It doesn’t take more than a glance around here to see that when it comes to vegetarian dinner recipes, cheesy, carby, and comforting rank high on our list of requirements.
And meatless baked ziti tops that list. It’s easier to make, and the perfect alternative to homemade lasagna because it takes less time in the assembly process. Yet, it’s every bit as delicious — especially in thanks to the herb-filled ricotta cheese that’s nestled throughout the pasta. We also love herbs and ricotta around here. So let’s get to it!
What is Ziti?
Ziti refers to a tube-shaped pasta; similar to one of our favorites, bucatini, but wider and more like penne pasta than a long spaghetti. Common in American-Italian cuisine we have baked ziti, a baked pasta casserole.
Vegetarian baked ziti consists of simple ingredients: ziti pasta, marinara sauce, and cheese. This version amps up the flavor using fresh herbs, triple cheeses, and a homemade tomato sauce for added flavor. Can you take some shortcuts? Sure, I fully support you doing what you need to…but then come back and give the stovetop sauce a try, won’t you?
- Dried Ziti Pasta is ideal, but not always easy to find. The tubular pasta has smooth sides, but if you can’t find it the ridged edge penne or rigatoni are good substitutes.
- San Marzano Peeled Whole Tomatoes create the base of our sauce. I prefer crushing the tomatoes myself. Either by hand or simply using a spoon as the sauce simmers away. I 100% recommend getting authentic San Marzano tomatoes for the most flavor. They are similar to Roma tomatoes but thinner, with thicker walls and fewer seeds, making them less acidic and sweeter.
- Fresh Herbs flavor both the sauce and the ricotta. We’re using a mixture of rosemary, oregano, thyme, parsley, and basil. There’s nothing better than fresh herbs, and if you’re worried about not using the leftovers, never worry, because we have plenty of recipes to use them in! Make another herb sauce, a dinner of whole roasted cauliflower, or pillowy dinner rolls topped with herbs.
- Red Wine deglazes the pan and adds a depth of flavor to the sauce. Don’t have it or want to use it? Use a high-quality vegetable stock for the most flavor.
- Veggies – it’s worth mentioning that carrots, celery, onion, and red bell pepper all infuse the sauce.
- Cheese is a must in baked pasta, and we’ve got a trifecta here. Mozzarella, ricotta cheese, and parmesan all make an appearance. Be sure to purchase a brand of vegetarian parmesan cheese, if needed.
Want more veggies?
The beauty of no-meat baked ziti is that you can really add a variety of mixed vegetables without worry! As written, this recipe is pretty straightforward. However, one of the easiest ways to add veggies is to wilt in spinach or kale before adding the tomatoes.
You can also saute zucchini or mushrooms, even broccoli or cauliflower! Add a can of beans into the sauce for additional protein; they’ll blend up and go undetected.
How to Make Vegetarian Baked Ziti
As mentioned, this baked ziti recipe is definitely more homemade than a quick version that uses store-bought ingredients. And in my opinion, that’s the only way to go this route. This is not a boring tomato and pasta bake with some cheese. No, my friend, this is a flavorful, savory, rich, satisfying baked pasta — one you’ll definitely want to write home about.
Make the Sauce
This recipe is more of a hands-off sauce that simmers away on the stovetop. It can remain a chunky sauce or can be blended into a smooth texture to weave its way throughout the ziti.
It all begins by sauteeing the mirepoix of diced celery, carrots, and onion in a large pot. The longer they saute and become tender, the more flavor that develops, and the better the sauce will be. Layer in flavor with salt, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, and then continue with garlic.
Red bell pepper makes an appearance, too, for extra veggies and depth of flavor. It doesn’t need to saute as long as the mirepoix, so it gets added with the garlic instead.
Once tender, deglaze the pan with red wine and simmer it for a couple of minutes to reduce. This concentrates the flavor and adds depth to the sauce. Then, in goes the herbs and whole tomatoes. Use your spoon to break them apart, and let the heat do the rest.
Use an immersion blender to smooth out the sauce to your desired texture. Remember to taste test and adjust for salt levels as needed, too!
Cook the Pasta Halfway
Often in baked pasta recipes, the pasta gets boiled to just under al dente. I like to take it a step back and only cook it for half of the cooking time on the package directions. This ensures that after it bakes, it will be perfectly al dente and not mushy or overcooked.
Mix together the Ricotta Filling
To flavor the ricotta cheese filling, stir together whole milk ricotta cheese, fresh herbs, parmesan cheese, salt, and pepper. Taste test it at this point because then you’ll stir in a whisked egg and won’t be able to taste test anymore.
