There is something to say about having a guaranteed weeknight winner recipe in your back pocket. This Weeknight Pasta Bake is for the weeknights where you can’t muster the energy to think about what’s for dinner or who isn’t going to like it. It’s for the nights when you haven’t had a crave-worthy dinner in 3 days and need something that is utterly forgiving, easy, and delicious. It’s for any night, really.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge that the internet is plentiful with baked pasta recipes and yet, I still think the internet could use one more. I developed this recipe to specifically meet my requirements of what I believe a Weeknight Pasta Bake should be. Most notably, this pasta dish has a lot more sauce than pasta. This higher ratio helps obtain a gloriously thick sauce that fully encapsulates each noodle. The sauce is the hero in this dish, not the pasta. I also add an extra layer of flavor using an umami ingredient to help make a flavorful sauce in minimal time.
This Weeknight Pasta Bake uses staple ingredients and is filled with freshly grated mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, whole-canned tomatoes, Italian spices, and ground beef (though it can easily be made vegetarian). It is cheesy, gooey, simple to make, and loved by kids and adults alike. It is truly my ultimate weeknight dinner and I hope it becomes yours too.
FLAVOR BOOSTERS: WAYS TO ELEVATE THIS DISH
HIGH-QUALITY CANNED TOMATOES. High-quality, whole canned tomatoes elevate the sauce in this recipe. I’ve used home-canned tomatoes and San Marzanos with great success. Fresh summer tomatoes will also work, and I recommend peeling and deseeding them first.
ALEPPO PEPPER. While traditional red pepper flakes add extra heat to this dish, I love using Aleppo pepper for its mild, sundried tomato flavor. This is also a great kid-friendly option.
POSSIBLE SUBSTITUTIONS FOR THIS WEEKNIGHT PASTA BAKE
PASTA. I recommend using any pasta shape you genuinely like and that holds a tomato sauce well. While penne pasta is a traditional route for those undeniable crispy edges, I’ve made this pasta bake with small Ditalini noodles for kids and Orecchiette noodles for adults, all with success.
GROUND BEEF. Ground turkey also works in place of ground beef. For a vegetarian version, feel free to substitute the ground beef with equal amounts of mushrooms.
FISH SAUCE. The fish sauce brings a deep, savory flavor to the sauce, but it is often hard to find. Easily substitute fish sauce with soy sauce or coconut aminos 1:1.Print
Weeknight Pasta Bake
If you are searching for a pasta bake where the sauce is the highlight and noodles take a back seat, look no further. This Weeknight Pasta Bake is cheesy, gooey, extra saucy, and gloriously browned and crispy. A weeknight dinner at its finest.
- Prep Time: 30 min
- Cook Time: 30 min
- Total Time: 60 min
- Yield: 6 servings 1x
- olive oil
- 1 medium onion, chopped small
- 1 pound (455g) ground beef*
- 1.5 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for pasta water
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- One 28oz (794g) can whole, peeled tomatoes
- 2 tsp Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes (more or less depending on your heat preference)
- 1 teaspoon fish sauce
- 1 cup (0.25 lbs) pasta (whatever shape you like)*
- 1.5 cups (150g) coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
- 1/2 cup (50g) finely grated parmesan cheese
1. Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C)
2. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. If the pot boils before you are ready to cook the pasta, turn it down until you are ready (step 5).
3. Heat a large saute pan (if yours is oven-safe you can use it as your final baking pan as I did in the pictures) over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom of the pan with olive oil. Break up the ground beef into small pieces and add it along with the onions and salt to the pan. Cook, stirring often, until the meat is cooked through and nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Drain any excess fat from the pan.
4. Add the garlic, Italian seasoning, red pepper flakes, and another large pinch of salt. Stir the mixture until the garlic smells fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and fish sauce. Break up the tomatoes in the pan with a wooden spoon. Stir the mixture until the tomatoes break down and release their juices. Scrape up any browned bits that are stuck at the bottom of the pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook the sauce until slightly reduced, about 8 minutes. Adjust the seasonings to taste.
5. While the mixture simmers, generously salt the boiling water, and add the pasta. Cook the pasta until just al dente, about 2 minutes less than package instructions. Drain the pasta, add it to the pan with the tomato sauce, and stir well for about 1 minute.
6. Pour half of the pasta mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish or lasagna pan (if using an oven-safe vessel, spoon half of the pasta mixture into the empty pot used for boiling the pasta). Spread the pasta mixture in an even layer. Sprinkle half of each cheese over the mixture. Repeat with the other half of the pasta mixture and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
7. Bake the pasta, uncovered until gorgeously browned and crispy, about 30 minutes.
VEGETARIAN VERSION. Remove the bottom of the mushrooms and clean the mushrooms with a wet paper towel. Slice them ¼” wide and add them to the pan along with the onions and salt (step 3). Continue with the rest of the directions as described.
PASTA. The volume measurement will vary based on the size of pasta you use. 1 cup = 0.25lbs for Orechiette noodles.
COOKING FOR 1 OR 2? This recipe is easily halved and baked in an 8×8 baking dish or 10-inch oven-proof skillet. I also recommend making the full version and dividing it into two 8×8 baking dishes or smaller oven-proof containers because this dish freezes beautifully (see “MAKE AHEAD” for freezing instructions).
MAKE AHEAD. This Baked Ziti freezes beautifully, unbaked or baked. To freeze unbaked, place the unbaked pasta mixture in a glass or other non-aluminum baking dish. Wrap the top tightly with foil or use a tightly-fitted top and place it in the freezer. Defrost the pasta dish in the refrigerator overnight and bake it in the oven as directed. To freeze after baking, place the pasta mixture in a glass or other non-aluminum baking dish, or divide into smaller containers. Wrap the top tightly with foil or use a tightly-fitted top and place it in the freezer. Defrost it in the refrigerator and reheat in the oven at 350°F (180°C).
- Serving Size: 1/4 recipe
- Calories: 445 calories
- Sugar: 2g
- Sodium: 1467g
- Fat: 16g
- Saturated Fat: 7g
- Carbohydrates: 26g
- Fiber: 1.7g
- Protein: 49g
- Cholesterol: 123g
Keywords: pasta, weeknight dinner