Pasta shells stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese, covered in my all-time favorite homemade marinara sauce, smothered with even more cheese, and baked until rich and saucy, and deliciously cheesy.
This classic recipe is delicious, easy to make, pure Italian comfort food.
Why This Recipe Works
I don't think there is any combination of pasta, marinara sauce, and cheese that I don't love.
Lasagna, of course, because, duh. But also, Meatballs and Marinara served with handfuls of grated parmesan. And, tender ravioli stuffed with cheese and smothered in sauce. Or simply a plateful of spaghetti noodles, marinara, and grated parmesan.
All of these delicious dishes require great pasta and copious amounts of cheese. But, what really separates "pretty good" from "can't-stop-eating-this-because-it's-sooooo-delicious" is the marinara sauce.
So, this recipe begins with a big pot of my all-time favorite Homemade Marinara.
Cheese Stuffed Shells in the BEST Homemade Marinara
This marinara sauce is guaranteed to make your house smell like an Italian grandmother moved in and started cooking for you.
The recipe includes a bit of red wine, plus plenty of garlic, onions, crushed red pepper, Italian herbs, and fresh basil and parsley. It’s incredibly rich and thick, and so packed with flavor that you won't be able to stop yourself from eating it by the spoonful. (Don't even try.)
The sauce requires only about 15 minutes of hands-on time, but needs to simmer for at least 2 hours, so plan ahead.
Get the sauce going a couple of hours before you want to start stuffing the shells - OR, make it in advance. Somehow, the sauce gets even better when allowed to chill out in the refrigerator for a day or two, so making it in advance is a great option.
3-Cheese Ricotta Stuffed Shell Filling
This recipe uses a combination of whole milk ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan cheese plus a generous amount of Italian seasoning and some fresh chives for the shell filling.
The result is a rich, cheesy filling for these ricotta stuffed shells with plenty of fresh flavor. Making the filling is as simple as dumping everything into a bowl and mixing it up, but stuffing the shells can get a bit messy...
Do not try to get the filling into the pasta shells all neat and tidy like. The shells are going to get covered in marinara and even more mozzarella and parmesan cheese. Just shove the filling in there all willy nilly then cover them up with spoonfuls of marinara, a ridiculous amount of cheese and bake.
Tips for Perfectly Cooked Pasta Shells
- Add enough salt to the water. Because most pasta doesn't contain any salt, it's important to cook it in boiling saltwater so that it's properly seasoned. Adding a tablespoon or two of salt to the pot of water might seem like a lot, but the pasta itself will only absorb a small amount of that. In order to adequately season pasta, the water it cooks in should taste salty - like ocean water.
- Undercook the shells. Aim for undercooking the pasta by about 2 minutes. The shells will continue to cook in the oven after they've been stuffed. Cooking them completely in water before stuffing them will make the shells more difficult to stuff and result in a mushy consistency.
What to Do with Leftover Marinara Sauce
This homemade marinara sauce recipe makes 11 cups of sauce, which means you'll have quite a bit left over after using a couple cups for these stuffed shells. My friends, this is a very good problem to have.
You could make a batch to serve with spaghetti noodles one night and have plenty left over for stuffed shells another. Or, portion out leftover sauce into zip top bags or other air-tight containers and toss it in the freezer. Leftover marinara sauce is AWESOME to have on hand and can be used to make...
Variations on this Classic Stuffed Shells Recipe
There are many potential variations for this classic cheese stuffed shells recipe. Play around with adding meats, veggies, or different kinds of cheese. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Use different kinds of cheese: I recommend keeping the ricotta no matter what. But, swap out the mozzarella and parmesan with fontina, gouda, havarti, Romano, or even cheddar or Monterey Jack.
- Use a different kind of sauce: While homemade marinara is my favorite way to top stuffed shells, they are also delicious with bolognese, Alfredo, or vodka sauce.
- Add meat or seafood to the cheese filling. Stir in some smoked salmon, cooked ground beef or Italian sausage, or roasted chicken or turkey that's been shredded or diced.
