Jumbo pasta shells filled with 3 types of cheese and basil pesto, making them extra cheesy and delicious! The cheese stuffed shells are baked in a creamy, buttery vodka sauce and topped with melty mozzarella cheese. This is a great make-ahead recipe!
This post is sponsored by Go Bold With Butter, who I am so excited to partner with! Recipe, thoughts and opinions are all my own.
I combined my love for vodka sauce with my love for cheesy stuffed pasta shells, and it is so so good! But what really makes these stuffed shells stand out from all others is the addition of basil pesto!
Lots of basil pesto gets mixed with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan cheese then stuffed inside jumbo pasta shells. The combination is absolutely perfect. You can use store-bought pesto (which is what I used) or make your own. The cheese filled shells are then nestled in a skillet with lots of creamy, buttery homemade vodka sauce and baked until hot and melty.
Why you'll love this recipe
- 3 types of cheese. Jumbo pasta shells are stuffed with 3 types of delicious cheese: ricotta, mozzarella, and parmesan.
- Basil pesto. Taking the stuffed shells to another level, basil pesto is mixed with cheese filling adding delicious herby flavor.
- Buttery vodka sauce. Vodka sauce is so simple to make, yet full of flavor. I like to finish the sauce by mixing in butter to make the sauce silky smooth.
Buttery Vodka Sauce
Vodka sauce is so easy to make and yet so delicious! It's a creamy, savory, tomato-based sauce made with vodka, heavy cream, parmesan and salty butter.
Although the vodka cooks off, it adds a bite to the sauce and enhances the tomato flavor. It also helps the tomato paste incorporate with the heavy cream, resulting in a smooth, creamy tomato sauce.
But, let's talk about what really takes the sauce to another level. Butter! Once the tomato sauce is just about finished, you'll mix in butter and shredded parmesan cheese.
Butter adds a creamy, salty, and sweet component to the sauce, making the sauce rich and smooth. It also helps to balance out the acidity of the tomatoes. Don't skip it! You're going to love it! However, make sure you're using real butter - there's no substitute that will give you the same delicious results. Oil or butter substitutes will be too greasy.
I personally like to use salted butter (I use salted butter for everything), but you can certainly use unsalted.
- Fresh spinach
- Jumbo pasta shells
- Ricotta cheese
- Mozzarella cheese
- Parmesan cheese
- Basil pesto
- Black pepper
- Yellow onion
- Red pepper flakes
- Dried oregano
- Dried basil
- Tomato paste
- Heavy cream
How to make stuffed shells
- Make the cheese filling. Start by sautéing fresh spinach, then mix with 3 types of cheese, basil pesto, and an egg.
- Cook the pasta. Boil jumbo pasta shells in salted water until just al dente. Be careful not to overcook the pasta, as the pasta will finish cooking in the oven.
- Make the vodka sauce. While the shells cooks, make the sauce. Start by cooking onion in butter until softened, then mix in dried herbs, tomato paste, vodka, and heavy cream. Season with salt and finish with butter and parmesan cheese.
- Stuff the shells. Fill the shells with the cheese filling and place in the skillet with the vodka sauce.
- Bake. Sprinkle with more cheese and bake until hot and bubbly.
Scroll down to the recipe card for the full instructions.
Tips & tricks
- Salt your pasta water. This is always a must. Salting the water adds so much flavor to pasta while it cooks.
- Don't overcook the pasta. The pasta will continue to cook in the oven, so make sure you only cook the shells until al dente and still a little chewy.
- Lay out the cooked shells on a baking sheet to prevent sticking. Once you strain the pasta shells, lay them out so they don't stick and clump together in the pot.
- Add a pinch of red pepper flakes to the vodka sauce. A pinch of red pepper flakes enhances the flavor without making the sauce spicy. If you want a spicy sauce, add a little more.
- Finish the vodka sauce with butter. Butter helps to create a silky smooth tomato sauce while balancing the flavors.
Frequently asked questions
Why do you put egg in stuffed shells?
Mixing an egg with ricotta cheese filling helps to bind the cheese so it doesn't ooze out when baking or when you cut into the shells.
What goes with stuffed shells?
Stuffed shells are great served with a side salad or cooked vegetables, such as green beans, broccoli, or cauliflower. To add some protein to your meal, you can also serve the shells with baked chicken breasts.
What is the difference between Manicotti and Stuffed Shells?
The big difference is the shape of the pasta that's used. Manicotti are made with large pasta tubes and stuffed shells are made with large shell-shaped pasta. Both are stuffed with a ricotta cheese filling.
How many stuffed shells per person?
Generally, 3-4 stuffed shells per person is just the right amount. This recipe makes about 24 stuffed shells.
This is a great make-ahead recipe! Prepare the stuffed shells and the vodka sauce as directed in the recipe, then nestle the stuffed shells into the sauce. Cover tightly with plastic wrap or aluminum foil. Refrigerate for up to 2-3 days.
Before baking the stuffed shells, remove from the fridge about 30-60 minutes prior to allow the stuffed shells and sauce to come to room temperature. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, then bake until hot and bubbly.
Freezing stuffed shells
Prepare the stuffed shells and vodka sauce as directed in the recipe, then transfer the vodka sauce to a disposable aluminum dish and nestle in the stuffed shells. Cover with plastic wrap and then aluminum foil. Freeze for up to 3 months.
When you're ready to bake, you can thaw the stuffed shells in the refrigerator overnight (and bake according to the recipe instructions), or you can bake the frozen directly from the freezer at 400 degrees for about 45-60 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. Remove the foil during the last 10-20 minutes of baking to allow the cheese to brown on top!
Storing leftovers in the refrigerator
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2-3 days.
To reheat the stuffed shells, remove from the fridge and cover with aluminum foil. Bake in a 400 degree oven until hot and bubbly.
More recipes you'll love
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Cheesy Pesto Ricotta Stuffed Shells with Vodka Sauce
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 3 cups fresh spinach
- 12 ounces jumbo pasta shells
- 15 ounces ricotta cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 egg, whisked
- ½ cup basil pesto
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 5 tablespoons butter
- ½ yellow onion, finely chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional, adds a little spice)
- ½ teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried basil
- 6 ounces tomato paste
- ½ cup vodka
- 2 cups heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- Add the butter and spinach to a large skillet over medium heat. Saute the spinach until wilted, about 2-3 minutes.
- In a large bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, pesto and whisked egg. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta according to package directions until al dente, then strain the pasta.
- Meanwhile, make the vodka sauce. Using the same skillet, add 1 tablespoon butter and onion. Cook over medium heat until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, oregano, and basil; cook for another minute.
- Add the tomato paste to the skillet and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally. While mixing, slowly pour in the vodka and let cook off for about 1-2 minutes. Reduce to medium-low heat and add the heavy cream and salt whisking to combine. Let simmer for 2-3 minutes.
- Mix in the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter and parmesan cheese.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
- Stuff each shell with about 1 tablespoon of cheese filling, then place in the skillet with the vodka sauce. Top with the shredded mozzarella and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and the sauce is bubbling around the edges.