If you like lasagna, but don’t want to bother with the fuss, make Three Cheese Baked Ziti instead! It has the same basic ingredients and taste as a classic lasagna but is way easier to make. As an added bonus, it makes incredible leftovers, and freezes beautifully.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
Table of contents
- Let’s Start with the Meat Sauce
- Let’s Make the Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- Building the Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- Frequently Asked Questions
- Similar Dishes
Let’s Start with the Meat Sauce
You could definitely make your own meat sauce for this delicious dish. However, I’m including my go-to meat sauce for your consideration.
Ingredients for Meat Sauce
I used the following ingredients for the meat sauce:
- The Meat: I like to use mild Italian sausage for this meat sauce. The reason is that the spices in Italian sausage really add amazing flavoring.
- The Flavorings: I used onions and garlic for the flavorings.
- The Spices: For the spices, I used dried basil, dried oregano, Kosher salt and black pepper.
- The Tomatoes: I used three different types of canned tomatoes: Petit diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste. I also added a little bit of light brown sugar to cut down on the acidity taste of the tomatoes.
- The Liquids: While the tomatoes added a lot of liquid to the meat sauce, I also added some red white and water.
Making the Meat Sauce
I started by browning and crumbling the Italian sausage in a large skillet over medium heat.
Once the sausage was done, I transferred it to a paper towel lined plate to drain the fat.
I wiped out the skillet with paper towels and added the onions. I cooked the onions over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Then, I added the garlic and cooked the mixture for about 30 seconds until the garlic was fragrant.
Next, I returned the drained sausage to the skillet with the onions and garlic. Then, I added the basil, oregano, salt and pepper. I stirred the mixture to ensure that everything was well combined.
After that, I added the petit diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste to the sausage mixture. I stirred to combine everything.
Finally, I added the brown sugar, wine and water. I stirred the mixture and let it come to a boil over medium heat.
Once the meat sauce had come to a boil, I reduced the heat to low and covered the skillet. I cooked the meat sauce for 3 hours, stirring it occasionally.
Let’s Make the Three Cheese Baked Ziti
Once the meat sauce was cooked, I turned my attention to making the Three Cheese Baked Ziti.
Ingredients for Three Cheese Baked Ziti
I used the following ingredients for the baked ziti:
- The Meat Sauce: You guessed it – if I went to the trouble to make the meat sauce, I would be using it in this amazing dish!
- The Pasta: As the name suggests, my pasta of choice was Ziti. I could have also used another pasta like Penne or Rotini.
- The Three Cheeses: For the three cheeses, I used ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese and parmesan cheese. For the ricotta cheese, I used homemade. I personally think that the store-bought ricotta cheese is awful, so I always go the extra step and make my own.
- Bringing up the Rear: I used one egg to help bind the cheeses together.
Cooking the Ziti
The first thing that I did was to cook the Ziti in boiling water for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, I drained the cooked ziti in a colander.
Preparing the Cheese/Ziti Mixture
Next, I combined the ricotta cheese, mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese and egg in a large bowl.
Then, I added half of the meat sauce to the cheese mixture. I stirred to combine everything.
Finally, I added the cooked ziti to the cheese/meat sauce mixture. I stirred the mixture to ensure that everything was well combined.
Building the Three Cheese Baked Ziti
Because it’s just two of us, I decided to make three small baked ziti’s as opposed to one large one. I used my 8 ¼ by 6 ¼ Pyrex baking dishes.
Part of my thinking in making this in the first place was that we’re approaching the peak of hurricane season and I wanted to have ready to heat meals in the freezer in the event we’re unlucky enough to be hit.
In fact, there’s a system in the Gulf and one heading for the Gulf!
The First Layering
For the first layering, I started by spreading some of ziti mixture in the bottom of the baking dish.
Then, I spread some of the meat sauce of the ziti mixture.
Finally, I sprinkled on some shredded mozzarella cheese.
I repeated the layering of the ziti mixture, meat sauce and mozzarella cheese one more time.
Then I finished the baked ziti with a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
I baked one of the ziti’s in a preheated oven at 375°F – the rest went into the freezer for a later date.
After about 25 minutes, the Baked Ziti was hot and bubbly and the melted cheese on the top was a golden brown.
This classic Italian American comfort food with its three kinds of gooey, yummy cheeses was amazing. Yum!
