These easy-to-make adorable Stuffed Shells will delight anyone that tries them! Filled with three kinds of cheese, fresh spinach, lemon zest and fresh basil, then baked in a marinara sauce, it is a deeply comforting dish that is perfect for a family dinner or for serving guests.
I come to you, once again, with a beloved, old-school, Italian-Amercian classic pasta dish. This one, which features a tray of jumbo pasta shells filled with a tasty combination of three cheeses and baked in a bed of punchy marinara sauce, makes for one of the most comforting dishes ever. It’s much easier and faster to make than lasagna and always a winner with kids and adults alike.
In this easy weeknight version, the ricotta-spinach filling is flavoured with garlic, lemon zest, and fresh basil. The tomato sauce—whether homemade or store-bought—is given an extra punch with the addition of some heat.
But the best thing to love about this crowd-pleasing dish is that the charming giant seashells can be filled ahead of time. Simply nestle them in the dish with the tomato sauce, and stash in the fridge overnight. Once baked, bring it oozing and bubbling to the table without so much as having lifted a spoon. It’s truly a beautiful thing.
If you have sworn off carbs and/or dairy for the month of January, I feel you and support you. Just file this one for a really wintery day in February or perhaps a special celebratory dinner. It will be every bit worth the wait… and calories 😉.
Ingredients And Notes
The ingredients for this recipe are pretty straightforward and easy to find. Just make sure you use a whole milk ricotta which will make the filling a lot creamier and tastier.
Pasta shells: You will need jumbo shells for this recipe. The ricotta-spinach mixture makes enough to fill about 30 shells but my shells seemed to be a bit on the smaller size. Depending on the brand and size of your shells, or how much filling you use, you might not be able to fill as many.
Filling: Here we us whole milk ricotta, spinach, 1 egg, lemon zest, garlic, mozzarella, parmesan, and chili flakes to make the filling. For the spinach you can use fresh or frozen but if using fresh you will have to quickly steam it. I really enjoy the spinach and lime zest in this filling but know that you can stuff the shells with just the three cheeses, garlic, and egg and it will still be delicious.
Marinara sauce: You can make this quick homemade tomato sauce, or feel free to use your favourite store-bought sauce (I really like Rao’s). I like jazz up the sauce a bit by stirring in a teaspoon (or two) of Calabrian chili paste. This brand is SO good and you should be able to find it at most well stocked Italian delis.
How To Make Stuffed Shells
Stuffing the shells does take a bit of time but I find this task quite easy and fun! It shouldn’t take you longer than 30 minutes, but probably less, to assemble the entire dish. As mentioned, you can make it ahead, or prepare just the filling ahead to save some time. Here’s an overview of how to make it:
Cook the pasta: Add 2 tablespoons of salt to a large pot of boiling water. Cook the pasta shells 1 or 2 minutes less than the package instructs. It should be less cooked than al dente because it will continue to cook in the oven. Reserve 1/2 cup pasta water, drain in a colander and while still in the colander, immediately drizzle with some olive oil and separate shells. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet to cool off and avoid sticking.
If using fresh spinach: Steam the spinach until tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Run it under cold water to cool it then squeeze out the excess moisture. Chop it into small pieces and place in a medium-sized bowl.
If using frozen spinach: Thaw the frozen spinach and use a tea towel to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. You really want it super dry. Place in a medium-sized bowl.
Make the filling: Add the ricotta, mozzarella, pecorino, garlic, lemon zest, fresh basil, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to the spinach. Stir until everything is well combined.
Stuff the shells. Fill each shell with about 1 tablespoon of the ricotta mixture. You should have enough to fill about 30 shells, give or take depending on the size of your shells.
Bake: Spread 2 cups marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish (reserve some for serving) and stir in a half cup of water. Place the shells, stuffed-side up on top of the sauce, nestling them in close together if necessary. Cover the dish tightly with foil, and bake for 25 minutes in a 425°F oven. Remove the foil and continue baking until the sauce and shells are sizzling around the edges, about 5 to 10 minutes.
Serve: Sprinkle with remaining pecorino (or parmesan). Heat the remaining tomato sauce with a half cup of water and serve the shells with warm sauce on the side at the table.
Cook extra shells. Always cook more shells than you think you will need. Sometime the shell will rip as you are filling it so it’s best to have a few extra.
