Pasta shells are stuffed with a cheesy ricotta, spinach and garlic filling, then smothered in marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese and baked until bubbly and golden brown!
This is one of my Pasta recipes I know you’ll want to keep on hand!
I’m so glad my love of Italian and Italian-American food has passed along to my kids!
My son’s favorite meal ever is lasagna, and these shells are probably a close second (since they have a lot of similar flavors).
Stay tuned for that lasagna recipe coming up in the next couple of months, as well as a lasagna stuffed shells recipe!
But back to these stuffed shells though; they’re such a great comfort food.
Plus they can be made ahead in multiple ways and even frozen, which makes this meal perfect for a busy weeknight!
How to make classic stuffed shells?
This is just an overview; the full ingredients and directions are in the recipe card toward the bottom of this post.
- Cook spinach and garlic. It will look like a ton of spinach, but it’ll cook down.
- Combine filling. I just use a wooden spoon for this.
- Stir in spinach. Stir until well combined.
- Bottom layer of sauce. Use about half the sauce.
- Fill shells. You can use a spoon or add the filling to a piping bag to fill them.
- Add shells to baking dish.
- Add top layer of sauce. Spoon it down the center of each row of shells.
- Top with cheese.
This is a pretty straightforward recipe, but my main tip is to undercook the shells a bit. You want them pliable, but not cooked until al dente. The reason for this is that the shells will continue to cook during the baking process, and you don’t want them to end up soggy. All pasta varieties have slightly different cooking times, but I usually use Barilla brand, and I cook mine for 8 minutes.
Variations of this recipe
- Sauce – I like to use a quality store-bought marinara sauce (Rao’s is my personal favorite), but if you’d like to make a homemade marinara, you certainly can.
- Filling – if you’d like some meat in your filling, some crumbled Italian sausage, shredded chicken, or ground beef would be a great option.
- No spinach – we love the added nutrition and flavor of the garlic spinach, but if you’re not a fan, you can omit the spinach completely.
- Cheeses – feel free to add in some Romano or Asiago cheese, or any cheese you like.
- Herbs – you can increase or decrease the amount of herbs to your tastes.
The filling is usually the same, or similar, but the pasta the filling is put into is where the difference is. Manicotti is made with ridged tubular pasta, vs the large shell-shaped pasta the stuffed shells use.
There are multiple ways to fill pasta shells, but my favorite two are to use a spoon, or add the filling to a piping bag (or ziploc bag with the end snipped off) and piping the filling into the shells.
Making stuffed shells ahead of time
This recipe is super easy to make entirely ahead of time.
Just assemble the stuffed shells in the baking dish, cover tightly and refrigerate for 1-2 days. Let sit on the counter while the oven preheats, then bake as directed.
You can also make this ahead in other ways.
- Prep ahead – the filling can be made ahead and refrigerated, shells can be boiled and refrigerated, and cheese can be shredded and refrigerated.
- Partially make ahead – fill the shells with the filling, then store in an airtight container in the refrigerator. When ready to bake, add pre-made shells to the baking dish and proceed with recipe.
I love making a double batch of these stuffed shells, and freezing one of the batches.
Just assemble as directed, then cover tightly with a double layer of aluminum foil (or whatever you normally use to cover your freezer dishes), and freeze for up to 3 months.
Thaw in the refrigerator, then bake as directed.
You can also bake from frozen, at 350°F for 50 minutes covered, then uncover and bake another 15 minutes or until hot and bubbly throughout.
Leftover stuffed shells should be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator and enjoyed within 4-5 days.
You can use any 9×13″ pan, but if you’re in the market for a great set of white baking dishes, this 3 pack is a great deal! The largest size is perfect for this recipe.
Did you make this? Be sure to leave a review below and tag me @the_chunky_chef on Facebook and Instagram!
- 24 oz jar marinara sauce (or approximately 3 cups of homemade sauce)
- 12 oz box dried jumbo pasta shells
- 2 Tbsp olive oil
- 5 cloves garlic minced
- 5 cups fresh baby spinach leaves roughly chopped
- 30 – 32 oz whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1 Tbsp dried Italian seasoning
- 1 Tbsp fresh minced basil
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 4 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese divided
- 2 large eggs
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese freshly grated is best
- minced fresh parsley or basil for garnish (optional)
- Spray a 9×13” baking dish with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, then boil jumbo shells several minutes less than the package directions state (I boil mine for 8 minutes). Drain.
- While pasta is cooking, add olive oil to a large skillet and heat over MED HIGH heat. Once oil is hot, add garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about a minute or so, until it just begins to turn golden brown.
- Add spinach and cook for about 4 minutes, or until spinach is wilted and reduced by about half, but the leaves are still green. Remove from heat and let cool.
- Preheat oven to 375°F.
- In a mixing bowl, add ricotta cheese, Italian seasoning, minced basil, salt, pepper, 3 cups mozzarella cheese, eggs, and Parmesan cheese. Stir to combine.
- Stir in cooked spinach and garlic mixture.
- Spread about half of the marinara sauce in the bottom of the prepared baking dish.
- Fill each shell with a generous amount of the ricotta filling, then add to the baking dish (they should fit 6 down and 4 across for a total of 24).
- Spoon the rest of the marinara sauce over the tops of the shells, then sprinkle with remaining 1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese.
- Cover dish loosely with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes, until sauce is hot and bubbly and cheese is melted and starting to brown.
- Sprinkle with minced parsley and serve hot.
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- Even though you’ll only be using approximately 24 shells, I do recommend cooking the whole box. Some will inevitably break during the boiling/draining/filling process.
The Chunky Chef is not a dietician or nutritionist, and any nutritional information shared is an estimate. If calorie count and other nutritional values are important to you, we recommend running the ingredients through whichever online nutritional calculator you prefer. Calories can vary quite a bit depending on which brands were used.