Baked ziti with sausage and peppers is fantastic for feeding a crowd! Make-ahead and freezer directions are included, which makes entertaining or weeknight cooking even easier.
Baked ziti with sausage is a recipe I've been making for years. It's always a crowd pleaser, which makes it one of my go-to recipes when family come into town over the holidays.
Paired with a big green salad, it's a meal that's simple to prepare and works well as leftovers. Plus, I like that it isn't too heavy - particularly this lightened-up version. No heavy cream or whole milk in sight!
I've made this recipe a few different ways over the years. While my boys would choose sautéed sausage any day of the week, I also like making this easy baked ziti recipe by stirring in this Bolognese Sauce Recipe or substituting the sausage with mini versions of my Italian Turkey Meatballs.
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WHAT YOU NEED FOR THIS BAKED ZITI WITH SAUSAGE:
These are the main ingredients needed for this recipe…
- PASTA: Ziti and penne cuts are slightly different than each other - ziti is shorter with straight ends, while penne is cut on a diagonal. However, it can be difficult to find whole wheat ziti, so I typically use whole wheat penne. If you prefer non-whole wheat pasta, feel free to use either.
- SAUSAGE: To lighten things up, I use pre-cooked chicken Italian sausage. Pre-cooked turkey sausage is also a good option.
- MARINARA SAUCE: Whether you use a homemade sauce or a store-bought one, choose something that tastes good to you. That may sound obvious, but it's often tempting to just grab the sauce that's on sale at the grocery store. If you wouldn't enjoy eating a spoonful of the sauce on its own, avoid using it in any recipes. Look for something that’s flavored with onion, garlic and oregano. Taste the sauce and adjust with seasoning with salt and pepper, if needed. If you like a little zip, add a dash of red pepper flakes.
- ROASTED PEPPERS: Bottled roasted red peppers can be found in the same aisle as the pickles and olives in most grocery stores. Look for peppers packed in water to reduce the oil content. It’s also very easy to roast peppers at home.
- COTTAGE CHEESE: One of my favorite tricks for lightening up baked pasta dishes, such as lasagne, is substituting ricotta with pureed lowfat cottage cheese. It's lighter in fat grams and calories, and I promise that no one will notice!
- OTHER CHEESE: Both grated part-skim mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese are used in this recipe.
- BASIL: Use thinly sliced fresh basil.
See recipe card below for full ingredients list & recipe directions.
💙 What’s to love about Baked ziti with Italian sausage:
▪️ CROWD PLEASER: This a fantastic option for feeding or a crowd or serving up during the week (hello, leftovers!) A big pan of ziti with a green salad on the side keeps everyone happy.
▪️ LIGHTENED-UP: Many baked pasta dishes, such as lasagna or stuffed shells, use ricotta cheese. To lighten things up, I always swap the ricotta with puréed cottage cheese. A fraction of the fat and your family will never know the difference.
▪️ MAKE-AHEAD: The ziti can be assembled ahead of time, then baked before serving. The baked casserole is also great for leftovers. It’s also freezer-friendly.
How to make baked ziti with sausage:
BOIL THE PASTA: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. The trick is to cook the pasta until it’s a little firmer than al dente. About 2 minutes before the full cooking time expires. The pasta will finish cooking in the oven when combined into the casserole. Drain the pasta in a colander.
BROWN THE SAUSAGE: Cut the sausages into half-circles. Since the sausages are pre-cooked, they just need to be browned in the pan. Heat a large skillet over medium-high and lightly cook with cooking spray. Cook the sausages, stirring occasionally. It takes 8 to 10 minutes for them to brown.
PREP THE COTTAGE CHEESE: Dump the cottage cheese into the bowl of a food processor. Blend until it’s smooth. Transfer to a large bowl.
COMBINE: Stir about ¼ cup of the marinara sauce into the puréed cottage cheese. This turns the cheese a light red color, plus adds a little tomato flavor. Stir in the cooked past, browned sausage and roasted peppers.
LAYER THE INGREDIENTS: Start by coating the bottom of the baking dish with cooking spray and ¾ cup of marinara sauce. Spoon half of the pasta mixture over the sauce. Top it with half of the mozzarella cheese, some of the Parmesan and the sliced basil. Repeat with the remaining pasta mixture and tomato sauce. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over top.
BAKE: Cover the casserole dish and pop it into an oven set to 350 degrees F. The goal is for the tomato sauce to be bubbling and the pasta to be tender. That takes about 50 minutes. Remove the foil and cook for another 5 minutes to melt and slightly brown the cheese. Serve it up!
Can baked ziti be made ahead of time?
Yes! There are a couple of make-ahead options. First, the casserole can be made as directed, minus the baking. Cover and store the ziti in the fridge for up to 2 days before baking.
If you don't have time to bring the casserole to room temperature before baking, it may be necessary to bake it for an extra 5 to 10 minutes. The tomato sauce should be bubbling before you remove the foil to brown the cheese.
The second option is to cook the casserole as directed, then refrigerate it. Before covering the ziti for refrigeration, let it cool to room temperature. More on reheating it in a moment.
Can you freeze baked ziti?
Another yes! If you have room in your freezer, knock out some meal prep by making two baked ziti casseroles at a time. Serve one for dinner and freeze the other.
Bake the ziti, then allow it to come to room temperature. Once cool, wrap the baking dish well. I typically use two layers of plastic wrap and a layer of heavy duty aluminum foil.
To defrost, place the casserole in the refrigerator for 24 hours before heating. If you don't have time to defrost it, follow the directions in the next section.
How to reheat baked ziti:
If you're just reheating one or two portions, scoop them onto individual plates and reheat in the microwave until the desired temperature is reached.
For a full baked casserole stored in the fridge - or one that was frozen and completely defrosted - reheat it in a 350 degree F oven for 30 minutes. Cover the baked pasta with foil for the first 15 minutes and remove the foil for the final 15 minutes.
If the casserole is fully frozen, it will take about 1 hour 15 minutes to reheat. Cover with foil and bake in a 350 degree F for 1 hour, then remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling.
Baked Ziti with Italian Sausage
- 13 ounces whole wheat penne pasta
- 4 links pre-cooked Italian chicken sausage cut into ½-inch semi-circles
- 1 ⅓ cups low fat (2%) cottage cheese
- 2 ¾ cups marinara sauce (your favorite kind), divided
- 1 whole roasted red pepper chopped
- ¾ cup grated part-skim mozzarella cheese divided
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese divided
- 5 basil leaves thinly sliced
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil and salt well. Add the penne pasta and cook 2 minutes less than what is stated on the package directions (it will be cooking further when baked). Drain and rinse with cold water.
- Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Lightly coat with cooking spray. Add the sausages and cook until browned, 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Place the cottage cheese in a food processor and blend until smooth. Transfer to a large bowl.
- Add ¼ cup marinara sauce to the cottage cheese and stir to combine. Stir in the pasta, sausages and roasted red peppers. Stir until the ingredients are coated with the sauce.
- Top the pasta with 1 cup marinara sauce, half of the mozzarella cheese, ¼ cup Parmesan cheese and all of the basil.
- Repeat the layer with the remaining pasta, marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese.
- Cover with foil and bake until bubbling, about 50 minutes.
- Uncover and bake for additional 5 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and starting to brown. Serve.
This post was originally published on October 30, 2019 and updated on September 21, 2022.
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