Stuffing shells is a fun culinary activity that allows you to fill shells with delicious ingredients to make appetizing stuffed shells. There are a few key steps to follow when learning how to stuff shells properly. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk through the entire process of stuffing shells, from ingredients and tools you’ll need, to preparation, cooking, and serving techniques.
Here are quick answers to common questions about stuffing shells:
What are the best shells to stuff?
Jumbo pasta shells work best, as they are large enough to fill with ingredients and hold their shape during cooking and serving.
What ingredients can you stuff shells with?
Popular fillings include ricotta cheese, mozzarella, spinach, ground meat, and mushrooms. Be creative and use whatever flavors you enjoy!
What tools do you need to stuff shells?
A spoon, baking dish, foil, kitchen shears, and pastry bag or plastic bag with corner snipped off for easy filling work well.
How do you keep stuffed shells from falling apart?
Be gentle when handling stuffed shells, cook them just until al dente, and allow them to set before serving to help them hold their shape.
How long do you bake stuffed shells?
Bake large stuffed shells covered in sauce at 350°F for 35-45 minutes. Smaller shells may cook faster, so adjust bake times as needed.
Ingredients for Stuffing Shells
When it comes to ingredients for stuffed shells, the options are endless. From rich cheeses to fresh vegetables to hearty meats, you can mix and match flavors however you like. Here are some standard ingredients for stuffing shells:
Use jumbo pasta shells, which are about 2-3 inches wide. Standard sized shells may be too small. Look for a sturdy pasta shell that can hold its shape when stuffed and baked.
Ricotta cheese makes a creamy base for many shell fillings. Mozzarella, parmesan, feta or goat cheese also pair well with other stuffing ingredients. Grated cheeses help bind together fillings.
Onion, garlic, spinach, broccoli, artichokes, mushrooms and tomatoes add fresh flavor. Saute vegetables first to remove moisture before adding to shell filling.
Cooked ground beef, Italian sausage, bacon, chicken or turkey all complement cheese or veggie-based fillings. Pre-cook meats before stuffing shells.
Herbs and Spices
Fresh or dried basil, parsley, oregano and thyme add warmth. Pepper, salt, crushed red pepper and garlic powder amp up flavors.
Tomato sauce, marinara, alfredo, pesto or vodka sauce can coat cooked stuffed shells. Pour over shells before baking.
Equipment for Stuffing Shells
Having the right kitchen tools on hand makes stuffing pasta shells much easier. Here is the key equipment you’ll need:
Use a 9×13 inch glass or ceramic baking dish to hold stuffed shells upright and prevent spilling during cooking. Lightly grease the baking dish first for easy removal.
Tear off sheets of foil to cover your stuffed shell baking dish before cooking. This prevents excess sauce splatter.
A sturdy spoon helps scoop measured amounts of filling into each pasta shell.
Pastry Bag or Plastic Bag
For easy filling, place ingredients into a reusable pastry bag or plastic bag with corner snipped off. Pipe filling directly into shells.
Shears allow you to neatly cut off the pointed ends of cooked stuffed shells after baking.
Use one bowl for dry ingredients and one for wet ingredients when making filling. Combining prepped ingredients is easier.
How to Cook Stuffed Shells Perfectly
Cooking stuffed shells properly is important for maximizing their flavor and structure. Follow these tips:
Boil the Shells Just Until Al Dente
Undercooked shells may split and spill filling. Overcooked pasta shells get too soft. Take shells out of boiling water when just shy of al dente.
Handle Filled Shells Gently
When you place stuffed shells into the baking dish, use a delicate touch so they don’t tear or unwrap. Arrange them seam side up.
Use Enough Sauce
Spoon sauce generously over shells before baking so they don’t dry out. Sauce also helps hold the filling in.
Seal the Baking Dish
Cover tightly with foil to seal in steam and prevent sauce from bubbling over.
Bake Until Heated Through
Allow shells to bake just until heated through, about 45 minutes for a full 9×13 dish. Check often to avoid overcooking.
Let Set Before Serving
Allow shells to rest 5-10 minutes after baking. This helps them firm up so they don’t break when scooping onto plates.
Now that you know the ingredients, equipment and cooking method, let’s walk through exactly how to stuff shells in 10 easy steps:
Step 1: Cook Pasta Shells
Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Add dry jumbo shells and cook until just al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water.
Step 2: Prepare Fillings
Cook any meats, saute vegetables, grate cheese and measure out herbs. Combine desired ingredients for each filling in separate bowls.
Step 3: Mix Fillings
Gently fold fillings together using a spoon or spatula. Be careful not to over-mix.
Step 4: Pipe Fillings into Shells
Transfer filling mixtures into a pastry bag or plastic bag. Snip off corner and pipe into each cooked shell.
