A baked pasta dish can be:
- layers of ingredients with pasta in between; or
- large pieces of pasta stuffed with ingredients; or
- pasta and other ingredients tossed together
Generally, all the ingredients that go in a baked pasta dish are all already cooked, and in the “baking”, all you’re doing is heating everything through until piping hot, melting any cheese on top, and / or giving the top an appealing golden-brown crust.
All baked pasta dishes will call for some type of sauce, either white or tomato based (or even green), to stop the pasta from drying out during the baking.
If you are doing layers, make sure to season each layer as you go.
Most baked pasta dishes you can make ahead, and bake before serving. Generally, you just prepare everything up to the point where it would go in the oven, then cover and refrigerate. Remove from the fridge about 1/2 hour before baking, to give some of the chill a chance to go off.
The pasta needs to be cooked by boiling first, though some pasta is now being sold which doesn’t require that, though it’s a little more expensive (and some feel, not as good.) When using pasta for a baked pasta dish, this is more than ever the time to cook your pasta tender to the bite. Even more, undercook it a bit — about 2/3 of the time you normally would for “al dente” (and don’t rinse the pasta, not that you ever should.) Otherwise, if you fully cook the pasta first, it may after baking turn into an unappealing moosh. For some dishes, where you want a more creamy texture, then cook the pasta a minute or two past “al dente.” Such dishes will give you a contrast between a soft, creamy interior and a crispy or chewy top.
What you bake the pasta in needs to be ovenproof. If the baked pasta dish is quite saucy, use a higher-side baking vessel to stop the sauce from bubbling over in the oven. That being said, it will heat up faster in a wide, shallow dish, which both allows for a shorter amount of time to get the middle piping hot, without cooking for so long that the pasta goes mushy, and it allows for more of a crusty, interesting surface area.
You almost always cook baked pasta dishes uncovered.
Some recipes will have you butter or oil or spray the sides of the baking dish first.
If the baked pasta dish is one that you are going to serve in slices (such as lasagne) or in pieces (such as manicotti or cannelloni), let rest for a few minutes before serving. If it’s a dish you are going to serve in spoonfuls, then you can serve them right away.
Make sure the pasta is boiled just until tender to the bite, and no more, as it will be cooking more in the oven, anyway. To keep the pasta from drying out, bake it quickly in a hot oven, for no more than 20 minutes. Instead of using a deep dish, which would require a longer cooking time in order to heat through to the middle, use a wider, shallower dish.