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What's the secret to GREAT baked ziti?

Tomorrow night we are having friends over for food, drink and basketball. I plan on making a baked ziti and serve salad and bread to go along with it. My ziti is always about 90% there, but misses the mark every so slightly. I use sausage, make a tomato sauce, mix fresh mozz in it and on top. I usually bake it at about 400 for 30 minutes. Should I cover it when baking until the end? Add ricotta? Lower temp? Bake then broil?

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  1. I always undercook my pasta by a couple of minutes when I first boil it. I mix 1 lb ziti to 1 small container of ricotta with a ton pf parm and a grating of nutmeg. I let that cool and than add tomato sauce. I cook it covered, but take the foil off for the last 10 minutes.

    1. First off you need to be Italain. LOL just kidding. Ricotta and real freshly grated parmgiana reggiano and of course fresh mozzarella. As far as tyhe sauce goes lots of fresh basil IMHO.

      3 Replies
      1. re: angelo04

        I was also going to suggest grated parmigiano cheese. Pecorino Romano (finely grated) is great too. No need to cover. Make sure you get some crispy bits on top!

        1. re: Kagey

          Have a nice hunk of Parm Reg in the frig..will use that. I also have a hunk of Fontina (I'm a cheese hound), should I add that. Will note the basil.

          Signed,
          Janet from Richmond of Welsh and Scot decent

          1. re: Janet from Richmond

            Well now you're Italian by association.

            Plenty of basil, parm, mozz should be enough, but I suppose you could add a few shavings of the fontina. I've been known to add goat cheese instead of mozzarella. Oh the horror. Also, sometimes I sprinkle some finely minced parsely over top as soon as it comes out of the oven. Have fun!

      2. Personally, I would lower that heat a bit to 375. Most will probably disagree with me, but with most of my pasta casseroles, I baked covered for 25 minutes and then uncovered for another 15. I don't like it when the top gets dried out.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Val

          Oh right about the lowered temp. I forgot to add that. And, cook the pasta to just before the al dente stage because they will finish cooking in the oven.

        2. Ricotta is the secret, at least in my house. A pound of ricotta, to a pound of pasta, a packaged of chopped spinach, or a couple of pounds of sausage out of the casings, (vegetarian vs. carnivore). Mozzarella on top, and cubed and mixed through, so when it's hot, you have melted mozzarella in every spoon full. I probably use 1-1/2 quarts of sauce. This fills a 10 x 13 pyrex baking dish. I bake at 350, and don't cover for about 45 minutes.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Felixnot

            One note on ricotta...check the ingredients. You want a ricotta that contains only milk, salt, starter, etc, ingredients you'd expect to see in it. But in many brands, you'll also see things like guar gum, carrageenan, or xanthan gum. These are stabilizers, which keep the ricotta from separating, extending shelf life. But, what they also do is make the ricotta less able to melt and get creamy, so you often get that pebbly, grainy texture in the finished product. This is especially true with dishes like manicotta, but also true with BZ and lasagna. Also, you might want to beat and add a whole egg to the ricotta, maybe 1 egg per two pound of ricotta, to help out.

            1. re: ChefBoyAreMe

              in our fam the only time we added egg to the ricotta was when we were making manicotti. Otherwise we just used it straight up.

            2. re: Felixnot

              I have to agree with the ricotta- I mix my ricotta with eggs and mozzarella AND munster (as if making lasagna) with touch of sugar. Make sure to use lots of sauce- dry pasta is horrible. I also add other cheeses sometimes like a great gouda or edam or fontina... can never have too much cheese!

            3. I would even go as low as 350 with foil on until it's bubbly, then remove the foil and let the top brown up. also, i use ricotta, fresh mozz in tiny cubes that i cube myself and freshly grated parm. The key is to layer the ingredients much like a lasagna rather than mixing the ricotta, mozz and parm with the sauce.....a layer of sauce on the bottom followed by a layer of ziti to cover the sauce. blobs of ricotta disbursed throughout that layer. sprinkle the mozz and parm and ladle sauce over that and repeat ending with a layer of sauce and cheeses. and don't forget to undercook the pasta when you boil it in well salted water. i put mini meatballs that i cooked in the sauce in there, too. my husband is irish american who doesn't love pasta. so if i put meat in there, he'll eat it. sorta like hiding vegetables in things for kids.....i camo the pasta with meatballs or sausage.

              3 Replies
              1. re: eLizard

                So you don't mix the sauce with the pasta? I thought about the layering of the cheeses, but never considered layering the sauce. I will definitely lower the heat. This is for carnivores, so I will be using sausage. Thanks everyone for the help :-)

                1. re: Janet from Richmond

                  nope, i don't mix. i mixed all together (pasta, sauce, cheeses in one big bowl and then poured into the bakeing dish) exactly once to the horror of one of my sicilian relatives. it was an experiment. and it was still delicious, but the layering is much better. And I don't mix the sauce with the pasta. it happens organically during the layering if that makes sense.

