This Sausage Baked Ziti recipe is bursting with flavor and loaded with savory Italian sausage, plus three types of rich, melty cheese! It’s simple to make, customizable, can be prepared in advance and freezes beautifully! It’s the perfect cozy, comforting dinner the entire family will love!
This recipe is easy to prepare and even easier to devour! Continue to read on for tips about making the perfect cheese ziti – one that’s never dry, soggy or bland! And, don’t miss the detailed step by step photos and recipe video below!
Update: This post was originally published in March 2019. I made updates to include more information about baked ziti with sausage. Plus, I’ve included detailed step-by-step photos, plus a recipe video to show you exactly how easy this recipe is to make!
Hey there, friends! Today I’m sharing one of my absolute favorite pasta recipes of all time! It’s my go-to dish when the weather turns colder and I’m craving a hot, comforting meal.
This pasta casserole is overflowing with sausage, pepperoni and three types of melty, beautifully-gooey cheese! It’s an easy, cozy pasta dinner that will definitely become a staple in your house! Plus, it can be assembled ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator or freezer for fuss-free dinners and effortless entertaining!
Easy Italian Sausage Baked Ziti
Say hello to your new favorite pasta casserole, friends!
This ziti features perfectly al dente pasta tossed in a silky tomato based sauce studded with tender crumbles of Italian sausage, pungent garlic, fragrant onions and flavorful herbs. It’s layered with melty mozzarella, creamy ricotta, salty parmesan and smoky, bold pepperoni. Baked until bubbly, golden brown and delicious, this ziti is pure comfort food at its finest!
This dish is meaty, cheesy, bursting with flavor, overflowing with cozy vibes and absolutely guaranteed to hit the spot!
If you love cheesy pasta (because, who doesn’t) and are a fan of flavorful sausage (because, duh), you will fall head over heels for this outrageously delicious meat lover’s pasta bake!
Why you will love this recipe:
- It’s a laid-back version of lasagna. While baked ziti and lasagna share a lot of the same ingredients, ziti is less fussy to prepare – there’s no sheets of finicky noodles or endlessly layering everything together!
- Incredibly flavorful and perfectly cooked. Some ziti recipes result in a sad, soggy mess; however, this recipe produces amazingly delicious, perfectly cooked pasta! There’s no lifeless noodles, watery sauce or dry ricotta here – just tender noodles, thick sauce and three types of rich, creamy, melty cheeses!
- Perfect for both adults and kids. This cheesy ziti with meat will appeal to adults and children alike!
- Feeds a crowd. This recipe comfortably serves eight people. You can serve it as a hearty side dish at a potluck or easily customize it to feed a picky crowd!
- Economical. This baked pasta is cheap to prepare, yet rivals any restaurant and can feed your entire family!
- Make it ahead. This ziti dish is perfect to make in advance! Plus, it reheats and freezes beautifully!
What is baked ziti?
Baked ziti, also known as baked pasta or pasta casserole, is a comforting Italian-American dish featuring short cut tubular noodles, savory tomato sauce and cheese.
Ziti can be vegetarian, and made with the addition of mushrooms and peppers, or it can be prepared with a meat sauce made of sausage, beef, veal, turkey or chicken.
Is ziti the same as lasagna?
Ziti is considered the laid-back, informal cousin to lasagna. Ziti and lasagna are both baked casseroles made with similar ingredients – pasta, cheese and sauce – and the flavors are very alike. However, there are a few obvious differences.
- Noodles: Lasagna is prepared with lasagna noodles, which are long and flat. Baked ziti is made with small tubular pasta, typically ziti noodles.
- Assembly: Ziti layers can be haphazardly heaped into the pan. However, lasagna consists of alternating layers of pasta, cheese and sauce.
What ingredients do I need to make this?
This oven-baked pasta is bursting with robust Italian flavor and relies on easy to find ingredients for the best, comforting taste!
- Pasta: Ziti is the traditional pasta shape used for this dish. However, you can substitute penne or rigatoni. (See below for more information on types of pasta you can use!)
- Aromatics: One yellow onion plus three cloves of fresh garlic give the homemade meat sauce a base of flavor.
- Sausage: One pound of ground Italian sausage adds a ton of meaty, sweet and spicy flavor. You can substitute pork sausage, ground beef or ground turkey if desired. (See below for more information on types of meat you can use!)
- Pepperoni: While it’s not a traditional ingredient, diced pepperoni adds a touch of bold, slightly smoky flavor.
