This comforting Italian-American classic is one of the easiest dinners to make and requires only a few ingredients! It’s made of pasta baked to perfection with gooey melted cheese, fresh herbs, and Italian tomato sauce. The whole family will love this recipe!
I grew up with my mom making baked ziti all the time. It is one of my most memorable childhood dinners that she would make. My mom would always refer to it as a dish my grandmother would make for them when she was a kid. They lived in a small apartment in Edgewater, New Jersey, with her six siblings, and dinners like baked pasta were affordable and easy to make for a huge family.
My grandmother’s recipe was very humble & simple, using only pasta, canned stewed tomatoes, cheddar cheese, and some dried basil. I decided to do an elevated version while still keeping the integrity of my family’s simple method. This is a great dinner when you’re running short on time and ingredients!
This recipe differs slightly from other baked ziti because we do not use ricotta cheese. Why? Because I never grew up having it in baked ziti. We always used cheese such as cheddar, parmesan, or whatever my mom had on hand! And another thing we do differently is adding fresh herbs, which I think is always lacking in many traditional pasta dishes.
It’s simple & rustic cooking but so comforting, and everyone always LOVES it!
Pasta: you can use traditional ziti pasta shape. You can also use any shape you like! See our notes below for our top pasta shapes.
Cheese: one of the best things about this recipe is you can use any cheese. I recommend using an Italian cheese blend or cheddar cheese for cheesy pasta! I also like adding parmesan cheese for salty flavor, and for even more cheesiness, I use Gruyere or mozzarella.
Pasta water: this is highlighted as an ingredient because it’s essential to use! Pasta water has flavor from the boiled pasta and adds moisture to make this baked ziti super creamy and cheesy.
Herbs: Using fresh herbs in this baked ziti is a simple way to elevate the flavors. This recipe calls for fresh basil and oregano!
How to Make Easy Baked Ziti – Step by Step
Cook the pasta. First, bring a large pot of water to a boil and season the water with a generous amount of salt (about 1 Tablespoon). Cook the pasta until al dente using the packaging instructions. When draining the pasta save about 1/2 to 3/4 cup of pasta water. Keep it with the pasta and add 1/4 cup of grated fresh parmesan, 1/2 cup of cheddar cheese, 1/2 cup gruyere cheese, 1 cup of marinara, and 2 Tablespoon of fresh basil & 1 teaspoon oregano.
Stir ingredients with pasta. Then stir the pasta, cheese, and sauce together while the pasta noodles and water is hot.
Add pasta to a baking dish. Then transfer the pasta to a 13×9 baking dish.
Add the sauce. Spread the remaining sauce over the top of the pasta.
Add the cheese and bake. Then sprinkle or place the remaining cheese over top of the sauce. Cover loosely with foil so the cheese doesn’t stick to the toil and bake at 350F for 25 minutes. To brown the top you can remove the foil and broil on high for 1 to 2 minutes at the very end. Then serve!
Types of Cheese You Can Use in Baked Ziti
You can use almost any cheese for baked ziti or pasta! Growing up, my mom always used what she had on hand, so I thought I would share a few Italian cheeses we like to use for baked ziti. Remember that some cheeses add flavor, and some add creamy/cheesiness with a mild flavor, so it’s important to choose a good combination for the perfect balance!
Parmesan (salty flavor + mild cheesiness) – fresh parmesan cheese is key for a salty flavor! If it’s pre-shredded, it won’t melt very well in the dish, but if it’s fresh, it will add some cheesiness, but mainly it’s used to add delicious flavor.
Cheddar (flavor + very cheesy) – I grew up with my mom adding cheddar cheese to baked ziti, and I always loved it! It adds delicious flavor but also melts perfectly. You can use mild for a subtle cheddar flavor or sharp cheddar for a more distinct flavor.
Gruyere (mild flavor + very cheesy) – many mac & cheese recipes use Gruyere because it’s very melty and the flavor is subtle but delicious. I love using it with parmesan and cheddar cheese for baked ziti!
Mozzarella (very mild flavor + cheesy) – fresh mozzarella will have the mildest flavor out of all the cheeses, but used in small amounts, it can be a great cheesy addition with other flavorful cheeses.
Italian blend (good flavor + very cheesy) – you can use a pre-shredded Italian cheese blend (typically made of provolone, mozzarella, parmesan, and sometimes cheddar) to make things simple. This will typically have good flavor and melt perfectly in a baked ziti! If I’m using just this, I like to pair it with fresh parmesan for more richness.
