Main Dish | February 4, 2010

Cook’s Illustrated Baked Ziti

Cook's Illustrated Baked Ziti

Cook's Illustrated Baked Ziti

I’ve tried several recipes similar to this, and I believe the Cook’s people got it right, again. Perfect Baked Ziti. If you haven’t read the article, here it is.

“…Most versions seem like they went directly from the pantry into the oven, calling for little more than cooked pasta, jarred tomato sauce, a container of ricotta, and some preshredded cheese. The results—overcooked ziti in a dull, grainy sauce topped with a rubbery mass of mozzarella—more than earn the dish its reputation as mediocre church-supper fare.”

YIKES. (My commentary)

The Goal
To make this dish the way it’s meant to be—with perfectly al dente pasta, a rich and flavorful sauce, and melted cheese in every bite.

The Solution
We didn’t want to spend all day hovering over a pot of stewing tomatoes, so we needed a sauce that was big on flavor and light on prep. Most “quick” tomato sauces call for sweating garlic in olive oil before adding some type of tomato product. Whole canned tomatoes and crushed tomatoes both had good flavor but took time to cook down. To speed things up, we added a can of diced tomatoes. Next, fresh basil added rich, aromatic savor, but more herbs were essential. In the test kitchen, we usually opt for fresh herbs, but for convenience and without sacrificing flavor, we chose dried oregano. Just when the tomato sauce seemed perfect, we added ricotta, and a familiar problem reared its head: Rather than baking up creamy and rich, the ricotta was grainy and dulled the sauce. A different dairy product was clearly in order.

First we tried cottage cheese, and, to our surprise, it was a success. Its pillowy curds have a texture similar to ricotta, but creamier and tangier. And since cottage cheese curds are bigger, they bake up with none of ricotta’s graininess. For our next batch, we boosted the flavor by combining the cottage cheese with eggs, Parmesan, and heavy cream thickened with a bit of cornstarch. Adding this milky, tangy mixture to the tomato sauce produced a sauce that was bright, rich, and creamy—all at the same time.

As for the pasta, most recipes cook the ziti in boiling water until al dente before tossing it with the sauce and baking. But pasta continues to absorb sauce as it bakes, with two drawbacks: overcooked pasta and sauce that has been robbed of moisture. We found that cooking the pasta for about half the cooking time that most recipes call for and with nearly twice the amount of sauce yielded perfectly al dente pasta in the baked dish with plenty of sauce left to keep the whole thing moist.

The remaining question was how to deal with the cheese. Grated cheese congeals into a mass that makes the dish unappetizing and difficult to portion. Instead of shredding the mozzarella, we cut it into small cubes—reasoning that they would melt into distinct but delectable little pockets of cheese—and mixed half of the cheese with the sauce just before adding it to the pasta, then sprinkled the rest over the top. This strategy yielded a hot, bubbly success. The cubes on top remained perfectly distributed, and the casserole below was dotted with gooey bits of cheese.”

Me again. Absolutely delish. I loved it. Grant loved it. The boys loved it. Hardly any leftovers. That pretty much says it all.

Cook's Illustrated Baked Ziti

Cook's Illustrated Baked Ziti


  • 2 large eggs lightly beaten
  • 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese about 1 1/2 cups
  • Table salt
  • 1 pound ziti or other short tubular pasta
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 medium garlic cloves minced
  • 1 28-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1 14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Ground black pepper
  • 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 8 ounces low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)


  1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in medium bowl; set aside. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and pasta; cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta begins to soften but is not yet cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. Drain pasta and leave in colander (do not wash Dutch oven).2. Meanwhile, heat oil and garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in ½ cup basil and sugar, then season with salt and pepper.
  2. Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in small bowl; transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and add cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce, and ¾ cup mozzarella, then stir to combine. Add pasta and stir to coat thoroughly with sauce.
  3. Transfer pasta mixture to 13- by 9-inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over pasta. Sprinkle remaining ¾ cup mozzarella and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over top. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes.
  4. Remove foil and continue to cook until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve.

Recipe Notes

The test kitchen prefers baked ziti made with heavy cream, but whole milk can be substituted by increasing the amount of cornstarch to 2 teaspoons and increasing the cooking time in step 3 by 1 to 2 minutes. Our preferred brand of mozzarella is Dragone Whole Milk Mozzarella. Part-skim mozzarella can also be used, but avoid preshredded cheese, as it does not melt well. 1 pound whole milk cottage cheese or 1 percent cottage cheese

- Use fresh grated Parmesan.

-I used regular, not heavy cream.

-Not a huge garlic fan, so I only used about 1 clove.

22 thoughts on “Cook’s Illustrated Baked Ziti

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  1. Hey cute lady! Just made my tenth batch of homemade granola bars from the nifty Ina cookbook I won. Thanks again!

    I will be in Bountiful this weekend, staying on the hill with my awesome aunt.

  2. This ziti is delicious! I made this dish with 4% cottage cheese and light cream and the ziti was still very creamy and tasty! I made four batches for a big family party and it was a hit for both children and adults! I was able to make the ziti the day before and bake it just before the guests arrived, creating a nice aroma in the house. The recipe was very easy to follow too! Donna from PA

  3. Thank you so much for posting this recipe – I needed a reliable recipe for baked ziti and for some reason have never made it before…it was fabulous!

    Pam from Manchester, NH

  4. 3. Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in small bowl; transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove pot from heat and add cottage cheese mixture*, 1 cup tomato sauce, and ¾ cup mozzarella, then stir to combine. Add pasta and stir to coat thoroughly with sauce.

    *What cottage cheese mixture? Do you mean cottage cheese, eggs and 1 cup parmesan? I did it, and it worked OK.

  5. This recipe looks so delicious. It seems that 3 oz of parmesan would be way less than 1.5 cups. One of those 2 numbers be off. Note than 8 oz of mozzarella is also assumed to be 1.5 cups in the recipe – it divided into two 3/4 cup portions. Anyone know?

  6. This is the best baked ziti recipe. I make it for my boyfriend who grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Philly, and grew up eating baked ziti, and he goes nuts for this dish. I use wheat pasta, less basis & fresh oregano.

  7. I made this Ziti the other night for company and got rave reviews. I did however, add 1/2lb ground sausage and 1/2lb ground turkey (browned) to the tomato sauce. This recipe will most certianly become a regular around our house, thanks for sharing! 🙂

  8. I never comment on any website.This recipe is amazing. I can't believe how mediocre my baked ziti was before this, This has been a very humbling experience.Absolutely delicious!!

  9. Hi. I have made this a few times and it’s a family favorite. Do you think this can be frozen and thawed and baked at a later date? Thank you

    1. Hi Pam,
      This is quite a large recipe and serves about 15 generous adult size servings, if you are serving it with salad, bread and other sides.

  10. Frustrating to get home and realize we didn’t get cottage cheese and diced tomatoes because they were not listed in the ingredients. Please don’t call it Cooks Illustrated if you are going to majorly alter the original recipe

  11. This recipe looks so delicious! I am wondering about the cottage cheese. It’s not listed in the ingredients. How much do I need? Thanks Sy!