Pasta shells stuffed with spinach and ricotta is an Italian recipe I grew up with. It’s easy and simple to make, but don’t tell your guests because they’ll think you spent all day preparing it!
What makes this version of stuffed pasta shells unique is the balance of the creamy ricotta cheese paired with just enough chopped spinach that everyone will love.
This recipe is very special because my mother used to make it for holidays such as Christmas or other special occasions. It is a family favorite, and I hope your family and friends rave about it as much as they did in our household.Jump Down to Recipe Card
Shells Stuffed with Spinach and Ricotta
There are many ways to make stuffed pasta shells. Some recipes might include meats or other vegetables. But my version focuses on the spinach and ricotta as the primary ingredients, keeping to the simple but rich flavors commonly used in central and southern Italian regions.
However, the stuffed shells you’re about to make include a few other ingredients that you most likely have already in your kitchen. Here’s a full list of the ingredients you’ll need for this recipe.
- 1 box jumbo pasta shells (Barilla is a common brand)
- 32 to 40 ounces of pasta sauce
- 2 cups of whole ricotta cheese
- ½ cup of mozzarella cheese
- ¼ cup grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
- 1 12 oz bag frozen chopped spinach
Boil your Pasta Shells Before Stuffing
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Gently add in your pasta shells and boil them until they are ¾ of the way done, which is approximately 8 minutes. This is called parboiling.
The reason we parboil the shells is because they will continue cooking when we stuff them with the filling and bake them in the oven. Plus, I’ve found that by undercooking the shells they are less likely to tear.
Prepare the Baking Dish with a Layer of Sauce
While the shells are boiling it’s important to prepare the baking dish. Add a good amount of marinara sauce on the bottom of the baking pan and spread it around so it covers the pan. This prevents sticking and will help cook the shells. You will then add the stuffed pasta shells on top of the sauce.
Drain and Cool the Pasta Shells
When the shells are parboiled remove and drain them of excess water. Cool them down by running under cold water and set aside. Since you’ll be handling them with your hands you want to make sure they are cool to the touch.
Make the Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shell Filling
In a medium or large bowl, mix the three cheeses together with the spinach. This is your filling. If you noticed there is no garlic, you are correct. We do not need garlic in this pasta dish. Not every Italian recipe has garlic as an ingredient. The garlic would overpower the other ingredients.
Fill the Stuffed Shells with Spinach and Ricotta Mixture
While holding each shell use a spoon to gently spoon the mixture into the shell. When it is filled, place the stuffed pasta shell in the baking dish with the opening facing up, not down. Do not worry about over or under stuffing, adjust quantity as needed.
You can layer the pasta shells if you run out of space in the baking pan. Simply make sure to spread a layer of sauce on top of the bottom layer.
Top the Stuffed Shells Generously with the Sauce
Once the shells are in place, cover the pasta shells with the remaining sauce. Do not skimp on this. Exposed pasta shells, especially on the corners will become dry and hard if not covered with sauce.
Sprinkle some extra mozzarella cheese on top, then cover with foil.
Bake for 30 minutes at 350F. You’ll know the pasta is ready when the stuffed shells reach an internal temperature of 165F.
Cooking Tips for Stuffed Shells Recipe with Spinach and Ricotta
Here are some tips about this recipe that will help you make the best spinach and ricotta stuffed shells recipe you’ve ever tried!
Adjust Filling Quantities as Needed
In this recipe we added the Romano/Parmesan and mozzarella cheeses to the filling. The quantities used are by no means set in stone. You can adjust according to taste or by what you have on hand. However, to stay true to the spinach and ricotta combination, make sure the quantity of ricotta is more than the other cheeses combined.
Why Ricotta is used in the Stuffing
Ricotta is a wet and creamy cheese, unlike Romano or mozzarella cheese. It’s the ricotta that causes the shell filling to have the creaminess that is critical for stuffed shells. That’s also why I only use whole milk ricotta, not skim milk or other reduced fat varieties. Whole milk ricotta is the smoothest and creamiest of all types of ricotta.
Using Frozen Spinach in the Stuffed Shells
My recipe for stuffed shells uses frozen spinach, not fresh. I find it is quicker and easier. You can use fresh spinach if you prefer but blanch the spinach first and let it cool before adding to the ricotta filling.
