Apr 6, 2021

Baked Stuffed Shells in Vodka Sauce with Pesto Oil

Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 45 minutes
Large shell pasta is stuffed with a mixture of ricotta, smoked mozzarella and parmesan in a homemade vodka sauce. It is then topped off with more cheese, and baked until melted and finished with a drizzle of pesto oil.
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While typical baked stuffed shells are served in marinara, the vodka sauce gives the dish a luxurious twist while the smoked mozzarella adds a subtle woodsy flavor. The pasta filled with ricotta and baked in sauce is similar to manicotti though the latter uses large tubes of pasta rather than shell shapes.

Baked Stuffed Shells in Vodka Sauce with Pesto Oil

What are these baked shells stuffed with? 

  • Spinach
  • Ricotta cheese
  • Parmesan
  • Smoked Mozzarella
  • Egg yolks

Tips and Tricks for This Recipe

  • If you are making each component and baking it at the same time I’d recommend keeping the boiling water on the heat and blanching the basil, then the spinach, in the same pot the shells will be boiled in. Because it saves time refilling and re-boiling water.
  • You will end up with more cooked shells than you need for the dish, but it’s always good to have a few extras in case some rip when they’re filled.
  • Saving the pasta cooking water and stirring it into the vodka sauce makes for a silkier sauce.
Baked Stuffed Shells recipe

Can baked stuffed shells be made in advance?

Yes! Baked stuffed shells are a great vegetarian entree to make in advance. The dish can be fully assembled then covered and refrigerated before ready to cook. I like to do this to take a lot of the prep stress out of dinner parties. The shells can also be assembled then covered and frozen until ready to cook. Just bring it back to room temperature before baking. Freezing it works best with a disposable tray.

Baked Stuffed Shells in Vodka Sauce with Pesto Oil and Smoked Mozzarella

How to make baked stuffed shells

  • Step 1: Make the vodka sauce (or warm store-bought sauce!)
  • Step 2: Make the herb pesto oil
  • Step 3: Blanch the spinach
  • Step 4: Make the ricotta filling
  • Step 5: Par-boil the pasta (it will continue to cook when the shells are baked!)
  • Step 6: Spread the vodka sauce in the pan then add the shells and fill them with the ricotta mixture.
  • Step 7: Top with the remaining cheese and bake until melted.
  • Step 8: Drizzle with the pesto oil and serve!

Other Recipes to Try

If you enjoy this stuffed shell recipe, I recommend giving these recipes a try:

Baked Stuffed Shells in Vodka Sauce with Pesto Oil

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Prep Time 45 minutes
Cook Time 45 minutes
Serves 6


For the vodka sauce:

  • ¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium shallot, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, diced
  • cup tomato paste
  • 2 tablespoons vodka
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • Kosher salt, as needed

For the herb pesto oil:

  • 1 cups packed basil leaves
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt, as needed

For the filling and assembly:

  • 6 ounces baby spinach
  • 1 pound whole milk ricotta cheese, drained (about 2 cups)
  • 2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided
  • cups shredded smoked mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 2 large egg yolks
  • Kosher salt, as needed
  • Freshly ground black pepper, as needed
  • 1 pound jumbo shells or conchiglioni pasta


For the vodka sauce:

  • Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat, add the oil and heat through. Add the shallot and garlic and sauté, stirring frequently until tender, about 5 minutes.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook until it’s a deeper red color, about 2 minutes. Stir in vodka and cook until almost evaporated, about 3 minutes.
  • Stir in the cream and red pepper flakes then season to taste with salt. Set aside until ready to use.

For the herb pesto oil:

  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the basil until wilted, about 10 seconds then use tongs to remove to a strainer and run under cold water. Drain as much water as possible from the basil.
  • Add the basil, lemon zest, garlic and oil to the bowl of a food processor fitted with a blade attachment and blend until smooth. Add to a bowl and set aside until ready to use.

For the filling and assembly:

  • Preheat oven to 400ºF (200ºC).
  • Bring a large pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the spinach and cook until the greens are wilted, about 1 minute. Remove the spinach to a strainer (leaving the pot of water on the heat).
  • Dry the spinach completely then roughly chop and add to a large mixing bowl with the ricotta, 1 cup of the Parmesan, 1 cup of the mozzarella cheese and the egg yolks. Stir to combine completely then season to taste with salt and pepper.
  • Return the pot of water to a boil, add the shells to the water and cook until they’re just shy of al dente, about 8 minutes (they will continue to cook in the oven). Reserve 1 cup of the pasta cooking water then drain the shells and set aside.
  • Add ½ cup of the pasta cooking water to the vodka sauce, stirring to combine over medium-low heat.
  • Spread ¾ cup of the vodka sauce to the bottom of a large baking dish. Fill each shell with 1 heaping tablespoon of the filling and arrange in the baking dish.
  • Pour the remaining sauce over the shells and top with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Pour the remaining pasta cooking water over the top (this will prevent the pasta from drying out).
  • Cover and bake for 30 minutes, then uncover and bake until the top is bubbling and the cheese is melted, about 15 minutes. Drizzle with the pesto oil and serve, hot.



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Recipe Rating

  1. 5 stars
    10/10!! Made it for work….it was gone in 60 seconds!!…The only thing I was skeptical about was adding the pasta water at the end of preparation, but it came out absolutely perfect! I will make this again and again!!

  2. 5 stars
    Made this tonight for Sunday dinner and it was amazing! I think the vodka sauce really made this stand out. My husband normally doesn’t care for pasta dishes but went for seconds on these stuffed shells!

  3. 5 stars
    The perfect recipe! We hosted at our house so I prepped this in the morning and popped it in the oven while company was over—so perfect. Everyone *loved* it (myself included!) and I loved that I could enjoy time with family and now worry about cooking! Absolutely recommend. Spoon this up and watch the crowd go wild!

  4. I read through the recipe….. Where does the pesto oil go – in the vodka cream sauce or in the ricotta spinach filling?

    • The pesto oil is drizzled over the top of stuffed shells just before serving! Hope you enjoy the recipe.

  5. 5 stars
    We made these for dinner tonight and absolutely loved the recipe. It took a little longer to prep but it was well worth it. I love stuffed shells but this took it to the next level. The smoked mozzarella and the herb pesto sauce brought on a whole new flavor combo that I can’t stop thinking about.