Photo, Roberto Caruso.
Baked pastas can serve a crowd and act as a all-in-one meal, but there's one common problem that aggravates home cooks: the dish comes out of the oven too dry. You can try to correct this by serving a side of sauce, but if you haven't begun cooking yet, here are 8 tips to getting everything right from the start.
Adjust your cooking time by boiling your pasta in well-salted water for about 2 minutes less than you usually would. When you test it, it should be on the tender side, but have a firmer bite than al dente. This prevents the pasta from becoming overcooked when it bakes in the oven.
If you plan to bake your pasta immediately, drain — but do not rinse – the pasta. If you are going to assemble it and bake it later, rinse it with cold water. Why? If you aren’t going to bake it right away you want to stop the cooking process. (You'll also have to cool the remaining ingredients if you plan to bake it later; if you combine hot pasta with hot ingredients and let them sit at room temperature or in the fridge for an extended period of time all of the liquid will be absorbed by the pasta and it will get gluey and dry.)
If you are adding meat to your baked pasta, choose one with a little bit of fat. It will add flavour, and won’t dry out during cooking. Naturally, meats are cooked in advance with the other ingredients before assembling the pasta. Good choices are medium ground beef, sausage meat removed its casings or skinned, deboned chicken thighs.
If you are baking the pasta right away, go ahead and add the hot ingredients to the hot pasta and stir to coat. If you're baking it later, wait until all the components have cooled to toss them together.
The liquid will finish cooking the pasta's cooking process and act as sauce for the pasta. To test how much liquid you have, pour your mixture into your baking pan and use a spoon to pull aside some of the noodles. If you see some liquid pool in the bottom of the dish, you likely have enough. If there isn’t any liquid, add another cup of sauce or chicken stock, whatever the recipe calls for.
A common mistake is forgetting to taste something before putting it in the oven. All the components are cooked, so scoop yourself a little bowl and have a taste. Does it need salt? Pepper? If you want some spice ... now’s the time for any last minute changes.
If your recipe calls to top with cheese, wait. Why? Because baked pastas should be baked covered for the first 20 minutes to prevent moisture loss. If you top it with cheese and then cover it, all the cheese will come off when you remove the cover. So after baking for 20 minutes under foil, remove foil, scatter with cheese and continue baking as per recipe instructions.
Missing that golden crispy top? Slip it under the broiler, watching carefully for 2 to 3 minutes before serving. Enjoy!
Originally published March 2015. Updated January 2024.
Subscribe to our newsletters for our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers.