These sausage Stuffed Pasta Shells are filled with ricotta and Italian sausage and cooked in a creamy vodka sauce. It is the perfect make-ahead, comforting baked pasta dish!
Key Ingredients and Substitutions
- Italian Sausage: I use mild Italian sausage, but you could also use spicy sausage, if you'd like a kick! Remove the sausage from any casing before cooking.
- Ricotta Cheese: I use 1 tub of ricotta, which is 15 or 16 ounces depending on the brand. Full-fat cottage cheese would work as a substitute.
- Jumbo pasta shells: Make sure to look for jumbo pasta shells as small pasta shells will be too difficult to stuff. You'll only need about ⅔ of a box of shells, but I like to cook off ¾ of the box to account for a few broken shells.
- Mozzarella cheese: Pre-shredded mozzarella cheese works great.
- Tomato sauce: I use canned, plain tomato sauce for this recipe. If your store is out, you can purchase canned whole peeled tomatoes and puree them in a blender or food processor.
- Heavy cream: The key to the decedent sauce is heavy cream that is reduced.
- Vodka: Any brand of unflavored vodka will work. The alcohol in the vodka will cook out but you'll be left with a delicious, flavorful sauce!
How to make stuffed pasta shells
- Start by making the filling. In a large pan saute the onions in olive oil and salt until soft. Add in the Italian sausage and cook until browned on the outside. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Remove the mixture from the pan.
- Let the sausage cool. When it is done cooling, combine the mixture with the ricotta, parmesan, salt, pepper, and egg.
3. Meanwhile, make the sauce. To the same pan, add the heavy cream and reduce it until it coats the back of a wooden spoon and you can see the bottom of the pan clearly when you run your spoon along it. Stir in the vodka, tomato sauce, and salt and pepper to taste and allow it to simmer until slightly thickened.
4. Spread all but about ¾ cup of sauce at the bottom of your baking dishes. I like using the large cast iron pan I cooked the sauce in, in addition to a smaller casserole pan (9x5) that I freeze for later. You can fit them all tightly packed into a 9x13 or spread out more in a 9x13 and smaller casserole pan.
5. Meanwhile, cook the pasta until al dente in a large pot of boiling, salted water. Drain and layout the pasta shells to cool slightly before filling (they just need to be cool enough so that you don't burn your hands when touching them).
6. Stuff each pasta shell with a scoop of the sausage mixture. Arrange the shells in a single layer in the pan(s). Drizzle with the reserved sauce and top with mozzarella cheese.
7. Bake uncovered for 25-35 minutes at 400 degrees or until the sauce is bubbly, and the cheese is just beginning to turn golden brown.
To make this a full meal, I'd recommend serving these stuffed shells with:
- Whipped Ricotta Crostini as an appetizer
- Homemade Caesar Salad as a side
- Bread Pudding with Cherries for dessert
- If you'd like to make this recipe vegetarian, you can omit the sausage, and add in a mixture of cooked chopped spinach and mushrooms (note: both those ingredients cook down quite a bit so start with a good amount of each. You'll also want to squeeze out extra liquid in the spinach before adding it to the ricotta).
- The egg helps bind the ricotta mixture together, but you can omit it if you'd like this to be egg-free.
- Gluten-free pasta shells would work as well (although they can be tricky to find at the store).
- This filling and sauce would also work great with manicotti pasta!
- The homemade sauce is truly worth the effort! That said, if you are tight on time, your favorite store-bought pasta sauce will work. You'll want about 1.5-2 24-ounce pasta jars.
- The alcohol in the vodka cooks out completely, but if you prefer to not cook with alcohol, you can leave it out and continue with the recipe as is.
Prep ahead, storage, and freezer tips
- This baked pasta dish can be prepped through step 6 up to 3 days in advance and kept tightly covered in the refrigerator. When ready to enjoy, either bring it to room temperature before baking or be prepared to add on 10 or so minutes to the total baking time.
- This is a great freezer-friendly meal! Since this recipe makes a lot, I typically have one large pan that I bake off right away, and then a smaller pan that I pop in the freezer for later.
- To freeze, complete all steps through step 6 and wait to bake. Wrap the pan tightly in plastic wrap then aluminum foil. To bake, remove the plastic wrap, and cover with foil. Bake straight from frozen covered for 30 minutes, then remove the cover and bake for an additional 30 minutes, or until bubbly and the cheese is turning golden brown. Alternatively, you can allow the pan to defrost in the fridge overnight and follow normal baking instructions.
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If you try these stuffed pasta shells, let me know what you think in the comments below! I hope you love this recipe as much as my family does!
Stuffed Pasta Shells
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- Kosher salt
- 1 lb Italian sausage casing removed
- 2 cloves garlic minced
- 1 pint heavy whipping cream
- 30 oz canned tomato sauce
- ½ cup vodka
- Freshly cracked black pepper
- ¾ lb jumbo shells
- 15 oz ricotta
- ¼ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- 1 egg beaten
- 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 5 fresh basil leaves thinly sliced
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and preheat the oven to 400 °F.
- Cook the sausage mixture: Heat a large skillet on medium heat. Add the oil, onions, and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 7 minutes. Turn the heat up to medium-high heat and add the Italian sausage. Use the back of a wooden spoon to break up the sausage and cook until fully cooked and browned. Add in the garlic and stir until fragrant. Remove the sausage mixture from a pan and into a medium mixing bowl. Set it aside to cool while you make the sauce. Remove excess grease from the pan.
- Make the sauce: To the same pan, add the cream. Allow the cream to simmer and reduce until you can clearly see the bottom of the pan when a spoon runs along it (about 10 minutes). Add the tomato sauce, vodka, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Stir well and simmer the sauce until slightly thickened (about 15 minutes). Take the sauce off the heat. Reserve about ¾ cup of sauce (see note below about baking dish reccomendations).
- Meanwhile, finish making the sausage filling. Combine the cooked sausage and onions with the ricotta, parmesan and a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste, adjusting for seasoning, before mixing in the egg.
- Meanwhile, cook the shells in the large pot of salted water until al dente. Strain.
- To assemble, fill the inside of each shell with a spoonful of the sausage mixture. Arrange the stuffed shells in the sauce. Drizzle the reserved sauce on top. Top evenly with mozzarella cheese.
- Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is beginning to turn golden brown. Garnish with fresh basil before serving.
- I like using the large cast iron pan I cooked the sauce in, in addition to a smaller casserole pan (8x5) that I save and freeze for later. You can fit them all tightly packed into a 9x13 or spread them out more and also use a smaller casserole pan.