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This easy baked ziti recipe is extra creamy thanks to smooth and tangy cream cheese. This baked pasta dish comes together quickly, leftovers stay moist and flavorful for days, and it can even be made ahead of time. Keep this dish vegetarian or see the recipe notes for suggestions on adding a meat component to this easy casserole.
This Recipe for Baked Ziti is my favorite
Do you have a recipe (or recipes!) in your lineup that you make SO OFTEN, you could do it in your sleep? That the recipe is just burned into your brain and you don’t even need to look at it? For me, one of those recipes is this tasty pasta dish (others are my favorite chocolate cake, homemade whipped cream, and flaky pie crust).
Not only is it a family favorite in our house, but it’s also my go-to for dinner parties, holidays, and for gifting to families who have just had a baby, have a loved one in the hospital or recovering from a procedure, just moved into a new home, or could just use a reason to take weeknight dinners off of their mind for a bit.
In fact, a girlfriend of mine jokes every time someone I know has a baby that it’s time for a baked ziti! And she’s right– it’s super easy, it (usually) leaves leftovers, it reheats beautifully, AND it’s freezable. It’s just… Well, my favorite!
WHAT IS BAKED ZITI?
Baked ziti is an Italian-American casserole made from tender ziti noodles baked in a red sauce and topped with shredded mozzarella cheese. While it’s called “baked ziti,” you can actually use any tube-shaped pasta you like for this dish.
I have used penne pasta, rigatoni pasta, and rotini pasta. You can use whatever pasta shape you prefer, have on hand, or is on sale. Another reason I love this recipe is that the cost of ingredients is quite low. It’s an awesome budget-friendly option!
Easy Baked Ziti ingredients
My favorite recipes are ones that have some flexibility with ingredient selection, and this baked ziti with cream cheese fits that criteria well. Here’s what you’ll need:
DRY PASTA: again, any tube-shaped pastas work well here. I suggest avoiding any pasta shape that’s too tiny like macaroni or long and thin like spaghetti. Larger individual tube pastas are your best choice.
CREAM CHEESE: you’ll need block cream cheese here, and preferably a low to full fat version. I have made this ziti with fat-free cream cheese and it’s just not nearly as creamy or as delicious. Casserole at your own risk, but you have been warned!
TOMATO SAUCE: I typically reach for a classic marinara sauce or one with Italian seasoning. There are so many jars of pasta sauce to choose from, but I find the best results with one that doesn’t have any tomato chunks or too many flavors going on.
DICED TOMATOES: I much prefer petite diced tomatoes for this recipe as the tomato chunks are smaller. Be sure you aren’t choosing diced tomatoes that have been salted, and be sure not to grab the one seasoned for Mexican food!
SHREDDED CHEESE: so many kinds of cheese to choose from! I typically lean into basic mozzarella cheese, but have often grabbed the bag with an Italian cheese mixture that includes Parmesan cheese and Romano cheese. If you want to shred your cheese fresh, that’s perfectly fine. But remember– this recipe is meant to be incredibly easy and low maintenance.
BASIL: this is totally optional and mostly there for color and a pop of flavor. Don’t go out of your way to purchase a special ingredient.
CAN I ADD MEAT TO THIS BAKED ZITI RECIPE?
As written, this is a meatless ziti recipe, but adding meat is very simple. Follow the recipe as is, then add about 2 cups of your preferred cooked/browned meat (like Italian sausage, ground beef, or ground chicken).
Another option is to use your favorite meat sauce (here is my homemade meat sauce recipe).
How to make Baked Ziti with Cream Cheese
Another thing that makes this the best baked ziti is that aside from cooking the pasta, you’re essentially just opening cans and containers and dumping ingredients together. It’s so quick!
Start by cooking the pasta in a large pot of salted water according to the directions on the box. I prefer to cook my pasta al dente since it will cook a bit more in the liquid in the casserole dish. Drain the pasta and set it aside.
While the large saucepan is still hot, add the cubed cream cheese and stir it with a spatula or wooden spoon until mostly melted.
Add the hot pasta, spaghetti sauce, and diced tomatoes (remember not to drain the tomatoes). Stir the mixture until the pasta is well-coated, then stir in half of the shredded cheese.
