Introduction: Bake Pasta in a Slow Cooker

My husband and I have been invited to a couple progressive dinners, and it's always tricky to have a warm course if you aren't the first course.  Being lovers of the slow cooker, we decided to experiment.  We started working on slow cooking baking pastas and found it was a very easy meal, especially suitable for winter weather.

In this Instructable, you'll learn how to bake pasta in a slow cooker which not only saves effort (and stress) but also electricity, and it can be transported and set to warm at any event with an outlet - pack an extension cord just in case.  We will show how we do this for shells, lasagna, and manicotti.

As a bonus for the college kids, you might be able to do this in your dorm room if your college allows crock pots or slow cookers!

And it's so easy!!

Step 1: Ingredients

There are 6 ingredients for a basic dish:
  • Dry Noodles
  • Pasta Sauce (with a passata-like consistency)
  • Provolone
  • Mozzarella
  • Parmesan
  • Ricotta
You can get fancier and add extra herbs, spices, and fillings such as cooked sausage or spinach.  You want to make sure not to introduce too much extra moisture from additional ingredients because the slow cooker's lid ensures that very little water escapes.  You'll probably want to strain other ingredients before adding.  Our examples will just use cheese and pasta sauce.

Step 2: The Cheese Mix

For a good firm texture with lots of flavor, combine (by volume):
  • 4 parts Ricotta
  • 3 parts fine-grated Provolone
  • 3 parts fine-grated Mozzarella
  • 2 parts fine-grated Parmesan
You should be able to form a beautiful snowball of cheese that keeps its form when thrown back into the bowl.  The structure and flavor of your cheese will vary wildly from brand to brand, so test small batches before throwing everything together. 

Most people expect some kind of topping cheese.  This is a basic recipe for a topping:
  •     3 parts fine-grated Provolone
  •     3 parts fine-grated Mozzarella
  •     1 part fine-grated Parmesan
Note that purists will contend that the topping should be Bechemel sauce.  We chose not to make a sauce since that doesn't keep as much to the theme of slow cooker convenience.

Just so you understand how each interacts with added ingredients so you can act accordingly:
  • The Ricotta cheese provides the main body for all the stuffing, but you can get a rather cheap brand for this. 
  • The Mozzarella provides some of that stringiness and texture, but not necessarily flavor, so you can go cheap with that as well. 
  • The Provolone adds a significant amount of flavor and this is where you may consider higher quality, or at least something sharp. 
  • The Parmesan helps to keep everything dry, provides the most salt, and contributes a very strong flavor.  You should strongly consider a high-quality Parmesan cheese.

Step 3: Stuffed Shells

For stuffed shells, we used jumbo shells since that's about the only thing you can stuff by hand.  Do not precook the shells.  Stuff them when they're cool and dry.  You should use a larger slow cooker for this so you have more surface area for the layers.  Depending on the shell, you will probably have to try a few things:

  • Scoop some cheese with any open end of the shell.
  • Cram some filling into the shell using a spoonful of cheese.
  • Push the cheese in by hand, using your pinky finger to penetrate shells that are more shut.
Use some sauce at the bottom of the pot to reduce the risk of the shells sticking to the pot.  You can lay them down any which way you prefer, but we used mouth-side-down.  You can safely make two rough layers of shells, stacking the second layer on the first where the nooks and crannies allow.  If you get too ambitious stacking shells, the bottom shells will start getting crushed by the shells above it, which takes them out of the fun shape you're trying to make.

Top the shells with some more sauce.  They do not need to swim in a pool of sauce.  Sprinkle on some cheese topping and cook on low for 2 to 3 hours or on high for 60-90 minutes.  Check how done they were by trying to pierce them easily with a fork.  We have found cooking on low has turned out better shells.

Step 4: Lasagna

This lasagna is not in the tradition of a sheet pan filled with long layers.  Instead, break the noodles into the bowl (breaking over the bowl lets loose ends fall in and get used).  Again, use some sauce on the bottom to keep the noodles from sticking and burning.  Then coarsely fill with hand-split, uncooked noodles.  Top the noodle layer with dollops of the filling cheese, then drop in a few dollops of pasta sauce.  When starting subsequent noodle layers, cram the new noodles down on top of the prior cheese and sauce layer, and try to arrange the noodles different than the layer below them.  It is fine if the noodles crack when you push them down.  You could go up to almost 75% full in a slow cooker with this method.

Top this lasagna first with the remaining sauce from a jar, and then the topping cheese.  You do not need to have sauce floating all the way to the top layer.

Cook on low 2-3 hours, or high 60-90 minutes.  When done, you should be able to comfortably send a butter knife tip-first through all the layers.  We recommend serving by splitting it into wedges and pulling those wedges out with a pair of butter knives.

Step 5: Manicotti

Manicotti is very easy to stuff if you're willing to get your hands dirty.  Dive each one through the bowl of cheese like a hawk swooping for its prey.  This will scoop up some cheese, which you can then cram further inside with your index finger.  When the tube is filled halfway on one side, start filling from the other side instead.

These diagonal-cut manicotti lend themselves better to cooking on their sides.  If you can find flat-cut manicotti, you can cook them upright in a taller slow cooker.

Spread sauce evenly across each tube.  Use a spoonful of sauce per tube, spreading the sauce across the tube.  For each new tube, start from the opposite end.  So we went up-to-down, then down-to-up.  This helps to better distribute the sauce as it cooks and prevents major dry spots.

Top with sauce and then the topping cheese.  Consider that manicotti is a giant cheese tube, so you may consider a generous, robust sauce.

Just like the other recipes, these tend to finish on low in 2-3 hours or on high in 60-90 minutes.
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