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Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Spinach and ricotta stuffed shells are loaded with a filling of 3 cheeses, spinach and basil, then topped with a fresh Marinara sauce and melty mozzarella cheese. It makes a great lunch or dinner with a simple green salad.

This is a solid make-ahead vegetarian recipe with bold colors and flavors that has a good shortcut if you need it.

cheese and ricotta stuffed shells toped with tomato sauce served over bed of lettuce on plate.

My friend Cath made a stuffed pasta shells recipe recently and tempted me to give it a whirl.

I checked out half a dozen similar recipes which were all – er – similar. I ended up blending recipes from Food and Wine, Serious Eats, Eating Well and Fork Knife Spoon including any tips the authors had to share.

What to expect

The recipe has 5 steps:

  1. Cook the pasta shells
  2. Make the Marinara sauce (or take a shortcut and buy one)
  3. Make the spinach-cheese filling
  4. Stuff the shells
  5. Assemble and bake

As you can see, the recipe takes a little bit of time. Using a store-bought tomato sauce will cut the time down considerably.

On the plus side, this is a great recipe for making a day or two ahead of time. Bake it when needed. Or freeze it to have a great meal at a later time.

The stuffed pasta shells are delicious with a tasty filling, sauce and melty cheese. I also love the bold red and green colors. Hey, maybe a good dish for the vegetarians at the Christmas dinner table?

Ingredients – tailored to your taste

large pasta shells, ricotta, goat cheese, Parmesan, green onions, frozen spinach, canned crushed tomatoes, basil, nutmeg, chili flakes, olive oil,
garlic, salt, pepper,
garlic powder.

Pasta shells: Use large pasta shells or jumbo pasta shells.

Cheeses: We are using three kinds of cheese in the filling – ricotta cheese, goat cheese and Parmesan. Plus, mozzarella as a topping. Try to get the best ricotta you can – creamier, less grainy.

Spinach: I use frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry. You can also use fresh baby spinach – instructions are in the recipe card.

Canned tomatoes: I prefer San Marzano whole tomatoes, but other kinds will be fine too. See shortcuts below.

  • Vary the proportion of the cheeses e.g. more goat cheese, less ricotta, more Parmesan, etc. If you don’t like or have goat cheese, use all ricotta.
  • Vary the heat/spice in the sauce. Add red pepper flakes or a seeded, chopped jalapeno pepper.
  • Vary the seasoning with fresh herbs like basil and thyme or with a dried Italian seasoning blend.
  • Instead of a plain Marinara tomato sauce, you can use a meat sauce. or a vegetarian bolognese made with plant-based meat.

Step by step instructions

cooked large pasta shells in sieve.
Cook shells in a large pot of salted water. Cook 2 minutes LESS than package directions suggest.
Add the sauce ingredients to a medium saucepan.
finished cooked tomato sauce in pot.
Simmer until thickened.
thawed spinach in paper towels to squeeze out moisture.
Thaw the spinach and squeeze out the excess liquid.
spinach cheese filling blended in food processor bowl.
Blend spinach and other filling ingredients in a food processor.
spinach and cheese mixture stuffed into pasta shells sitting on sauce in casserole dish.
Place some marinara sauce at the bottom of the dish. Fill the cooked shells with the creamy ricotta mixture and lay them on top.
tomato sauce on top of stuffed shells in casserole dish.
Spoon more marinara on top of the shells.
mozzarella cheese sprinkled over uncooked stuff shells.
Sprinkle on the mozzarella.
baked stuffed pasta shells in casserole dish.
Bake until warm and bubbly.

Serve this pasta dish with the remaining marinara sauce on the side.

stuff pasta shell cut open in half on cutting board.

Shortcut

  • You can save time by using a great store-bought Marinara sauce like White Linen from Costco. The total time will be reduced to about 45 minutes and most of that is baking time.

Make Ahead

In the recipe notes below, you will find instructions for:

  • Prep ahead
  • Freezing uncooked stuffed shells
  • Freezing baked stuffed shells
  • Reheating

What to serve with stuffed pasta shells

Serve the spinach ricotta shells with a nice warm crusty bread, cheddar biscuits, garlic bread, or a side salad like this winter salad.

For dessert, how about a simple 10-minute no-bake berry crumble or easy berry compote on cake?

cheese and ricotta stuffed shells toped with tomato sauce served over bed of lettuce on plate.

Recipe FAQs

Can I make my own ricotta?

Here is a recipe for homemade ricotta from Smitten Kitchen that comes well recommended with minimal hands-on time

Why are my stuffed shells watery?

The main reason the filling has excess moisture is because the spinach was not drained well enough. Also, if your container of ricotta has liquid at the top, you’ll want to drain that off as well.

What are pasta shells called?

Most of the time, you will just see them called shells in the grocery store. But, they do have an official pasta name. Small pasta shells are called conchigliette and the largest shell shape is called conchiglioni. 

More pasta dishes

Or check out all our delicious pasta and rice recipes.

If you like this recipe, please leave a 5 star rating 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟in the recipe card below. And if you REALLY like it, consider a review in the comments. Thanks very much!

cheese and ricotta stuffed shells toped with tomato sauce served over bed of lettuce on plate.
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Spinach and Ricotta Stuffed Shells

Spinach and ricotta stuffed shells are loaded with a filling of 3 cheeses, spinach and basil, then topped with a fresh Marinara sauce and melty mozzarella cheese. It makes a great lunch or dinner.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time1 hour
Total Time1 hour 15 minutes
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Diet: Vegetarian
Servings: 4 (3-4 shells each)

Ingredients

  • 14 large pasta shells. I make 18-20 in case some break (if using jumbo shells, make less)

Marinara Sauce (Note 1)

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3-4 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 can (28 ounce) San Marzano whole tomatoes preferably (or other kind)
  • 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or more to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Filling for pasta shells

  • 1 cup combination ricotta and goat cheese (I use 3/4 cup/190 g ricotta, 1/4 cup/61 g goat cheese)
  • 6 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup fresh basil, packed
  • 5 ounce frozen chopped spinach, Note 2 (you need 1/4 cup/45 grams well drained cooked spinach)
  • 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg (adds great flavor!)

