Sausage, Spinach, Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells

There must be a special place in heaven for men who cook. My father made this dish the other day to my mother’s and my delight. It always amazes me that dad, who isn’t a patient man to begin with, and what little patience he had he lost raising six kids, will still make the effort to gently stuff dozens of pasta shells. Not to say there wasn’t any grumbling, but he knew the work was going to pay off, and it did. Jumbo pasta shells, stuffed with a mixture of Italian sausage, spinach, ricotta and Parmesan cheeses, surrounded by tomatoes and baked until bubbly, do you think there were any leftovers? Hah! No way.

Sausage, Spinach, Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells Recipe

  • Yield: Serves 8.

Ingredients

  • 1 12-ounce package jumbo pasta shells
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 cup finely chopped yellow onion
  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 Tbsp minced garlic
  • 1 large egg
  • 16-ounces ricotta cheese
  • 10-ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, chopped further (or 10 ounces chopped fresh spinach)
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 teaspoon dried basil
  • 1/4 cup unseasoned bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 28-ounce can tomatoes with herbs, including the liquid, tomatoes broken up (or your favorite tomato or pasta sauce)
  • 2 9x13 shallow baking dishes

Method

1 Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (1 teaspoon salt per quart of water). Cook the pasta shells according to the instructions on the package. Drain, rinse in cold water, and set aside.

2 Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium high heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the sausage to the pan, breaking up the sausage into smaller bits. Cook sausage until cooked through, and no pink remains, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute more. Remove pan from heat.

3 Beat the egg lightly in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta, chopped spinach, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan cheese, basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and sausage mixture. Fill each cooked pasta shell with some of the ricotta, spinach, sausage mixture.

4 Spread 1/2 cup chopped canned tomatoes over the bottom of each of the baking dishes. Arrange the stuffed pasta shells in the dishes. Spread the remaining tomatoes over the top of the pasta shells.

At this point you can make ahead, to freeze (up to four months) or refrigerate before cooking. (If freezing, cover with foil, then wrap with plastic wrap.)

5 Heat oven to 375°F. Cover the pans with foil and bake for 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Remove foil and sprinkle with remaining Parmesan cheese, bake uncovered for 10 more minutes.

Recipe adapted from recipe on box of Barilla jumbo pasta shells, and a recipe appearing in the Sacramento Bee.

80 Comments

  1. Katherine

    Perfect – I just went to go search your site for manicotti, as I was looking for a way to use up my extra ricotta. You’re a mind reader!

    Your recipes are always fabulous. I direct people to your site all the time, especially those who are learning to cook. Thank you for taking all the time on testing and posting!

  2. janie

    Ay! Another beautiful pic to accompany a no doubt mouth watering dish. I will be making this during the week as our family has decided to forgo eating out in order to save money and spend more quality time together. However, I think I’ll make these with meat substitute just to cut down on the fat, though I know the sausage adds a lot to the flavor.

  3. ari

    Yum. My mouth is watering. This dish reminds me so much of my childhood. The nostalgia is sending me to the grocery store for the ingredients…

  4. katie

    I love it when my husband cooks for me. I’ll eat anything he will cook. My favorite: eggs, toast, and bacon-the most delicious meal I’ve ever had and one that I don’t have to lift a finger except to shovel it in my mouth.

  5. Sylvie, Rappahannock Cook & Kitchen Gardener

    I am getting hungry just reading it. I love such the combination of sausage, spinach, tomato, cheese & pasta (and lots of garlic). Especially in winter.

  6. Julia

    I make stuffed shells every two months. My family loves them but I love the leftover meat mixture baked with the leftover sauce spread over it.

  7. jody

    Okay this looks really good, I’m sure I would love it as is, but I would need to make it tex-mex for my family to like it. Do you think chorizo would work in this recipe or no?

    Great question, how to turn this Italian recipe into a Tex Mex version. (Is there even pasta in Tex Mex foods?) If I were to do this Tex Mex style, I would use chorizo instead of the Italian sausage, and queso fresca (soft fresh Mexican cheese) instead of the ricotta, Cotija cheese instead of the Parmesan, oregano instead of the basil, and fire roasted canned tomatoes instead of tomatoes with herbs. But then I probably wouldn’t use pasta, but use corn tortillas softened by frying in a little hot oil, and call the whole thing an enchilada. Good luck! If you make any of these substitutions, please let us know how it turns out. ~Elise

  8. dolphinwife

    This is a great recipe. I’ve had something like this in my potluck go to repertoire for quite some time. I use turkey sausage since I don’t eat pork although I know the sweet Italian sausage would make it very yummy too. I use lots of fresh herbs, no egg, and I pour the sauce over and then put another layer of cheese over the top. I also use a combo of shredded Italian cheeses for the stuffing mixture. I love this recipe it always turns out so yummy!! Any tips for the leftover shells though? If I boil a whole box I always seem to have some left over? Thanks! This would probably be good with a white sauce over it first and then tomato sauce like a lasagna maybe? Thanks again!

  9. Kiran

    One of my sister in-laws makes a vegetarian version of this recipe and it is great dish to make for small dinner parties. And like you mentioned it is always all finished off.

  10. Tabitha (From Single to Married)

    mmm… this looks so good! Wish I could have it at lunch today (which would be impossible since I’m not home). :(

  11. Fermat

    I’ve been making variations of these for years. The kids always loved them. To make it a bit easier to stuff the shells, I put the stuffing mixture into a zip top bag and cut a corner off. Then squeeze it into the shells.

  12. Ophelia

    This looks delicious! I would like to make it with turkey sausage — there is a man at the farmer’s market where I live who sells turkey meat and it is so fresh and delicious. Do you think it would work well with sweet or spicy turkey sausage?

    Yes, I think it would work fine with turkey sausage, sweet or spicy. ~Elise

  13. Karen

    I make a similar filling. But then because I’m lazy, I spread the stuffing on cooked lasagna noodles and roll them up. Its still a bit fussy, but easier than stuffing the shells.

  14. CL

    TEX-MEX note to Sara,

    You could also substitute the canned tomatoes with the Rotel tomatoes that have the green chiles added to the diced tomatoes.

    Hope that helps,
    CL

  15. Dallas from Bitchin'Kitchen

    My dad doesn’t cook often, but when he does it is nearly always an elaborate pasta dish and usually lasagne or sausage penne. I am emailing him this recipe for his repertoire right now!

  16. Amanda

    I’m salivating just reading this…but would like to cut back the fat content. Do you think that using low-fat ricotta and some Italian Chicken sausage would help lower the fat and still be tasty?

    I am so not the person to ask about low fat alternatives, being a full-octane kind a girl myself. I suggest trying it the way you are thinking of trying it and seeing if you like it. If it works out for you, please let us know. ~Elise

  17. Tom

    One question: in my experience, having the foil next to the tomatoes for any time causes the foil to “pinhole” due to the acid in the ‘toes. Learned this by covering a bowl of pasta sauce in the fridge with foil for a few days. Do you think freezing it will stabilize it enough so that won’t be a problem? Otherwise I guess just reverse the plastic and foil — just remember to take the plastic off before tossing it in the oven.

    Great recipe! This goes on the schedule for later this week, although I might try the lasagne noodle “roll-up” version…

  18. Ryan

    What would be a good substitution for the sausage for vegetarians? Mushrooms, or something a bit more.

    You could just leave out the sausage, and add a bit more cheese and herbs. ~Elise

  19. Hannah

    I don’t have time to stuff shells with two little kids. I think if I were going to make this I would make casserole with sauce on bottom, noodles, mixture, and then sauce on the top. It sounds delish!!!

  20. Kelly

    Another great recipe. I made this for dinner last night. I used Turkey Italian Sausage and followed the rest of the recipe exactly. It was amazing and my friend loved it. I was only cooking for 2 so I froze the rest as suggested and it freezes beautifully. I am going to make the rest when my Mom comes in town this weekend. Thank you for being my go to resource for great recipes!

  21. Ann

    Looks delicious. I hopefully will get a chance to make it soon. And since there are only the two of us, I expect I will freeze several small pans. Any idea on what the baking directions are if it is frozen?

    Remove any plastic wrap, cover with foil, and bake for an hour. The last 10 minutes add the extra Parmesan and bake uncovered. You do not have to defrost first. ~Elise

  22. Erin

    This recipe is so good! I made it yesterday for my boyfriend’s birthday and we loved it. Works great with manicotti too. Thanks Elise!

  23. Season to Taste

    I make a very similar version I call “Florentine Stuffed Shells” where I use shredded chicken instead of the sausage. Surprisinly light and very yummy!

  24. Judy

    I use almost the exact recipe. I always make way more than I’m going to use. I put the stuffed shells on a cookie sheet, put them in the freezer and when they’re frozen, just pop them into a ziplock bag. When I want to use them, I take them out and put them into a baking dish, pour my sauce over, cover with foil and bake. The last 10 minutes, I uncover and add mozz and parm cheese. Yummo!!

  25. Linda In Washington State

    i Elise,

    I have made alot of Lasagna rolled and unrolled but never stuffed any shells. Thank you posting a simple stuffed shells recipe. Your mom married a real gem of a guy. Hard to get mad at someone when he cooks for you. Some of my friends’ husbands cook but my husbands only likes to grill. When I had just 2 sons, I started baking 2 pizzas every week.I tired of removing the castings each time and the cost. I decided to make a bulk sausage to use in pasta dishes and of course pizzas. I make 4 to 10 pounds of sausage at a time and freeze it in 1/2 pound portions.

    2 pounds of ground pork with enough fat not too lean
    1 teaspoon black peppercorns
    1 1/2 teaspoon anise seed
    1/4 teaspoon of garlic granules
    2 teaspoons of dried basil
    1 1/2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of kosher salt (depends on your taste for salty food)

    Grind in this order
    Black peppercorns and anise seed till finely ground, then add salt, garlic granules, basil, and salt, grind
    briefly
    Mix with ground pork. Can use a spoon but I use my hands.

  26. Katie

    This looks so good! too bad I can’t find a way to hide the spinach, since the Hubs doesn’t think he likes it. I’ll work on my craftiness and see if I can make it work– or just omit and try to be healthy elsewhere.

    Love, love, LOVE this site– thanks for providing such a great online resource!

  27. Mely

    This looks delicious.
    Adding chorizo to the tomato sauce over spaghetti is called “pasta a la española” in some places of Mexico and Spain. It gives a nice spiciness to the dish. I will give a try with this recipe. Thanks Elise’s dad.

    That’s probably Spanish chorizo, which is very different from the Mexican chorizo you would find in a Tex Mex dish, more like pepperoni. I could easily see Spanish chorizo in this dish. ~Elise

  28. Scott at Realepicurean

    I never thought to stuff pasta shells. What a great idea! Mind if I steal it? :p

    Stuff away my friend, stuff away. I certainly didn’t come up with this idea. ~Elise

  29. Jennifer

    I was lucky because my Dad was a professional chef, so he cooked every night and I never thought that was weird at all! Your dish looks awesome. I hardly ever think about buying those big shells. I think that would be a good way for portion control. Just have one (if you can) of the stuffed shells. Thanks for sharing the recipe!

  30. Laura

    This one is DEFINITELY getting saved! Holy smokes it looks delish and although perhaps tedious, I think I can manage to put a bunch of yummy stuff in a pasta shell! Thanks!!

  31. Steveed

    Looks great. I don’t understand all the fuss in the reply thread about stuffing shells. It takes all of 2-3 minutes. I’m thinking that the sausage I would use would be the kind with the fennel seeds, love that flavor.

  32. Lisa

    Made for the family last night, WOW everyone loved it and wanted left overs for lunch. Took some time to prep, put worth every minute of time it took. Will make again! I only wish my dad had had this in his cooking bag of tricks.

  33. Eunice

    I make a similar dish with minced meat instead of sausage and and my family and I love it love it LOVE it! The stuffing takes some time but it is well worth it.

  34. Mitch

    Just finished serving this to my family and we loved it–my 8 yr old son ate 2 shells–actually, he inhaled them–and the pickier 5 yr old actually ate one without too much complaining–a minor miracle as he is practically impossible to feed right now.

    My wife and I loved them–they were a tad lighter than the usual shells, and the sausage was a nice change.

    And we have enough for several more meals!

  35. Mark Boxshus

    Elise

    These shells were awesome. I made them as is, and ate them without adding any additional sauce. They were delicious, firm and hit the spot. The next night I made a simple marinara sauce and tossed some of that on the leftover tray. These two were outstanding. Thanks for a wonderful keeper. Most of the times I pass on stuffed shells. This is going into my files for good.

    Mark

  36. Lauren

    Wow, this was good. I didn’t have bread crumbs or parmesan, so I put a little mozzarella instead and added some red pepper flakes. Otherwise, I followed the recipe exactly, and it was good. I sampled the filling uncooked and didn’t care for the taste, but I cooked it anyway and it was great – I think it was the raw spinach I didn’t like, but cooked it was great.

    One word of advice, though – do use plenty of the tomato! The flavor really helps round out everything else.

    I love trying out recipes from your site, Elise. They’re almost always great and some of them are really household staples around here now.

  37. Kim

    I made this for my husband Saturday night and I have never heard my husband compliment me as much as he did on this dish. He loved it! I did too.

  38. Melissa from Boston

    I made this last night for a new boyfriend, and he absolutely loved it! I really enjoy this blog, every recipe I’ve tried has been delicious. Thank you and keep them coming please!

  39. rose

    These were wonderful. I did swap hot turkey sausage for the regular sausage, but all in all these were delicious. I’ve also never made stuffed shells and despite all the comments on how time consuming these are, you get on pan to eat and another to freeze (unless you have a larger group to feed!), and thats a bargain in my opinion.
    Thanks Elise – your recipes always deliver!

  40. Scott

    Made this for Valentine’s day dinner for my wife and I. It tasted really good, although I fumbled the grocery shopping and only got 14oz of tomatoes instead of 28 like the recipe calls for. I also wasn’t sure whether to drain the tomatoes or not. I did, and the shells really dried out during baking.

    I’m thinking next time I’ll use a tomato sauce instead of (or in addition to) Italian style tomatoes.

    Thanks Scott, I’ve added that clarification to the recipe. Sorry they dried out for you. Yes, you want to include the liquid from the can. You can also use your favorite tomato sauce instead. ~Elise

  41. Melissa

    I made this recipe last night for my boyfriend for Valentine’s Day and it was AMAZING! I always stuff my shells with about twice as much filling as is called for so I made only one 13 x 9 inch pan (really) full. Some simple steamed broccoli on the side and we ate like kings. SO flavorful. The sausage just pushes the flavor factor over the top. I can’t thank you enough, Elise, for all your wonderful recipes. I’ve been a longtime fan of your recipes and just couldn’t resist commenting on this one.

  42. Zora

    To Amanda, re: low fat options:

    I made this using italian chicken sausage, and low-fat part-skim ricotta, and it was delicious!! So yes, go for it! :)

  43. Courtney

    This was absolutely divine…I made it the day after it was posted and I’m almost never that up-to-date on my online recipe hunting! I used the 5-minute tomato sauce from 101 Cookbooks as a topper with some shredded mozzarella, and just made a bed of tomatoes and sauce with the canned, herbed tomatoes in the recipe.

    Incidentally, I also utilized the freezing option as suggested, and I was wondering how to cook the frozen portion? In the oven for an hour? Defrost and continue as described?

  44. Marissa

    What a great recipe! I couldn’t find any jumbo pasta shells, so I made this into a lasagna instead. I also drizzled balsamic vinegar on top, which was nice. There were only two of us eating this, so we had leftovers for lunch for two days after initially cooking. Brilliant!

  45. James

    I’ve been looking for a stuffed shells recipe on the internet closest to what my mom used to make – this looks exactly like it. The spinach keeps the sausage from getting too dense. The ricotta and parmesan is the right consistency for the dish – other types of melty cheeses(i.e. mozzarella) would make this too much of a gooey mess. I like stuffed shells dryer – leave the melted cheese for pizza.

  46. Sharon

    This is a wonderful recipe. Not too heavy and great favor. I did find it turned out too dry on top so I added good Marinara Sauce over the top of the leftovers. And a little exra cheese!! This was a great improvement. This also freezes well. I let saved second casserole come to room temp and baked.
    This recipe is a saver.

  47. Sara

    My boyfriend HATED stuffed shells until he tried mine. I make a veggie version of this recipe with sauteed mushrooms in place of the sausage. I also add mozzarella to the ricotta mixture [my boyfriend doesn't like ricotta -- hence his usual dislike of stuffed shells -- so I like to pump up my mixture with lots of spinach, herbs & mozz so he doesn't notice the ricotta too much] & I sprinkle mozz on top for extra gooey goodness :) Oh so yummy.

  48. Angela

    This dish was incredible — we just had it for dinner tonight. I used sweet Italian turkey sausage because it was on sale, and it turned out great. Thanks for the wonderful recipe!

  49. Melissa

    I’m making this recipe and was just wondering if seasoned breadcrumbs would be okay to use?

    If you use seasoned bread crumbs, cut back or leave out the additional salt called for in the recipe. ~Elise

  50. Elise N.

    great recipe – for all the negative comments regarding shell-stuffing, though, I found my first attempt at it really easy and fun; it was actually my favorite part of making the dish! it came out delicious. half the recipe is still in my freezer and I’m excited to try out some of the variations listed here in the future.

  51. Regina

    O.M.G. I’ve made this dish twice now – the first time, according to the directions, the second time, using turkey Italian sausage and more tomatoes.

