Baked to Perfection Ziti
The key to creating a perfect Baked Ziti is to keep it from drying out. This classic Italian baked pasta dish is made by layering penne noodles, sauce and cheese. Once it is prepared correctly, however, it will become the only way you make it.
While most ziti’s can be made using just one type of cheese, usually mozzarella, it lacks any depth or imagination. I have landed on the following cheese ratio and the more I make it, the better it seems to get. This ziti uses FOUR cheeses:
- Mozzarella – 8 oz.
- Parmesan – 1 cup
- Ricotta – 1 cup
- Provolone – 8-12 slices from the deli
Yes, the secret cheese is provolone, however, each cheese is just as important as the next.
- Mozzarella obviously for its meltability.
- Parmesan for it’s saltiness.
- Ricotta – go out of your way to find an Italian ricotta cheese. It has a sweeter flavor where the American version tends to be saltier and moister.
- The Provolone cheese, however, is the unexpected surprise in this dish. Provolone has a mild and creamy texture. Purchase it in SLICES.
HOW TO KEEP BAKED ZITI FROM DRYING OUT
Four key culprits to a dried out ziti are:
- there is not enough sauce,
- the noodles aren’t cooked until JUST AL DENTE and overcook while baking,
- the noodles aren’t thoroughly and evenly coated with sauce, or
- the edges of the noodles are exposed and subject to drying out.
When I say the pasta should be cooked until al dente what I mean by that is the pasta should be cooked for about 6 minutes. The pasta has gotten softER, but it still has a bite. If the pasta is cooked fully it can easily overcook while baking becoming mushy. If it is UNDERCOOKED, it will continue to cook while baking, soaking up the sauce, resulting in a dried out ziti.
Cook the pasta in salted water over a SLOW BOIL. Violently boiling pasta noodles will break them down. A lot of bubbles on top of the water doesn’t allow for proper ventilation of the steam underneath, which results in a frothy foam on top.
HOW TO LAYER BAKED ZITI
Next up, is what I call the layering effect.
Stir half the noodles with of the sauce in the baking dish until the sauce completely coats the noodles.
- Add a few dollops of ricotta cheese on top,
- Next, add the slices of provolone cheese and top with the mozzarella.
- Repeat this one more time, beginning with the sauce and layering with the cheeses.
- Cover the pasta in sauce, ensuring the ends are not poking out and they are completely covered.
- Top the ziti off with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and bake it UNCOVERED at 375° for 30 minutes or until the cheese is melty and gooey.
Since the penne noodles were already par boiled, the actual cooking time is mainly spent melting the cheeses. This should only take about 30 minutes, if the oven is adequately pre heated. The ziti can also be popped under the broiler to get that bubbly browned cheese on top, if desired.
FOR THE SAUCE:
- 2 Tbsp. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 Onion, finely chopped (1/2c)
- 3 Cloves Garlic, minced
- 5 Cups Marinara Sauce
- 1–2 teaspoons Salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pound dried ziti or penne pasta
- 1 Cup Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese
- 1 Egg
- 1/2 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese
- 8 oz Freshly Grated Whole Milk Mozzarella Cheese
- 8–12 slices Provolone cheese
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
- In a large skillet over medium high heat, add 2 Tablespoons of oil and saute the onion 1-2 minutes until soft. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper, cook another minute.
- Add the marinara sauce and heat until hot.
- Meanwhile add the pasta to rapidly simmering, NOT BOILING, water and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 6 minutes or until al dente with a little bite left in it.
- As the pasta is cooking, in a small bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, egg, parmesan cheese and a sprinkle of sugar if desired.
- Pour a Tablespoon or 2 of olive oil in the bottom of a 9×13 pan and coat.
- Drain the pasta and pour in HALF the pasta and add HALF the sauce. Stir to combine.
- Put dollops of ricotta cheese on top of the pasta. Top it with 4-6 slices of Provolone cheese, then HALF the mozzarella cheese.
- Repeat with the remaining pasta, sauce, ricotta cheese and cheeses ensuring all the pasta is thoroughly covered in sauce.
- Top with fresh Parmesan cheese and bake UNCOVERED at 375 for 30 minutes. Pop the ziti under the broiler for a few minutes at the end to get a nice brown bubbly cheese.