- Add some veggies: Toss some cooked veggies to the filling before stuffing the shells. Great additions include onions, bell peppers, spinach, mushrooms, or zucchini. It's important to cook the veggies before adding them. I also like to chop them into small pieces to maintain a creamy consistency and make the shells easy to stuff.
FAQs and Expert Tips
A: The easiest thing to serve with stuffed shells is a tossed salad or some simple sautéed vegetables. Here are some other ideas:
Israeli Salad is a delicious, fresh mix of vegetables and herbs chopped into very small pieces so that every bite contains a variety of flavors and textures.
Roasted Bell Peppers marinated in a simple vinaigrette flavored with garlic and fresh herbs are one of my favorite refrigerator staples. Toss them into a salad or serve them as is.
Or, serve these stuffed shells with nothing more than a loaf of really good bread or garlic bread.
A: Both stuffed shells and manicotti are baked pasta dishes stuffed with cheese and usually smothered with marinara.
The main difference between the two dishes is that manicotti is made with a pasta that's tube shaped and stuffed shells is made with pasta that's shaped like shells.
A: The cause of watery stuffed shells is usually using watery, or runny, ricotta. In general, whole milk ricotta tends to be less watery. Regardless, i your ricotta seems on the watery side, spread it out onto a clean kitchen towel and press it with a second towel to absorb some of the excess moisture.
Alternatively, scoop the ricotta into a cheesecloth lined fine mesh strainer and let it sit for an hour or so. The excess liquid will drain from the ricotta as it sits.
A: Yes! You can fully assemble this dish up to 12 hours before you bake it. Cover the pan with an oven safe lid or with aluminum foil that's been lightly sprayed with non-stick spray (to keep the cheese from sticking to it) and keep it in the refrigerator.
When ready to bake, simply pull the pan from the refrigerator and pop it directly in a preheated oven.
The shells will require about 10 additional minutes of baking time if they've been in the refrigerator for a few hours.
- 3 ½ cups marinara sauce (*See note)
- 26 - 30 Jumbo Pasta Shells
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- ½ teaspoon table salt (¾ teaspoon kosher salt)
- 2 tablespoon fresh chives, diced
- 2 teaspoon Italian Seasoning
- 12 ounces grated mozzarella, divided
- 5 ounces grated parmesan cheese, divided
- Cook the shells: Fill a large saucepan about ⅔ full of water and add about a tablespoon of salt. (*See note) Bring the water to a boil then add the pasta shells. Cook the shells until they are slightly underdone. Drain in a colander placed in the sink. Run cold water over the shells to cool them down, then dump them into a bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Set aside while you make the filling.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Make the filling: Add the ricotta, beaten egg, ½ teaspoon salt, chives, Italian seasoning, 4 ounces of mozzarella, and 1 ounce of grated parmesan to a bowl and stir to mix.
- Spread about ½ cup of marinara sauce over the bottom of a 9x13 inch rectangle baking dish. Stuff each pasta shell with a generous amount of ricotta filling, setting the stuffed shells in the pan, open side up.
- Cover the stuffed shells with the remaining marinara sauce then sprinkle the remaining 8 ounces of mozzarella and 4 ounces of parmesan over the top of the shells in an even layer.
- Cover the pan with an oven safe lid or with aluminum foil that's been lightly sprayed with non-stick spray (to keep the cheese from sticking to it) and bake the shells for 20 minutes. Remove the cover from the pan and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, until all the cheese has melted and the sauce is bubbling.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
- My all-time favorite recipe for Homemade Marinara Sauce requires only about 15 minutes of hands-on time, but needs about 2 hours to simmer (longer if you wish).
- It's important to add plenty of salt to the water when cooking pasta. Because most pasta doesn't contain any salt, it's important to cook it in boiling salt water so that it's properly seasoned. Adding a tablespoon or two of salt to the pot of water might seem like a lot, but the pasta itself will only absorb a small amount of that. In order to adequately season pasta, the water it cooks in should taste salty - kind of like ocean water.
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Serving Size:4 - 5 shells
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 670Total Fat: 36gSaturated Fat: 19gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 141mgSodium: 1731mgCarbohydrates: 48gFiber: 5gSugar: 9gProtein: 37g