- Seasonings: Crushed red pepper, dried oregano, paprika and dried basil all provide flavor. You can swap out the oregano and basil for homemade Italian seasoning if you prefer!
- Tomatoes: One can of crushed tomatoes and two tablespoons of tomato paste give this ziti that classic rich tomato flavor. For the best taste, I highly recommend you use a can of certified San Marzano crushed tomatoes.
- Sugar: A teaspoon of granulated sugar helps balance out the acidity in the tomato meat sauce.
- Ricotta Mixture: A combination of whole milk ricotta, ground nutmeg and grated parmesan adds creamy texture. You can substitute ricotta for an equal amount of cottage cheese mixed with a whole egg.
- Cheeses: A combination of shredded mozzarella and freshly grated parmesan give ziti a depth of beautiful flavor. (See below for more information on types of cheese you can use!)
What kind of meat for ziti?
Traditionally, Italian sausage is used to make baked ziti. However, if you don’t eat pork, or simply prefer a different type of meat, you can substitute the Italian sausage for just about any type of ground meat. Or, you can use a 50-50 combination – half pork half ground meat of your choosing!
Types of meat to use in baked ziti:
- Ground Italian sausage: Italian sausage is sweet and spicy with a garlicky kick. It comes in three varieties – sweet, mild and hot. While Italian sausage is broadly defined, the most familiar variety, known as mild Italian sausage, is made from ground pork and includes fennel. Hot Italian sausage also contains red pepper flakes while sweet sausage includes sweet basil. You can use whichever variety you like depending on your spice preference.
- Sausage links: If you cannot find ground sausage, you can absolutely use Italian sausage links, just make sure you remove the sausages from their casings before cooking.
- Breakfast sausage: Breakfast sausage, also labeled as country sausage or simply pork sausage, is an American fresh pork sausage. Breakfast sausage comes in a variety of flavors; however, I recommend either regular or hot pork sausage for this recipe. Also, breakfast sausage patties aren’t the best option for this recipe. Stick with ground breakfast sausage or sausage links. I recommend adding a bit of crushed red pepper flakes and some Italian seasoning for heat and flavor.
- Ground Beef: If you prefer beef to pork, 90% lean ground beef will add plenty of flavor without making the dish overly greasy.
- Chicken Sausage: If you are looking for a leaner option, Italian chicken sausage is a great alternatives! Make sure to use ground chicken and not ground chicken breast. If you use plain ground chicken add in Italian seasoning to make up for the lack of flavor.
- Ground Turkey: Lean ground turkey is another healthier option. Opt for 93% lean instead of 99% lean ground turkey. And, consider adding Italian seasoning to make up for the lost flavor.
How to cook sausage for pasta casseroles?
The best way to cook sausage for baked ziti is to sauté it in a large, heavy-bottom skillet.
Since the ground sausage will continue to cook in the tomato sauce, you only need to cook it until well browned – it doesn’t need to cook all the way through. Ground sausage only takes about 4-6 minutes over medium-high heat to brown. Make sure you season the sausage generously with kosher salt and pepper when you add it to the pan. And, use the back of a large wooden spoon to break up the sausage into large crumbles as it cooks.
Can I make ziti without meat?
Absolutely! If you don’t eat meat you can easily transform this recipe into a delicious vegetarian ziti in one of three ways!
Vegetarian ziti variations:
- Sausage alternative: Substitute the Italian sausage for a vegetarian Italian sausage alternative.
- Mushrooms: Swap the sausage for a pound of roughly chopped mushrooms.
- Omit the meat: You can simply omit the sausage and pepperoni entirely from the recipe.
What noodles for baked ziti?
Ziti pasta noodles are most commonly used for ziti. Ziti is a short, straight-cut tube of pasta, and it can either be smooth or textured with ridges. Using short, tubular pasta in a baked ziti is important because it traps in the sauce and cheese.
If you can’t find ziti, you can substitute another tubular shaped pasta, such as penne or rigatoni.
- Penne: Penne pasta is the most common substitute for ziti as it’s similar in size. While ziti is straight-cut, penne is cut at a diagonal angle.
- Rigatoni: Rigatoni is slightly shorter and wider than penne. However, it’s ridged texture makes it perfect for trapping sauce and cheese!
Do you boil pasta before baking?
There is no need to boil or precook pasta before baking it in a casserole, you simply need to soak it!
