Jump to RecipeJump to VideoLeave a ReviewPin Recipe

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. I may earn a small commission for my endorsement, recommendation, testimonial, and/or link to any products or services from this website.

The best stuffed pasta shells are full of ground beef, three different types of cheese, and a secret ingredient that adds tons of flavor. Serve the easy stuffed shells recipe with a side salad and garlic bread for a delicious, make-ahead dinner. The 5-star recipe has been featured in Taste of Home magazine, and you’re about to see why!

Overhead shot of a pan of the best stuffed pasta shells recipe on a wooden table

How to Make Stuffed Shells | 1-Minute Video

Stuffed Shells with Meat

Does it get any cozier than a pan of stuffed pasta shells full of ricotta and ground beef, smothered in meat sauce, and finished with extra cheese? Similar to a classic lasagna recipe, these Italian stuffed shells have been loved in American homes for decades! From kids to grandparents, here’s why everyone loves this recipe:

  • The ricotta stuffed shells can be assembled in advance and frozen or refrigerated until you’re ready to bake them. Talk about convenient!
  • This recipe yields a large batch to serve 8, so it’s perfect for entertaining. If you’re feeding a smaller family, you can divide the stuffed shells between two smaller 8-inch baking dishes and freeze one for later. You get two meals with one effort. Love that!
  • The secret ingredient — pesto — adds tons of flavor to the ricotta and ground beef filling. No boring stuffed shells here!

Are you convinced? First, let’s address a few common questions before we get to the recipe.

Stirring ground beef in a cast iron skillet

What are Stuffed Shells?

This Italian-inspired dish includes Jumbo Shells pasta, which are stuffed with a variety of ingredients and baked with sauce and cheese in a casserole dish. Beef and ricotta is a classic stuffed shells filling, but you might also find spinach and cheese stuffed shells, chicken stuffed shells with spinach and Alfredo, or sausage and cheese stuffed shells.

Stirring a ricotta cheese mixture in a white bowl

What’s the difference between Stuffed Shells and Manicotti?

While these two Italian stuffed pasta dishes are quite similar, there are a few specific differences. Manicotti, which literally translates to “little muffs,” are large tubes of pasta designed for stuffing.

By contrast, stuffed shells are made with conchiglioni pasta, the larger version of conchiglie, which means “conch shells.” The jumbo shells have thin ridges set close together, and typically stuffed with a combination of meat, cheeses, and vegetables. Unlike the tubes of manicotti, jumbo pasta shells can hold an amount of stuffing equal to the size and shape of an egg.

Process shot showing the best way to stuff shells

Ingredients

This is a quick overview of the ingredients that you’ll need for the best stuffed pasta shells recipe. As always, specific measurements and complete cooking instructions are included in the printable recipe box at the bottom of the post.

  • Jumbo pasta shellsI always cook the entire 12-ounce box, but you likely won’t need all of them. It just depends on how full you stuff each shell, and how tightly you pack them in the dish. Some shells tend to break or rip in the cooking process, so it’s nice to have extras.
  • Ground beef: adds hearty texture and great flavor to both the ricotta filling and the sauce. You can substitute with Italian sausage or ground turkey, too.
  • Onion: for extra savory flavor.
  • Shredded Italian cheese blend: goes into the filling and on top of the casserole.
  • Ricotta cheese: gives the filling that rich, creamy texture. If you prefer, you can substitute with cottage cheese, but see my notes below for more details on that change.
  • Grated Parmesan cheese: freshly-grated is always my preference, but pre-grated cheese straight from the can is perfectly fine here as well!
  • Egg: gives the filling structure so that it doesn’t ooze out of the shells.
  • Pesto: the “secret” ingredient that adds great garlic and basil flavor to the filling. You can make your own pesto or find a jar of prepared pesto at the grocery store on the aisle with the other jars of pasta sauces.
  • Marinara sauce: use a homemade marinara sauce or purchase a jar of store-bought sauce for a nice shortcut.
Marinara meat sauce in a white bowl

How to Make Ricotta Stuffed Shells with Meat

While these stuffed pasta shells require a few steps for assembly, I can assure you that they are well worth the few extra minutes in the kitchen. Plus, they’re very easy — if you can brown ground beef and cook some pasta, you can prepare this dish!