Pour the pasta mixture into a 2 quart casserole (I have also used a 9″ × 13″ baking dish or disposable casserole container), then sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese evenly over the top and bake for 25-30 minutes or until cheese bubbles.
HOW LONG TO COOK BAKED ZITI?
This casserole only needs to bake for 25-30 minutes, unless you make it ahead of time, then I usually add about 5 minutes to the base baking time.
HOW TO MAKE ZITI CASSEROLE AHEAD OF TIME
I love making this dish ahead of time, especially if I’m bringing it to someone’s house. That way, they can bake it right away or pop it in the freezer to make it another time.
To make this baked ziti ahead of time: follow the recipe as written through putting everything into a baking dish, then cover the ziti and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 day. Bake casserole cold from the fridge.
To freeze unbaked ziti: this ziti freezes well, up to 2 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight, if possible. Cut up and heat individual servings in the microwave or cover with foil and bake in a 300ºF (148ºC) oven for 20 minutes.
How to serve Baked Ziti
While this ziti is perfectly perfect as a standalone dish, serve it with a salad, garlic bread or dinner rolls, and/or a protein to make it a heartier meal.
Storing Easy Baked Ziti with Cream Cheese
This baked ziti stores keeps very well in the refrigerator when covered tightly to insure it does not dry out.
One of my favorite things about it is how it lasts for several days. A lot of times, pasta bakes get dry and the pasta gets gross after a couple days. Not this baked ziti! There is so much moisture going on in this dish that you might think it’s too wet when it goes into the casserole. But it’s not. I promise.
You’ll be thankful for that liquid later!
Easy Baked Ziti Recipe FAQs
Easy Creamy Baked Ziti Recipe
- 1 box uncooked ziti1
- 8 ounces (225g) block cream cheese softened to room temperature and cut into 8 cubes; any fat content2
- 1-24 ounce jar (680g) pasta sauce3
- 1-14 ounce can (411g) petite diced tomatoes4 undrained
- 2 cups (226g) shredded cheese5 divided
- fresh basil finely chopped; optional
- Preheat the oven to 350ºF (177ºC). In a large pot of salted water, cook the pasta according to the directions on the box. I prefer to cook my pasta al dente since it will cook a bit more in the liquid in the casserole dish. Drain the pasta and set it aside.
- While the large pot is still hot, add the cubed cream cheese and stir with a spatula or wooden spoon until mostly melted.
- Add the hot pasta, pasta sauce, and diced tomatoes. Stir until pasta is well-coated. Stir in about half (I usually just do one big handful) of the shredded cheese until evenly dispersed.
- Pour the pasta into a 2 quart casserole (I have also used a 9×13" baking dish or disposable casserole container). Sprinkle remaining shredded cheese evenly over the top and bake for 25-30 minutes or until cheese bubbles. Remove from oven and allow to cool 15 minutes before serving. Leftovers can be stored in the refrigerator, covered or wrapped tightly, up to 1 week. Baked casserole freezes well– up to 2 months. Thaw in refrigerator overnight. Cut up and heat individual servings in the microwave or cover with foil and bake in a 300ºF (148ºC) oven for 20 minutes.
- Make ahead: this casserole can be assembled and refrigerated for up to 1 day. Add an extra 5 minutes to the baking time.
- Pasta: I have made this recipe with ziti, penne, and rigatoni. You can really use any type of tube-shaped pasta or any short noodle. Box amounts vary– aim for a 13-16 ounce box.
- Cream cheese: I prefer full-fat or low-fat cream cheese. I do not love this recipe with fat free cream cheese. Be sure to use the block cream cheese and not tub or whipped cream cheese.
- Pasta sauce: I typically use an Italian-spiced sauce and one without chunks. You can also use a meat sauce.
- Petite diced tomatoes: I have used diced tomatoes but much prefer the size of bites with petite diced tomatoes.
- Shredded cheese: I usually use mozzarella or an Italian blend shredded cheese. You can shred it yourself, but this recipe works great with pre-shredded cheese.
All nutritional values are approximate and provided to the reader as a courtesy. Changing ingredients and/or quantities will alter the estimated nutritional calculations.