This creamy and cheesy Beef and Shells pasta recipe is the ultimate family comfort food. Perfect for a weeknight dinner idea, it’s like a homemade, and way tastier, version of hamburger helper!
This Creamy Beef and Shells recipe is one of my favorite pasta meals to cook for my family. We really love recipes with simple ingredients, and mostly one pot pastas are always a winner… like my One Pot Spaghetti and Chicken Parmesan Pasta! This is one of my Pasta Recipes I know you’ll want to keep on hand!
CREAMY BEEF AND SHELLS RECIPE
There’s one type of recipe that I never get tired of creating/cooking/eating. Easy. Dinner. Recipes. You know, the kind of recipe that you can truly get on the table fast, are easy to prep ahead, and that the whole family will love.
No standing over a hot stove for an hour and a half. No 40 minutes of prep. And no kids whining that they “hate this gross food”. Sound familiar?
I don’t know a single parent who hasn’t struggled with a picky eater at some point in their kids’ lives. It’s frustrating… to say the least. And trust me, you’re not alone!
That’s where recipes like this one are so handy. Yes, there are onions in this recipe… but you can substitute with some onion powder (see the recipe notes section below the written recipe). And of course, you don’t have to garnish with parsley… I just do that so it looks pretty and appetizing for you guys here on the site. So it’s truly kid-friendly!
But I know, I know… some of you may be squinting your eyes at the photos and questioning things. Technically, the pasta in these photos isn’t shells. It’s orecchiette. Sometimes, we have to work with what the grocery store has that day, right?
99 times out of 100, I use medium shells. I love the way they cradle the sauce, and when you bite into them you get a little burst of that creamy tomato meat sauce!
HOW TO MAKE BEEF AND SHELLS
- Boil the pasta. Boiling it separately ensures the pasta doesn’t get overcooked. Drain and set aside.
- Cook meat/onion/garlic. Nothing fancy here, just browning the beef, while also softening the onion and garlic.
- Drain – if needed. I use lean beef for this recipe so there’s usually not much grease at all. If you used a different type of beef, and there’s a good amount of grease, go ahead and drain it then return it to the skillet.
- Season and coat with flour. Adding the flour here works as a make-shift roux, which will thicken the sauce once it’s added. Just make sure you stir it to coat the beef mixture well, and cook it for a minute or two to get the raw flour flavor out.
- Add liquids. When adding the tomato sauce, heavy cream, cream cheese and sour cream, make sure to stir it really well to make sure it’s well combined.
- Add pasta and cheese. Do this right in the same skillet, this way you have less dishes to wash!
- Serve. This dish is best served hot, and you can garnish with fresh parsley if desired.
ADDITIONAL COOKING TIPS
- PASTA COOKING TIME – I like to cook my pasta to al dente for recipes like this. Since we’ll be adding the pasta to the sauce and tossing it together, you don’t want it to get mushy. Just check on the pasta package for the cooking time for al dente.
- USING CREAM VS MILK – the reason I go with heavy cream (usually sold as heavy whipping cream) instead of regular milk in this recipe is that when it’s added to the highly acidic tomato sauce, milk could have a tendency to curdle. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. If you have all the other ingredients except cream, and don’t want to make a run to the store, you could leave it out or substitute with chicken or beef broth… I just really love the smooth richness it adds to the sauce.
VARIATIONS OF THIS RECIPE
- SAUSAGE – to make things more Italian-flavored, try using Italian sausage instead of beef, or use half sausage and half beef.
- PASTA – this recipe works well with any short-cut of pasta (like a penne, farfalle – aka bowtie, rotini, elbow macaroni, etc). Longer cuts (like spaghetti, fettuccine, etc) just aren’t as suited for this type of sauce, since the meat will just slide right off of the pasta.
- SPICY – feel free to increase the amount of red pepper flakes used if you like things nice and spicy.
- TACO-STYLE – for a fun twist, instead of the seasonings, use a packet of taco seasoning (or make your own!), use half picante sauce and half tomato sauce, and use shredded Mexican blend cheese.
- CHEESE – I used cheddar here, but you could try mozzarella, parmesan, colby jack, or any combination!
- VEGETABLES – you can certainly add some vegetables to this dish. Just add them when you’re cooking the ground beef. Mushrooms, zucchini, green beans, peas, carrots, the sky is the limit!
- USING BROTH – if you don’t have heavy cream, or would rather not use it, feel free to substitute with some chicken or beef broth (reduced sodium would be best).
MAKING BEEF AND SHELLS AHEAD OF TIME
The fact that this recipe comes together so quickly, paired with the fact that leftover pasta dishes don’t taste as good as when made fresh, I don’t recommend making this dish entirely ahead of time.
However, that’s not to say that you can’t prep ahead.. it’s one of my pro tips for making quick and easy dinners. The more you can prep ahead, the better!
The pasta can be precooked, drained, tossed with a little olive oil to prevent sticking, and refrigerated. The onion and garlic can be chopped and refrigerated. Spices can be combined and set aside on the counter.
Leftover pasta should be refrigerated in an airtight container and consumed within 4 days.
This will freeze well in an airtight container for 1-2 months. To thaw, place container in the refrigerator overnight. Heat gently, either on the stovetop or microwave, until warm throughout.
SPECIAL EQUIPMENT FOR THIS RECIPE
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- 12″ wide skillet – I love this pan, and use it all the time!
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- 1 lb lean ground beef (I normally use 93/7 for this recipe)
- 12 oz dried medium pasta shells
- 1 Tbsp olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- 1 small white or yellow onion diced
- 2 tsp dried Italian seasoning
- 1/2 tsp kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 Tbsp all purpose flour
- 15 oz can tomato sauce
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 2 - 3 oz cream cheese softened to room temperature
- 1/4 cup sour cream
- 1 - 2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
COOK THE PASTA
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil pasta to al dente, according to package directions. Drain and set aside. Toss with a little oil to prevent too much sticking.
COOK THE SAUCE
- Add oil to a large skillet and heat over MED HIGH heat until hot. Add beef, onion, and garlic and cook for 5-7 minutes, breaking up the meat as it cooks.
- If lean beef was used, and there's not much grease in the skillet, you can just continue cooking to simmer that grease away. If there's a lot of grease, you'll want to drain it.
- Add in Italian seasoning, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, and flour, stirring well to combine. Cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes.
- Add tomato sauce and stir. Add heavy cream, cream cheese and sour cream and stir well. Simmer a few minutes, stirring often, to really incorporate the cream cheese into the sauce.
STIR IT ALL TOGETHER
- Add cheese and cooked pasta, stirring well to combine.
- Serve hot, garnished with fresh parsley if desired.
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- 1 tsp of onion powder can be substituted for the diced onion
- 1/2 tsp of garlic powder can be substituted for the minced garlic