I Tried 4 Popular Stuffed Shell Recipes and the Winner Was Cheesy Perfection
I recently thought, “Do people still eat stuffed shells?” And then, in one of those weird twists of fate, a few weeks later I was in my Brooklyn home kitchen tasting four variations of the classic dish from cooks across the internet. The life of a food writer is weird — and wonderful.
Stuffed shells were a dinner staple of my childhood, so the topic is near and dear to me. It doesn’t get more comforting than large pasta shells stuffed with meat, cheese, and/or veggies nestled in tomato sauce and baked until bubbly.
Going into this assignment, I had a pretty specific idea of what stuffed shells were, but my research reminded me that the perfect stuffed shell doesn’t look or taste the same for everyone. I discovered different ways to prepare this classic meal that put my original perspective to the test. By researching hundreds of recipes online, I found dishes featuring bitter greens and fancy cheeses, covering or not covering the dish while baking, and stuffing or preparing each ingredient in a different method before everything went into the oven.
Would any (or all?) of those variables be the key to next-level stuffed shells? After lots of boiling pasta, chopping veggies, grating cheese, and stuffing shells, I had my answer. Here’s how it all went down.
Meet Our Stuffed Shell Contenders
After searching the internet, I found four recipes that each used different ingredients and methods, but were still pretty classic.
Lidia Bastianich: Going into this showdown, I knew I wanted to include a meatless version in the mix. I was also curious to see what Italian cooking queen Lidia Bastianich did with this classic dish and, lo and behold, her stuffed shell recipe was made with scallions, frozen peas, and a blend of three cheeses. I had faith in Lidia, but had a few questions. Would the peas hurt or hinder? Is there such a thing as too much cheese?
Martha Stewart: This was by far the most non-traditional recipe, calling for radicchio, red wine vinegar, and prosciutto. Pairing bitter greens with acidic tomato sauce made me wonder if this dish would be balanced or overpowered by bitterness. I was curious to give it a try.
What’s Gaby Cooking: Gaby’s stuffed shell recipe is similar to the stuffed shells I grew up with, but she swaps in ground turkey for beef or pork. I loved how familiar the recipe felt and the fact that I had most of the ingredients on hand. I couldn’t wait to give it a try to see if the short ingredient list could provide the flavor and comfort I was after.
Food & Wine: This recipe pulled me in for a number of reasons: the pasta is stuffed with a mixture of pork and ricotta, and the shells cook in a creamy tomato sauce. And when I read through the recipe I realized making it wouldn’t dirty a ton of dishes, which is always a bonus. I had high hopes for this one.
How I Tested the Stuffed Shells
To accommodate the limited space of my Brooklyn apartment, I made the recipes over two days. Each recipe was fairly simple to prepare, and all had similar steps such as cooking the shells in salted water, making the filling, stuffing the shells, and baking in the oven. After cooking and tasting each dish, I judged how easy it was to prepare the dish, the accessibility of the ingredients, and the overall flavor.
When tasting the shells, I tried each recipe at three different times: hot out of the oven; after the dish had cooled slightly; and the next day, so I could see how the leftovers held up. I tasted each dish without any additional pairings, like a side salad or wine, to ensure that I wouldn’t have any additional flavors on my palette affecting my decision. As I tasted, I was looking for tender pasta that also got a bit crispy on the top; a balanced ratio of noodle, filling, and sauce (not too dry, not too wet); and a recipe that was clear and easy to follow. I learned a lot baking and tasting my way through these recipes and found a lot to love. I also discovered a new favorite recipe.
1. The Biggest Disappointment: Martha Stewart’s Stuffed Shells
Get the recipe: Stuffed Shells
Read more: I Tried Martha Stewart’s Stuffed Shells and She and I Need to Have a Talk
This recipe reminded me that sometimes simple is best. The combination of prosciutto and radicchio was tasty, but when I stirred it together with the ricotta and vinegar, it turned a grayish color, which was a little off-putting. I could get past the visuals if the flavor was there, but after the shells were baked the filling was overly bitter with a grainy texture. I was hopeful that the prosciutto would add some flavor and texture to the filling, but that wasn’t the case. Ultimately, this recipe wasn’t a winner for me.
2. The Best Quick Weeknight Version: What’s Gaby Cooking’s Turkey Bolognese Stuffed Shells
Get the recipe: Turkey Bolognese Stuffed Shells
Read more: These Turkey Bolognese Stuffed Shells Are as Easy as They Are Comforting
These stuffed shells are for you if you’re a fan of a classic Bolognese sauce. This recipe utilizes pantry ingredients like garlic, chili flakes, and Italian seasoning. The Bolognese is made with dark turkey meat, which has more fat and flavor than the standard 85/15 ground turkey. I enjoyed this recipe because of how delicious it was, how easy it was to prepare, and that I only had to dirty one pan to make the filling. I was initially hesitant about this recipe because it didn’t use ricotta cheese in the filling — only a topping of mozzarella and Parm — but the sauce-meat-cheese ratio was spot-on and the touch of fresh basil was a lovely addition. I definitely came back for more than a few bites.
3. The Best for Cheese-Lovers: Lidia Bastianich’s Baked Stuffed Shells
Get the recipe: Baked Stuffed Shells (Conchiglie Ripiene al Forno)
Read more: I Tried Lidia Bastianich’s Stuffed Shells and They’re a Cheese-Lover’s Dream
It’s always great to have a meatless option of a dish, and I can confirm that the blend of ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan was just right. (I wasn’t able to find the Grana Padano the recipe called for at my local grocery store, so I swapped in Parmigiano Reggiano.) The peas, scallions, and parsley added a burst of brightness to every bite. I like the simplicity of the tomato sauce seasoned with garlic and chili flakes cooked in olive oil. The spice from the chili flakes was delicious with the rich cheese and sweet peas; overall, everything came together beautifully. One of the first remarks I made when tasting this dish was that I loved how I could taste each ingredient and that everything was well-balanced.
When I was making this recipe I was a little concerned when it came out of the oven and the sauce and filling were quite loose. My guess is that comes from the fact that you add the frozen peas directly to the cheese filling, which means they release some additional moisture as they cook. The dish is still delicious and I found that the noodles soaked up the excess liquid after everything cooled off completely. This was a recipe that got better with time and made the perfect leftovers.
4. The One I’m Making on Repeat: Food & Wine’s Pork-and-Ricotta-Stuffed Jumbo Shells
Get the recipe: Pork-and-Ricotta-Stuffed Jumbo Shells
Read more: I Tried Food & Wine’s Stuffed Shells and Dare I Say It’s the Perfect Recipe
Meatballs are one of my favorite foods, so when I saw that this recipe starts by making a ricotta meatball for the filling and mixing store-bought marinara with heavy cream, I was immediately intrigued. The meaty juices melded beautifully with the tomato-cream sauce as the pork cooked inside the shells. There was the perfect amount of ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan to accompany the other components. The recipe was perfect overall, and I simply couldn’t get enough of the fatty richness and the flavors from the sharp, creamy, and milky trio of cheeses.
Do you have a go-to stuffed shell recipe? Tell us about it in the comments.