  1. Cook pasta shells in salted boiling water. Drain and rinse under cold water.
  2. Brown the ground beef and onion in a skillet; drain off the fat.
  3. Stir together the ricotta filling.
  4. Mix together the meat sauce.
  5. Stuff shells with ricotta filling.
  6. Arrange the stuffed shells in a 13 x 9-inch dish.
  7. Spread meat sauce over top.
  8. Sprinkle with cheese.
  9. Cover the dish with foil and bake in a 350°F oven for 30 minutes.
  10. Remove the cover and bake for 10 more minutes, until the cheese is melted the filling is hot.
Spreading tomato meat sauce on top of a baking dish
Sprinkling cheese on top of a casserole

What to Serve with Stuffed Pasta Shells

If you’re wondering what goes with stuffed shells for dinner, here are a few easy ideas to get you started:

Side shot of stuffed shells ricotta in a pan on a dinner table

How many Stuffed Pasta Shells Per Person?

I generally assume about 2-3 shells per person. Larger appetites might like 4, while smaller eaters may prefer 2. This recipe yields about 20-22 stuffed shells with a hearty meat sauce, and it typically feeds about 6-8 people.

Storage

Leftover baked stuffed pasta shells will last in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 2-3 days.

How to Reheat Stuffed Shells

Let the dish sit on the counter and come to room temperature for about 1 hour before reheating. Cover the dish with foil and reheat in a 350°F oven just until warmed through (about 20-30 minutes). You can also reheat individual portions in the microwave for about 1 minute.

How to Freeze Stuffed Shells

Stuffed shells with ground beef is the ultimate prep-ahead freezer meal! If you would like to make the casserole in advance, simply assemble the dish (but do not bake). Cover the dish with foil and either refrigerate for up to 24 hours; or, if freezing, cover tightly with plastic wrap, then foil. Keep in freezer for up to 3 months.

How to Cook Frozen Stuffed Shells

When ready to bake, you can either thaw the stuffed shells in the refrigerator overnight (and bake according to the recipe instructions); or you can bake the stuffed shells directly from the freezer at 350°F for about 60-70 minutes (or until heated through). Don’t forget to remove the foil during the final 10 minutes of baking to allow the cheese to brown on top!

Close overhead shot of a spoon with beef stuffed shells

Recipe Variations

  • This recipe yields a large batch to serve 8, so it’s perfect for entertaining. If you’re feeding a smaller family, you can divide the stuffed shells between two smaller 8-inch baking dishes and freeze one for later.
  • Use about 1 lb. of ground Italian sausage, ground turkey, or ground chicken instead of the ground beef.
  • To make these amazing stuffed shells without ricotta, you can substitute with cottage cheese instead. If using cottage cheese, I recommend straining off some of the liquid first or using a whipped cottage cheese so that you don’t end up with a watery filling.
  • Add cooked spinach to the filling. Just make sure that you squeeze the spinach very dry before stirring it into the ricotta mixture — otherwise it will water-down the dish.
Overhead image of ricotta stuffed shells with ground beef and a parsley garnish

Tips for the Best Stuffed Shells Recipe

  • Boil the pasta in well-salted water. This is your only opportunity to season the pasta itself, so don’t be shy with the salt!
  • Cook the pasta shells just until barely al dente, since they will continue to cook in the oven. You don’t want to end up with overdone, mushy pasta!
  • Garnish the shells with fresh herbs like parsley or basil for a bright finishing touch.
Overhead shot of easy stuffed pasta shells on a wooden dinner table with a salad on the side

More Italian-Inspired Dinner Recipes to Try

Square overhead shot of a pan of stuffed pasta shells

The Best Stuffed Pasta Shells Recipe

4.91 from 30 votes
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 40 minutes
Total: 1 hour 10 minutes
Servings 8 people
Calories 446 kcal
The best stuffed pasta shells are full of ground beef, three different types of cheese, and a secret ingredient that adds tons of flavor!