                  1. re: eLizard

                    I did this once - mixed the ricotta, cooked pasta & sauce together - I was horrified by the result. The layers are a much better idea. I do mix some of the sauce with ziti, then proceed with the layers.

              2. Have been eating (and making) it for years. There are so many different recipes. I find the key is that you must undercook the pasta as stated, drain and reserve. In a huge bowl or large pan, put in the pasta, sauce and whatever else you want to mix in. Our family makes a slow and long simmered sauce and micro meatballs (baked not fried). Toss everything together and coat it well. I like mine gooey so we add grated mozz (ball) and then some small cubes, loads of freshly grated parmiggiano reggiano and sauce. We make it a little wetter than regular pasta since some of that sauce gets dried up in the baking. Add extra parm on top. Cover with foil. Bake at 375 middle rack until bubbly. Uncover for a little crusty top. I don't measure time, I watch. We always put the pan on top of foil oven liners. We find a cookie sheet is too thick for heat and the foil liners are put on the rack while preheating. Inevitably, there is always spillage.

                1. My secret to great, creamy pasta al forno (or baked ziti) is bechamel. I cannot stress this enough, it is DELICIOUS!!! Just make a roux with flour and butter, and then add milk, let it thicken, add salt and white pepper and nutmeg. Then mix that directly with the sauce, mix with slightly undercooked pasta, and top with mozza. Bake until bubbly. It is soooo creamy and comforting.

                  6 Replies
                  1. re: icey

                    I agree w/ Icey - bechamel! Ina Gartner hada Four Cheese Ziti recipe that was amazing..

                    1. re: icey

                      Okay, I make a great bechamel, so this is good news. What ratio (roughly) do you mix the two sauces together?

                      1. re: Janet from Richmond

                        Actually, I have never actually measured!, but I would take a guess at 2 parts meat sauce to 1 part bechamel. The sauce has to look pink (like a cooked salmon colour). Hope that helps.

                        1. re: icey

                          icey
                          are you saying you also make a meat sauce to go in your ziti? Then you add some of the meat sauce to the bechamel?
                          Do you mix the pastawith eggs and ricotta before adding the sauces, or do you just leave out the ricotta altogether?

                          1. re: mschow

                            Hi mschow....sorry about the late response....nope i dont use eggs or ricotta in the baked ziti. When I make meat sauce, I make a huge pot, so from that huge pot, I take out however much meat sauce I need and add it straight to the bechamel, mostly because it cuts down on the layering process, but it actually does taste better because everything melds together nicely.

                      2. re: icey

                        Icey,

                        Thank you so much. This simple dish has been driving jfood crazy for years. He has spent hours just looking at the plate and saying "why is it not working". Your Bechamel sounds like the rosetta stone.

                        Jfood has now pensiled in sunday baked ziti. Gotta remember to get the good sausage and mozzy.

                      3. I'll agree with just about everything the rest of the posters have said, Undercook the pasta, bechamel sauce is nice although I leave out the nutmeg with baked ziti, lots of fresh herbs like basil and oregano and so on. My personal choice is not to use sausage because I think the flavor of the fennel in the sausage takes over the dish. I either make a meat sauce or I make mini meat balls and throw those in. I use meatballs in lasagna too. I don't like too much meat in my pastas thats why I started with meatballs.

                        1. Thank you everyone. I took much of your advice and the result was a true success. I made a tomato based meat sauce by browning 2 pounds of veal/pork/beef ground meat mixture with about half of a finely chopped onion and four cloves of garlic. I drained off some of the fat and added a 28 oz. can of whole tomatoes in puree (broke up the tomatoes with my hands), salt and pepper, a lot of fresh basil, and some red pepper flakes and a squirt of tomato paste from a tube. I simmered that uncovered for about 30 minutes. I made a Bechamel with a blonde roux of 1/3 cup butter and flour and 2 cups of whole milk. I combined the two sauces and let cool while cooking a pound of ziti (I cooked it about half of the time on the box). I combined just enough of the sauce with the ziti to barely moisten it. My pan size was a deep (4") 13x9 pan. I put a coating of sauce in the bottom, added half the ziti, topped with about half of the remaining sauce, added a layer of ricotta, fresh mozz and some romano. Topped with the remaining pasta and sauce and topped with fresh mozz and lots of Parm-Reg. I prepared it late morning and refrigerated. I took it out about an hour before going into a 350 degree oven, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Let sit 15 minutes before serving. Thank you again hounds...I couldn't have done it without you.

                          1. My late Uncle Charlie made the ultimate baked Ziti -- he LINED UP the ziti!!!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: roxlet

                              He lined them up?!?! No way! I would lose my mind and just make lasagna if it had to be that perfect!!

                              I have no secret, mine are a crowd fav for some odd reason even if I bail out and just use a doctored up jar or 2 of Barilla.

                              Maybe it's the love? Either that or the good mozz!

                              It's usually better the next day, like most things; eaten cold with a fork right from the dish, while standing (usually over the sink)...