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Filled with three kinds of cheese and covered in savory meat sauce, these Stuffed Shells are a total crowd-pleaser. Easy and super satisfying, plus it’s make-ahead friendly. And I even recommend my favorite pasta shells if you want to make it gluten free!
Cheesy Stuffed Pasta Shells with Meat Sauce
One of the major dishes I missed when I went gluten-free was stuffed shells. Who wouldn’t miss tender pasta filled to the brim with cheese, baked in plenty of savory sauce?
For a while, I soothed the wound with homemade recipes for gluten-free Italian Noodle Casserole and Gluten Free Lasagna. And then one day, finally, I came across gluten-free jumbo pasta shells in the supermarket. It was game on.
These came out pretty darn tasty. Meaty, cheesy, saucy, and just like I remembered them. Scooping these stuffed pasta shells out of the pan was satisfying as ever, watching those strings of melty cheese just stretch as far as they could go.
Gluten-free stuffed shells are a perfect family meal, made to feed a crowd. We always have leftovers that taste just as delicious the next day (don’t forget to scroll for storing and reheating tips). It’s a cozy, comforting, easy dinner that I know I’ll be making again ASAP.
What You’ll Need
Below is a short overview of the different ingredients you’ll need to make homemade stuffed shells. Remember to check the recipe card for the full recipe details:
- Pasta Shells: You’ll need a total of about 30-36 shells, so the amount of packages will vary by brand. It’ll take two packages of gluten-free pasta shells. They should be cooked al dente.
- Ground Beef: I prefer to cook with lean (85%-90%) ground beef as it cuts down on the amount of grease in the sauce.
- Onion and Garlic: For aromatics.
- Marinara Sauce: Choose your favorite jarred marinara sauce. If you have the time, I highly recommend Homemade Marinara Sauce. You can’t beat the fresh flavors!
- Italian Seasoning: For seasoning the meat sauce, along with salt and pepper. Feel free to use any combination of dried basil, thyme, or oregano instead.
- Cheese: I make these three-cheese stuffed shells with a filling of ricotta, parmesan, and mozzarella cheese. Cottage cheese can be substituted for ricotta. Freshly grates parmesan is always best, but you can use any variety (pre-grated, etc.) that you prefer.
- Egg: Adding an egg to the cheese filling helps it bind together. This way, it stays inside the shells as they bake.
- Parsley: I add a sprinkle of dried parsley into the filling for extra flavor. You can also use fresh parsley or fresh or dried basil, and set some aside to use as a garnish later.
What Brands of Jumbo Pasta Shells Are Gluten Free?
There are a few brands out there making gluten-free jumbo pasta shells, but Tinkyada seems to be the most popular. You’ll find their “grande” shells in most major grocery stores, or online.
If you’re thinking that two boxes is going to make a lot of pasta, you’d be right. Each 8-ounce box comes with about 28 jumbo shells, and you’ll need about 30-36 to cover the casserole dish. Rather than pick out individual shells from the second box to make 36, I’ll often just cook both boxes and use leftovers to make a pasta casserole similar to my Gluten Free Baked Ziti.
How to Make Stuffed Shells
Before you begin, get your pasta shells boiling according to the package directions until they’re just al dente. Afterward, drain and rinse the pasta under cold water. Then, you’ll get started on the other ingredients:
- Brown the Beef: Add the ground beef to a large skillet with onions. Season with salt and pepper, then break up the meat while it cooks and the onions soften.
- Make the Sauce: When the beef is browned, stir in garlic, followed by the marinara sauce and seasoning. Take the pan off the heat, and spread half of the meat sauce into a greased 9×13-inch baking dish.
- Mix the Cheese: In a bowl, stir up a quick mixture of ricotta cheese, mozzarella, and parmesan, along with the egg and parsley.
- Assemble: While the oven preheats, spoon the cheese mixture into about 30-36 shells. Place the filled shells over the sauce in your prepared pan, then top with the remaining sauce.
- Bake: Give the top a sprinkle with the last of the mozzarella. Bake the shells covered in foil for about 30 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for another 10 minutes, to get the cheesy all bubbly.
Can I Make This Ahead of Time?
