Healthier Slow Cooker Baked Ziti
See my guide on how to use an Instant Pot.
This Slow Cooker Baked Ziti is made with ground turkey and whole wheat pasta. The pasta cooks right in the slow cooker so it soaks up the delicious flavor of the sauce!
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I use my slow cooker all the time to help me get dinner on the table. With five kids, our evenings are a nonstop blur of activity. If you can relate, prepping dinner ahead in the slow cooker is one way to make sure that you have a nutritious dinner ready for your family.
This Healthier Slow Cooker Baked Ziti is one of my favorite slow cooker recipes. It’s a variation of the classic Baked Ziti that I like to make in the summer when it’s too hot to turn on the oven. You can get your cheesy, baked pasta fix without heating up your kitchen! This recipe is also perfect winter comfort food. You’ll also want to make my favorite Slow Cooker Orange Chicken year-round!
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How to cook pasta in your slow cooker, and why you should:
Making pasta dishes in your slow cooker is really convenient because you don’t have to dirty another pot to boil the pasta. Cooking the pasta right in the sauce means that it absorbs the flavor of the sauce for an extra flavorful finished dish. See this chicken and mushrooms recipe for another delicious example, using orzo pasta.
To make this “baked” ziti recipe, you start by browning some ground turkey on the stove. You’ll also add a chopped onion and a few cloves of minced garlic to the pan. While this step means that you need to use a second pot for this meal, it is essential for the best flavor.
Once the meat is browned and the onions are soft, you will transfer the mixture to your slow cooker. Then add the rest of the ingredients, except for the pasta. We are using a mix of crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes so that the sauce will both coat the pasta and have a some small pieces of tomato throughout.
Cook the sauce and meat in your slow cooker, either on high for 3 hours or low for 6 hours. Then, add the pasta. Watch it closely to make sure that it does not overcook. We don’t want mushy, falling apart pasta!
You may have heard that you shouldn’t open your slow cooker to check on your dinner in the middle of the cook time. This is true, because it lets the heat escape. Every time you open your crock pot, you add about 30 minutes to the total cook time needed. There is an exception to this rule. In the last hour or so of cooking, it is okay to open your slow cooker to check if your meal is done or almost done.
Once you’ve added the pasta to the sauce in this recipe, you will want to start checking on it (and give it a stir) starting at 12 minutes. The pasta may be done after 12 minutes or it may need a little bit longer to cook.
Read more tips for How to use a Crock Pot.
Tips for making this Healthier Slow Cooker Baked Ziti:
- You can cook this Slow Cooker Baked Ziti on low for 6 hours or on high for 3 hours.
- You can use any short pasta shape that you like in this recipe. I used whole wheat penne because my store doesn’t carry whole wheat ziti. Different types of pasta may vary in their cook times.
- You will add the pasta at the end of the cook time. Since slow cookers may vary in the amount of heat they put out, the pasta can take anywhere from 12-25 minutes to cook. I have tested this recipe in my 5 quart slow cooker.
- When you add the pasta, you will want your slow cooker to be on the high setting. If you’ve had your slow cooker on the low setting while cooking the rest of the dish it will take a few minutes to heat up to high heat. This means that your pasta may take longer to cook.
- The leftovers of this Slow Cooker Baked Ziti reheat well after being stored in the refrigerator. I have not tried freezing this recipe, but these Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs are one of my favorite freezer crock pot meals!
- If you have an Instant Pot, you’ll love my easy Instant Pot Pasta recipe!
Healthier Slow Cooker Baked Ziti
- 1 pound lean ground turkey, or ground beef
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 15 ounce can diced tomatoes
- 1 ½ teaspoons Italian seasoning
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoon dried basil
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 2 ½ cups water
- 12 ounces whole wheat penne or ziti pasta
- 1 ½ cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- Lightly spray a large skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium high heat. Add the turkey and cook, stirring, for 3-4 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue cooking until turkey is cooked through.
- Transfer turkey mixture to slow cooker. Add the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, oregano, Italian seasoning, basil, salt, pepper and water. Stir.
- Cover and cook on high setting for about 3 hours or low setting for about 6 hours.
- Stir in pasta. Continue cooking on high setting for 12-25 minutes. Pasta cook time will vary by slow cooker, so begin checking it at 12 minutes to see if pasta is done, stirring it once to make sure pasta cooks evenly. If you’ve had your slow cooker on the low setting, it will take longer to cook the pasta when you switch to the high setting.
- Turn off slow cooker.
- Stir 1 cup of the shredded mozzarella into the slow cooker and sprinkle the remaining ½ cup on top. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes until cheese on top is melted.