The only thing worse than under-cooked pasta is mushy, water-logged pasta! While you can under-cook the pasta in boiling water, it often still ends up mushy after the pasta has been baked in a hot oven. No matter what you do, cooking pasta twice is a recipe for disaster!
Soaking your pasta noodles is one of the best kitchen hacks! It not only saves you time and energy, but you also end up with perfect baked ziti every single time!
So how does it work? Soaking hydrates the noodles making them flexible and soft. After soaking, all that’s needed is a little heat from the oven to finish cooking the pasta, which happens while the casserole bakes.
How to pre-soak your pasta noodles:
- Place pasta noodles in a large bowl.
- Add enough lukewarm water to cover the pasta completely.
- Season the pasta generously with kosher salt.
- Set the bowl aside and let the pasta stand at room temperature for 50 minutes.
- Drain the pasta and use in your favorite casserole.
What cheese for ziti?
Layering a generous amount of cheese is one of the keys to the ultimate, creamy, cheesy ziti! And, using a combination of three cheeses is a must for a great ziti! The trifecta of mozzarella, parmesan and ricotta is most traditional combination. Mozzarella provides the melty-goodness, parmesan delivers a salty depth of flavor, and ricotta lends a delicious creaminess to baked ziti.
While a combination of three cheeses is mandatory for a great baked ziti, you can substitute one (of all) of the traditional cheeses to create a delicious variation!
- Mozzarella substitution: Select a cheese that melts well, such as provolone or fontina.
- Parmesan substitution: Pecorino-Romano and Grana Padano are my favorite substitutions. Pecorino is saltier than parmesan, so keep that in mind when salting your dish! Grana Padano is less crumbly than parmesan, so it has a more softer, more melt-in-your-mouth texture.
- Ricotta substitution: Whole-milk ricotta is the defining cheese of ziti; however, you can substitute it with cottage cheese mixed with a whole egg.
How to make the best baked ziti?
This creamy, cheesy ziti recipe does require a few steps, but all of them are incredibly simple to execute! And, since you don’t have to boil any water for the pasta, there’s no need to worry about juggling cooking in two pots!
(Don’t forget to scroll down for the detailed measurements in the complete printable recipe at the bottom of the page.)
How to make baked ziti with ricotta from scratch:
- Soak the pasta: Place the pasta in a large bowl with lukewarm water to cover.Season generously with salt. Set the pasta aside for 50 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the meat sauce: Sauté the onion in a large pot until almost soft. Add in the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant.
- Add the sausage: Increase the heat and add in the sausage. Season generously and cook until browned. Add the seasonings and tomato paste. Cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and simmer: Add in the crushed tomatoes and sugar. Bring to a rapid simmer. Cook for 12-15 minutes. Remove from heat and let slightly cool.
- Make the ricotta filling: In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, parmesan, nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
- Drain the pasta in a colander and return to the bowl. Preheat oven to 425-degrees F.
- Add sauce to pasta: Add half of the sauce to the pasta and stir to coat.
- Fold in the ricotta: Add the ricotta mixture to the pasta and gently fold together, making sure to leave large pockets of ricotta throughout.
- Assemble ziti: Prepare the ziti in layers – add half the pasta, parmesan, mozzarella and pepperoni. Repeat with another layer of pasta, sauce, pepperoni, mozzarella and parmesan.
Bake: Cover loosely with foil and bake for 15 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 minutes.
- Cool and serve: Remove casserole from oven and place on a wire rack. Let cool for 10 minutes. Garnish, serve and enjoy!
How to make baked ziti with meat sauce step by step:
How long do you bake ziti?
This pasta casserole bakes for a total of 30 minutes at 425° Fahrenheit.
Once assembled, ziti is already almost completely cooked. The baking time serves to blend all the flavors together, while ensuring that the center of the casserole is piping hot and the cheese is beautifully melted.
Do you cover ziti when baking?
You should cover ziti for the first half of baking and uncover it for the remaining bake time. Lightly tenting the casserole dish with foil during the first half of baking ensures the ziti does not dry out. Then, removing the foil and baking the ziti uncovered allows the cheese to completely melt while slightly browning the top.
Tips for preparing the best sausage baked ziti?
- Don’t boil the pasta! Instead, soak the pasta in lukewarm water! This easy trick insures the pasta in the baked ziti isn’t over or under cooked. Just make sure you season the water generously with salt! To save time, soak the pasta first, and then proceed to prep all of your ingredients.