Frequently Asked Questions
The seasonings in Italian sausage add flavor to this incredible dish. However, you could definitely substitute ground beef or even ground turkey for the Italian sausage.
While I generally use Ziti in this dish, I’ve also used Penne and Rotini if that’s what I had on hand.
One of the beauties of this recipe is that you can assemble the baked ziti ahead of time and either refrigerate it or freeze it before baking. If it’s frozen, you should thaw the baked ziti before baking it. You can also freeze the dish after it has been baked. Just thaw in the refrigerator and reheat in the oven until bubbly.
The leftovers are just as good as when first baked. I generally reheat the leftovers in the microwave. However, you could also reheat the leftovers at 350°F for 10 to 15 minutes or until heated through.
In a pinch, you could use the pre-shredded mozzarella cheese. However, because of the coating on the pre-shredded mozzarella cheese, it may not melt as nicely as the cheese you shred yourself.
I like to serve a freshly baked baguette with the baked ziti. You could also use garlic bread. The baked ziti is almost a meal in itself, so a light salad or steamed vegetables could be served on the side.
If you liked the Three Cheese Baked Ziti, you will absolutely love the following similar dishes:
- Lazy Lasagna
- Classic Lasagna
- Easy Lasagna Cups
- Chicken Lasagna Ruffles
- Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna
- Six Cheese Turkey Lasagna
I first posted the recipe for this amazing dish on August 28, 2016. Since then, I’ve refined the recipe a bit. In this repost, I included my recipe for the meat sauce. I also updated the text and added new pictures.
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Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- 1 pound (16-ounces) mild Italian sausage (See Tip 1)
- 1 cup chopped onion (1 medium onion)
- 2 cloves minced garlic
- 1 ½ teaspoons dried basil
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon Kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 14.5 ounce can Petit Diced Tomatoes
- 8 ounce can tomato sauce
- 6 ounce can tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
- ¼ cup red wine
- ½ cup water
Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- 12 ounces (3 cups) uncooked Ziti
- Meat Sauce (See Tip 2)
- 1 ½ cups (12-ounces) ricotta cheese, preferably homemade (See Tip 3)
- 4 ½ cups (18-ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
- 1 cup (4-ounces) grated Parmesan cheese, divided
- 1 egg
Meat Sauce (See Tip 3)
- Brown and crumble Italian sausage in a large skillet over medium heat. Drain well on paper towels. (See Tip 4)
- Wipe out skillet with paper towels and return to medium heat. Add the onions; cook for 5 minutes. Add garlic and cook an additional 30 seconds unti fragrant.
- Add drained sausage, basil, oregano, salt and pepper; stir to combine. Add petit diced tomatoes, tomato sauce and tomato paste; stir to combine. Add brown sugar, red wine and water; stir to combine. Bring to a boil. Cover and reduce heat to low. Cook for 3 hours.
Three Cheese Baked Ziti
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray a 9 x 13-inch baking dish with non-stick spray. Set aside.
- Cook Ziti in boiling water to al dente stage, about 10 minutes. Drain in colander; rinse with cold water. Set aside.
- Combine ricotta cheese, 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, ½-cup grated Parmesan cheese, and egg in a large bowl. Add cooked Ziti; mix to combine. Add 2 cups of the meat sauce; mix to combine.
- Place half of Ziti mixture in prepared baking dish. Top with half of remaining meat sauce and half of remaining mozzarella cheese. Repeat with remaining Ziti, meat sauce and mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle remaining grated Parmesan cheese on top. (See Tip 5)
- Bake at 375°F for 25 to 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.
- Yield: 10 to 12 servings. (See Tips 6 and 7)
Chula’s Expert Tips
- May substitute ground beef or ground turkey.
- If you prefer, you can use your own recipe for meat sauce. You will need between 4 and 5 cups of meat sauce.
- I always use homemade Ricotta cheese in my recipes. It is totally worth the extra effort.
- I like to break the meat up into small pieces. To do this, I allow the cooked meat to cool a bit and then rub it between the palms of my hands.
- If making three smaller Baked Zitis like I did layer each dish as follows: 10 ounces of pasta mixture, ⅓ cup meat sauce and ½ cup shredded mozzarella cheese. Repeat for second layer. Sprinkle on ⅓ of the remaining grated Parmesan cheese.
- May be made ahead of time before baking and either refrigerated or placed in the freezer. If frozen, thaw before baking.
- Leftovers, if any are excellent. Reheat for a minute or two in the microwave or at 350°F in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes.