If your family loves Italian Caprese salad, they’ll love this Caprese Stuffed Shells recipe!
Jumbo pasta shells are filled with a creamy mix of ricotta, mozzarella, and basil pesto, piled in a baking dish with cherry tomatoes and more cheese, then baked until bubbling and melty.
It’s a family-friendly dinner that hits all the right notes.
A Fun, Yet Familiar, Twist on Stuffed Shells
Stuffed shells are at the top of my list when it comes to comfort foods. How can you go wrong with cheese-filled pasta?
The classic iteration features jumbo pasta shells filled with ricotta cheese, and sometimes meat, then the shells are baked in a rich tomato sauce. I love that version but there are really so many ways you can make this dish. Here, I was inspired by Italian Caprese salad and brought together its signature components of fresh tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella to create a pasta dish you’ll love.
One thing that’s not negotiable about stuffed shells, in my opinion, is the creamy, luxe ricotta so it still plays a prominent role here. Ricotta is combined with shredded mozzarella and basil pesto—either store-bought or homemade—for the shells’ filling.
They’re baked in a bed of cherry tomatoes and garlic, and of course, topped with more cheese. The tomatoes will gently burst in the oven, creating a fresh, bright, and extra chunky sauce for the stuffed shells.
Tips and Tricks for Making Stuffed Shells
While this recipe is straightforward, these tips and tricks will ensure success.
- Par-boil the jumbo shells until they’re just barely al dente, which means the pasta is still firm when bitten. They will continue to cook in the oven, so they shouldn’t be completely tender when you’re stuffing them.
- Toss the par-boiled shells in a bit of olive oil after draining them. This will prevent the shells from sticking together and the pasta from drying out in the oven.
- Start the shells in the oven covered, then uncover them partway through. This also helps prevent them from drying out in the oven.
- Broil the shells on high in the last 2 to 3 minutes of baking. This allows the cheese to brown in spots and for some of the tomatoes to blister. It also helps crisp up some of the edges of the shells, giving you bits of crunch likened to the corners of lasagna—my favorite part!
- Either cherry or grape tomatoes can be used. They’re preferred over whole chopped tomatoes because they don’t release as much liquid, which could make the shells soggy and they’ll hold some of their shape in the oven, creating lovely texture. They also make for easy dinner prep because you’re baking them whole—no need to cut them!
Swaps and Substitutions
This recipe is flexible, which is another reason I love it. Here are a few swaps and substitutions you can make:
- You can sprinkle cooked and crumbled sweet or hot Italian sausage in with the tomato mixture.
- Add a handful of cooked, shredded chicken to the filling.
- Mozzarella is a signature component of Caprese, but other meltable Italian cheeses like Fontina or provolone would be nice and would lend a bit of nutty flavor.
- In place of Parmesan, try Pecorino Romano, which is saltier and a bit buttery.
- Add a pinch of red pepper flakes for a little extra added heat.
Make-Ahead and Storage Instructions
Make the Caprese Stuffed Shells up to a day in advance; store and cover and place in the refrigerator.
Let the baking dish sit out on the counter while the oven preheats to take the chill off before baking. Since this recipe involves fresh tomatoes, I don’t recommend freezing before or after they’re baked.
Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days. Reheat in the microwave in 30-second bursts on 100% power or covered in a 375°F oven for about 20 minutes, until warmed through.
More Ways to Stuff Pasta Shells
Caprese Stuffed Shells
Jumbo stuffed shells are typically sold in 12 ounces packages. This recipe uses 6 ounces (about 20) jumbo pasta shells. Feel free to double the entire recipe to use up the entire box of pasta or save the remaining uncooked pasta for future use.
6 ounces (about 20) jumbo pasta shells
1 pound (2 heaping cups) ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded low-moisture mozzarella cheese, divided
1/3 cup basil pesto, store-bought or homemade
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, divided
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated
1/4 cup loosely packed fresh basil leaves, torn (optional)
Arrange oven rack, preheat the oven, and boil water:
Arrange a rack in the top third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water (one and a half teaspoons of salt per quart of water) to a boil over high heat.
Cook and drain the pasta:
Add the shells to the boiling salted water and cook, stirring occasionally, until barely al dente, or still firm when bitten, about 9 minutes or according to package directions. Drain the shells in a colander.
Drizzle with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and toss to coat while still in the colander. Set aside to cool slightly while you make the cheese filling.
Make the cheese filling:
In a medium bowl combine the ricotta, 1 cup of mozzarella, pesto, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
Drizzle tomatoes and garlic with olive oil and season:
In a 9x13-inch broiler-safe baking dish add the tomatoes and garlic and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil.
Season with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Toss to coat and spread out in an even layer.
Stuff the shells with cheese filling and add to baking dish:
Stuff each shell with a generous spoonful (1 heaping tablespoon) of the cheese filling and nestle them between the tomatoes, filling-side up (you’ll have to move the tomatoes around a bit to make room).
Sprinkle shells with cheese:
Sprinkle with the remaining 1 cup mozzarella and grated Parmesan over the stuffed shells.
Bake stuffed shells:
Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake until the filling is just warmed through, about 15 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake until the cheese melts and the tomatoes begin to release their juices, 10 to 15 minutes more.
Broil the stuffed shells, garnish, and serve:
Switch the oven to broil on high. Broil the shells until the cheese browns in spots and the tomatoes blister, 2 to 3 minutes. Let the stuffed shells rest for 5 minutes and garnish with basil before serving, if desired.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 4 to 6|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 23g||29%|
|Saturated Fat 11g||53%|
|Total Carbohydrate 20g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||7%|
|Total Sugars 4g|
|Vitamin C 15mg||73%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|