Easy Baked Ziti

I turn to this easy baked ziti recipe anytime I'm serving a crowd. Filled with creamy ricotta, tomato sauce, and fresh spinach, it's comfort food at its best.

Baked ziti

Baked ziti is a dish that has a special place in both Jack’s heart and mine. Growing up, I ate it at all sorts of gatherings – graduation parties, holidays, and more – and Jack’s mom makes it every year on Christmas Eve. With the holidays right around the corner, I thought now would be the perfect time to share my baked ziti recipe.

Easy to make and perfect for serving a crowd, it’s the recipe I turn to whenever we’re hosting family or friends, one we’ve made and loved time and time again. Whether you serve it at a holiday feast or on a regular weeknight, I hope you enjoy it too.

Ziti pasta with marinara sauce

My Baked Ziti Recipe

My baked ziti recipe is a fresher take on the versions I ate growing up, which were often filled with ground beef or Italian sausage. I swap homemade marinara sauce for the meat sauce, and then, I amp it up with these three key components:

  • Fresh spinach – I sauté a full pound of spinach to make this recipe extra fresh. I love the way it mingles with the noodles, and it adds such a gorgeous pop of green.
  • Lemony ricotta – In between the layers of noodles and spinach, I dollop big spoonfuls of lemony ricotta cheese. It gives this baked ziti an incredible creamy richness and a burst of bright flavor. Note: for the best creamy texture, be sure to use whole milk ricotta in this recipe!
  • Smoked mozzarella – If it’s what you have on hand, regular mozzarella cheese will work here, but using smoked mozzarella really takes it over the top. It adds a delicious savory flavor to the pasta’s Italian seasoning. You won’t be able to get enough!

Of course, I always finish the whole thing with a big handful of fresh basil and parsley!

Baked ziti recipe

How to Make Baked Ziti

Making this baked ziti recipe is easy! Here’s what you need to do:

First, cook the pasta! Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until it becomes al dente. Be careful not to overcook it! It will soften more while it bakes.

While the pasta cooks, make the lemony ricotta. Mix the ricotta cheese with lemon zest, oregano, garlic, salt, and red pepper flakes for a touch of heat.

Next, sauté the spinach. Drain the pasta, and heat a glug of olive oil in the same pot. Sauté the spinach until it’s just wilted. I work in batches here, cooking 1/2 pound of spinach at a time, so that I can take it all off the heat while it’s still vibrant green. Remove the sautéed spinach from the pot, roughly chop it, and set it aside.

Easy baked ziti

Then, mix everything together! Return most of the spinach and all the pasta to the pot, along with all but 1/2 cup of the tomato sauce. Stir until everything is well combined.

Finally, layer it up. Spread the remaining sauce on the bottom of a large casserole dish, and spread half of the pasta mixture over it. Dollop in the ricotta and the reserved spinach, and scoop the rest of the pasta on top. Cover it all with a layer of grated smoked mozzarella and a bit of grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese. Drizzle with olive oil, and bake until the cheese is golden brown and bubbling.

Serve hot, and enjoy!

This baked ziti also freezes well, see this post for tips.

How to make baked ziti

Baked Ziti Serving Suggestions

Serve this baked ziti with crusty bread or homemade focaccia and a big salad like my Caesar salad, broccoli salad, kale salad, or any of these salad recipes.

Alternatively, skip the salad and serve it alongside a simple veggie side dish like roasted cauliflower, roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted butternut squash, or lemony green beans!

Baked ziti

If you love this baked ziti recipe…

Check out this post for more easy dinner ideas or try one of these delicious pasta recipes next!

Easy Baked Ziti

rate this recipe:
4.92 from 75 votes
Prep Time: 15 mins
Cook Time: 20 mins
Total Time: 35 mins
Serves 6 to 8
Made with plenty of marinara sauce, creamy ricotta, and bubbly, golden brown mozzarella cheese, this baked ziti recipe is a guaranteed hit!

