Baked Ziti with Ground Beef
Baked ziti is the ultimate comfort food, and we could all use a little comfort right now. With just the right combination of melty cheese, a slight acidic bite from the tomato sauce and plenty of hot pasta, it’s hard to beat this dish for a hearty side or a satisfying main dish. Because it’s often cooked in a casserole dish, it’s also perfect for stashing away in the freezer or baking for a friend.
There are lots of great (and varied) baked ziti recipes out there. Hugh Acheson’s recipe in Food & Wine includes broccoli, pancetta and olives. The Kitchn recommends marina sauce by Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. And of course, most recipes use the namesake tubular style of pasta.
For our recipe, we opted to borrow a few influences from several favorites. We loved Marcella’s classic marinara sauce, using canned San Marzano tomatoes and a slow simmer method with onions and butter. However, using your favorite jarred sauce would eliminate that step and turn out just as tasty.
We also went for penne pasta rather than ziti, mainly because it’s a more common pantry item. Plus, it has more surface area for all that sauce to stick to!
We also knew we wanted to add ground beef, of course. We used organic, 100% grass-fed ground beef, a hearty yet lean choice perfect for pairing in this savory, saucy dish.
As you begin this recipe, know that it is open to experimentation. Feel free to try adding more garlic if you love garlic, tossing in a few pinches of crushed red pepper for some heat, or subbing parsley in for basil. Make it your own!
Baked Ziti with Ground Beef
1 28-oz can whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 white onion, peeled and cut in half
5 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb penne or ziti pasta
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb organic ground beef
1 yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. whole milk ricotta cheese
2/3 c. finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
Salt and pepper to taste
Lightly dried or chopped fresh basil, optional
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Set out a 9×13-inch casserole dish.
For the sauce:
Pour the canned tomatoes, butter and onion halves in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to medium-low to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook partially covered, stirring occasionally for about 45 minutes, gently crushing the tomatoes with the back of a spoon as you go. Remove and discard the onion. Taste and add salt or pepper if desired.
For the pasta:
While the sauce is cooking, boil 4 to 6 quarts of water in a large pot. Once boiling, cook the pasta per the directions on the box — about 11 minutes for al dente. Reserve 1/2 cup of pasta water, then drain the pasta and set aside.
For the beef:
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the ground beef and the yellow onion, cooking until the beef is browned and the onion is translucent. Then add the minced garlic and cook for about 1 minute more. Add the cooked meat to the finished sauce, along with the reserved pasta water. Taste and add salt or pepper as desired.
For the cheese filling:
Mix the ricotta, 1/3 cup of parm, and 1/2 cup of mozzarella together in a medium bowl. Add the cooked and drained pasta to the bowl and stir to coat.
Add about 2 cups of sauce to the cheesy pasta and stir to coat. Scoop about half of the cheesy, saucy, meaty pasta mixture into the casserole dish. Layer with 1/2 cup of mozzarella, then top with remaining pasta mixture. Gently pour the rest of the sauce evenly over the top of the pasta. Then top with remaining 1 cup of mozzarella and 1/3 cup Parmesan. Sprinkle with lightly dried or chopped fresh basil.*
Bake for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling. Cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.
*At this stage, you may also choose to freeze the pasta in the casserole dish to bake at a later date. Make sure the dish is cool, then wrap tightly with aluminum foil, then again with plastic wrap. To bake from frozen, remove plastic wrap and bake with foil covering for 1 hour, then uncover and bake for another 15 minutes until cheese is melted and sauce is bubbling.