The Food Lab Pronto: Soak Your Pasta for Easy Skillet Baked Ziti

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Nothing says comfort to me like a nice baked pasta dish loaded with creamy sauce and cheese, and while California winters ain't exactly the kind that scream out for rib-sticking food, there's something about October that just makes me crave it no matter what the weather is like.

The other day, I was in the supermarket in the dried pasta section and noticed that Barilla has a new product on the market that they're calling "Barilla Pronto." It's pasta that's designed to be cooked directly in the pot with the sauce, no separate boiling required. But here's the thing: This method already works with any pasta you pick up from the shelf. Either the folks at Barilla have solved a problem that didn't exist, or they're just really good at marketing their existing products. (My bet is on the latter, and I'm planning some side-by-side tests to prove it.)

If my full-fledged No-Boil Baked Ziti from last week is the completist, Super Mario 3 version of the dish, this week's skillet ziti is like using the magic whistle to jump straight to World 8. Not quite as satisfying, but a great alternative if time is of the essence.

Step 1: Soak Pasta

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Skillet pasta dishes are already shortcuts, but there aren't any rules against taking cuts that cut your shortcuts even shorter, right?

There are a few tricks to making the best skillet baked ziti. The first is to abandon the idea of cooking the ziti 100% from scratch in the pan. I find that even with the most carefully tested recipes, it's really difficult to gauge exactly how much liquid that ziti is gonna absorb as it cooks in the pan—and starting with enough liquid to fully cook it makes for a dangerously loose mixture that's a pain in the butt to stir without splashing sauce all over your countertop.

Instead, I employ the same method I use when making virtually any baked pasta dish: soaking the pasta while I prepare the sauce. If I place the pasta in a bowl of salted water, stir it once with my hands, then let it rest while I cook my sauce, it will have already absorbed virtually all of the liquid that it's going to absorb by the time I'm ready to drain it and add it to the pot. At that point, all I have to do is cook it through in my finished sauce, a process that takes just moments. This method shaves at least 10 minutes off of our total time in the kitchen.

Step 2: Make the Sauce

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If you want to keep things totally simple and vegetarian here, you can make a sauce with canned tomatoes, some aromatics, and some cream. Baking ziti in the oven gives you plenty of textural and flavor contrast in the form of crisp browned bits along the top edges of the baking dish. Skillet baked ziti doesn't have this advantage, so I like to up the flavor and texture by starting my sauce with some Italian sausage that I cook in a mixture of olive oil and butter just until its pink color goes away. (Preventing it from really browning ensures that it stays tender as it cooks.)

Next I add my aromatics: onions and garlic, cooked until soft and fragrant, followed by some dried oregano and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Finally, I add a mixture of crushed canned whole peeled tomatoes (I use 42 ounces of tomatoes total, reserving about three-quarters of a cup to spoon over the dish before finishing), heavy cream, and a touch of chicken stock or water.

Step 3: Add Pasta and Cheese

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I drain my soaked pasta, then add it to the pot. At this stage, the pasta is already rehydrated; all we need to do is set its structure by cooking it, so it's essential to work pretty quickly. After the pasta come a few dollops of high-quality ricotta (avoid any brands that list gums or stabilizers among their ingredients), followed by some cubes of low-moisture mozzarella. I like to stir the cubes into the pasta so that they melt as the pasta cooks, creating pockets of gooey, stretchy cheese in the finished dish.

After stirring it all together, I finally top the dish with some more of my crushed tomatoes, a few more dollops of ricotta, some more cubes of mozzarella, and a sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan. I reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, cover the pan, and let it cook for just three minutes, at which point the pasta is ready. Letting it rest off-heat for about five minutes longer ensures that the cheese is nicely melted.

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Top it off with a grating of more fresh Parmesan and a sprinkle of parsley, and we're ready for dinner. Now that's what I call pronto!

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Just look at those cheese strands! Look at them! The only downside of this whole thing is that it turns a rare treat-style dish into easily achievable weeknight fare. Looks like I'm gonna have to start exercising a bit more this winter—and no, Super Mario doesn't count as exercise.