When you pull the pan from the oven, the tomato sauce bubbles between a top layer of stringy mozzarella. Beneath that invitation, fluffy mounds of herbed, creamy ricotta hide, stuffed within packages of pasta, lined up side by side like presents waiting to be unwrapped. You can accomplish this popular feat of Italian-American origin by following recipes for either manicotti or stuffed shells.
Both pastas are meant to be stuffed. The difference is in the details.
Literally translated, manicotti means "little muffs." The large tubes are made for stuffing. They stretch about 4 inches long and are 1 inch in diameter. Manicotti can be smooth or have wide, thick ridges. They're great for baked pastas, sauces featuring meat, tomato, and vegetables. Inside, they hold heavy bundles of ricotta or ground meat.
Filling those manicotti tubes can be time-consuming, so sometimes recipes suggest a trick: Use par-cooked lasagna noodles as wrappers for the ricotta stuffing. We make manicotti with a passion for the pasta's luxurious filling. The New York Pasta & Ravioli Company calls manicotti "little crepes." Both jumbo dried shells and manicotti create perfect pockets for fillings such as traditional ricotta cheese; five cheese; spinach and cheese; and broccoli rabe and fresh mozzarella.
Stuffed shells are made with conchiglioni pasta, the larger version of conchiglie, which means "conch shells." The jumbo shells have thin ridges set close together and are, of course, stuffed, usually with a combination of meat, cheeses, and vegetables. Unlike the tubes of manicotti, the shells can hold an amount of stuffing equal to the size and shape of an egg. A cream or cheese sauce can coat these shells, as well as the meat, tomato, and vegetable sauces that also work well with manicotti.
Or, The Pasta Dictionary suggests, "stuff with meat flavored with taco seasoning, top with salsa, and bake for a delicious Mexican dish, or create your own stuffed treat." Whether Italian-Mexican is your idea of a fun fusion or you conjure up other ways to alter the standard, it's your pasta. Stuff it the way you like it.
And then there are these recipe ideas — some traditional, some with variations.
This is the classic stuffed shells recipe, overflowing with slightly sweet, mild, creamy ricotta. The only difference is swapping spinach for Swiss chard. Give it a go. Get our Swiss Chard Stuffed Shells recipe.
It's almost like you're swapping in manicotti shells for burrito or taco shells in this Italian-Mexican fusion using ground beef, picante sauce, refried beans, cheddar, sour cream, and avocado. Get this Mexican Manicotti recipe.
3. Butternut Squash Alfredo Baked Shells
If butternut squash is out of season, you can always buy it frozen. The sweet orange winter squash goes so well with creamy sauces. This is actually a "skinny Alfredo" sauce, but you won't be able to tell. Get the recipe here.
Whip up a batch of spaghetti sauce in bulk, and use some of it for this dish that calls for chicken breast, Italian sausage, and mozzarella. Get our Chicken Manicotti recipe.
5. Roasted Vegetable Stuffed Shells
Roast whatever vegetables you have around this season to make these shells. This version uses eggplant, zucchini, and red bell pepper for these, as well as frozen chopped spinach. Then there's that trifecta of ricotta, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Get the recipe here.
6. Chicken Parmesan Manicotti
Make your manicotti with shredded chicken, no sausage included in the tomato sauce. It's simple, delicious, and gets the job done. Try freezing it for a quick weeknight dinner. Get the recipe here.