Long time readers know that at least once a year, around Columbus Day, we feature an Italian-American dish. And here’s one— Stuffed Shells —that, though it wasn’t part of my upbringing, has a special place in the heart (and palates) of many Italian-Americans.
As prepared here in the US, Stuffed Shells are, if anything, lighter than their continental Italian counterpart, conchiglioni ripieni al forno. The pasta called conchiglioni, usually marketed as “jumbo shells” here in the US, are filled with a ricotta cream enriched with mozzarella, napped with a simple marinara sauce and topped with a generous sprinkling of Parmesan before being baked in a hot oven.
The taste and texture of Stuffed Shells is vaguely reminiscent of lasagna but they’re much easier and quicker to make. And for those vegetarians out there, they have the merit of meatlessness—though there are variations for carnivores, too.
- 250-300 g (9-10 oz) conchiglioni, aka jumbo shells
For the filling:
- 250 g (8 oz) ricotta cheese, well drained
- 75-100 g (2-1/2 to 3-1/2 oz) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1-2 eggs
- A sprig of parsley, finely minced
- Salt and pepper
- 150 g (5 oz) mozzarella, cut into small dice
To finish the dish:
- 1 batch of homemade marinara sauce
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, q.b.
- Olive oil
Prepare the marinara sauce, following the recipe in our Tomato Sauce 101 post, leaving it a bit looser than you would normally.
Boil the shells in well salted water until only three-quarters cooked.
While the shells are cooking, mix the ricotta, Parmesan, egg, parsley, salt and pepper together in a mixing bowl until you have a smooth cream. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Then fold in the cubed mozzarella.
When the shells are done, drain them and lay them out to cool on a backing rack or on a kitchen towel.
When the shells are cool enough to handle, fill them with the ricotta and mozzarella mixture. You can do this by pinching them top and bottom until they open slightly, then plop in a generous spoonful of the filling with a spoon. Repeat with all your shells.
Line the bottom of a baking dish (or individual baking dishes as pictured in this post) with a bit of the marinara sauce. Place the stuffed shells on top, open side up, then nap the shells with more marinara sauce. Top the shells with a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and drizzled them all over with olive oil.
Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for 20-30 minutes, until the shells are cooked through and nicely browned on top.
Let the baked stuffed shells rest for 5 minutes or so before serving, with more marinara on the side for those who want some.
Notes on Stuffed Shells
As you can see, although it involves a few steps, the recipe for Stuffed Shells is actually quite easy. There aren’t too many pitfalls you need to worry about. First off, make sure you have the right pasta: conchiglioni or jumbo shells. Don’t confuse them with regular shells or even “large” shells, which are too small for filling. And as you prepare the dish, make sure that your ricotta is well drained—and your mozzarella too if you’re not using a low-moisture variety—or else your filling may turn out a bit watery. Conversely, your marinara should be left rather liquid, as it will evaporate as the shells bake. Add water to the sauce to loosen if need be before napping your shells. Otherwise, the recipe should be smooth sailing.
Although I’m quite partial to this meatless version of Stuffed Shells, as mentioned, if you’re a carnivore you can add some heft to the filling with bits of prosciutto or sausage meat, which you will have crumbled and lightly browned separately, folded in along with the mozzarella. And if you really want to gild the lily, use Sunday Sauce instead of the marinara, or perhaps a sugo di carne, to nap the shells. Curiously, as I alluded to at the top of the post, it’s the continental Italian recipes that call for these meaty versions. Italian-American sources usually keep things simple and meatless. That’s quite a switch. As I’ve written about before, it’s usually the Italian-American version of a dish that puts the emphasis on meat and other enrichments.
If you’re looking to lighten the dish, on the other hand, the filling is just fine without the mozzarella. Not all recipes for Stuffed Shells call for it but I quite like the richness mozzarella lends to the dish, without making it heavy in any way. Or you can lean into the vegetarian side of things and mix the ricotta cream with spinach as you do for a meatless cannelloni.
And, finally, some continental Italian recipes call for topping the shells with béchamel rather than a red sauce. This doesn’t particularly appeal to me, but if it does to you, enjoy!
- 250-300g (9-10 oz) conchiglioni, aka jumbo shells
For the filling:
- 250g (8 oz) ricotta cheese well drained
- 75-100g (2-1/2 to 3-1/2 oz) Parmesan cheese freshly grated
- 1-2 eggs
- sprig of parsley finely minced
- Salt and pepper
- 150g (5 oz) mozzarella cut into small dice
To finish the dish
- 1 batch homemade marinara sauce
- Parmesan cheese freshly grated
- olive oil
- Prepare the marinara sauce, following the recipe in our Tomato Sauce 101 post, leaving it a bit looser than you would normally.
- Boil the shells in well salted water until only three-quarters cooked.
- While the shells are cooking, mix the ricotta, Parmesan, egg, parsley, salt and pepper together in a mixing bowl until you have a smooth cream. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Then fold in the cubed mozzarella.
- When the shells are done, drain them and lay them out to cool on a backing rack or on a kitchen towel.
- When the shells are cool enough to handle, fill them with the ricotta and mozzarella mixture. You can do this by pinching them top and bottom until they open slightly, then plop in a generous spoonful of the filling with a spoon. Repeat with all your shells.
- Line the bottom of a baking dish (or individual baking dishes as pictured in this post) with a bit of the marinara sauce. Place the stuffed shells on top, open side up, then nap the shells with more marinara sauce. Top the shells with a generous sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and drizzled them all over with olive oil.
- Bake in a hot (200C/400F) oven for 20-30 minutes, until the shells are cooked through and nicely browned on top.