I love utilizing my slow cooker too…it makes life so much easier come dinner time! Congrats on your ebook Kristine…I’m going to check it out now! This baked ziti looks perfect for weeknight dinners!
Thank you, Marcie! 🙂
I made this tonight and the pasta was VERY gummy tasting. Next time I’ll cook the pasta and add it after that.
Hi Dinah, I’m sorry that this didn’t turn out how you had hoped. I’ve never had a problem with gummy pasta. Would you mind sharing what type of pasta you used, and if it was whole wheat?
Say you’re in a rush to make this, can I do the meat and seasonings in an hour, or will there be too much water there?
The amount of water shouldn’t be affected with a shorter cook time. The flavors might not develop as much, but I think it would still be tasty. Just make sure that you fully cook the meat before adding it to the slow cooker.
Could this be made vegetarian by using Quorn mince (or similar) do you think?
Can I make this and other slow cooker recipes in the Instant Pot using the slow cooker function without changing anything in the recipe? I’m fairly new to the IP and so far have only used pressure cooking functions. Thanks!
Hi Michele, I haven’t used my Instant Pot as a slow cooker, but I believe that the slow cooker function is supposed to work just like a regular slow cooker. However, I have read that regular slow cookers work better for slow cooking than the Instant Pot. Check your manual to be sure to use the right settings (for example you will leave the steam valve in the venting position) and I think it should work.
You mentioned this reheats well. Can you do that in the crock pot and if so do you do it on high or low and for how long?
I wouldn’t recommend reheating this in the crockpot because the crockpot doesn’t heat hot enough. I usually reheat single servings in the microwave. You can also reheat in the oven, covered, at 350 degrees until hot.
I don’t have a can of tomatoes on hand- think I could use a jar of pasta sauce instead? Maybe cut down on the seasonings a bit?
I think that will work. Just use a similar volume of sauce as the tomatoes. You could cut down the seasonings, but I bet it would be fine if you left them as is. 🙂
So the first time I made this on High setting and less salt and it was lacking a bit in flavor. Yesterday, I made it for a second time on Low setting and I added salt while cooking the turkey and then again right before throwing in the pasta. It was DELICIOUS!!! Thank you again for a quick and delicious dinner! I have an almost 4 year old, a 2 year old and a 2 month old so all these slow cooker recipes are really saving me. I am still able to get homemade and healthy dinners on the table while currently having somewhat of a busy life hahh . I truly appreciate all of you ladies that spend your time creating and sharing your delicious and time saving recipes online!!
Aren’t slow cooker recipes the best?? Especially in this crazy busy season of life. 🙂 I’m happy to hear that you were able to adapt this one to suit your tastes. I always err on the side of less salt with my recipes, because it’s easy to add more.
This is our “go to” pasta recipe, a favorite family! We followed the recipe and added Parmesan cheese, making it extra cheesy. The leftovers are frozen in individual freezer bags and after thawing warm perfectly in the microwave. It’s so easy to make, add a salad and garlic bread (splurge!) and enjoy!
I’m so happy to hear that! Thanks for sharing how you freeze and reheat the leftovers. 🙂
Would adding ricotta be okay?
This will cook fine if you add ricotta cheese. If you stir it in, it will likely make the tomato sauce pink (depending on how much you use). You might consider following the recipe as is and then serving the pasta with a spoonful of ricotta.
All I have is regular white pasta, will I have to adjust the cooking time when I add it in? I like my pasta al dente, by the way!
The cooking time really depends on how hot your slow cooker cooks, as they all vary. I recommend cooking for about 10 minutes after stirring in the pasta, then stirring again, and checking every 5 minutes or so until it is cooked to your liking.
What could I use in place of the two cans of tomatoes? (My husband cannot eat tomatoes) Maybe a broth base of some sort?
I don’t think this recipe works without the tomatoes since it is a tomato based pasta recipe.
You would be making a beef and noodles sort of dish. And thicken the sauce into a gravy. Add some frozen peas carrots and onions, for flavor and color. Use your favorite beef seasonings. It’s a wholly different dish or you can leave it un thickened for a Hamburger Soup. Try using the search function on Pinterest for recipes for hamburger without tomatoes. Might be helpful.
Hi I had a question, mine is almost done cooking and I’m about to add the pasta, but I wonder why the consistency is so watery? I didn’t drain the juice from the tomato cans, so I’m wondering if that effected the texture. I’m hoping it’ll thicken once I add the pasta. Would you recommend I drain some of the water?
The extra liquid will be absorbed by the pasta. Don’t drain it. 🙂
I used sausage instead of Turkey meat . How will that affect the sauce should I not add so
much water ?
Hi Lisa, it shouldn’t affect the sauce much, other than flavor. You should use the same amount of water. Enjoy!