- Season properly! Be sure to generously season everything with salt and pepper. Since there are a lot of different components to baked ziti, it is important to season each element properly to taste!
- Toss the pasta in some of the sauce! Pasta sucks up a lot of sauce while baking. Tossing the pasta with half of the meat sauce keeps it insulted and prevents it from drying out.
- Fold the ricotta! Make sure you gently fold ricotta into the sauced pasta. Folding, versus stirring, is essential for pockets of creamy, cheesy baked ziti goodness! Plus, it ensures your won’t have any dry bits of ricotta!
- Layer it! Assemble your ziti in two layers – pasta, pepperoni, sauce and cheese. Properly layering your ziti prevents it from drying out, perfectly distributes the cheese, locks in all the flavors and guarantees a ziti with that hallmark golden-brown, cheesy top!
- Let it rest! Allow baked ziti to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving! Allowing the baked pasta to rest before serving gives the sauce a chance to settle into the pasta without pooling to the bottom of the casserole dish.
Can you make sausage ziti in advance?
Absolutely! Since ziti does require a bit of preparation, it’s a great dish to make ahead of time!
To prepare in advance: Assemble ziti according to recipe instructions. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
To prepare and freeze: Alternatively, you can assemble the pasta casserole and store it in the freezer (unbaked) for up to one month.
How to freeze sausage pasta casserole?
Baked ziti with ricotta freezes well. It’s perfect to have on hand during busy work weeks when you need to get a fuss free dinner on the table!
To freeze ziti, simply assemble according to recipe instructions. Cover the assembled (unbaked) ziti tightly with plastic wrap followed by aluminum foil and then freeze.
When ready to bake frozen ziti, allow ziti to thaw in the refrigerator (this can take up to 2 days). Unwrap and discard the plastic wrap and recover with greased aluminum foil. Bake at 425 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, uncover and then continue baking for 20 minutes or until ziti is golden brown and warm throughout.
How long will baked ziti with meat last?
Store leftover in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Properly stored, ziti will keep for 4-5 days.
Pro-tip: Divide the leftovers into individual servings for quick heat-and-eat meals!
How to reheat it?
Leftover ziti is one of my favorite things to have on hand for quick lunches and easy dinners! There are a few ways you can reheat leftover baked ziti, depending on how much time (and energy) you have.
- Microwave: Slice the baked ziti into individual portion and cover. Microwave until heated throughout.
- Stove top: Cut the ziti into a large, brick-sized slab. Heat a bit of oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the ziti and sear the four largest exterior sides. Cook until the cheese starts to melt and the exterior turns brown and crunchy.
- Oven: Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Cover ziti with foil and bake for 20 minutes, or until heated throughout. (Note: Approximate bake time will depend upon how much ziti you are reheating.)
What goes with sausage ziti?
This sausage pasta casserole is hearty and eats like a complete meal. However, there are tons of side dishes that pair well with baked ziti!
What to serve with a baked pasta casserole:
- Bread: Some sort of bread is always welcome! Try a crusty artisan bread, cheesy bread, breadsticks, focaccia or garlic knots.
- Green Salad: A light salad is a wonderful way to balance out heavy pasta. Try a Caesar salad, arugula salad, simple garden salad or a chopped Italian salad.
- Non-traditional Salads: Green salads aren’t your only salad option! Caprese salad or three bean salad are wonderful additions!
- Vegetable Dishes: Ratatouille, stuffed tomatoes or stuffed peppers.
- Roasted vegetables: Your favorite seasonal vegetable, such as brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower or eggplant.
- Sautéed vegetables: Any seasonal vegetable you love, such as mushrooms, spinach or onions.
This rich and flavorful meaty baked ziti is the ultimate! It’s special enough for entertaining, yet easy enough to assemble in advance and store in the refrigerator or freezer for busy weeknight dinners! No matter when you serve this pasta casserole, it’s guaranteed to get rave reviews!
Until next week, friends, cheers!
Looking for more pasta recipes?