Equipment

Ingredients
  

  • 1 (12 ounce) box Jumbo pasta shells
  • 1 lb. ground beef (you can substitute with ground turkey, ground Italian sausage, or ground chicken)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cups shredded Italian blend cheese, divided (you can substitute with shredded mozzarella cheese)
  • 1 (15 ounce) container ricotta cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup pesto
  • 1 (24 ounce) jar marinara sauce
  • Optional garnish: chopped fresh parsley or basil

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 350°F.
  • Cook pasta shells in a large pot of salted boiling water according to package instructions. Drain; rinse under cold water.
  • Meanwhile, brown ground beef and onion in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Drain off fat; let cool slightly before adding to the filling.
  • Combine 1 ½ cups of the shredded Italian blend cheese, all of the ricotta cheese, all of the Parmesan cheese, the egg, the pesto, and half of the beef and onion mixture in a large bowl. Set aside.
  • Spread ¾ cup of the marinara sauce in the bottom of a 13 x 9-inch baking dish. In a bowl, stir together the remaining marinara sauce and the remaining half of the beef and onion mixture. Set aside.
  • Fill the cooked, cooled pasta shells with the ricotta mixture. Arrange the shells in the baking dish.
  • Top the shells with the marinara sauce mixture. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup of Italian cheese blend over top.
  • Cover the dish with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for 10 more minutes. Garnish with fresh parsley or basil, if desired. Serve!

Video

Notes

  • Boil the pasta in well-salted water. This is your only opportunity to season the pasta itself, so don’t be shy with the salt!
  • Cook the pasta shells just until barely al dente, since they will continue to cook in the oven. You don’t want to end up with overdone, mushy pasta!
  • Garnish the shells with fresh herbs like parsley or basil for a bright finishing touch.
  • This recipe yields a large batch to serve 8, so it’s perfect for entertaining. If you’re feeding a smaller family, you can divide the stuffed shells between two smaller 8-inch baking dishes and freeze one for later.
  • Use about 1 lb. of ground Italian sausage, ground turkey, or ground chicken instead of the ground beef.
  • To make these amazing stuffed shells without ricotta, you can substitute with cottage cheese instead. If using cottage cheese, I recommend straining off some of the liquid first or using a whipped cottage cheese so that you don’t end up with a watery filling.
  • Add cooked spinach to the filling. Just make sure that you squeeze the spinach very dry before stirring it into the ricotta mixture — otherwise it will water-down the dish.

Nutrition

Serving: 1/8 of the casseroleCalories: 446kcalCarbohydrates: 21gProtein: 35gFat: 23gSaturated Fat: 12gCholesterol: 116mgSodium: 714mgPotassium: 357mgFiber: 1gSugar: 2gVitamin A: 705IUVitamin C: 2.2mgCalcium: 494mgIron: 2.2mg
Keyword: Ground Beef Recipes, stuffed pasta shells, Stuffed Shells Recipe, stuffed shells with meat, Stuffed Shells with Ricotta
Course: Dinner
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Blair Lonergan

This recipe was originally published in December, 2013. It was updated in November, 2021.

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!

Read More

Square overhead shot of hands serving a chicken pot pie recipe with biscuits
Overhead image of a bowl of chili mac on a dinner table with cornbread
Hands serving a platter of sheet pan sausage and potatoes

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recipe Rating




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Comments

  1. Your recipes are amazing! I have tried many, and never disappointed. I do have a quick question for this recipe. I’m are not a fan of ricotta, so I usually do 1/2 ricotta and 1/2 cottage cheese. Can this be frozen? I will be doing the full recipe and freezing half. If not, I can make it as written(hubby LOVES any kind of chees!)

