A casserole of jumbo shells filled with ricotta, Parmesan, and mozzarella baked in tomato sauce to oozy, melty perfection will have everyone clamoring for a seat at the table. It’s supreme comfort food and it’s easy enough to put together for a satisfying weeknight meal.
Classic Cheese-Stuffed Shells
It’s a weeknight and the hordes are hangry. That’s where these shells come in, baked with enough cheese and tomato to rival a big, fat pizza. But these shells are so much more rewarding! Seriously, who can resist a beautiful dish of golden, cheese-topped pasta in red sauce?
Start by making the sauce, and while the sauce simmers, bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the shells. Meanwhile, make the filling. Then assemble and bake.
Make Homemade Sauce or Open a Jar
You can totally take 5 seconds of your valuable time to open a jar of your favorite store-bought sauce OR make my favorite homemade 10-minute tomato sauce (below). You’ll need a total of 2 1/2 to 3 cups of sauce, but more is always better if that’s what you like. You get to decide here!
A quick tomato sauce is easy to make but note that not all canned tomatoes are created equal. My favorite tomatoes to make a sauce with is whole San Marzanos, a variety of plum tomatoes, not a brand, grown in the San Marzano region of Italy.
With so little effort, I find the homemade sauce brighter and fresher than the sauce in a jar, but there’s no shame in taking a shortcut here if you’d like.
Tips for Boiling Pasta Shells
- Don’t skimp on the water in the pot; give the shells plenty of room to tumble around in the boiling water.
- Check the directions on the package for the cooking time and then subtract 1-2 minutes.
- Since the shells are going to bake again in the oven, you don’t want them to be too soft at the start.
Making a Three-Cheese Filling
Whole milk ricotta is sumptuous, but you can use skim milk ricotta if you are looking to shave off a few calories. I like Parmesan here, but if you would like a saltier, more pungent cheese you could use Pecorino Romano. As for the mozzarella, I encourage you to grate your own for the best melting qualities, since pre-grated mozz has anti-caking additives.
The ricotta, Parmesan, and mozzarella embellished by parsley, pepper, a delicious surprise of lemon, and a good handful of chopped parsley give this filling a lot of zest. Use a cookie scoop to fill the shells to make the job easier.
Make Ahead or Freeze Stuffed Shells
Assembled ahead of time and left unbaked, the shells will keep in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic or foil, for up to 3 days. Add a few minutes of baking time if you are taking them straight from the fridge to the oven.
To freeze, wrap the baking dish in foil and freeze for up to 3 months. Defrost in the fridge overnight and bake according to directions or bake directly from freezer to oven for 50 to 60 minutes.
Pasta Me Please!
This recipe calls for 8 ounces of jumbo shells, which are sold in 12 or 16-ounce boxes. Don't want to be stuck with a partially used box of pasta shells in your cupboard? Try crumbling them into bits to boil and add to minestrone, or make a batch of Lasagna Soup.
For the sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 (28-ounce) can whole, peeled tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
1/2 teaspoon salt
1-2 pinches sugar (optional)
For the filling and assembly
2 cups (16 ounces) fresh whole or skim-milk ricotta
2 cups (8 ounces) grated mozzarella, divided
1 cup (4 ounces) finely grated Parmesan, divided
1 large egg
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon (about 1 tablespoon)
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 teaspoon salt, plus more for the pasta water
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces jumbo shells (save the remaining shells for another use)
Torn basil leaves (about 2 sprigs) or 2 tablespoons chopped parsley (for garnish)
Starting with a cold pan, cook the garlic in olive oil:
In a large, deep skillet or saucepan, combine the oil and garlic. Set the pan over medium heat, and heat until the garlic sizzles. Once it sizzles, cook for 15 to 20 seconds, or until the garlic turns a light golden brown. Do not let the garlic brown too much or the sauce will taste burned.
Simmer the sauce:
Add the tomatoes and salt to the pan. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and adjust the heat to a simmer. Continue to cook uncovered for 10-15 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened to your liking.
It may take a few minutes longer if the tomatoes from the can are watery. Taste and add more salt if needed. If the sauce seems acidic, add a pinch of sugar. Set sauce aside.
The sauce is slightly chunky, so if you’re looking for a smoother sauce, you can whirl it in a blender for a few seconds.
Preheat the oven:
Preheat the oven 375°F and bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.
Have on hand a 9 x 13-inch or equivalent baking dish.
Make the filling:
In a medium bowl, stir the ricotta, 1/2 cup of the mozzarella, 1/2 cup of the Parmesan, egg, lemon zest, parsley, salt, and pepper together until blended.
Cook the pasta:
Add the shells to the boiling water and cook for 2 minutes fewer than the package directions.
Reserve 1/2 cup pasta cooking water and drain the shells in a colander. Rinse under cool running water.
Thin the tomato sauce, if needed:
If the tomato sauce is thick, stir 1/4 to 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water into the sauce. It should not be runny but should spread easily when spooned into the baking dish. It will reduce and thicken somewhat in the oven.
Fill and assemble the shells:
Spread about 3/4 cup sauce on the bottom of the baking dish.
Fill each shell with about 1-2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture. Set them in the baking dish as you fill them, until all the filling is used. Spread the remaining sauce on top and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.
Bake the shells:
Cover the baking dish loosely with foil and bake for 25-30 minutes. Remove the foil, return the baking dish to the oven, and continue to bake for about 15 minutes, or until the cheese melts and the sauce bubbles. Let rest for 5 minutes, sprinkle with basil or parsley, and serve.
Storage and reheating:
Let casserole cool to room temperature. Cover with foil and refrigerate for up to 3 days. Reheat in a 350ºF oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until hot all the way through.
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|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 19g||25%|
|Saturated Fat 9g||47%|
|Total Carbohydrate 19g||7%|
|Dietary Fiber 2g||7%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 19mg||93%|
|*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.|