hFolks will RAVE over this easy, cheesy, and delicious baked ziti that will feed up to 20 people and is make-ahead AND freezer friendly.
This Best Baked Ziti for a crowd truly is a winner. It won first place in a “Chopped Competition” that Zane and I entered with some friends. This dish is always a HUGE hit when we serve this to guests and is one of our “go-to” dishes to serve at a small group gathering or party.
What kind of bakeware do you use for baked ziti?
Every year, I make and freeze this for holiday company and entertainment. This recipe makes 2 casseroles (ranging from 9 x 13; 10 x 13; 11 x 13). If you only need one, just bake one and freeze one. I love bakeware that goes from freezer to oven to table. I recommend this rectangular Le Crueset and this one from Emile Henry. When dividing this up to freeze and bake for the holidays, I like to use this red oval Emile Henry baking dish to add a festive touch.
What is baked ziti, and how is it different from lasagna?
Baked ziti is a pasta-based casserole where you layer pasta, meat sauce, cheese, and a ricotta/egg/sour cream mixture. It is similar to lasagna but much easier to make (and just as yummy).
- The meat sauce: The meat sauce in this baked ziti couldn’t be easier. It consists of ground beef simmered in prepared jarred pasta sauce (and a few seasonings). Don’t worry; it isn’t boring. There are lots of flavors going on in this dish, so the meat sauce needs to be simple.
- The cheeses. This recipe calls for ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, and provolone. I use sliced plain (not smoked) provolone and shredded mozzarella. Whole or part-skim ricotta will work, but I prefer whole. Fresh parmesan is a must, and the higher the quality, the better.
- The pasta: I use either ziti or penne; DeCecco is my favorite. I never rinse pasta. When it is al dente (firm to the tooth), I remove it from the stovetop, drain it immediately, and toss it with a few splashes of EVOO so it won’t stick together. Layering the ziti is super easy. I shared the process in the video below.
How do you make baked ziti ahead of time?
This baked ziti can easily be made ahead and frozen. For taking to the beach or lake, I usually do a disposable aluminum pan. For guests or entertaining, I serve the ziti in stoneware casserole dishes that are designed to go from freezer to oven to table. In the video below, I show how I prep the baked ziti for freezing.
What type of sausage do I use for baked ziti?
For this dish, I use hot Italian sausage. I used one link and crumbled it up in the baked ziti. Crumbling it up helps to spread it evenly throughout the ziti and it is SO delicious. If you want a milder type of sausage, that will work too but using a hot Italian sausage will add some extra flavor to the dish.
What pasta is used for baked ziti?
The pasta used for baked ziti is super easy to remember, ziti! If you are unsure what ziti is, it is the pasta that is shaped into a long tube. It is super easy to find but you could also sub it out for some penne in a pinch.
How does baked ziti end up watery?
Oftentimes, baked ziti can end up watery if the tomato sauce isn’t thick enough. Luckily this recipe calls for the tomato sauce to simmer on the stove along with the ground beef and onion. Doing this will help to get rid of some of the extra water in the sauce. Following these steps will help you get the perfect consistency!
Do you need to cook the pasta before pasta bake?
Definitely make sure you cook your pasta prior to assembling your baked ziti. One good tip is to make sure that your pasta is not over-cooked, you will want your pasta cooked a little bit al dente. Since you are going to end up putting your dish in the oven after boiling the pasta, you are going to want to be mindful to not over-boil! Your pasta will continue to cook in the sauce.
What is a substitute for ricotta cheese in baked ziti?
There are several things you can use as a substitute for ricotta cheese in baked ziti. One of the best substitutes that I have found is cottage cheese. If you use cottage cheese, then you almost can’t tell the difference! If your grocery store is out of ricotta cheese, I would recommend using soft cheese, such as cottage cheese. This will make the cheese smooth and spreadable, which is what we’re going for in this dish! Cream cheese would also work for a smoother and softer feeling. I wouldn’t recommend trying to sub your cheese out with a harder cheese like parmesan.
What kind of sauce do I use for baked ziti?
I use a jarred sauce for this baked ziti and I recommend just using whatever sauce you prefer most! You’re going to add the meat and a few seasonings to the sauce and cook it all together, so the type of sauce isn’t super important. More important than the sauce is the contents you add to it.
How do you know when baked ziti is done cooking?
You’ll know the baked ziti is done cooking when the cheese on top starts to get golden brown and begins to bubble. If baking from frozen, let the ziti thaw before you cook it, and set the oven to 350 and bake until bubbling.
Do you freeze baked ziti before or after baking?
You make the ziti per the recipe below up to the point of baking (but do NOT bake). Wrap and freeze the assembled but unbaked ziti. In the short video below, I show you the three things I use to freeze baked ziti and how I use them. Note: The video was recorded on my Instagram so will be a vertical shot with the black box in the sides:-(
How do I cook baked ziti from frozen?
Allow 2-3 days for the ziti to thaw in the fridge before you plan to bake it. It bakes better fully thawed. Remove the freezer wrap from the ziti. Place foil loosely over ziti for the first part of baking; remove the last 15 or 20 minutes of baking.
What sides do I serve with baked ziti?
- Bread: Crusty artisan bread is a must with this yummy, cheesy Italian dish. I love Costco’s rosemary olive oil bread. Fresh baguettes are also great. I always put out herbed dipping oil along with tiny bowls for guests to have their own portions.
- Salad: I often serve ziti with this Easy Peasy Baby Bleu Salad or this Greek Chopped Salad.
- Dessert: My Quadruple Chocolate Bundt Cake is a cake mix creation that looks and tastes from scratch. It can be made weeks ahead, glazed, and frozen.
This is the best-baked ziti for a crowd and is definitely a crowd-pleaser. If you make this and have any questions, feel free to contact me in the comments. I try to get back quickly when I hear from anyone!
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As always, thanks so much for stopping by. Wishing you a joyful, blessed, and savvy day!!!
- 2 pounds dry ziti or penne pasta
- 1 cup chopped onion (frozen is fine)
- 2 pounds lean ground beef
- 1 hot Italian sausage link, crumbled (optional)
- 4 (26-ounce) jars spaghetti sauce
- 3/4 pound (12 oz) sliced provolone (not smoked)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 (16-oz) carton whole milk ricotta cheese
- 3/4 pound (4 cups) mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1/2-1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 TB Italian seasoning (optional)
- Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add ziti pasta, and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes; drain.
- In a large skillet, brown onion and ground beef over medium heat. Add spaghetti sauce, and simmer 15 minutes.
- In medium bowl, stir together ricotta, sour cream, egg & Italian seasoning.
- Spray one jumbo or two large aluminum foil pans with cooking spray.
- Layer ingredients as follows:
- Half of the sauce
- Half of the ziti
- Half of the Provolone cheese,
- Half of the mozzarella
- Layer remaining sauce, ziti, provolone & mozzarella.
- Spread all of ricotta/sour cream mixture on top.
- Sprinkle parmesan on top.
- Bake at 350 degrees until bubbly.
- IF FREEZING:
- Assemble (but do not cook) ziti.
- Wrap well, label, and freeze.
- TO COOK FROM FROZEN:
- Place in fridge to thaw a few days before serving.
- Bake at 350 until bubbly.
- Allow to rest at least a half hour before serving.
Nutrition InformationYield 20 Serving Size 1
Amount Per Serving Calories 345Total Fat 21gSaturated Fat 11gTrans Fat 0gUnsaturated Fat 8gCholesterol 99mgSodium 558mgCarbohydrates 10gFiber 1gSugar 3gProtein 27g