Ricotta or mascarpone (very mild flavor + creamy) – is used in many traditional baked ziti recipes! But its purpose isn’t really for flavor or cheesiness but to add creaminess to the dish – like a lasagna. You can use either ricotta or mascarpone!
Tips for Success & Recipe Variations
Pasta water is key. The secret to a good baked ziti is using the water the pasta noodles cooked in to add moisture. Only a little is needed to add moisture and make the cheese even creamier.
Don’t skip the fresh herbs. Because baked ziti requires only a few ingredients, I always use a lot of fresh herbs for bright flavor! I don’t recommend swapping them for dried herbs, the flavor isn’t the same.
Add some heat. If you like a little bit of heat, instead of marinara, you can use arrabbiata sauce (which is a spicy marinara) or mix in a pinch of red pepper flakes with the pasta and cheese.
Make it gluten-free. If you need to make this dish gluten-free friendly, use gluten-free pasta noodles for regular wheat noodles!
Add meat. If you want to add protein or meat to the baked ziti, we recommend ground beef, Italian sausage, ground turkey, or ground chicken. First, brown the meat completely in a pan and add it to step 3 from the recipe card.
Types of pasta you can use for baked ziti. Instead of ziti noodles, you can also use rigatoni, radiatori, fusilli, penne, bowtie pasta, or shells!
Frequently Asked Questions
Should I Cover Baked Ziti in the Oven? Always! And that’s because covering the baked ziti traps moisture and helps make the cheese and pasta hold the perfect moisture level to make it cheesy and delicious. If you bake it uncovered, it will dry up all the moisture from the pasta and cheese, leaving a very parched pasta dish in the end. For the perfect balance, I like to cover it for most of the baking time and then uncover it to brown the cheese a little towards the end.
Can I make it in advance? Of course! Cook the pasta and assemble the dish, then cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Then bake as instructed.
How do I reheat leftover baked ziti? Add a splash of water and additional sauce (if desired), cover with foil in a baking dish, and bake at 350F until hot in the center (about 10-15 minutes).
Can I freeze it? Yes! Assemble the whole dish and skip baking it. Cover it completely with plastic wrap, then foil, and freeze for up to 2 months. When ready to bake, thaw it in the refrigerator overnight and bake as instructed.
What to Serve it With
Salad. A fresh Italian salad or Mediterranean-inspired salad is what we love to serve with any baked pasta! We recommend our Tuscan artichoke salad, my go-to Greek salad, or serving it with our grilled corn and tomato salad for the summertime.
Bread. Of course, Italian bread is a must for sauce dipping! You can also do homemade or store-bought sourdough.
More Baked Pasta Recipes to Try
If you love this baked ziti recipe, you might also love our cauliflower baked ziti (perfect for sneaking some veggies in for kids) or this baked rigatoni with roasted vegetables! Try our favorite sweet & spicy Italian sausage lasagna for lasagna, or vegetarian options would be our roasted vegetable lasagna or this classic spinach lasagna.
Easy Baked Ziti
- 1 lb ziti or pasta of choice, see notes for pasta shapes we recommend for baked ziti
- 3 cups marinara
- 1/2 cup pasta water
- 1/2 cup fresh parmesan cheese
- 3/4 cup cheddar cheese, Or swap the cheddar and parmesan for Italian blend cheese
- 3/4 cup gruyere, Or swap for mozzarella
- 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
- 1 Tablespoon fresh oregano
- Preheat oven to 350F. Cook pasta according to box directions with a generous pinch of salt. Drain pasta and reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water.
- Cook the pasta. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil (about 1 Tablespoon of salt to season the pasta water). Cook the pasta until it's al dente in texture (use the packaging or box for instructions). When the pasta is finished, reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water then drain the rest. Place the pasta water back in with the pasta.
- Add half of the salt and cheese. In the same pot with the pasta and reserved pasta water, add 1 cup of marinara, 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, 1 Tablespoon fresh oregano, 1/4 cup parmesan, 1/2 cup cheddar cheese, and 1/2 cup gruyere cheese. Mix completely together – the pasta should become cheesy and a little creamy.
- Assemble the baked ziti. Transfer the cheesy pasta to a 13×9 baking dish. Layer the top of the pasta with the remaining marinara and cheese.
- Cover and bake. Cover the baked ziti loosely with foil and bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and broil on high for 1 minute for the cheese to brown. Garnish with additional fresh basil if you want, then serve!