With a homemade meat sauce, a creamy layer and plenty of cheese, this Baked Ziti pasta casserole is one of those meals you’ll want to make again and again! It’s easy to prep ahead and reheat – and it freezes really well, too.
There are days you barely have the headspace to spend five minutes in the kitchen… And those are the days you make a quick one pot Italian sausage pasta… Or Baked Ziti in the instant pot! And then there’s the days you feel like something more. Something with bubbly layers of cheese. And that’s when you make Baked Ziti with Sausage.
No, it’s not the easiest, throw-together dinner. But no, it’s also not the hardest. And as a bonus, it’s easy to double the recipe and freeze one pan for later.
Ingredients you’ll need
Here is a visual overview of the ingredients in the recipe. Scroll down to the printable recipe card at the bottom of this post for quantities!
- Sausage: I recommend using Italian sausage for this recipe. You can also use a different coarse pork sausage if that’s what you have on hand, the flavor will be slightly different. Mild or hot sausage is up to your taste. You can also use ground beef or turkey in place of the sausage if you prefer.
- Sauce: I used a jarred tomato basil sauce, but if you want to make this all from scratch – feel free to use canned diced tomatoes. Season it more and leave it to simmer for at least 30 minutes.
- Cream cheese: I chose cream cheese here because it’s cheaper and more readily available. If you want to go all out, feel free to use ricotta! You can also replace half of the cream cheese with light sour cream OR Greek Yogurt for a lightened up version.
- Pasta: You can really use any long, tubular pasta shape. I always try to buy actual Ziti, because otherwise… My family complains, ha!
Step by step photos
To make the components of the ziti bake:
To layer the baked ziti:
- Cook the pasta just al-dente, otherwise it will get too mushy in the bake.
- If you forgot to reserve pasta cooking water, just use warm water or chicken stock instead.
- I recommend dicing the vegetables fairly small, otherwise you’ll end up with huge chunks in the bake – not very pleasant to eat.
- If your skillet isn’t quite wide enough to comfortably sauté a lot of food, remove the sausage after browning and sauté the vegetables by themselves first. Add the sausage back in when you add the tomato sauce.
- Don’t worry if you get the layering mixed up – at the end of the day, you just have to cram everything into your baking dish, cover it in cheese and shove it in the oven ?
If that’s what you have on hand, absolutely! If you have different short pasta tubes with a smooth surface, I’d go for these. But if you only have Rigatoni and need your pasta casserole fix stat, they’ll work.
Yes, it’s just what I personally like best. You can use ground beef, turkey or pork, or you can make a meatless dish by using chopped mushrooms in place of the sausage.
Absolutely! Simply assemble the casserole but do not bake it. Make sure it’s fully chilled before tightly covering with either a lid or a layer of clingfilm and two layers of aluminium foil. Label and freeze for up to two months.
If you have leftovers that are already baked, you can still freeze them for 1-2 months, wrapped carefully in foil. They might end up a bit dry after reheating but still absolutely delicious.
Yes, pasta bake can go into the oven from frozen. It’s preferred to keep it covered with aluminium foil. Please make sure to remove any clingfilm before baking and add about 20-30 minutes to the total cooking time.
Yes. Same as with freezing, assemble the casserole fully, but do not bake it. Cover and keep in the fridge for up to 24 hours.
You can bake it straight from the fridge, adding about 10-15 minutes to the total baking time.
We like a nice big green salad on the side with our ziti casserole. I like to dress it in Balsamic Vinaigrette or White Balsamic Vinaigrette because they go so well with Italian food. Or at least pretend-Italian, I certainly didn’t consult any Italians when I made this recipe ?
More casserole recipes
Baked Ziti with Sausage
For the pasta:
- 16 ounces ziti cooked, drained (reserve ½ cup cooking water!) and cooled
For the tomato sauce:
- 1 pound Italian sausage casings removed and crumbled
- 1 large onion chopped
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 large carrot finely diced
- 1 stick celery finely diced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 2 (14-oz) jars tomato basil sauce
- salt + pepper to taste
For the cream sauce:
- 1 cup softened cream cheese OR ricotta; may replace half with light sour cream or Greek yogurt
- salt + pepper to taste
- 4-8 tablespoons reserved cooking water from the pasta
For the cheese:
- 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella
- ½ cup grated parmesan
Make the tomato sauce:
- Brown the sausage: Heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the crumbled sausage meat and cook until browned. Add oil if needed (sausage usually has enough fat to cook without, but if using a lean sausage you may need to use oil).
- Sauté the vegetables: Add the onion, garlic, carrot and celery to the skillet. Cook until they're starting to soften, about 5 minutes.
- Cook the sauce: Stir the tomato paste and Italian seasoning into the sausage/vegetable mix. Add the tomato sauce and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.
Make the cream sauce:
- In a medium bowl, stir together all ingredients for the cream sauce. Start with 2 tablespoons pasta cooking water and add the extra spoonfuls as needed to make a thick, smooth sauce.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread a spoonful of the meat sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 inch casserole dish.
Assemble the casserole:
- Layer 1: Add half of the pasta.Layer 2: Top with ⅓ of the shredded mozzarella.Layer 3: Spread all of the cream sauce on top.Layer 4: Top with ½ of the meat sauce.Layer 5: Add the remaining half of the pasta.Layer 6: Sprinkle with ⅓ of the shredded mozzarella.Layer 7: Top with the remaining meat sauce.Layer 8: Sprinkle with parmesan and the remaining mozzarella.
Bake the casserole:
- Bake the casserole for 25-30 minutes, or until the cheeses are melted and the casserole is bubbly. Serve hot.