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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones
Recipe Review

We Tested 4 Popular Baked Ziti Recipes and It Was Impossible to Pick a Winner

published Mar 18, 2021
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Baked ziti is, without question, my all-time favorite pasta dish. You get all the satisfaction of lasagna — baked pasta, tomato sauce, and plenty of cheese — but it’s far easier and faster to make (and the sooner I can dig in the better).

While baked ziti has roots in Italy (oven-baked pastas, or “pasta al forno,” have been made in Italy for centuries), it’s a decidedly Italian-American dish. The comforting casserole is a go-to for potlucks, a staple on restaurant menus, and the centerpiece of many Sunday dinners. And while most zitis contain the same basic components, there are a lot of differing opinions on how to make the best.

In order to find my forever go-to recipe, I decided to put four of the most popular ones in a head-to-head battle. In this bake-off I was determined to answer some of the perennial baked ziti questions: Ricotta, or no ricotta? Homemade marinara, or keep it simple with store-bought? Ground beef, ground pork, or Italian sausage?

After all of this baking and testing and tasting, I wish I could tell you I came away with a clear winner, but every single recipe was simply superb! This is going to sound dramatic, but I agonized over which one should win. I tried dropping off samples to my friends in the hope they’d reach a consensus, but every single person had a different opinion. Ultimately, I considered that a testament to how great each of these recipes are, which is why I declared all of them winners.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

Meet Our 4 Contenders

To keep things consistent, I chose recipes that included meat, whether it was 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 searched-for baked ziti recipes on the internet, and as a Maggiano’s lover, I completely understand why. I was intrigued by the use of jarred marinara — all of the other recipes called for homemade. Would I be able to taste the difference?

Smitten Kitchen’s recipe calls for spinach, which I wasn’t expecting, but I do love some greens thrown in with cheesy pasta. Deb is amazing at putting together recipes that are delicious with very little hassle, so her ziti felt like a no-brainer to include.

Binging with Babish made a Sopranos-inspired ziti recipe based off the recipe in The Sopranos Family Cookbook. I was curious about whether the slow-simmered tomato sauce, which sounded pretty irresistible, would be worth the hours it takes to make.

RecipeTin Eats is a favorite among many of our readers, and Nagi’s recipe stood out for her use of seasonings. Her recipe put your spice cabinet to use far more than any of the others, and I couldn’t wait to try it.

How I Tested the Baked Ziti Recipes

For ingredients that overlapped like ground beef, Italian sausage, and cheese, I made sure to use the same brand in each recipe. I made all four zitis on the same day, so that I could taste them side-by-side. Because the tomato sauce is such a key component in this dish, I also tasted each sauce separately.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

1. The Speedy One: Maggiano’s Taylor Street Baked Ziti

I was a bit skeptical when I saw that this recipe called for jarred sauce, but the second I took a bite I was instantly proven wrong. 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.

The thing that impressed me the most, however, was how quickly this dish came together. It took me 25 minutes, max! Instead of bubbling away in the oven, you stick it under the broiler for a few minutes, which creates a perfect bubbly, cheesy crust on top. If you’re looking for a super delicious pasta dish that you can throw together last-minute, this is the one.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

2. The One with the Super Sauce: RecipeTin Eats’ Baked Ziti

Nagi’s ziti is pretty irresistible. Out of all the recipes I tried, it felt the most reminiscent of a lasagna (I attribute this mostly to the layer of ricotta). But the best part, by far, is the tomato sauce. Knowing that fennel is one of the main flavors in Italian sausage, Nagi decided to add it to her sauce, which was so smart — and so tasty. But that’s not all. She also adds dried basil, dried oregano, paprika, cayenne, onion powder, and a touch of sugar to create an incredibly flavorful tomato sauce you’ll want to use in all your pasta dishes.

Nagi’s recipe also uses tomato purée instead of crushed tomatoes — a smart trick for preventing the dish from drying out!

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

3. The One That Lets You Do Things Your Way: Binging with Babish’s Soprano’s Inspired Baked Ziti

If you’re anything like me, you often end up using recipes more as a loose guide than a strict instruction manual. Everyone has different tastes and preferences, so I love recipes that encourage you to customize. Andrew Rea’s ziti recipe is based off of Carmela’s baked ziti in The Sopranos. If you’ve watched the show, you know she’s known for her cooking. After making this dish, I can confidently say she deserves all the praise!

The room for improvisation (add as much cheese as you’d like; toss the pasta with one cup of sauce or two) makes this recipe stand out. And then there’s the sauce. This was the only recipe that included a slow-simmered sauce, and the lengthy cook time in addition to the Parmesan rind and the abundance of basil (both of which are Rea’s additions to the recipe) make for a delicious, classic sauce. The recipe makes a lot more than you need, but that didn’t bother me at all. I know my future self is going to be very excited to have some of this sauce in the freezer.

Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

4. The One That Helps You Eat Your Greens: Smitten Kitchen’s Old-School Baked Ziti

Deb’s recipe stood out to me for her use of spinach. I had never seen that in baked ziti before! According to the comments, the spinach was a hit among many people who tried it, and some even doubled the amount. While greens in baked ziti isn’t common, it tasted great, and didn’t stop this recipe from feeling like a perfectly balanced, classic ziti. I also really love that Deb skips the ricotta inside the ziti and serves each portion with a generous dollop on the side instead.

This recipe is simple, straight to the point, and delicious, which is kind of Deb’s M.O. And despite the fact that you make your own sauce, it still comes together quickly enough to be a go-to weeknight meal.

Do you have a favorite baked ziti recipe? Tell us below in the comments!