The egg helps the ricotta filling to stabilize while baking and holds more of a prominent place in the baked pasta rather than melting into the sauce and going unnoticed.
Layer it In a Baking Dish
Toss the par-cooked pasta with the sauce and layer half of it into a prepared 9×13 casserole dish or casserole pan. Dollop on ricotta, and top with mozzarella cheese. You can spread out the ricotta cheese a little, or keep the dollops for lovely bites that are more ricotta-forward. Chef’s choice!
Repeat for the final layer before baking. If you prefer to not layer in this way, stir the ricotta mixture with the tomato sauce and pasta, and sprinkle the entire thing with cheese. I prefer to take the step to layer to have more cheesy bites throughout.
Bake it Up!
And now…we bake! Keep it uncovered. Then, it only takes around 20 minutes until the cheese is melty and it’s all golden and bubbly. Serve it up hot with a garnish of fresh basil and parmesan cheese.
Vegetable baked ziti is a hearty meal all on its own, but it pairs well with lighter vegetable-forward side dishes. I recommend a classic greens salad – Ceasar is a wonderful Italian-inspired option.
And to feel like you’re at an Italian restaurant? Start with an order of herby olive oil dip paired with some crusty bread. The perfect combination…just don’t forget a glass of red wine, too!
Make Ahead & Storage
If you’re hosting guests or want an easy dinner you can just throw in the oven, prepare vegetarian baked ziti ahead of time! Of course, you can bake it and reheat it throughout the week as needed. Otherwise, to make ahead for hosting, prepare just until the point of baking. Then cover tightly and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from the fridge while the oven preheats, so it has time to come to room temperature. Don’t put a cold pan in a hot oven! Then, bake until golden brown and bubbly to enjoy!
Leftovers freeze well, too. Place them in individual serving-size SouperCubes to make life easy. Then, you can pop out the perfect amount to enjoy. Talk about the best kind of freezer meal!
Otherwise, store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days. Reheat in the microwave until hot.
Did you make this recipe? Please leave a star rating and review in the form below. I appreciate your feedback, and it helps others, too!
Get the Recipe Vegetarian Baked Ziti with Herb Ricotta
- 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, or olive oil
- 1 ½ cup yellow onion, finely diced
- 1 cup carrot, finely diced
- 1 cup celery, finely diced
- Pinch Red pepper flakes
- 4 cloves garlic, chopped or minced
- 1 red bell pepper, diced
- ½ cup red wine
- 2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
- 1 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
- 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano, or 2 teaspoons fresh oregano
- 2 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole tomatoes
- 16 ounces dried ziti pasta
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, or diced fresh mozzarella
- Prepare a 9×13 baking dish by spreading softened butter around or spray with cooking spray. Preheat oven to 400F.
- Melt butter in a large stock pot over medium heat. Add onion, celery, and carrots with a pinch of salt and red pepper flakes; saute for about 10 minutes. Add garlic and bell pepper, sauteeing for another 4 minutes or so.4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, 1 ½ cup yellow onion, 1 cup carrot, 1 cup celery, 4 cloves garlic, 1 red bell pepper, Pinch Red pepper flakes
- Deglaze the pan with wine, letting it reduce for about 2 minutes. Add the herbs and tomatoes, breaking up the tomatoes using a spoon after they're in the pot. Add salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a simmer for about 20 minutes. Use an immersion blender to puree the sauce to the desired consistency, and again simmer for about 10 minutes on low heat.½ cup red wine, 2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, 1 Tablespoons fresh rosemary, 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 2 28-ounce cans San Marzano whole tomatoes
- Meanwhile, bring a large stock pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta for half the amount of the directed cook time. Drain, and set aside. Do not rinse.16 ounces dried ziti pasta
- In a separate bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, herbs, and parmesan cheese. Test for salt levels, then add in the egg. Set aside.15 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese, 2 Tablespoons fresh parsley, ½ cup fresh basil, 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme, 1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, Freshly ground black pepper, ¼ teaspoon fine sea salt, 1 egg, ½ cup grated parmesan cheese
- Once the sauce is ready, toss the par-cooked noodles with the sauce. Then spread half of the coated noodles across the prepared baking pan evenly. Sollop on half of the ricotta filling, spreading as desired. Sprinkle on 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese.
- Add the remaining pasta on top of the first layer and repeat, dolloping the ricotta and finishing with the remaining mozzarella cheese. Bake uncovered for 20-25 minutes until the cheese is melty, golden, and the pasta bake is bubbly.
- Let rest for 5-10 minutes, then serve it up nice and hot! Let leftovers cool and store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 4 days.
- Use a parmesan cheese labeled vegetarian, if needed.
- Ziti can be substituted with rigatoni or penne.