    They were amazing both times – I actually got some notice from a guy in the office that I had my eye on, because he could smell the aroma from my leftovers…. the next time I made them, I made sure to bring him some leftovers, too….. :)

    I have tried several dishes from this site, and have not been disappointed.

    Way to go Elise (and Elise’s dad!)(and hey, to her mom, too, for picking a great guy and having a great daughter!)

  52. Steve

    This dish was awesome! Thanks so much for the recipe. Both my fiance and I loved it. Next time I will try spicy italian sausage as we tend to like things with a little heat.

  53. Heather L

    Argh! I love this recipe but why do I always forget to mix in HALF the parmesan and save half for the topping?? (every time!) =)
    Thanks, I DO love this recipe!

  54. Rebecca

    So…this isn’t the dish to try for the first time at 11:00 at night when you have to be at work at 9:30 the next morning. It’s now 1:15, and the shells are just now coming out of the oven. I’m sure if I’d been more sensible about the prep work, this would have been less time consuming…but I wasn’t.

    I used “Italian Seasoned” Ground Turkey and it turned out great – thank you so much for providing consistently thorough and thoughtful instructions with your recipes.

  55. Justyna

    Elise, thank you so much for the recipe! This dish is phenomenal! I made it last week and it came out amazing! My husband couldn’t get enough and already wants me to make it again. I have a question though: I want to cook it for some friends of ours who don’t eat pork – can you think of any good pork-free substitutes for the sausage?

    How about turkey sausage? ~Elise

  56. Christine

    I made this last night with a couple changes (I was to lazy to fill shells). I made the filling exactly as stated, but instead of filling shells I used small shells and mixed it all together. I layered the bottom of a baking dish with spaghetti sauce. I then put the noodle mixture on top and covered the entire top with more spaghetti sauce. It was wonderful!! I will definitely be making it this way again.

  57. Andrea

    For Justyna’s question about pork sausage substitutes, when all I have is ground beef and I want it to taste like sweet Italian sausage, I just add some crushed fennel seed.

    This combination of ricotta/spinach/sausage looks great and reminds me of my favorite lasagna which uses a ricotta/spinach mix and tomato sauce containing shredded pork. I use around 1.5 lbs pork shoulder steaks trimmed of excess fat with 2 x 28 oz cans of whatever tomatoes I feel like using (and onions/garlic/spices). The sauce is done when the meat falls off the bones (about 2 hrs). Then the pork is shredded and returned to the sauce to be used in the lasagna. Or you can forget about the lasagna and serve larger hunks of pork with any pasta. Then I might use more pork in the beginning (sorta like pot roast).

  58. Julie

    Thanks so much for a wonderful recipe AND i love your site! I always visit your site first for cooking something new – Everything I’ve tried has always been delish! Thanks again for the wonderful recipes as well as your very evident passion for family and food!!!

  59. Cristen K.

    This recipe is great. The only change that I made was that after I cooked the sausage, I put it through a food processor to break it into smaller pieces. That way I could stuff the shells with the sausage instead of putting it on top. My in laws are making this recipe after only hearing about it from my husband. Guess he sold it pretty well! My husband requested hot sausage with the next batch :)

  60. Dena White

    WOW thanks for a super guide line for a great giant stuffed shell meal!!! I am of course adjusting my recipe with what I have in my pantry and fridge but I KNOW this is going to turn out wonderful!!! I used organic sauce and roasted tomatoes and added baby Bella mushrooms for the topping sauce. I also didn’t have parmesan cheese so I used real mozzarella cheese for the topping cheese. Cut the bread crumbs because I didn’t have any and added pesto sauce to the ricotta cheese mixture…like I said I KNOW it’s going to be good…the smell is killing me!!! LOL Thanks again!

  61. Andrea

    Hi Elise, made this last night to use up a packet of frozen spinach. Skipped the breadcrumbs and included fennel seeds. Delicious. Thank you!

  62. Jesica

    I made this last night with fresh spinach and my homemade marinara sauce. This makes such a large batch I was able to feed my boyfriend and I dinner, lunch and feed three co-workers lunch as well. Delicious recipe, I received many compliments!

  63. Jessica

    This looks delicious! Being from an Italian family I have a love for tantalizing pasta dishes. I’m always trying to sneak healthy things in, too, for my family, and spinach is a favorite. Have you tried adding pureed veggies to this recipe? I add pureed cauliflower, sweet potatoes, broccoli, green bell peppers, and more to a lot of things I make at home for the nutrition. It’s hard to get a one year old and a meat-and-potatoes loving husband to eat healthy. Keep the recipes coming!

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