- Let the baked stuffed shells rest for 5 minutes or so before serving, with more marinara on the side for those who want some.
these are my favorite to order out, but I have a sneaking suspicion they are more than 240 calories at a restaurant:glad i can make this at home now it would be a hit in our house definitely going to give it a try
Definitely worth a try, Mary! And one great thing about making food at home is that it almost always means fewer calories than eating out.
These look scrumptious, Frank! Mum started making stuffed shells occasionally when we moved to the US, but with all great ingredients, what’s not to love? I haven’t made them in ages, but I fill them with spinach and ricotta, a topping of besciamella and then a meatless sugo.
Sounds very nice, Christina!
Ciao Frank! i didn’t grow up eating this either, but it is a good way to use up leftover cannelloni filling when you run out of pasta. i always end up with too much filling. it is easier than whipping up more pasta, and the conchiglioni taste better than purchased dried cannelloni shells. Ciao, Cristina
Frank, these stuffed shells are pure comfort food! This is sure to be a family favorite!
They certainly are… 🙂
I had stuffed shells on my mind just a few moments before seeing your post–how timely! I’ve never made them before myself but an Italian-American friend has brought it over for gatherings and it never lasts long. Your pictures make me want a plate now…and I haven’t even had breakfast yet!
Aw, thanks Jean! Too kind… but I hope I’ve inspired you to give them a try. They really are quite nice.
Your recipe for stuffed shells reminds me of the time I purchased this gorgeous Italian ceramic jar (think cookie jar) at Nordstrom’s in NYC (yes, this was before the time they were so fanatical about weighing the luggage), it was filled with the jumbo shells. Sadly, that jar sat on my counter for a few years before I remembered they had the jumbo shells in them so by that time, they were too brittle to use. Wish I had seen this gorgeous recipe!
Ha! That is a shame, but at lest you got a pretty jar out the deal…
You know, I don’t think I’ve ever had stuffed shells. That’s got to change, because they look delicious.
They are, Jeff. You’re in for a treat.
My mouth is watering. If only you did mail order. 🙂
Ma che buoni i conchiglioni! This classic recipe is certainly one of the best for conchiglioni. Ricotta adds richness to this dish. Just so lovely, comfort food.
Indeed it is. Thanks for stopping by, Alida!
this is one time I don’t mind being Italian American! but at least you didn’t open a jar of Ragu 😂 I’ve actually never filled large shells like these. I need to!
I rarely do myself, but they’re actually pretty fun and easy to make. And yes, no Ragu, please…
You make an interesting point about the origins of stuffed shells here, Frank. First off, I didn’t realize these are an Italian-American creation. With that said, I do find it funny that the Italian versions of this dish are more simplified. That definitely seems backwards! Either way, I love stuffed shells. Talk about comfort food without the same level of work as a lasagna! Sign me up for a plate of these. They look amazing, my friend!
Thanks so much for the kinds words, David! I suspect that the Italian-American version actually preserves the original very simple dish, while in Italy they’ve added more layers of flavor in recent times. It certainly is quite a switch! Either way, Stuffed Shells really are comfort food!
I saw conchiglioni in our local deli about 10 years ago and asked the owner what to do with them. She suggested ricotta, onion, spinach, bacon with an egg to bind for the filling, and then covered with a simple tomato/onion/garlic sauce (sometimes I add chopped red peppers), topped with mozzarella and baked. We loved this and have been eating it ever since! Thank you for the Italian versions.
Hope you enjoy them, Lisa!
Lovely when Columbus Day comes around in the States as years bygone seem to have brought quite a few American Italians within my reading pages. Great recipes unfold for this European gal from Australia . . . !! Have not stuffed shells in thus manner and have to see whether our supermarkets or Italian stores can oblige . . . what is there not to love about cheeses and pasta surrounded by tomato goodness 🙂 ! Do like the individual serving technique and shall follow . . .
Hope you can find those shells, Eha! If not, you an make cannelloni is much the same way.
Anytime I make this I use fresh Mint along with fresh Parsley. It’s how my Nonna made it. The Mint adds a nice subtle flavor to the Cheese mix.
Sounds nice, Charles! Will have give that a go next time I make this.
Buona, buona, buona Frank! Stuffed shells are such a nice thing to serve and eat! I make pretty much the same filling but like to add either blanched, chopped spinach or Swiss chard. Which reminds me…I’m completely out of the shells!
Ah well, there’s only one way to fix that problem. 😉
It’s really interesting that the Italian-American version of this dish is lighter than the original Italian — quite a switch, as you’ve said. I haven’t had stuffed pasta in ages, and you have me missing it. This looks excellent — nicely balanced flavors, and easy to put together. Thanks!
Yes, that is a switch, isn’t it? And I have to say, it’d been a long while since I’d made stuffed pasta, too. Nice to come back to it, though. I do love me a good stuffed pasta.
My aunt (the one who married into the Sicilian family in Vermont) made the best stuffed shells when I was a kid… It is pure comfort food. Your version is really quite similar – and now I want a pan full of them for dinner!
And if you’re like me, you could eat that panful in one sitting, lol!
A favorite! In fact I wanted to prepare this last week and could not find the jumbo shells – just the large. I’ll be back on the hunt and preparing this as soon as I can.
Of course, if you’re *very* patient and dexterous, and arm yourself with a pastry bag, you could (in theory) use the large ones. But I’ve never tried it. Don’t have the patience… 😉
Looks wonderful, Frank! Brings back memories of my mom’s stuffed shells, which were very similar.
Glad I was able to bring back those memories, Kath! 🙂