Step 5: Arrange Stuffed Shells in Baking Dish
Gently place stuffed shells close together, open side up in a lightly greased baking dish. Top with sauce.
Step 6: Cover Dish with Foil
Tear off foil that is big enough to completely cover dish. Tent foil over dish so it does not touch sauce.
Step 7: Bake Stuffed Shells
Place foil-covered baking dish in a preheated 350°F oven. Bake 35-45 minutes until shells are heated through.
Step 8: Remove Foil Cover
Take baking dish carefully out of oven. Remove foil cover and allow shells to slightly cool.
Step 9: Snip off Shell Tips
For presentation and easier eating, use kitchen shears to neatly trim pointed shell tips.
Step 10: Serve Warm
Allow shells to set for 5-10 minutes before serving warm. Top with extra sauce, cheese and fresh parsley.
Stuffed Shells Filling Ideas
The wonderful thing about stuffed shells is that you can endlessly mix and match flavors. Get creative with these filling ideas:
Combine ricotta, parmesan, mozzarella and spinach. Season with garlic, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
Saute zucchini, artichokes, spinach, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. Cool before mixing into ricotta.
Stuff shells with a mixture of cooked chicken, marinara sauce, mozzarella, parmesan and fresh basil.
Brown ground beef with taco seasoning. Add to a mixture of shredded cheddar, black beans, corn and cilantro.
Combine lump crab meat, shrimp, cream cheese, Old Bay seasoning, lemon juice and scallions.
Mix cooked ground beef and pork meatballs into a ricotta filling along with marinara sauce and garlic.
Helpful Tips for Making Stuffed Shells
Use these handy tips to make perfectly stuffed pasta shells every time:
Use jumbo or extra large shells only to ensure each shell is big enough to fill, stuff and bake properly.
Pre-cook any meats, veggies or fillings before adding to shell filling mix for best results.
Add enough filling to each shell to maximize flavors in each bite but not overstuff or filling will spill out.
Fit stuffed shells together without gaps in the baking dish to help hold their shape.
Encase in Sauce
Completely cover stuffed shells in sauce to prevent dryness and help seal in filling while baking.
Rest Before Serving
Let stuffed shells sit for 5-10 minutes after baking so they firm up and don’t break apart when served.
Store and Reheat
Cooked leftover stuffed shells keep well refrigerated for 4-5 days. Reheat gently in the microwave or oven.
Common Stuffing Shells FAQs
Get answers to some frequently asked questions about stuffing pasta shells:
What size shells work best?
Jumbo shells approximately 3 inches wide and 2 inches tall are ideal for holding generous amounts of filling and keeping their shape.
How do you bake stuffed shells without drying them out?
Prevent shells from drying out by completely covering them in sauce, using foil to seal the baking dish, and avoiding overcooking.
Can you freeze stuffed shells?
Yes, stuffed shells freeze very well up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in fridge before reheating in oven until hot in center.
How long should you boil jumbo shells?
Boil jumbo pasta shells for about 8 minutes until just al dente so they don’t get too soft and can still hold their shape when stuffed.
What temperature should stuffed shells bake at?
Bake stuffed shells covered in foil or a lid at 350°F for 35-45 minutes until heated through.
Can you microwave stuffed shells?
It’s best not to microwave stuffed shells as they may dry out or get chewy. Reheat them gently in a 275°F oven until warmed through.
Creative Stuffing Shell Ideas
Let your imagination run wild with these inspired shell stuffing combinations:
Fill shells with crumbled bacon, shredded lettuce, diced tomato, mayo, and cheddar cheese.
Philly Cheesesteak Shells
Mix sliced steak, sautéed onions and bell peppers, provolone and Cheez Whiz sauce.
Chicken Fajita Shells
Combine seasoned shredded chicken, peppers, onions, beans, rice, salsa and cilantro.
Fill shells with gyro meat, feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, lemon juice and Greek yogurt sauce.
Buffalo Chicken Shells
Shred buffalo chicken and mix with crumbled blue cheese, shredded carrots and celery.
Fill shells with corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Thousand Island dressing.
Crab Rangoon Shells
Mix together crab meat, cream cheese, green onions, garlic powder and Worchestershire sauce.
Stuffing shells is an extremely versatile way to make a delicious baked pasta dish. Follow the preparation, cooking, filling and baking steps outlined above to learn how to master stuffed shells. From classic cheese or spinach fillings to creative seafood and pizza combinations, the possibilities are endless for ingredient pairings. Use jumbo pasta shells for the best results and bake until heated through for shells that hold their shape. Now that you know how to stuff shells like a pro, get ready to enjoy this comfort food favorite!