, omit the sausage! The rest of the recipe will still be delicious.
  • Cooking for a smaller family? Cut the ingredients in half and bake the ziti in an 8-inch square dish. Alternatively, you can prepare the full recipe, but divide the ingredients between two 8-inch square dishes. Bake one for now, and freeze the other for later!
Square overhead image of a plate of easy baked ziti with sausage and ricotta on a wooden table

Tips for the Best Baked Ziti Recipe

  • Undercook the pasta slightly, because it will continue to cook while it bakes in the oven. You don’t want to end up with overdone, mushy ziti. I typically boil the pasta for 1 minute less than recommended on the box for al dente. For instance, if my box of ziti suggests 10-11 minutes for al dente, I boil the pasta for 9 minutes.
  • This recipe has plenty of sauce to keep the baked ziti from drying out. You can also cover the top with plenty of shredded cheese to lock in the moisture, and be careful that you don’t bake the casserole for too long. Since all of the ingredients are already cooked and your cast iron skillet is already hot, the dish will only need about 15 minutes in the oven.
  • Use whole milk ricotta for the best flavor and texture. Don’t stir the ricotta in completely — a few streaks and little cheesy pockets throughout are delicious!
  • Bake the ziti uncovered so that the cheese on top turns brown and the edges get crispy.
  • Fresh herbs really brighten up a warm, cozy casserole. I love to garnish with parsley, basil, oregano or thyme. Some extra grated Parmesan on top is also a great touch!
Close overhead image of baked ziti with ricotta and sausage in a cast iron skillet on a wooden table

More Italian-Inspired Casseroles to Try

Close overhead image of a serving spoon in a dish of homemade baked ziti with sausage

Baked Ziti with Sausage

Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Total: 50 minutes
Servings 6 – 8 people
Calories 617 kcal
Baked ziti with sausage, three types of cheese, and homemade marinara sauce is a classic pasta bake that's pure comfort food!

Ingredients
  

  • 1 lb. dry ziti pasta
  • 1 lb. Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  • ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • ¾ cup dry red wine
  • 2 (28 ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 8 ounces (about 2 cups) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
  • ½ cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  • In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook ziti according to package instructions for very al dente, about 9 minutes. (It will continue to cook in the oven, so you want to undercook the pasta just a bit.) Drain; set aside.
  • Preheat the oven to 425°F and set the oven rack in the middle position.
  • Meanwhile, cook sausage in a 12-inch cast iron skillet or Dutch oven over medium-high heat until no longer pink, about 5-7 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the sausage from the skillet and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate. Reserve 1 tablespoon of drippings in the skillet and drain off the rest (if you don’t have enough fat in the skillet, add a tablespoon of olive oil).
  • Add the garlic and red pepper to the drippings in the skillet; cook over medium-high heat for 1 minute. Add wine; bring to a boil, and use a wooden spoon to scrape any browned bits from the bottom of the pan (these add tons of flavor to your sauce). Cook until reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
  • Stir in tomatoes, salt and sugar; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Stir in cooked sausage, cooked pasta, 1 cup of mozzarella, and the basil. Add dollops of ricotta and stir gently to swirl, leaving streaks and pockets of ricotta throughout. Top with remaining 1 cup of mozzarella and the Parmesan.
  • Transfer skillet to the oven and bake, uncovered, until cheese is melted, about 15-20 minutes. Garnish with additional basil and serve.

Notes

  • Undercook the pasta slightly, because it will continue to cook while it bakes in the oven. You don’t want to end up with overdone, mushy ziti. I typically boil the pasta for 1 minute less than recommended on the box for al dente. For instance, if my box of ziti suggests 10-11 minutes for al dente, I boil the pasta for 9 minutes.
  • This recipe has plenty of sauce to keep the baked ziti from drying out. You can also cover the top with plenty of shredded cheese to lock in the moisture, and be careful that you don’t bake the casserole for too long. Since all of the ingredients are already cooked and your cast iron skillet is already hot, the dish will only need about 15 minutes in the oven.
  • Use whole milk ricotta for the best flavor and texture. Don’t stir the ricotta in completely — a few streaks and little cheesy pockets throughout are delicious!
  • Bake the ziti uncovered so that the cheese on top turns brown and the edges get crispy.
  • Fresh herbs really brighten up a warm, cozy casserole. I love to garnish with parsley, basil, oregano or thyme. Some extra grated Parmesan on top is also a great touch!
  • If you don’t have a 12-inch cast iron skillet or a large Dutch oven, you can transfer the pasta mixture to a 9 x 13-inch casserole dish before baking.
  • Don’t have ziti pasta on hand? You can substitute with penne pasta.
  • Add baby spinach to the sauce. It will wilt almost instantly and blend into the casserole.
  • Use ground beef or ground turkey instead of the Italian sausage. Since you will be missing the extra flavor boost from the herbs and seasonings in the sausage, you might want to add some extra herbs and seasonings to the sauce.
  • Vegetarian Baked Ziti: For a vegetarian 3-cheese baked ziti, omit the sausage! The rest of the recipe will still be delicious.
  • Cooking for a smaller family? Cut the ingredients in half and bake the ziti in an 8-inch square dish. Alternatively, you can prepare the full recipe, but divide the ingredients between two 8-inch square dishes. Bake one for now, and freeze the other for later!

Nutrition

Serving: 1/8 of the recipeCalories: 617kcalCarbohydrates: 60gProtein: 30gFat: 27gSaturated Fat: 12gCholesterol: 75mgSodium: 1110mgPotassium: 900mgFiber: 6gSugar: 11gVitamin A: 704IUVitamin C: 19mgCalcium: 413mgIron: 4mg
Keyword: baked ziti recipe, Baked Ziti with Ricotta, Baked Ziti with Sausage
Course: Dinner
Cuisine: American, Italian
Author: Blair Lonergan
blair

Hey, I’m Blair!

Welcome to my farmhouse kitchen in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Inspired by local traditions and seasonal fare, you’ll find plenty of easy, comforting recipes that bring your family together around the table. It’s down-home, country-style cooking!

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