Here she is, the lightened-up baked ziti of my dreams. This baked ziti has all of lasagna’s saucy, mozzarella-topped appeal, but is easier to pull off on a regular weeknight. Amen.
When I dreamed up this recipe, I wanted to replace a lot of the pasta with roasted vegetables. In the end, I was able to displace half of the ziti (8 ounces) with two pounds (!) of vegetables.
I chose cauliflower, which develops the most irresistible golden edges as it roasts, red bell pepper and yellow onion. I love this combination, but you could easily use your favorite vegetables here.
It took me a while to find the perfect ratio of mozzarella, marinara, and ricotta (I actually used cottage cheese, more on that in a bit). I believe I’ve hit the nail on the head with the final recipe, and can’t wait to hear how it turns out for you.
The Best Baked Ziti
I’ve already mentioned that this ziti will work on a weeknight, but it’s more versatile than that. Here are a few more reasons to love it:
- This baked ziti would be a great option for a date night or casual entertaining. You’ll have plenty of time between steps to chat and sip wine.
- It’s a quiet recipe to make, too. You don’t have to sauté anything! I feel like this is an underrated recipe quality.
- This ziti can be assembled up to 3 days in advance, so this is a perfect dish to make ahead or bring to a friend who could use a good meal.
- This vegetable-heavy dish is surprisingly high in protein. Each serving offers twenty grams!
- This ziti would be awesome with my chopped Italian salad. Feel free to make a simplified version of it.
Baked Ziti Ingredient Notes
This recipe doesn’t require a long list of ingredients. Here’s what you’ll need:
Preferably ziti, but rigatoni or penne will also work. I usually opt for whole wheat noodles (love DeLallo and Bionaturae), but those have been harder to come by lately, so I used Whole Foods’ organic ziti for these pictures. Pasta is generally sold in one-pound boxes so you’ll need half of a box.
I believe you could use a sturdy corn and quinoa pasta blend to make this recipe gluten free.
I’m a huge fan of my homemade marinara recipe, but since this recipe is supposed to be simple, I opted for a jarred option from the store. My favorite brand is Rao’s, which tastes pretty close to my homemade sauce. If you do want to make homemade marinara, you’ll need to double my recipe to yield the four cups you’ll need for this ziti.
I used cauliflower, bell pepper and onion. If you’re sensitive to onions, you might want to swap the onion for something else (maybe a sweet potato?).
You can use up your leftover vegetables in this ziti recipe. You’ll need about two pounds prepared vegetables to make it work. Keep in mind that heads of broccoli or cauliflower weigh twice as much as they yield in florets (so a two-pound bunch of broccoli will yield about one pound of florets).
Now, you could skip the basil, but it adds a lot of irresistible fresh flavor to jarred marinara, and livens up the cheesy finished dish. In my opinion, it is worth buying!
Part-skim mozzarella is ideal here, since it develops a beautiful golden shade in the oven. It also makes your finished dish less greasy than it would be if you used full-fat mozzarella.
It’s best to grate your cheese yourself, rather than to buy the pre-shredded kind (you’ll also save money this way). Pre-grated cheese is typically coated in starch or powder that can inhibit its melty factor.
Cottage Cheese (or Ricotta)
Scandalous, I know! I genuinely prefer cottage cheese to ricotta here, even though I can’t stand cottage cheese on its own. Ricotta tends to get gummy when heated, which bothers me, whereas cottage cheese turns magically more creamy and delicious. Use whichever one you prefer in lasagna recipes.
A Few Tips Before You Get Started
Use half-sheet pans. If only everyone owned these basic half-sheet pans (affiliate link). They offer a lot of surface area, so your vegetables have some breathing room while they roast.
Be sure to use a big baker. You’ll need a three-quart baker (think 9×13″ with deep sides) for this one. Here’s mine. To err on the side of caution against overflow, I’ve instructed you to place the baker on a clean rimmed baking sheet when it’s in the oven.
Don’t overcook your pasta. In fact, you want it a little bit undercooked, so cook it for the shortest amount of time offered on the package. It should still have a little bite to it when you drain it, since it will continue to cook while it’s in the oven.
Please let me know how this baked ziti recipe turns out for you in the comments! I hope you love it as much as I do.
Craving more Italian comfort food? Don’t miss these recipes on Cookie and Kate:
- Best Vegetable Lasagna
- Baked Ziti with Lentils
- Hearty Spaghetti with Lentils and Marinara Sauce
- Classic Minestrone Soup
Baked Ziti with Roasted Vegetables
This amazing baked ziti recipe is lightened up with roasted vegetables. Golden mozzarella, sizzling red sauce and tender pasta make this vegetarian ziti super delicious! Recipe yields 8 servings.
- 1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into bite-sized florets
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into 1″ squares
- 1 medium yellow onion, sliced into wedges about ½″ wide
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, divided
Pasta and everything else
- 8 ounces ziti, rigatoni, or penne pasta
- 4 cups (32 ounces) marinara sauce (homemade or store-bought), divided
- ¼ cup chopped fresh basil, plus extra for garnish
- 8 ounces (2 packed cups) grated part-skim mozzarella cheese, divided
- 2 cups (16 ounces) cottage cheese or ricotta cheese, divided
- To roast the veggies: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit with racks in the middle and upper third of the oven. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper to prevent the vegetables from sticking.
- Place the cauliflower florets on one pan. On the other pan, combine the bell peppers and onion. Drizzle half of the olive oil over one pan, and the other half over the other pan. Sprinkle the salt over the two pans. Gently toss until the vegetables on each pan are lightly coated in oil.
- Arrange the vegetables in an even layer across each pan. Bake until the vegetables are tender and caramelized on the edges, about 30 to 35 minutes, tossing the veggies and swapping their rack positions halfway (lower rack to upper rack, and vice versa). Leave the oven on at 425, because we’re going to bake the dish at the same temperature. If you end up with any stray burnt onion pieces, discard them, and set the vegetables aside.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta just until al dente, according to package directions (it will continue to cook while it bakes in the oven, so you want the pasta to still have a little bite to it). Drain and return the pasta to the pot.
- Add 2 cups of the marinara, the chopped basil, and ½ cup of the mozzarella to the pasta. Gently stir to combine.
- It’s assembly time! Spread 1 cup of additional marinara sauce inside a 9×13″ baker. Top with half of the pasta mixture, and gently spread it into an even layer. Evenly sprinkle the roasted cauliflower on top, then dollop 1 cup of the cottage cheese over the cauliflower (it doesn’t need to be spread into an even layer), followed by ½ cup of the mozzarella.
- Top the mozzarella with the remaining pasta. Then sprinkle the roasted peppers and onion on top, dollop the remaining cup of ricotta on top, then dollop the remaining cup of marinara on that, then sprinkle the remaining cheese all over.
- Place a clean, rimmed baking sheet on the lower oven rack to catch any drippings. Place the ziti, uncovered, on top of the baking sheet. Bake for 30 minutes, then transfer to the upper rack for 2 to 5 more minutes until the cheese is deeply golden if desired.
- Remove the baker from the oven and let it cool for 10 minutes before serving (trust me). Sprinkle freshly torn basil on top, slice with a sharp knife, and serve.