This Rigatoni Pasta Bake is a hearty and comforting casserole made with rigatoni pasta, meat sauce, and plenty of cheese! This make-ahead, freezer-friendly casserole is sure to be a regular in your menu rotation!
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A Comfort Food Classic
I know we’ve all been there.
It’s 4:59pm, you have a 1-year-old on one hip, and a package of ground beef in the opposite hand, and you’re wondering what you can make with your… zero free hands.
The good news? It doesn’t have to be this way.
The answer? This Rigatoni Pasta Bake. Made of al dente rigatoni pasta, a hearty tomato sauce with ground beef, and loads of cheese, this pasta bake is your new favorite casserole.
If you ask me, casseroles have gotten a bad rep, but in reality they’re a busy mom’s best friend. You can get all the food groups in one simple dish: protein, veggies, dairy, carbs. You can load it up with all kinds of flavor, and sneak in all kinds of things your kids wouldn’t normally want to eat. You can make it when you have time, stash it in the fridge or freezer, and then pop it in the oven to be ready whenever you need it. So simple, so flavorful, and so easy!
What You’ll Need
This recipe is so flexible, you can really add whatever you like. This is just the base recipe for you to build on and adapt, according to your family’s needs and preferences! See the “Variations and Substitutions” section below for more. (Note: for the full recipe card with specific amounts, scroll down to the bottom of this post.)
- Beef: I like to use lean ground beef in this recipe. It has plenty of flavor, and less fat than ground chuck.
- Onion: You can use any kind of onion—red, white, yellow, or sweet. Dice it into small pieces.
- Italian Seasoning: An Italian seasoning blend gives a savory herbal flavor to this bake. Feel free to substitute whatever herbs and seasonings you like, though. Basil, oregano, parsley, etc.
- Garlic: Freshly minced garlic gives the brightest flavor, but you could substitute garlic powder as well.
- Salt and Pepper
- Pasta Sauce: You’ll need a couple of large jars of your favorite pasta sauce.
- Rigatoni: If you can’t find (or don’t want to use) rigatoni, penne pasta makes a good substitute, and so does ziti.
- Mozzarella Cheese: Shredded mozzarella is my go-to! Provalone is also a good option.
How to Make Baked Rigatoni Pasta
The process for making this dish really couldn’t be easier, which again is why casseroles are a mom’s secret weapon! Here’s how to make it:
- Saute the Ground Beef and Onion. In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the ground beef and onion together until the meat is browned and the onions have softened. Drain well.
- Add the Seasonings and Pasta Sauce. Place the saucepan back over the heat, and then add the Italian seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper to the meat. Cook 1 minute. Pour in the pasta sauce and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set the saucepan aside.
- Make the Pasta. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the rigatoni, reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook just until al dente. You don’t want to cook it too long, because it will continue to soften in the oven. Reserve half a cup of the pasta water, and then drain the pasta.
- Assemble the Casserole. Stir the reserved pasta water into the meat sauce, and then combine the pasta and sauce, stirring well. Pour into a greased 9×13 baking dish. Cover with a lightly greased piece of foil.
- Bake. Bake the dish at 350°F for 20 minutes, or until heated through. Uncover and sprinkle the cheese over the top. Bake an additional 10 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and beginning to turn golden brown.
Variations and Substitutions
As I mentioned before, you can tweak this recipe in all kinds of ways. Here are a few ideas to get you started!
- Dairy Free: To make this pasta bake dairy free, simply swap the cheese for dairy-free cheese, or leave the cheese out entirely. Be sure to check the rest of your ingredients to make sure they don’t have dairy in them.
- Veggies: Bump up the veggie content of this casserole by adding extra vegetables to the meat sauce as it cooks. Mushrooms, zucchini, peppers, or even shredded carrots go well in here!
- Lighten Up: To lighten the recipe, opt for ground turkey or Italian turkey sausage in place of the ground beef, and use low-fat cheese. Also, be sure to look for pasta sauce with no added sugar and unrecognizable ingredients.
Can You Make this Ahead?
Yes! Simply prepare up to the point of baking. Then cover in plastic wrap or foil (or a lid if your baking dish has one that fits tightly). Stick it in the fridge for up to 3 days. When you’re ready to bake, pour ½ cup water over the pasta (trust me on this one!) and bake as per the instructions.
The reason I pour the water over is that the pasta soaks up moisture as it sits in the refrigerator. Adding water will help the dish bake up moist, and will result in delicious, saucy pasta, not watery pasta as you might think!
Can You Freeze a Pasta Bake?
Like pretty much all ground beef casserole recipes, this Rigatoni Pasta Bake freezes wonderfully! Simply cover in plastic wrap, and then in a layer of tin foil, to prevent freezer burn. Label with the recipe name and the date, and pop it in the freezer.
When you’re ready to cook, place the casserole in the oven at 350°F, covered only with foil. Bake until heated through, about 50-60 minutes. It may take up to 90 minutes, but you’ll need to keep an eye on it to be sure. If your baking dish is not freezer-to-oven safe, then take the casserole out of the freezer early, and leave it out on the counter to thaw for 1-2 hours before baking.
To serve your pasta bake, try having a green salad and some garlic bread, or one of these easy side dishes:
Broccoli Salad: This Easy Broccoli Salad is loaded with the crisp crunch of raw broccoli, and a ton of other goodies that will keep you coming back for more.
Glazed Carrots: Sweet and simple Honey Glazed Carrots are an old-fashioned side dish that’s always welcome at the table.
Soup: A soup starter followed by baked pasta is a cozy dinner the whole family will love. Try this Potato Leek Soup recipe for an easy veggie-based option.
Storing and Reheating Leftovers
- To refrigerate leftover pasta bake, place the pasta bake in an airtight container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
- To reheat, place the desired portion in an oven-safe dish and bake at 350°F until heated through. Sprinkle with water before baking if it seems dry.
- To freeze, pack leftovers into airtight food storage containers or bags. Freeze for up to 3 months (unless it was previously frozen; in that case, only re-freeze if it has been sitting out for less than 2 hours, and only keep for the time remaining to make 3 months total). Thaw in the refrigerator before reheating.
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Rigatoni Pasta Bake
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- 1 medium onion diced
- 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 5 cups tomato pasta sauce roughly 2 jars
- 500 grams Rigatoni pasta about 1 lb
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- In a large saucepan, stir and cook ground beef and onion over medium heat until browned and onions have softened. Drain any juices released.
- Add the Italian seasoning, garlic, salt and pepper and cook 1 minute.
- Add the pasta sauce and cook, stirring occasionally, over medium heat, for 5 minutes. Set aside.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add rigatoni, reduce heat to medium-high, and cook just until al dente (it will continue to cook slightly in the oven).
- Reserve ½ cup pasta water and drain pasta. Stir reserved pasta water into meat sauce.
- Combine pasta and pasta sauce in saucepan. Pour into a lightly greased 9×13″ or similar baking dish.
- Cover with a lightly greased piece of foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 20 minutes or until heated through.
- **Optionally, cover and refrigerate up to 2 days. Bake at 350 degrees F until heated through, about 30-40 minutes.
- Uncover and sprinkle with cheese. Bake an additional 10 minutes, until cheese has started to brown.
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