Topping

  • 1/2 cup Mozzarella cheese
  • 2 tablespoon Parmesan cheese

Instructions

  • HEAT OVEN to 375F/190C.
  • BOIL PASTA SHELLS: Place pasta shells in boiling salted water and cook 2 minutes less than instructions say on package for al dente. Don't overcook as they will finish cooking in the oven. Drain, add a few drops of oil to prevent them sticking and set aside.
  • MAKE MARINARA SAUCE: While pasta is boiling, in a medium saucepan, heat olive oil to medium. Add garlic and cook for 30 seconds until fragrant. Wash hands well. Remove 1-2 tomatoes at a time from can, squish over saucepan until well broken up, then add to saucepan. Repeat with all tomatoes. Add juice from can. Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. Stir, bring to boil, then lower to medium heat and cook uncovered for 20-30 minutes until thickened to the consistency you like. For shortcut, see Note 1.
  • MAKE FILLING: Microwave frozen spinach, covered, for 2 minutes (or rinse under water to thaw). Drain well in a mesh sieve and squeeze excess water out (press down with back of spoon)and then with paper towels. You should have about 1/4 cup/45 grams (but a bit more or less is fine). Add spinach and all other filling ingredients to a food processor. Process for 1 minute until well blended. (Alternatively, chop basil finely and mix all ingredients together by hand).
  • STUFF SHELLS: Add about 1/2 cup/118 ml of the homemade Marinara sauce to bottom of a 7 x 11 or 9 x 9 glass pyrex or oven proof baking dish. Stuff shells with cheese-spinach mixture. TIP: I find it easier to put filling in a plastic bag, cut off the tip of the bag at the bottom of one side, then pipe filling into pasta shells. Arrange shells in baking dish, stuffed side up.
  • FINISH AND BAKE: Add about 1 cup/237 ml Marinara sauce evenly over stuffed shells. Sprinkle Mozzarella and extra Parmesan on top if desired. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake another 10 minutes or until bubbling and starting to brown. Serve immediately with extra Marinara sauce on the side if you like.

Recipe Notes

  1. Shortcut for Marinara sauce: Feel free to use 1 1/2 – 2 cups of a good store-bought Marinara sauce. A great one is White Linen Marinara Sauce found at Costco. Rao’s is another good sauce. This will save about 1/2 hour of cooking time for this recipe. 
  2. To use fresh spinach instead: Wilt it in the microwave for a minute, chop it, then squeeze it dry in paper towels.
  3. Variations:
    • Vary the proportion of the cheeses e.g. more goat cheese, less ricotta, more Parmesan, etc. If you don’t like or have goat cheese, use all ricotta.
    • Vary the heat/spice in the sauce. Kick it up with more red pepper flakes or a seeded, chopped jalapeno pepper. 
    • Add other fresh herbs like basil and thyme or a dried Italian seasoning blend.
    • Instead of a plain Marinara tomato sauce, you can use a meat sauce. or a vegetarian bolognese made with plant based meat.
  4. To make ahead
    • Prep ahead 2-3 days: Make complete dish (but don’t bake it). Cover well with plastic wrap or foil. Refrigerate. When read to serve, bake 30 minutes covered, and 10 minutes uncovered.
    • Freezing uncooked stuffed shells: Cover baking dish with stuff shells well. Freeze for up to 2 months. Bake from frozen, but add more time. Alternatively, freeze stuff shells without the sauce and cheese. Lay them on a baking sheet, flash freeze, then pile them into a freezer bag. Bake frozen with sauce and cheese. 
    • Freezing baked stuffed shell: Cool, place in airtight container, freeze for up to 1 month.  
    • Reheating: Heat oven to 375°F (190°C). Bake stuff shells with sauce and cheese, covered with foil, for 30-40 minutes if not frozen and about 1 hour if frozen. 
    • Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
 
Nutrition value estimates are for 3-4 large stuffed pasta shells per serving. 

Nutrition

Calories: 416kcal | Carbohydrates: 34g | Protein: 24g | Fat: 21g | Saturated Fat: 11g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1g | Monounsaturated Fat: 7g | Cholesterol: 61mg | Sodium: 1284mg | Potassium: 679mg | Fiber: 4g | Sugar: 6g | Vitamin A: 5128IU | Vitamin C: 22mg | Calcium: 513mg | Iron: 4mg
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  • To make ahead
    • Prep ahead 2-3 days: Make complete dish (but don’t bake it). Cover well with plastic wrap or foil. Refrigerate. When read to serve, bake 30 minutes covered, and 10 minutes uncovered.
    • Freezing uncooked stuffed shells: Cover baking dish with stuff shells well. Freeze for up to 2 months. Bake from frozen, but add more time. Alternatively, freeze stuff shells without the sauce and cheese. Lay them on a baking sheet, flash freeze, then pile them into a freezer bag. Bake frozen with sauce and cheese. 
    • Freezing baked stuffed shell: Cool, place in airtight container, freeze for up to 1 month.  
    • Reheating: Heat oven to 375°F (190°C). Bake stuff shells with sauce and cheese, covered with foil, for 30-40 minutes if not frozen and about 1 hour if frozen. 
    • Store leftovers in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
  • Nutrition value estimates are for 3-4 large stuffed pasta shells per serving. 

    Main Course
    Italian
    Vegetarian
    spinach and ricotta stuff shells, stuff pasta shells