This creamy beef and shells recipe is a super simple one pot dinner that’s hearty, cheesy, and made easily in the Instant Pot! Both kids and adults alike go crazy over this easy dinner idea, and it’s pretty customize-able too!
This is one of my Instant Pot recipes I know you’ll want to keep on hand!
There’s one type of recipe that I never get tired of creating/cooking/eating. Easy. Dinner. Recipes.
Now that schools are starting back up again, the need for recipes like this is high!
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!
This recipe reminds me of a much better version of the Hamburger Helper we all grew up with, but with a better Italian-style flavor and without all the preservatives!
How to make creamy beef and shells in the instant pot?
This is just an overview; the full ingredients and directions are in the recipe card toward the bottom of this post.
- Saute beef. Drain and set aside.
- Saute aromatics. This is the onion, garlic, and tomato paste.
- Combine and season. Add the beef back to the pot and add the seasonings.
- Add pasta. Don’t stir, just spread it on top.
- Add liquids. This is the marinara, broth, and water. Again, don’t stir.
- Pressure cook. After the time has elapsed, perform a quick pressure release.
- Melt cream cheese. Add some of the hot liquids from the pot help melt the cream cheese while you whisk.
- Add liquids and cheese. This is the cream cheese mixture, heavy cream, and Parmesan.
- Stir well. Let it sit a minute or so to help thicken it up if needed.
To avoid ending up with little pieces of cream cheese that didn’t quite melt into the sauce, I highly advise following the instructions to ladle some of the sauce over the softened cream cheese, and whisk until smooth. I use this trick any time I need to add cream cheese to a dish, and it makes things so velvety and creamy!
Variations of this recipe
- Italian sausage – to play up the Italian flavors in this recipe, try swapping half of the beef for Italian sausage (hot or mild), or even use all sausage!
- Pasta – I’ve only tested this recipe with medium shells, but in theory it should work with any short cut of pasta (such as farfalle, penne, rotini, elbow, etc). The timing may be different, but in general, to cook pasta in the Instant Pot – cook it for about half the time listed on the package.
- Marinara – to save time I developed this recipe to be made using a jar of your favorite marinara sauce. However, if you’d like to make your own homemade marinara, please feel free! You’ll want about 3 cups.
- Spicy – if you’re a fan of spicy, add some extra crushed red pepper flakes to the spices, and/or use a spicy marinara sauce.
The most important one is to cook the beef first, then add the onions. The moisture the onion gives off as it cooks will loosen the browned bits on the bottom of the pot. Also, when heating up the pot in Sauté mode, don’t add the oil until it’s hot. You’ll also be scraping the bottom of the pot. The second way is to not stir, but rather just push the pasta down into the liquid a bit.
Not exactly, but there is a Hamburger Helper variety called “cheesy Italian shells”, and this is like a much better homemade version of that. You can enjoy the familiar taste, while knowing it’s much better for you!
If you’re leery of using heavy cream, you could use evaporated milk instead. I don’t recommend using regular milk (of any fat percentage)… since the milk could potentially curdle when adding it to the hot tomato based sauce.
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, means 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
How to prep ahead for this recipe:
- Veggies – the onion and garlic can be diced/minced and kept refrigerated (separately) in airtight containers until ready to use.
- Liquids – the beef broth and water can be measured and kept refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to use.
- Spices – the spices can be measured, combined, and kept at room temperature.
- Cream cheese – the cream cheese can be cubed and stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container until ready to use.
Leftover pasta should be refrigerated in an airtight container and enjoyed within 4 days.
Reheat gently on the stovetop or in the microwave, possibly with a splash of beef broth or water to loosen it up if necessary.
I love this model’s features like a completely flat bottom insert, as well as a locking insert, making stirring super easy. Plus, it automatically switches to sealing when you lock the lid!
Did you make this? Be sure to leave a review below and tag me @the_chunky_chef on Facebook and Instagram!
- 1 Tbsp vegetable or avocado oil
- 1 lb. ground beef I use 85/15
- 1 medium yellow onion diced
- 3 cloves garlic minced
- 1 Tbsp dried Italian seasoning
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes optional but recommended
- 2 Tbsp tomato paste ** see "chef tips" #1
- 16 oz dried medium shells pasta
- 24 oz jar marinara sauce Rao's is my favorite
- 2 cups reduced sodium beef broth
- 1 cup water
- 2 – 3 oz cream cheese cubed and softened to room temperature
- 1 cup heavy whipping cream
- 3/4 – 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese freshly grated is best
- minced fresh parsley for garnish
- additional black pepper for garnish
- Select “saute” and if you have an option to select “high” select that. Wait until hot, then add oil, then the beef. Cook the beef, crumbling as it cooks, for 4-5 minutes, or until fully crumbled and no pink remains. Drain.
- To the now empty pot, add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release any browned beef bits.
- Add garlic and tomato paste, stirring well to combine and cook about 30 seconds.
- Return drained beef to the pot, then add Italian seasoning, salt, garlic powder, black pepper and red pepper flakes. Stir well to combine.
Layer and add liquids
- Press “cancel”. Add medium shells to pot, do not stir.
- Pour in marinara sauce, then top with beef broth and water. Do not stir, just press shells down into the liquid.
- Secure lid and make sure the valve is on “sealing”. Press “manual” or “pressure cook” and pressure cook on high for 5 minutes.
Quick pressure release
- When the time is up, move the valve to “venting” to perform a quick pressure release. When the pin has dropped, remove the lid.
Add creaminess and thicken
- Add softened cream cheese to a small bowl and remove a ladle or two of the liquid from the pot. Add the ladle to the bowl with the cream cheese and whisk until smooth.
- Stir cream cheese mixture into the Instant Pot, then stir in heavy cream and Parmesan cheese.
- Stir until smooth and combined, then let sit for a couple of minutes to thicken up.
- Serve hot, sprinkled with minced parsley and a pinch of black pepper (if desired).
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- If find for recipes like this, that use a small amount of tomato paste, the tube is much more convenient than a can.
- Prep and cook time does not include the time for the pot to come up to pressure, since this will vary from pot to pot and individual to individual. For reference, my pot usually takes 10-15 minutes to come up to pressure.
- You won’t need nearly as much beef broth for this version, since the pasta will be cooked separately.
- Cook the pasta, according to package directions, in a large pot of salted boiling water. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the pasta water, then drain and set aside. You can toss it with a bit of oil to prevent it from sticking together too much.
- Heat a large skillet over MED HIGH heat until hot. Add oil, then beef, and cook for 4-5 minutes, crumbling as it cooks, until no longer pink. Drain and set aside.
- To the empty skillet, add onion and cook 3-4 minutes, until soft. Add garlic and tomato paste and cook another 30 seconds or so.
- Return beef to the skillet, then season with Italian seasoning, salt, garlic powder, black pepper and red pepper flakes.
- Add marinara sauce and 1/2 – 3/4 cup of beef broth. Stir well to combine.
- Add softened cream cheese to a small bowl and remove a ladle or two of the liquid from the pan. Add the ladle to the bowl with the cream cheese and whisk until smooth.
- Stir in the cream cheese mixture, heavy cream, and Parmesan cheese.
- Add drained pasta and stir well until evenly mixed. If needed, stir in a bit of extra beef broth or leftover pasta water, until it’s the consistency you’d like.
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.