Using Herbs with the Spinach and Ricotta
Since this recipe calls for spinach, we do not need to use any herbs. When we cook spinach we typically don’t use parsley or any other herb and we wouldn’t make any exceptions here. Not even garlic is used. You’ll have the flavors of any herbs or garlic in the sauce, so there is no need to add them again in the mixture.
Use Jumbo Shells
It is recommended to use jumbo shells when making stuffed pasta shells. Using the larger shells make it easier to fill and provide a better serving size. Some brands have Large shells for stuffing, but either way, the cooking times will be the same.
What to Serve with this Recipe?
Stuffed shells, along with most any pasta recipe with a tomato sauce will always pair well with vegetables, soups, and some meats. Avoid heavy side dishes unless you’re having two main dishes for the meal. I’ve written a post specifically about what to serve with stuffed shells that you can check out for more ideas.
Do You Cook Pasta Shells Before Stuffing and Baking Them?
You must cook the pasta shells before stuffing or baking them. Store bought pasta shells are hard and they need to boil just like any other pasta.
In this recipe we parboil the pasta shells, letting them finish the baking process in the oven, however it is crucial to boil the shells first.
Can I Make Pasta Shells Stuffed with Ricotta and Spinach Ahead of Time
Absolutely! It’s very easy and convenient to make the pasta shells ahead of time. To make the stuffed shells in advance, follow the instructions through the stuffing of the shells, unless you choose to bake them.
You can store these delicious shells stuffed with spinach and ricotta in the refrigerator, covered for up to 2 days, just as you would any other baked pasta recipe. The stuffed shells can also be frozen for up to 6 months. You can also choose to freeze them after you bake them.
In summary, here are different ways you can freeze the stuffed shells:
- Freeze Before Baking without the Sauce
- Freeze Before Baking with the Sauce
- Freeze After Baking
You can check out my article for more specific instructions about how long to cook frozen stuffed shells when you’re ready.
Freeze Stuffed Shells without Sauce
Some people recommend spreading them out on a baking sheet and placing it in a freezer until they can be placed in bags. In this process, you don’t need to worry about the sauce until you take them out of the freezer.
Just let them thaw in the refrigerator for a day and then bake them with the sauce as described in this recipe.
Freeze Stuffed Shells with the Sauce
If you want to have the shells stuffed with ricotta and spinach and ready to roll when you want to use them, I recommend freezing them in the baking dish with the layers of sauce on the bottom and top.
This way all you have to do is either take them out the day before, or place directly in the oven and cook an extra 30 minutes if frozen.
It’s important to reduce the amount of air the stuffed shells with spinach and ricotta are exposed to while in the freezer, so cover with plastic wrap and then foil. The less they are exposed to air, the longer it will take for freezer burn to set in.
Freeze Stuffed Shells After Baking
If you decide to bake the stuffed shells with ricotta and spinach, or perhaps have any left over, you can still freeze them to use in a later meal. Make sure they have fully cooled and then store them in an air-tight container.
When ready to use, preheat the oven to 350F and reheat the stuffed shells covered. Make sure to have extra sauce available as the pasta shells will have absorbed most of the original sauce.
I hope you enjoy this recipe for stuffed shells with ricotta and spinach. Make sure to check many of my other pasta recipes. Feel free to leave your comments below!
Stuffed Shells with Spinach and Ricotta
- 3/4 or 1 box jumbo pasta shells approx. 5 shells per serving. Boil extra to account for any shells that tear.
- 32 oz pasta sauce about 4-5 cups
- 2 cups whole milk ricotta cheese
- 1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese save some extra for topping
- 1/4 cup Romano or Parmesan cheese
- 1 12 oz bag thawed and drained frozen chopped spinach
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- In a large pot, boil the shells until almost done. About 3/4 the recommended cooking time (approx 7 min.).
- Drain and cool with cold water.
- Mix the cheeses and spinach in a medium bowl.
- Fill each shell with the mixture.
- In a baking dish spread a heavy layer of sauce.
- Add the stuffed shells (open side up), cover liberally with sauce, and sprinkle remaining mozzarella cheese on top.
- Cover with foil and bake for 35 minutes or until fully cooked and sauce is bubbling.
- Remove from oven and enjoy!
If you enjoyed this recipe for stuffed shells, you’ll also enjoy the following pasta recipes:
Thanks for visiting and let me know your comments below!
This post was originally created Sept. 5th, 2016 and updated January 3rd, 2023.