Baked ziti is a comfort food I crave. Heck, I always crave pasta in any shape or form. I usually don’t buy ziti but always have tons of penne stocked in my pantry for all the times I make penne alla vodka! So baked penne is going down this week. This baked pasta is one of the easiest and tastiest meals you can cook for your family on a weeknight. Or you can multiply the recipe and feed a crowd! There’s plenty of tomato sauce to keep it moist, a touch of creamy ricotta, and loads of stringy mozzarella cheese. It takes no time to put together and it’s even easier if you make your sauce ahead of time. I’m gonna show you exactly how to make super easy baked penne in a flash!
What You Need to Make Baked Penne
There are only 10 ingredients in this recipe (if you exclude the salt and pepper, because those are a given)! It’s so stinking easy. For the best results, you want to make your own marinara sauce. It tastes light-years better than jarred sauce. If you’re really in a pinch I would reach for Rao’s marinara sauce. But homemade is truly the way to go. Here are the ingredients you’ll need for the marinara:
- olive oil
- canned tomatoes
- sorghum or sugar
- fresh thyme
- crushed red pepper flakes
Here are the other ingredients you’ll need to assemble your pasta:
- penne noodles
How To Make Homemade Marinara Sauce
My marinara recipe makes a lot of sauce. This is because it freezes well. Why not plan ahead for another meal? These are the amazing containers I use for food storage. They make my life so much easier. Not only do they come in a variety of sizes, but they’re also stackable and dishwasher safe. It’s a no-brainer for families that cook.
Now, onto the marinara. First, you’ll want to soften your onions and garlic in a pot over medium heat. This is when your home starts smelling like an Italian kitchen and everyone in your house wants to know what smells so delicious! After the onions and garlic are soft, but not caramelized, you’ll add several cans of whole peeled tomatoes, crushed red pepper, thyme, salt, and pepper. Using a wooden spoon or potato masher, give the tomatoes a little crushing action to break them down into smaller pieces. Warning: the tomatoes are feisty and may squirt you! Let this all come up to a simmer, reduce the heat, and let it bubble away for 15 minutes. This lets all the flavors really mesh together.
Pro Tip: You can make this marinara ahead of time and refrigerate it up to 3 days or freeze it up to 6 months. If you’re using the marinara sauce immediately, boil your pasta while the sauce is simmering.
How to Best Cook the Pasta
A few things are crucial when cooking the penne for this recipe. These super important steps are:
#1 – Salt the water. With any kind of pasta, you want the noodles to be flavorful apart from the sauce. If you don’t salt the pasta water, don’t expect a flavorful noodle. It’s that simple. On the other hand, if you salt the pasta water as salty as the sea (that’s several tablespoons) the noodles will have flavor on their own. It may seem trivial, but you’ll be able to tell the difference when you mess up and don’t salt your water at all or well enough. The noodles will be bland and boring.
#2 – Under cook the pasta. This doesn’t take very long so keep an eye on them. I always pop a few noddles in my mouth every few minutes toward the end. What you’re looking for is a noodle that is a little soft on the outside but still firm on the inside. I cooked my penne 4-5 minutes less than the package instructions. The reason for this is the pasta gets cooked again in the oven. You don’t want soggy, mushy pasta with no texture. Gross!
How to Assemble the Baked Penne
Make sure you have all these things ready before you start assembling:
- large bowl
- pasta water
- under cooked penne pasta
- hot marinara sauce
- casserole dish (I use an 8×8 glass dish)
- ricotta cheese
- mozzarella cheese
Once the penne is cooked (but undercooked, obviously) it should be transferred to a large bowl. Add a touch of pasta water, half the marinara sauce, and a dollop or two of ricotta cheese. Give it a few stirs to incorporate everything and season with salt to taste.
Pour half the mixture into the casserole dish and top with half a bag of mozzarella cheese. Now the rest of the pasta can go on top. Then sprinkle on the remaining mozzarella cheese. Pop the dish in the oven and bake for 15-20 until bubbly on the bottom. At the very end, crank up the broiler and let the cheese get all brown and bubbly. Then serve it up hot and stringy!
As I said before, this pasta is PERFECT for a weeknight meal, especially if you’ve already made your sauce. It’s also a really easy dish to make for a crowd. Just multiply as many times as you need!
Baked Penne Recipe
For the Marinara:
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/2 large onion, small diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 (28 oz) cans whole peeled tomatoes
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 Tbsp sorghum or brown sugar
2 tsp salt, plus more for seasoning
For the Pasta:
1 lb penne
2-3 Tbsp salt
3/4 c ricotta cheese
1 bag mozzarella cheese, or more if you like lots of cheese
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
For the Marinara:
Heat olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened (5-7 minutes). Add tomatoes, red pepper flakes, thyme, sorghum (or brown sugar), salt, and a few cracks of black pepper. Using the edge of a spoon or a potato masher, crush tomatoes into smaller pieces. Bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to medium-low. Let cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
For the Pasta:
While the marinara is simmering, cook the pasta. In a large pot of water add several tablespoons of salt and bring to a boil. Add penne and cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta is just about to be al dente. It should be soft on the outside and a little hard on the inside. Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer to a large bowl.
Add 3 cups of hot marinara to the pasta. Add ricotta and stir until pasta is coated evenly. Season with salt to taste. Transfer half the pasta mixture to a glass casserole dish. Sprinkle with half the mozzarella. Add the rest of the pasta and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until you see a few bubbles through the casserole dish. Turn on the broiler and carefully monitor the cheese until it’s browned to your liking.
Serve hot with freshly grated Parmesan and/or torn basil leaves. Enjoy all the stringy cheese goodness!