Definitely! This recipe is very make-ahead friendly. Simply prepare the stuffed shells as directed, but leave them unbaked and wrap the baking dish tightly with foil. Pop it into the fridge up to 2 days ahead of time.
You can bake the shells directly from the fridge, just add a few extra minutes to the baking time. See below for tips on how to store and freeze leftovers!
Tips for Success
When it comes to the best stuffed shells, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t overcook the shells. Boiling the shells 1-2 minutes less than their suggested cooking time. This will allow them to continue to cook in the oven without becoming mushy.
- Drain the grease. Depending on how lean your ground beef is, you may have additional grease in the pan after it’s been browned. Make sure to drain the excess grease before adding the marinara, so your pasta sauce doesn’t come out too oily.
- Grate the mozzarella yourself. I know it’s tempting to use bags of pre-shredded cheese, but mozzarella melts down so much smoother if you grate it yourself.
- Don’t overbake. Overbaking pasta casseroles like stuffed shells will make them dry out, so make sure to only bake until the cheese is golden and bubbling.
Pasta dinners are some of our favorite meals because they’re just so versatile! You can adapt this recipe for gluten-free stuffed shells to suit your personal tastes. Here are some easy recipe variations:
- Add Spinach: For some extra greens, wilt some spinach into the meat sauce, or stir some cooked spinach into the cheese mixture. Spinach stuffed shells are also a great vegetarian option (see the next point).
- Vegetarian: To make these vegetarian stuffed shells, skip the ground beef in the sauce and just use plain marinara. Or, add spinach or mushrooms in place of the beef.
- Different Protein: Use half beef and half ground Italian sausage for even more flavor in the meat sauce. This recipe can also be made with ground chicken or turkey for a leaner meal.
Storing and Reheating Leftovers
Once your gluten-free ricotta stuffed shells have cooled completely, store them airtight in the fridge for up to 4-5 days. To reheat, place the shells back into the oven at 350ºF for about 15 minutes, until warmed through. You can also reheat them in the microwave.
Can I Freeze Stuffed Shells?
Yes! You can freeze baked or unbaked gluten-free stuffed pasta shells for an easy freezer meal.
- To freeze unbaked stuffed shells, assemble the casserole as directed and wrap it tightly, then store it frozen for up to 3 months. You can bake the shells straight from frozen, adding an extra 30 minutes or so to the baking time.
- To freeze the cooked stuffed shells, store them airtight and freeze them for up to 3 months. You can also portion the cooked shells into individual containers for easy meal prep. Thaw the shells in the fridge overnight, or you can also bake them from frozen and increase the baking time accordingly.
Make It a Meal
Whenever we feel like changing things up on pasta night, out of the oven come these cheesy gluten-free stuffed shells. I love them with a light side of Italian Wedge Salad or Caprese Zoodles Salad to balance out the heartiness.
Gluten Free Stuffed Shells
- Two 8 oz. packages of large gluten free pasta shells (such as the Tinkyada brand), cooked al dente according to package directions and drained
- 1 lb lean ground beef
- Half of a medium onion , finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1 clove garlic , minced or crushed
- Two 24 oz. jars of marinara sauce
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
- One 15 oz. container of ricotta cheese
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese (about 8 oz.), divided
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- One large egg
- 1 teaspoon dried parsley
- Minced fresh parsley or basil , optional
- Spray a 9×13-inch baking dish with olive oil or cooking spray.
- Cook the pasta according to the package directions, leaving it slightly al dente. Drain and immediately run under very cold water to stop the cooking process.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the ground beef, onion, salt, and pepper and cook until the meat is browned and the onion is translucent, breaking up the meat as it cooks. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two, then stir in the marinara sauce and Italian seasoning. Remove from the heat.
- Spread about half of the meat sauce over the bottom of the prepared pan.
- In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta cheese, 1⁄2 cup of the mozzarella cheese, parmesan cheese, egg, and parsley until evenly mixed.
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Fill 30-36 shells with approximately 1-1 1/2 Tablespoons of the cheese mixture and place in the baking dish. Cover with the remaining meat sauce and mozzarella cheese.
- Cover with foil and bake for 30-35 minutes. Remove the cover and bake for another 5-10 minutes until golden and bubbly.