Ingredients

  • 4 cups (32 ounces) marinara sauce
  • 2 cups (16 ounces) ricotta cheese
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • ¾ teaspoon sea salt, more for the pasta water
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound ziti pasta
  • Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
  • 1 pound fresh spinach
  • cups smoked mozzarella cheese
  • ¼ cup grated pecorino or Parmesan cheese
  • Chopped fresh parsley and/or torn basil leaves, for garnish

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 425°F. Spread ½ cup marinara in the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish.
  • In a medium bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, garlic, lemon zest, oregano, red pepper flakes, ½ teaspoon salt, and several grinds of fresh pepper.
  • In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain.
  • Return the pot back to the stove. Over low heat, drizzle the bottom of the pot with a little olive oil and add the spinach. Toss and sauté 1 to 2 minutes until just wilted, working in batches if necessary. Turn off the heat, remove the spinach from the pot, and gently squeeze out some of the excess water. Coarsely chop it and set aside.
  • Add the pasta back to the pot along with the remaining marinara, most of the chopped spinach, ¼ teaspoon sea salt, and more fresh pepper and toss until combined.
  • Add half the pasta to the baking dish, top with dollops of the ricotta, the remaining spinach, and scoop the remaining pasta on top. Top with the mozzarella and pecorino cheese. Drizzle with olive oil and bake until the cheese is browned, 16 to 22 minutes.
  • Garnish with fresh basil or parsley and serve hot.

 

116 comments

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Rate this recipe (after making it)




  1. Diana Vazquez
    07.17.2022

    Any non dairy substitutions for ricotta cheese? I’ve had to temporarily cut dairy off my diet

    • Diana
      07.17.2022

      I just found the tofu ricotta version 😀

  2. Andrea
    05.09.2022

    Delicious! The lemon zest in the ricotta was absolutely perfect. I added a can of cannellini beans for some protein. Great recipe!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      05.11.2022

      oh I love the cannellini bean idea, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Silke F.
    05.04.2022

    5 stars
    I tried it today and absolutely loved it. I only had one cup of ricotta, but I think it was more than enough. That one is a keeper for sure.

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      05.04.2022

      I’m so glad you loved it!

  4. Celina
    05.01.2022

    Is it possible to prepare in advance freeze and cook at a later date? I like to try and prepare in advance so I just have to throw into the oven if possible.

  5. Priscilla
    04.11.2022

    Hi there, I plan to make this recipe this week. But I wonder if I can do all of the assembly in the morning before work and then bake for the final step when I get home. Any insight for me regarding breaking up the preparation and final baking time?

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      04.13.2022

      Hi Priscilla, yes, just cover it and store the assembled dish in the fridge. Bake it when you’re ready. I hope that helps!

      • Priscilla
        04.16.2022

        Thanks for your help. We ate this tonight and my goodness!! It was a major crowd pleaser. So delicious. The smoked mozzarella really adds another level of savory to this baked dish and the lemon zest made it all POP. My 2 kids, 8 & 11 gobbled it up, as well as my hubs and myself. I plan to save this to our recipes. Thanks so much for this tasty dish.

        • Jeanine Donofrio
          04.17.2022

          I’m so glad it was such a hit!

  6. Konner
    04.09.2022

    3 stars
    Took an hour total, to prep and cook. WAY too much ricotta – I regret putting 2 cups because it ruined the dish.

  7. Kaitlyn
    03.24.2022

    This was delicious! It was a hit even with my two young kids. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      03.27.2022

      I’m so glad everyone loved it!

    • Ay
      04.04.2022

      5 stars
      This recipe was amazing! Hubby loved it!

  8. Emily
    03.07.2022

    Excited to make – do you ever add chicken or other protein? I led you were going to add chicken, would you cook fully before adding to the oven or would that overcook the meat?

    • Jeanine Donofrio
      03.11.2022

      Hi Emily, I don’t usually add anything, it’s really substantial as it is. I don’t really cook chicken so I’m not sure.

  9. Aarthy
    02.02.2022

    Loved the recipe, I m right now baking it while posting this comment.

    • Aarthy
      02.02.2022

      5 stars
      Loved it even more after having it. Enjoyed the meal. I substituted Ricotta cheese with Cottage cheese , as I didn’t have the former . Now I m gonna try more recipes on your page.

      • Jeanine Donofrio
        02.02.2022

        I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

  10. Todd
    01.31.2022

    3 stars
    This is in no way 15 minutes to prep. It was 25 minutes alone to bring the water to a boil and cook the pasta…followed then by cooking the spinach in batches. It’s at least 45 minutes just for the prep.

    • J.J.
      04.04.2022

      5 stars
      Normally I don’t count boiling water as the water boils itself. The time is the on hands part where your actually doing something.

A food blog with fresh, zesty recipes.
Photograph of Jeanine Donofrio and Jack Mathews in their kitchen

Hello, we're Jeanine and Jack.

We love to eat, travel, cook, and eat some more! We create & photograph vegetarian recipes from our home in Chicago, while our shiba pups eat the kale stems that fall on the kitchen floor.