If you love this ziti with ricotta, try one of these delicious recipes next:
The best Baked Ziti with sausage recipe, plus step-by-step video👇
Easy Sausage Baked Ziti Recipe
- Mixing bowls (2)
- Large Saucepan or Pot
- 9x13-inch Casserole Dish
- 12 ounces Ziti or Penne Pasta
- Kosher Salt & Ground Black Pepper
- 1 TBS Olive Oil
- 1 small Yellow Onion – finely chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 2-3 cloves Garlic – minced
- ½ tsp Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
- 1 pound Ground Sausage (or Italian Sausages, casings removed)
- 1 tsp EACH: Dried Oregano, Paprika, Dried Basil, Granulated Sugar
- 2 TBS Tomato Paste
- 1 (28 ounce) Can Crushed Tomatoes
- 2/3 Cup Pepperoni – diced (about 2.8 ounces)
- 1 ¼ cup Whole Milk Ricotta
- 1/8 tsp Ground Nutmeg optional
- ¾ cup Finely Grated Parmesan – divided, plus more for serving
- 2 heaping cups Freshly Shredded Mozzarella – freshly shredded (8 ounces)
Optional for garnish: Fresh Basil and/or Parsley, Mini Pepperoni
Optional for serving: Crusty Bread
- Soak the pasta: Place the pasta in a large bowl and add enough lukewarm water to cover the pasta completely. Season generously with salt. Set the pasta aside and let stand on the counter for 50 minutes.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a large pot or large deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until almost softened, about 3 minutes. Add in the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add sausage & brown: Increase heat to medium-high and add in the sausage. Season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, breaking up the sausage with the back of a wooden spoon, until browned. (If necessary drain off some of the fat, leaving the meat and vegetables in the skillet.) Add the oregano, paprika, basil and tomato paste to the meat and cook, stirring, for 1-2 minutes, or until the tomato paste is slightly caramelized.
- Add tomatoes & simmer: Add in the crushed tomatoes and sugar. Bring to a rapid simmer and immediately reduce heat to maintain simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 12-15 minutes, or until sauce is thickened. Taste sauce and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove from heat and let cool while you prepare the filling and drain the pasta.
- Make ricotta filling: In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta with ¼ cup of parmesan, the nutmeg and 1/8 tsp of salt. Set aside
- Drain the pasta in a colander and return to the large bowl. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Add sauce to pasta: Add half of the sauce (about 2 ¼ cups) to the pasta and stir until well coated.
- Fold in the ricotta: Add the ricotta mixture to the sauced pasta and gently fold it in, making sure to leave large pockets of ricotta throughout.
- Assemble ziti: Lightly spray a large casserole dish (9 x 13’’) with non-stick cooking spray. Add half of the pasta mixture to the casserole dish and gently spread in an even layer. Sprinkle half of the remaining parmesan (1/4 cup) and half of the mozzarella (1 cup) on top. Layer on the half of the pepperoni (1/3 cup). Top with the rest of the pasta mixture and spread it out in an even layer. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the top. Top with the rest of the pepperoni. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and parmesan.
- Bake: Cover loosely with foil and bake on the middle shelf in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and golden.
- Let cool slightly: Remove the casserole from the oven to a wire rack and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.
- Serve: Garnish with basil and/or parsley, sprinkle with parmesan and enjoy!
- Pro-tip for preparing ziti: Don’t pre-cook the pasta! Boiling pasta can cause the noodles in the ziti to be sad and overcooked! Instead, soak the pasta in lukewarm water! This easy trick ensures the pasta in the baked ziti isn’t over- or undercooked. Just make sure you season the water generously with salt! To save time, soak the pasta first, and then proceed to gather and prep all of your ingredients.
- Sausage: While I used Italian ground sausage in this baked ziti recipe, you can use Italian sausage links. Or, you can use your favorite type of ground sausage! If using links, be sure to remove the sausages from their casings before proceeding with the recipe.
- Fold ricotta: Make sure you gently fold ricotta into the sauced pasta. Folding, versus stirring, is essential for pockets of creamy, cheesy baked ziti goodness!
- Seasoning: Be sure to generously season everything with salt and pepper. Since there are a lot of different components to baked ziti, it is important to season each element properly to taste!
- Rest ziti: Allow baked ziti to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving! Allowing the baked pasta to rest before serving gives the sauce a chance to settle into all the nooks and crannies of the pasta!
- To assemble in advance: Assemble the ziti according to recipe directions. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days in advance. Or, cover tightly with plastic wrap and then foil and freeze. Assembled (unbaked) ziti will keep in freezer for up to 1 month.
- To bake refrigerated ziti: Preheat oven to 425 F. Bake, covered for 25 -30 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is melted and ziti is heated through.
- To bake frozen ziti: Allow ziti to thaw in the refrigerator (this can take up to 2 days). Unwrap and discard the plastic wrap and recover with greased aluminum foil. Follow instructions above for baking refrigerated ziti.
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