This spinach and cheese manicotti recipe is the pinnacle of comfort. If you’re ready to learn how to make vegetarian manicotti, this post will give you everything you need to know! You’ll learn if you can make manicotti without boiling the noodles, how to stuff the manicotti without losing your mind, and the difference between cannelloni and manicotti.
If there’s one thing I love, it’s pasta. And what better way to treat pasta than to stuff it with a rich ricotta filling and bake it in a spicy tomato sauce?
Now, if you’d asked me how I felt about manicotti while I was deep in the throes of stuffing them, I would have told you that I cursed Vincenzo Corrado and his idea to stuff long tubes of pasta. But when you eat it, the work somehow seems trivial because the finished product is oh-so-worth-it. Even my dad told me he usually sticks to stuffed shells because he simply doesn’t have the patience for stuffing manicotti.
I do have a few tips for you that I learned from other folks, which you can read below. But, we’ll start with the general recipe and history first.
What’s the history of manicotti anyway?
If you’ve heard of cannelloni before and you look at manicotti, you may wonder what the difference between is between cannelloni and manicotti. They’re both tubes, they’re both stuffed with cheese, and they’re both cooked in sauce.
The first difference? The name. Cannelloni is the original, Italian dish while it is often called manicotti in the United States. The other difference is in the pasta itself. Cannelloni is a bit thinner and smooth while manicotti is thicker and typically has ridges. The ends also tend to be angled while cannelloni is flat.
Both manicotti or cannelloni can be stuffed with meat (Bolognese sauce or a ragu) or a ricotta spinach filling as I did. The sauce can be a tomato-based sauce, a béchamel, or a mix of the two.
How to make this vegetarian manicotti recipe:
The most important part of the manicotti is the sauce and the filling. This recipe uses a sauce that I’ve used for pizza before. It’s jammy, a little sweet, and spicy. You’ll need:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Diced onion
- Minced garlic
- Crushed red pepper
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
- A few basil sprigs
- Salt and pepper
The sweet, spiciness of the sauce pairs perfectly with the filling for the manicotti. The filling is quite simple, you’ll need:
- Spinach, fresh or frozen
- Lemon juice
Do not skip the lemon juice! It adds just a nice nip of brightness to the filling.
This vegetarian manicotti recipe uses fresh spinach which is sautéed first and then chopped. You can use frozen, thawed spinach. Whether you use fresh or frozen, be sure to squeeze out as much water as possible before chopping it up.
Like lasagna, manicotti can be made ahead of time! You can assumble the manicotti the night before and refrigerate over night to make for dinner the next night. Alternatively, you can assemble it, wrap it tightly with foil, and freeze for up to two months.
Can you make manicotti without boiling the noodles?
In short, yes! The only challenge is that you will need to bake the casserole for closer to 1 hour instead of 30 minutes. Below are my timing recommendations based on the boiling time of the pasta:
- No Boil: Cover and bake the casserole for 55 minutes at 350ºF. Remove the cover, bake for 10 minutes more, and then broil for 1–3 minutes.
- 5 minute boil time: Cover and bake the casserole for 40 minutes at 350ºF. Remove the cover, bake for 5 minutes more, and then broil for 1–3 minutes.
- 9 minute boil time*: Bake uncovered for 30 minutes at 400ºF. Broil for 1–3 minutes.
*This is based off the recipe on the back of the Barilla box. It’s the shortest baking time which may be tempting, but these will be the most difficult to stuff. While you can make manicotti without boiling the noodles, I do recommend a 5 minute boil time for the shortest baking time.
- 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 16- ounce package fresh spinach or use 2 10-ounce packages frozen, thawed spinach
- 16 ounces ricotta cheese
- 8 ounces (2 cups) grated mozzarella cheese
- 2 eggs
- 8 basil leaves, minced
- ½ lemon, juiced
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 8- ounce package manicotti
- ½ cup grated mozzarella
- Fresh basil leaves, optional
Prepare the sauce:
- Heat the extra virgin olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Once hot, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6–8 minutes.
- Add the butter to the pot. Once melted, add the garlic and cook for 1 minute until fragrant.
- Add the tomato paste and mash it into the onion and garlic. Cook for 4–5 minutes until it deepens in color.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, sugar, crushed red pepper, and basil sprigs. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and continue simmering for at least 1 hour, uncovered, until the sauce is thick and jammy. Taste and season to your preferences, and discard the basil sprigs.
Cook the spinach (optional):
- If using fresh spinach*, heat 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil in a large skillet. Once hot, add the spinach and ¼ cup of water. Cook, turning regularly, until the spinach wilts completely. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
- Place the spinach on a paper towel-lined plate in an even layer. Transfer to the freezer for 5–10 minutes. Once the spinach is cool enough to handle, squeeze out all of the excess moisture and then roughly chop. Set aside.
Prepare the cheese filling:
- Mix the ricotta, mozzarella, eggs, basil, lemon juice, and salt and pepper in a large bowl. Mix with a spoon until smooth.
- Add the chopped spinach and stir until combined. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Refrigerate until needed.
Cook the manicotti (optional):
- If parboiling the manicotti, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil first. Add the manicotti and cook for precisely 5 minutes. Drain and rinse until cold water. Set aside.
Prepare the manicotti:
- Preheat oven to 350ºF.
- Add half the pasta sauce to the bottom of a 9”x13” baking dish and smooth it into an even layer. Set aside.
- Stuff the manicotti with the filling using a long spoon or a piping bag. Be sure each piece of pasta is fully stuffed, but be careful not to overstuff as it will split the pasta. Place the stuffed manicotti into the baking dish on top of the sauce. Continue on until all of the manicotti are stuffed.
- Spoon 1–2 cups more sauce on top of the manicotti and smooth into an even layer. Sprinkle the remaining ½ cup mozzarella on top of the manicotti.
- Cover the baking dish with foil and transfer it to the oven. Bake, covered, for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes.
- Turn on the broiler and broil for 1–3 minutes until the cheese is browned and bubbly. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5–10 minutes.
- Scatter a few fresh basil leaves on top of the casserole. Serve the manicotti with any remaining pasta sauce. Enjoy!