Recipe Review

Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Ziti Is So Good, I Can’t Stop Eating It Straight from the Pan

published Mar 17, 2021
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Credit: Photo: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Pearl Jones

When we decided to battle off popular baked ziti recipes, Smitten Kitchen’s website was one of the first places I turned (by now, you should all know we’re superfans of Deb). As it turns out, Deb has a lot of opinions about baked ziti. Ricotta? Nope! Jarred sauce? Next, please! Her version of ziti was one of the only ones I came across that included spinach, which I personally loved. I’m all about adding some veggies into cheesy, carb-y meals.

As is true of many of Deb’s recipes, her version of baked ziti is very flexible. If you don’t eat meat, you can use mushrooms instead. If you don’t have spinach, opt for another leafy green. I could also tell Deb is a real ziti pro because she offers a lot of practical advice about freezing the ziti, and even specifies what shape of baking dish to use if you like your ziti with crispy edges, which I definitely do. (Spoiler: It’s a circular or oval dish). Overall, it was a pretty easy decision to include Deb’s recipe in the baked ziti showdown. Here’s what happened when I gave it a try.

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

How to Make Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Ziti

Preheat your oven to 400°F. Cook your pasta until very al dente — about 2 minutes less than what your box suggests — and then drain it, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water. Heat olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the ground beef or Italian sausage, onion, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and salt, and cook until the meat has browned.

Add the crushed tomatoes and stir to combine. Lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for about 5 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings as needed. If you feel like your sauce a bit thick, add in some of the pasta water until it reaches your desired consistency. Add in the spinach and cook for 1 minute until it’s wilted. Then add the pasta and cook for an additional minute.

Add half the pasta and sauce mixture to a 9×13-inch baking dish, or whatever 3-quart baking vessel you have. Top with mozzarella and Parmesan. Pour in the remaining pasta and sauce mixture and top with more of both cheeses. Bake for 30 minutes, then broil for 1 to 2 minutes if you like the top of your ziti extra bronzed.

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

My Honest Review of Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Ziti

As someone who’s also not the biggest fan of baked ricotta, Deb’s baked ziti recipe was right up my alley. The oregano and red pepper flakes bring a boost of flavor without overcomplicating the taste of the sauce, and the addition of spinach was great. And don’t get me wrong: Just because there’s no ricotta doesn’t mean it’s not cheesy! The double layer of mozzarella and Parmesan make for some photo-worthy cheese pulls.

Other than the addition of the spinach, this dish really did taste like a straightforward, classic baked ziti. As with most of Deb’s recipes, it required very little fuss, and considering the fact that you make your own tomato sauce, it comes to together fairly quickly. Whether you’re craving baked ziti on a weeknight or are looking for more ways to add veggies to dinner, this recipe is a winner.

If You’re Making Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Ziti, a Few Tips

  1. Hold off on the pasta water at first. The spinach adds a fair amount of moisture to the sauce, so next time I’ll wait until after it’s added to determine if I still need to loosen up the sauce with pasta water.
  2. The more spinach, the better. Deb’s recipe only calls for 4 ounces, but I have a feeling it would taste great with even more. Several commenters mentioned they added more with great success.
  3. Go for Italian sausage. Deb gives the option of using ground beef or Italian sausage, and Italian sausage is absolutely the way to go. It adds way more flavor, and tastes delicious in this sauce.

Rating: 9.5 / 10

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

Have you ever made Smitten Kitchen’s Baked Ziti recipe? Let us know in the comments below!