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A classic baked ziti recipe is an Italian-American necessity.

Welcome to America’s Test Kitchen, the promised land of troubleshooting your most basic cooking fails and fixing problems you never knew you had. The editors’ new cookbook: The Make-Ahead Cook, is an ever-useful guide that will unobtrusively lead you away from the the take-out menus and back into the kitchen where a much better dinner awaits you. No time to cook? Master the art of “make it ahead of time” and dig a serving spoon into that baked ziti, fast. 

Baked ziti should be a simple pasta casserole, but too often it turns out dry, bland and downright unappealing, especially when made ahead. We wanted to find a way to prepare this dish in advance and still have it taste fresh the next day. Since the tomato sauce is key to keeping the casserole moist, we started there. A combination of crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce gave us a smooth consistency with just the right amount of chunky texture. We found that loosening the sauce with some of the pasta cooking water prevented the casserole from drying out in the fridge.

To conquer any pasta problems, we made sure to undercook our pasta, so that once the casserole had baked, the ziti would be perfectly al dente. For meaty flavor, we added Italian sausage to the sauce. Chewy, stringy mozzarella is a crucial part of baked ziti, but shredded cheese seemed to disappear into the sauce when reheated. Cutting the mozzarella into chunks ensured that we had luscious pockets of gooey cheese throughout the casserole.

Ricotta cheese is also a classic ingredient, but we found that mixing it in before storage left us with a watery, grainy mess. Instead, we dolloped the ricotta mixture on top of the partially baked casserole and just heated it through so that it stayed creamy. We prefer hot Italian sausage in this recipe, but sweet Italian sausage will work fine as well. To remove the sausage from its casing, cut it open at the end and simply squeeze out the ground sausage.

Reprinted with permission from The Make-Ahead Cook