    1. Hi, Patti! So glad that you enjoy the recipes! 🙂

      Yes, I think it should work perfectly fine to sub with 1/2 cottage cheese and freeze half of the recipe. Enjoy!

  2. Curious if I could substitute cream cheese for Ricotta? Hubby will NOT EAT anything made with Ricotta – there is no way to ‘disguise it’ to satisfy him. I’ve tried subbing cottage cheese (after pureeing it) and he wouldn’t eat that either.
    Pain to me, cause I LOVE things like the shells and lasagna and others!

    1. Hi, Carol! I think the cream cheese would probably work — just make sure that it’s softened to room temperature. Other options (besides cottage cheese) that might work as an alternative include a thick sour cream or mascarpone cheese. Hope your husband approves! 🙂

    1. Hi, Kimberly! I typically serve them with salad and bread. Garlic bread is great, or you could do a baguette, dinner rolls, whatever you like. Enjoy!

  3. Hello, I’d like to add a little seasoning to the beef. What would you recommend and how much? I also like using a ground beef/pork mix. Would you recommend this? If so, again, what seasoning and how much?

    Thanks!

    1. Sure, a mix of ground beef and pork would be great! You can season the meat with any herbs/spices that you like. I would go with garlic powder, basil, oregano or an Italian seasoning blend. For spice, you can also use some crushed red pepper flakes. Hope that helps, and enjoy!

      1. 5 stars
        My absolute favorite the basil pesto is a knock out combo. Thank you for sharing ❤️ I add the red pepper flakes to the marinara and I combined white rice with the beef and ricotta (must add from my mom’s recipe) absolutely delicious.

  4. 5 stars
    This was really good! My store was out of shells, so I used manicotti. I also did half beef and half sweet Italian sausage. All was delicious.

    1. Yes, ma’am! Just let it come to room temperature on the counter for at least 30-60 minutes before baking. This will help it reheat evenly. You don’t want to put a cold dish in the hot oven if you don’t have to. 🙂 Enjoy!

    1. Hi, Lynda! No, you don’t. If you don’t have pesto, you can use chopped fresh basil or even dried basil as a flavorful substitute.

  5. 5 stars
    In the oven now! Yes, it’s hot out this weekend (even up here in RI) but that’s ok. I started with your spinach stuffed shells recipe from this morning’s blog but ended up here since I had some Italian sausage in the freezer. Love your weekly e-newsletter and all the pics. You live in a beautiful area of the country and you make the most of it!

  6. 5 stars
    Great recipe. I am not sure you know this, but there’s right-wing political ads running on this page. It’s already insufferable with ads, but the political ones make me never want to come back here.

  7. 5 stars
    Hi Blair!

    I made this for Thanksgiving for my Italian/pasta loving sons and it was delicious! The pesto is so good mixed with ricotta.

    I live in Virginia too… VA Beach/Chesapeake area and I love the Blue Ridge Mountains. So beautiful in the fall for hiking.

    I quickly scanned over many of your recipes and can’t wait to try them… so many!

    Thank you for this great webpage and recipes.

    Lori Anne

    1. Hi, Lori Anne! It’s so great to meet you. Thank you for visiting the blog and for your kind words. Happy holidays!

  8. 5 stars
    My husband is a picky person when it comes to pasta dishes. This was a home run for sure! Definitely becoming a regular

  9. 5 stars
    Making these right now. I have been making another version of stuffed shells, I just came across your recipe and I love pesto so I thought I would try it out. Can’t wait to try them out tonight.

  10. 5 stars
    My family absolutely loves this recipe! We just had it again, tonight. The pesto is such a smart addition having so many of the needed ingredients for good Italian dishes. Bravo Blair!

  11. 5 stars
    My favorite recipe for stuffed shells, it’s so delicious and honestly it sounds and looks a lot more difficult than what it actually is. So worth it.