Why It Works
- Soaking the pasta instead of par-boiling it delivers perfectly al dente baked pasta without the need to use an extra pot or wait for it to boil.
- A mixture of a basic marinara sauce with heavy cream and ricotta cheese keeps the pasta moist and flavorful.
- Diced cubes of mozzarella form distinct pockets of melted cheese for more textural contrast.
Baked ziti is the dish I make at the annual ski retreat that my friends and I take each year in New England. There are few pasta bakes that are easier to put together yet produce such ridiculously good results, particularly when it's snowing outside and you've got a whole cabinful of friends to feed.
Soak, Don't Boil
Here's something I've always wondered: When baking pasta, as in, say, lasagna or baked ziti, why do you always cook the pasta first? Aren't you inviting trouble by cooking it once, then proceeding to put it in a casserole and cooking it again? Well, there's the obvious first part of the answer to this question: Pasta needs to absorb water as it cooks—a lot of water, around 80 percent of its own weight when perfectly al dente. So, add raw pasta directly to a baked pasta dish, and it will soften all right—it'll also suck up all of the moisture from the sauce, leaving it dry or broken.
Here's the thing: Dried pasta is made up of flour, water, and, on rare occasions, eggs. Essentially it's composed of starch and protein, and not much else. Starch molecules come aggregated into large granules that resemble little water balloons. As they get heated in a moist environment, they continue to absorb more and more water, swelling up and becoming soft.
Meanwhile, the proteins in the pasta begin to denature, adding structure to the noodles (something that is much more obvious when cooking soft fresh egg-based pastas). When the stars are aligned, you'll manage to pull the pasta from the water just when the proteins have lent enough structure to keep the noodles strong and pliant and the starches have barely softened to the perfect stage—soft but with a bite—known as al dente.
But who's to say that these two phases, water absorption and protein denaturing, have to occur at the same time? H. Alexander Talbot and Aki Kamozawa of the fantastic blog Ideas in Food asked themselves that very question, and what they found was this: You don't have to complete both processes simultaneously. In fact, if you leave uncooked pasta in lukewarm water for long enough, it'll absorb just as much water as boiled pasta.
Here's what they had to say on the matter:
The drained [soaked] noodles held their shape, and since the starch had not been activated, they did not stick to one another and could be held without the addition of oil. Once we added the noodles to boiling salted water, we had perfectly cooked al dente pasta in just 60 seconds."
To try it out myself, I placed some macaroni in a bowl of warm tap water and allowed it to sit, pulling a piece out every five minutes to weigh how much water it had absorbed. After about 30 minutes, it had taken in just as much water as a piece of cooked boiled macaroni, all while remaining completely raw!
While the ability to cook presoaked pasta in just 60 seconds in itself is not all that exciting for a home cook (all it does is convert an eight-minute cooking process into a 30-minute soak plus one-minute cooking process—hardly a time-saver), it's a very interesting application for restaurant cooks, who can have soaked pasta ready to be cooked in no time.
But what it does mean for a home cook is this: Any time you are planning on baking pasta in a casserole, there is no need to precook it. All you have to do is soak it while you make your sauce, then combine the two and bake. Since the pasta's already hydrated, it won't rob your sauce of liquid, and the heat from the oven is more than enough to cook it while the casserole bakes. If you taste them side by side, you can't tell the difference between precooked pasta and simply soaked pasta. Think of what this means for lasagna! I know of at least six different common dental procedures that I'd rather have performed than to have to par-cook lasagna noodles.
Keep the Sauce Simple
A basic red sauce is one of the five "mother sauces" of Italian cuisine that I identify in my book (the others being garlic and oil, ragú, cream, and pesto). It's an essential staple in any Western cook's pantry. Countless Italian-American restaurants are based on this sauce.
Marcella Hazan's recipe for tomato sauce may deliver the most culinary bang for your buck that you'll ever see. It's so simple it doesn't even need a full recipe—just simmer a 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes with five tablespoons of unsalted butter and an onion split in half, crushing the tomatoes against the sides of the pot with a spoon—but the flavor you end up with is rich, fresh, and perfectly balanced. It's the butter that makes the difference. Unlike olive oil, butter contains natural emulsifiers that help keep the sauce nice and creamy. And the dairy sweetness works in tandem with the sweetness of the onions while rounding out the harsher acidic notes of the tomatoes.
Building from where Marcella leaves off, it's not a far jump to a classic Italian-American marinara sauce—tomato sauce flavored with garlic, oregano, and olive oil. Butter is still essential for smoothing out the rough edges of the acidic tomatoes, but here I like to substitute extra-virgin olive oil for half of it to bring some extra complexity into the mix. I make it in quadruple batches and store it in sealed Ball jars. Bottle while hot in sterile jars, seal them, and allow the sauce to cool to room temperature before refrigerating. It'll keep in the fridge for at least a month, ready to reheat and serve or incorporate into another recipe.
Now that we know how to make a basic marinara sauce and have learned how easy it is to soak, rather than boil, pasta for a baked casserole, it's just a short skip and a jump to classic baked ziti. The noodles get tossed with a pink mixture of tomato sauce, cream, and ricotta cheese, with a couple of eggs thrown in to lend structure to the casserole as it cooks. I also like to toss cubes of mozzarella cheese together with the pasta to form gooey, stretchy pockets. I top the whole thing with some more marinara, more cubes of mozzarella, and a grating of Parmesan.
This recipe is an excerpt from J. Kenji López-Alt's book, "The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science."
1 pound ziti, penne, or other thick tubular pasta
6 cups homemade or high-quality store-bought red sauce (such as Rao's)
12 ounces whole-milk homemade or high-quality ricotta cheese (see notes)
3 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated (about 1 1/2 cups)
2 large eggs, beaten
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pound whole-milk mozzarella cheese, cut into rough 1/4-inch cubes
Adjust an oven rack to the middle position and preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C). Place ziti in a large bowl and cover with hot salted water by 3 or 4 inches. Let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes, stirring it after the first 5 minutes to prevent sticking. Drain.
Pour half of the marinara into a large pot, add ricotta, half of the Parmigiano, eggs, cream, and half of the parsley and basil, and stir to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the soaked ziti along with half of the cheese cubes and stir until well combined. Transfer to a 13- by 9-inch baking dish and top with the remaining marinara sauce and mozzarella.
Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake until the cheese is beginning to brown, about 15 minutes longer. Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining Parmigiano, then let cool for 10 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining parsley and basil and serve.
Look for a ricotta cheese that contains nothing but milk, salt, and starter culture or acid. Avoid those with gums and stabilizers. Our favorite national store-bought brand is Calabro.
13- by 9-inch baking dish
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Servings: 6 to 8|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 28g||37%|
|Saturated Fat 16g||80%|
|Total Carbohydrate 59g||22%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||15%|
|Total Sugars 11g|
|Vitamin C 21mg||107%|
|*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.|