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Unstuffed Shells is a deconstructed version of a classic stuffed shells recipe. Tender pasta shells are layered with sauce, sausage, and cheese – then baked until hot and melty.
Delicious stuffed shells flavor in casserole form!
Craving the flavors of a classic Italian stuffed shells, but not looking forward to preparing them? If the answer is yes – you are going to love this easy “unstuffed” shells casserole recipe.
We’ve ‘deconstructed’ the process to make the prep quick and easy. Just layer sauce, meat, shell-shaped pasta, and four kinds of cheeses in a deep dish casserole. Bake until hot and bubbling – then dig in!
Why you’ll love Unstuffed Shells
- It’s super easy to make – and has all the same delicious flavors of a classic stuffed shells recipe.
- This deep-dish casserole feeds a hungry crowd – or enjoy leftovers yourself the next day.
- Our recipe can be easily adapted to include other meats and cheeses.
Key Ingredients & Substitutions
- Shell-Shaped Pasta – We used medium shells, but large shells will also work. The jumbo shell pasta (typically used for the original stuffed shells recipe) won’t work as well in this recipe.
- Cheese – You’ll include a combination of whole milk ricotta cheese, provolone cheese, mozzarella cheese, and grated Parmesan cheese. You can swap in Romano cheese for the Parmesan if you’d like.
- Egg – To bind the ricotta mixture together
- Italian Sausage – We used sweet Italian sausage in our unstuffed shells recipe (buy a bulk package or split open sausage casings and use just the meat. If you like things spicier, go with hot Italian sausage. If you want a milder dish, ground beef or ground chicken can be swapped in.
- Herbs and spices – Kosher salt, white pepper, fresh Italian flat leaf parsley, fresh basil, fresh mint, dry oregano, and grated nutmeg season the cheese mixture.
- Olive Oil
- Tomato Sauce – Buy your favorite jarred tomato sauce, or make a homemade tomato sauce if you have the time.
Special Tools Needed
- 9x13x3-inch baking dish – Note that this is a deep casserole dish. (Here is a link to the Pyrex dish we used.)
- Large sauté pan, to cook the sausage, onions and garlic
- Large bowl, to mix the ricotta cheese filling
- Medium bowl, to mix the dry cheeses
- Saucepan, to heat the sauce
- Large pot, to cook the pasta
If you don’t have a deep casserole dish for this recipe, or want to make a smaller amount, cut the ingredients list by a third to a half, depending on your dish size. Note that the baking time will be shorter as well.
How do I make Unstuffed Shells?
- Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil.
- Add the sausage meat and cook until browned. Drain any excess fat, then set aside.
- Cook pasta shells in a pot of boiling water, just short of al dente. (*See below.)
- Mix ricotta cheese, egg, herbs and seasonings, some of the provolone, some of the mozzarella and some of the Parmesan in a large bowl.
- Mix remaining provolone, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese together in another bowl.
- Heat the tomato sauce in the saucepan.
- Assemble the casserole. Line the pan bottom with some sauce, then add a layer of pasta, then the ricotta mixture, browned sausage and onion mixture, more sauce and dry cheese mixture. Repeat to fill the dish.
- Bake for about 40 minutes until hot and bubbly. Brown under broiler, if desired.
- Allow the casserole to sit for ten minutes to set up. Then serve.
What does al dente mean?
Al dente is a term that describes pasta that is cooked firm to the bite, which Italians consider the ideal texture for eating pasta. In Italian, it translates as to the tooth.
In today’s recipe – since the pasta will continue to cook in the oven – boil your shells for about four minutes less than the box directions call for. The pasta should be chewy and not fully cooked before going into the oven.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I make Unstuffed Shells ahead of time? You can prepare each individual ingredient, assemble and refrigerate. Pull the casserole out of the refrigerator and let sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking. Note that the baking time listed in the recipe may be a little longer, since the casserole will still be slightly chilled through as you start baking.
How do I store leftovers? Store covered and refrigerated for up to three days.
How do I reheat leftovers? Reheat individual portions in the microwave, or cover the casserole with foil and heat in the oven (350 degrees F) until heated through.
Can I freeze? You can, but note that pasta often gets mushy after being frozen and thawed.
Can I make this recipe with pasta shapes other than shells? Sure! Just choose a medium sized, firm-shaped pasta such as bow ties, ziti, or cellentani.
Can I leave out the meat? Yes. You could consider swapping in some peppers and mushrooms for the meat to replace the texture in the casserole.
Still craving some Classic Stuffed Shells?
Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered!
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 cup onion, diced
1 tablespoon garlic, minced
1 1/2 pounds sweet Italian sausage (removed from casings)
1 pound medium pasta shells
2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
1 whole egg
1/2 pound sliced provolone cheese, diced and divided
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated and divided
2 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded and divided
1/4 cup fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
2 teaspoons fresh mint, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
Few grinds fresh nutmeg
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1 quart of your favorite tomato sauce, or make your own
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F and spray a 9x13x3-inch casserole dish with pan spray.
- In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat and sauté onions for three minutes. Add garlic and cook one more minute.
- Add sausage meat and cook until browned, breaking up into small pieces as you cook. Drain off fat and discard and set the cooked sausage mixture aside.
- In a large pot of boiling salted water, add pasta and cook about four minutes shy of fully cooked. Pasta should be chewy and will cook further in the oven. Once cooked, drain in a colander.
- In a large bowl, combine ricotta, whole egg, half of the chopped provolone, half cup of the Parmesan, one cup of the mozzarella, all of the parsley, basil, mint, oregano, nutmeg, salt and pepper.
- In a separate bowl combine remaining provolone, mozzarella and Parmesan.
- Heat sauce to hot.
- Place a cup and a half of sauce on the prepared pan bottom.
- Pour in half of the cooked drained shells. Top that with half of the cooked sausage meat mixture and half of the ricotta mixture, spreading to the edges. Add half of the remaining sauce and half of the remaining dry cheese mixture.
- Repeat layers using the remaining ingredients and place the finished casserole in the oven uncovered and bake until hot and bubbly, about 35-40 minutes.
- Place under the broiler to brown the top. Remove from the oven.
- Let rest ten minutes before serving.
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