Drain the ricotta. If your ricotta cheese seems very watery, drain it in a sieve over a bowl for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator.
Squeeze the spinach dry. It is important that the cooked spinach is as dry as possible or it will make the filling too watery.
Make Ahead and Storing Tips
Make ahead: The cheese mixture can be made a day ahead. To make the stuffed shells ahead time, assemble the dish in its entirety, cover tightly with foil, and refrigerate for a few hours and up to overnight. Though the leftovers are fine reheated, I don’t recommend baking the whole dish ahead of time and reheating it, as the shells and filling have a tendency to dry out.
To store: Leftovers can be refrigerated, in an airtight container, for up to 4 days. Reheat, covered in a 350ºF oven until warmed through. Alternatively, reheat in a skillet, covered, over medium heat, until warmed through. You may want to add a splash of water to the pan if the sauce has really thickened.
Can You Freeze The Stuffed Shells?
Yes! I prefer to freeze the shells unbaked. Fill each shell with cheese mixture, place on a small sheet tray and cover with plastic wrap. Once the shells have solidified, transfer to a freezer-safe container and freeze for up to 3 months. When ready to cook them, place the frozen shells in tomato sauce and bake as instructed, adding additional time as needed.
Can You Freeze The Entire Dish?
Yes, the unbaked dish freezes really well and will be great for a fast dinner any day of the week. Cover the assembled dish tightly with two layers of foil for up to 2 months. The day before you plan on baking it, thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Let sit on the counter for 30 minutes while you preheat the oven and cook for a few minutes longer than instructed in the recipe.
I like to garnish the ricotta-filled shells with freshly chopped basil and pecorino, or parmesan cheese. Warm some extra marinara sauce so everyone can spoon some over the shells at the table.
Some crusty bread and a hefty salad make fabulous accompaniments to this dish. Undoubtedly, a Caesar salad of any kind is always my first choice. But this kale, or this radicchio salad would also be wonderful.
If you aren’t making a vegetarian meal, you can also serve the shells with roasted or grilled chicken. Yum!
More Italian-Inspired recipe
If you give this Stuffed Shells recipe a try, please feel free to leave a comment and/or a star rating below. We appreciate and welcome all your feedback. Thank you!
Stuffed Shells Recipe
- 35 jumbo pasta shells (see notes)
- 3 cups homemade tomato sauce or store-bought (see notes)
- 5 ounces fresh spinach or 1 10-oz. package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
- 1 large egg
- 1 16-ounce container whole milk ricotta
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella (optional: sprinkle 1/4 cup more over the shells before baking)
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan or pecorino, divided
- 1 fat clove garlic grated or minced
- 1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional, but really good)
- 1 Tablespoon fresh basil leaves, finely chopped, plus more for garnish
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Add 2 tablespoons of salt to a large pot of boiling water. Cook the pasta shells, stirring occasionally, 1 or 2 minutes less than the package instructs, about 9 minutes. Reserve 3/4 cup pasta water, drain in a colander and while still in the colander, immediately drizzle with some olive oil and separate shells. Transfer to a parchment-lined baking sheet to cool off and avoid sticking.
- If using fresh spinach: Steam the spinach until tender and bright green, about 3 minutes. Run it under cold water to cool it then squeeze out the excess moisture. Chop it into small pieces and place in a medium-sized bowl.
- If using frozen spinach: Thaw the frozen spinach and use a tea towel to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. You really want it super dry. Place in a medium-sized bowl.
- Preheat oven to 425ºF.
- Add the egg, ricotta, mozzarella, 1/2 cup parmesan, garlic, lemon zest (if using), fresh basil, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to the spinach. Stir until everything is well combined.
- Spread 2 cups marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9×13 baking dish and stir in 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water. (Use regular water if you forgot to save the pasta water.)
- Fill each shell with about 1 tablespoon of the ricotta mixture. You should have enough to fill at least 30 shells, give or take depending on the size of your shells. As you fill each shell, place on top of the tomato sauce, stuffed-side up in an even layer, nestling them in close together if necessary.
- Cover the dish tightly with foil, and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking until the sauce and shells are sizzling around the edges, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Meanwhile, heat the remaining tomato sauce with remaining 1/4 cup pasta water. Serve the shells garnished with remaining parmesan cheese, chopped basil, and warm tomato sauce on the side.
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