We Tried 4 Famous Baked Ziti Recipes – Here’s the Best
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Baked ziti is without question my favorite pasta dish of all time. You get all of the satisfaction of lasagna – baked pasta, tomato sauce, and lots of cheese – but it’s a lot easier and faster to make (and the sooner I dig in it the better).
While baked ziti has roots in Italy (oven-baked pasta or “pasta al forno” have been made in Italy for centuries), it is a decidedly Italian-American dish. The cozy casserole is a must for potlucks, a staple for restaurant menus and the centerpiece of many Sunday lunches. And while most zitis contain the same basic components, there are many different opinions about how to make the best.
To find my recipe forever, I decided to put four of the most popular ones in a head-to-head battle. In this back-off, I was determined to answer some of the perennial questions about baked ziti: ricotta or no ricotta? Homemade marinara or simply bought in the store? Minced beef, minced pork or Italian sausage?
After all of the baking, testing, and tasting, I wish I could tell you I won a clear winner, but Every single recipe was just amazing! That will sound dramatic, but I was tortured over which one to win. I tried giving samples to my friends in hopes that they would reach consensus, but every single person had a different opinion. Ultimately, I thought that was a testament to how great each of these recipes are, which is why I declared them all winners.
To ensure consistency, I’ve selected recipes that include meat, be it ground beef, ground pork, or Italian sausage. I also wanted to choose recipes that each had something unique to offer.
Maggiano’s Taylor Street Baked Ziti is one of the most wanted baked ziti recipes on the internet, and as a Maggiano lover, I totally understand why. I was intrigued by the use of marinara in jars – all of the other recipes required homemade. Would I be able to taste the difference?
Smitten Kitchen’s Recipe calls for spinach, which I wasn’t expecting, but I love some greens with cheesy pasta. Deb is great at putting together recipes that are delicious with very little effort, so her ziti felt like a breeze.
Binging with Babish made a Sopranos inspired Ziti recipe based on the recipe in the Sopranos Family Cookbook. I was curious if the slow-boiling tomato sauce, which sounded pretty irresistible, would be worth the hours it takes to prepare it.
RecipeTin eats is a favorite among many of our readers, and Nagi’s recipe featured the use of spices. Your recipe has used your spice cabinet way more than any other, and I couldn’t wait to try it.
How I tested the baked Ziti recipes
For ingredients that overlap, like ground beef, Italian sausage, and cheese, I made sure to use the same brand in every recipe. I did all four zitis on the same day so I could try them side by side. Since the tomato sauce is such an important component in this dish, I also tried each sauce individually.
1. The Speedy One: Maggiano’s Taylor Street Baked Ziti
I was a little skeptical when I saw this recipe called for a sauce with glasses, but the second time I took a bite it was immediately proven otherwise. The addition of Italian sausage and garlic cooked in white wine added so much flavor that I couldn’t even tell the sauce wasn’t homemade.
However, what struck me the most was how quickly this dish came together. It took me a maximum of 25 minutes! Instead of bubbling in the oven, glue it under the grill for a few minutes, creating a perfect bubbly, cheesy crust. If you are looking for a super tasty pasta dish to put together at the last minute, this is it.
2. The one with the super sauce: RecipeTin Eats’ Baked Ziti
Nagis Ziti is pretty irresistible. Of all the recipes I’ve tried, it felt the most like a lasagna (I mostly attribute this to the ricotta layer). But the best by far is the tomato sauce. Nagi knew that fennel was one of the main flavors in Italian sausage and decided to add it to their sauce, which was so smart – and so delicious. But that’s not all. She also adds dried basil, dried oregano, paprika, cayenne pepper, onion powder, and a dash of sugar to create an incredibly flavorful tomato sauce that you’ll want to use in all of your pasta dishes.
Nagi’s recipe also uses tomato paste instead of shredded tomatoes – a smart trick to keep the dish from drying out!
3. The one to do things your way with: Play baked ziti inspired by Babish’s soprano
If you’re anything like me, you often use recipes as loose instructions rather than strict instructions. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, so I love recipes that encourage you to customize. Andrew Rea’s Ziti recipe is based on Carmela’s baked ziti in The Sopranos. If you’ve seen the show you know that it is known for its cooking. After making this dish I can confidently say that she deserves all the praise!
The room for improvisation (add as much cheese as you want; toss the pasta with a cup or two of sauce) makes this recipe special. And then there’s the sauce. This was the only recipe that featured a slow cooked sauce, and the long cooking time on top of the parmesan peel and abundance of basil (both are Rea’s additions to the recipe) make a delicious, classic sauce. The recipe does a lot more than you need to, but I didn’t mind at all. I know my future self will be very excited to have some of this sauce in the freezer.
4. The One To Help You Eat Your Greens: Smitten Kitchen’s Old-School Baked Ziti
I noticed Deb’s recipe for her use of spinach. I had never seen this in baked ziti before! According to the comments, the spinach was a hit with many people who tried it, and some even doubled the amount. While greens aren’t common in baked ziti, it tasted great and didn’t stop this recipe from feeling like a perfectly balanced, classic ziti. I also love that Deb skips the ricotta at the Ziti and instead serves each serving with a generous dollop on the side.
This recipe is simple, to the point, and delicious, which is kind of Debs MO. And despite the fact that you make your own sauce, it still comes together quickly enough to be a weekday meal.
Do you have a favorite baked ziti recipe? Tell us in the comments below!