I always crave stuffed shells but typically find it such a pain to make. That's because most of the recipes I've used call for parboiling the shells, only to leave me with torn pasta and grainy cheese, or simmering the sauce for hours. I wanted to develop a recipe that avoided both of these time-consuming steps and would be able to provide home cooks (like me) with super-flavorful shells. Keep reading to see how I created our Cheesy Stuffed Shells recipe that contains ricotta for creaminess, easy-melting fontina for flavor, and just the right amount of Pecorino for bite.
MY ULTIMATE COMFORT FOOD: jumbo pasta shells stuffed with cheese, topped with tomato sauce and more cheese, and baked until golden brown.
But stuffed shell recipes can be frustrating. Most call for precooking the shells and then using a spoon or pastry bag to fill them without ripping them to shreds. Some demand that you simmer a sauce for hours before it goes over the shells. Some cheater recipes don't even bother with stuffing the shells, instead instructing you to just stir everything together and bake for an hour or longer; in the end, you're left with a mess of torn pasta and grainy cheese. I wanted an easier process and better results.
I first focused on the parboiling step. Would uncooked shells, filled and sauced, soften enough in the oven? We've used a similar approach for other baked pasta dishes (such as baked ziti), so I headed into the test kitchen to see if this shortcut would work.
I picked 25 open raw shells from the box (to fill a typical 13 by 9-inch baking dish). Then I transferred some seasoned ricotta to a plastic zipper-lock bag, snipped off one corner, and piped the cheese into the shells. Once I'd added a quick marinara sauce and some shredded cheese, I covered the dish tightly with foil and baked it. But the sauce cooked down too far, leaving some pasta exposed and undercooked.
I needed a thinner sauce with more liquid. I added 2 cups of extra water; this time, the shells absorbed the liquid they needed and cooked through properly, leaving behind a rich but still fluid—not chunky and dehydrated—sauce.
After a great deal of testing, I landed on a flavorful filling that melted well: ricotta, fontina, Pecorino Romano, basil, dried oregano, and garlic. Two eggs stirred into the mixture helped the filling stay put as the stuffed shells baked and made the filling easier to pipe. And a bit of cornstarch helped the filling maintain a silky texture.
After 45 minutes of covered cooking in the oven, the shells were nearly done. I removed the foil and sprinkled more fontina over the top. After just 15 minutes more, I had a beautifully browned, bubbling-around-the-edges casserole of cheesy, saucy, super-flavorful stuffed shells. Bonus: You can even assemble the dish and bake it the next day.
What’s your favorite comfort food? Let us know in the comments!