It's the end of the long workday (or the start of an extra-long week) and we're hungry. Like, "can't-think-straight" hungry. Luckily, Food52 contributor EmilyC wants to do all the thinking for us. In Dinner's Ready, her monthly column on weeknight wonders, she shares three simple, flavor-packed recipes that are connected by a single idea or ingredient. Stick with Emily, and you'll have a good dinner on the table in no time. Today, Emily shows us how to make even better baked pasta — on any given weeknight.
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Baked pasta may bring to mind a cheese-blanketed, red-sauced ziti or a bubbling, overflowing lasagna. On a cold night in the depths of winter, it's hard to think of anything more warming and deeply satisfying than a big serving of cheesy, pasta goodness.
But, far too often, baked pastas are a letdown. Heavy, one-note, mushy, or dry (or some dreaded combination of the above), many versions are monotonous after a few bites. Plus, they're time-consuming in their assembly and definitely in terms of clean-up — not exactly the best thing to throw together on a tired weeknight.
Which got me thinking: What are the traits of a really good baked pasta? The kinds that come together easily any night of the week and won't leave me sleepy from a carb overload, or a marathon dishwashing session afterwards.
This thought process led me to create three hearty, vegetarian renditions full of varied textures and vivid flavors that reflect exactly the way I want to eat right now. But first, I've gathered all of my best tips and tricks for making better, faster, never disappointing baked pastas below (spoiler alert: there's still plenty of cheese involved!).
Choose sturdy vegetables
Baked pasta is not the time for tender, delicate vegetables and herbs. Choose ones that can stand up to high temperatures and lots of cheese. Brassicas, winter squash, hardy greens, and mushrooms are all good choices. And be generous — my favorite baked pastas have roughly equal amounts of pasta and vegetables.
Pick the right pan
Different cooking vessels create different effects. For a quicker-cooking baked pasta with lots of crispy, browned edges, turn to a sheet pan. If you're after a deep, saucy affair, a casserole dish is best. One streamlining tip: Select your pan (and pasta experience) based on how you're cooking the vegetables. When roasting a sheet pan full of Brussels sprouts, a sheet-pan pasta makes perfect sense. When sautéing mushrooms and aromatics or lots of garlicky greens, go for a skillet that can stand the oven temps.
Change up your shape
There are lots of right choices when it comes to your pasta choice. Unless you're rolling fresh lasagna noodles (impressive!), now's the time to use dried pasta. In terms of pasta shapes, tubes — such as penne and rigatoni — and twisty varieties — such as fusilli and casarecce — are all-around winners. These pastas are dense enough to withstand baking times and their shapes grab onto sauce and other ingredients, ensuring every forkful includes all the flavors of your bake.
Use your noodle wisely
More important than the shape of your pasta is how you cook it. For saucy baked pastas, cook the pasta several minutes shy of al dente; otherwise, the noodles will turn to mush. (This Genius Macaroni and Cheese uses this trick to great effect.) Or better yet, for most lasagnas and baked zitis, skip the boiling step altogether by soaking the pasta in salted hot water while prepping the other ingredients; they'll cook through in the oven. For less-saucy, quicker-cooking baked pastas, cook the pasta until al dente. There's nothing worse than undercooked pasta in an otherwise perfect dish.
Think beyond red sauce
Red sauce is great, but there are so many other — dare I say more interesting — ways to go. Think olive oil and lemon, brown butter and balsamic, or pesto and ricotta. And you don't need much, either. When cooked at high heat, and hydrated with a good splash of the starchy cooking water, baked pastas shine brightest when they're not swimming in sauce.
Don't skimp on the cheese
Let's face it: Cheese pulls are the main reason to bake pasta in the first place. For superlative renditions, reach for more than one variety of cheese to incorporate more flavors and textures — for example, an umami-packed variety like Parmesan or Pecorino for stirring into the pasta, and a melty variety like mozzarella, fontina, or goat cheese to crown the top.
Crank up the oven
A high cooking temperature (425° to 450°F) is the way to go for speedier, more satisfying baked pasta. You'll get bubbling sauce and burnished cheese without the worry of drying out the middle. And don't forget the broiler! For skillet baked pastas, I usually skip "baking" altogether. A brief run under the broiler is all that's needed to achieve golden, crispy, cheesy bliss.
Below, three warming, vegetable-packed baked pastas that put these tips to good use.
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Make this pitch-perfect baked pasta strewn with charred Brussels sprouts, melty mozzarella, and galicky walnut crumbs, then adapt it all season long. Silky cubes of butternut squash, thinly sliced cabbage, and broccoli florets all have a harmonious relationship here.
Think lasagna is only a project for the weekend? This speedy rendition layered with red sauce, white beans, and dried lasagna noodles also features a flexible pesto in one of an endless number of variations.
Balsamic brown butter is reason enough to make this baked pasta topped with tangy goat cheese, but the easy prep and cleanup might also persuade you.