A nice change from the usual creamy versions, this chicken pasta bake is made with a tomato pasta sauce. Filled with bacon, sizzling seasoned chicken and generous on the cheese, it’s cosy and hearty and thrifty and just so, so delicious! Excellent complete meal for making ahead and freezing.
Chicken pasta bake
If you can cut a pasta bake like cake – I’m talking straight vertical walls with sharp edges – that is not a good thing. It just screams dry pasta bake!
Nope. Not in my world. Pasta bakes should be saucy and juicy, molten and oozy! Generously loaded with add-ins, if you’re going for a dinner pasta bake (as opposed to a side dish like Mac and Cheese).
This one ticks all those boxes. Proof by picture – juicy / saucy:
Tasty add-ins – sizzling seasoned chicken! Love the smell when the chicken hits the pan.
So if that sounds good to you, read on so you can see how to make your new favourite chicken pasta bake!
Ingredients in chicken pasta bake
You’ll be able to get everything from your local grocery store. Nothing pricey on the list!
Sizzling seasoned chicken
The pasta bake starts with sizzling chicken that’s been tossed in a simple, tasty seasoning. Here’s what you need:
Chicken – I like using chicken thighs as they stay juicier in dishes like pasta bakes where they are twice cooked (ie before adding into sauce then in the oven with the pasta).
Seasoning – Using a store bought Italian herb mix is a great shortcut here. I always like to add an extra spice, garlic in this paste, for extra flavour oomph.
Tomato pasta sauce for the pasta bake
A good tomato-based pasta bake needs a good tomato pasta sauce! No shortcuts here – I tried and just found it too bland. So here’s what we need:
Pasta type – I like the substantialness of rigatoni, there’s something extra cosy and satisfying about it in pasta bakes. However, feel free to use other short pastas like macaroni, penne, ziti, shells etc.
Tomato passata – for a thick, smooth sauce with better tomato flavour and red colour, use passata instead of crushed or diced tomato. It’s just pureed plain tomato! Readily available here in Australia in the pasta or canned tomato aisle and costs around the same as canned tomato. More on passata here.
Tomato paste – for sauce thickening and extra tomato flavour.
Garlic and onion – essential flavour base!
Oregano – for earthy flavour.
Chilli flakes / red pepper flakes – for a hum of warmth!
Wine – secret ingredient! Simmered rapidly to reduce and cook out the alcohol and winey flavour, just leaving behind tasty flavour. My favourite white wine for cooking is chardonnay which adds superior flavour compared to more neutral whites like sauvignon blanc. Substitute with low sodium chicken stock/broth.
Chicken pasta bake add-ins & topping
Lots of add-in options, but here’s what I’ve gone with!
Bacon – cooked first until crisp, chopped, and tossed through the pasta bake. Then we use the bacon fat left in the pan to cooke the chicken. Free flavour not to be wasted! Substitute with ham bits or chopped ham.
Tomato – adds lovely juicy chunks of tomato in the pasta bake as well as filling it out and increasing the vegetable quota.
Baby spinach – for more hidden greens as well as adding nice streaks of green into the pasta bake.
Cheese – mozzarella for stretch and melting qualities, parmesan for flavour! (Because mozzarella actually does not have much flavour).
Feel free to substitute the tomato and baby spinach with other add-ins of choice.
How to make chicken pasta bake
There’s a time and a place for quick, low-effort one-pot pasta bakes. Then there’s all those times when you want a really good pasta bake so you’ll do it properly. Crisp the bacon, sear the chicken, simmer the sauce, then bring it all together into one big bubbling pasta bake.
Today is one of those days!
1. Crisp bacon (no oil)
First, cook the bacon in a non-stick pan until golden and crisp. You won’t need any oil to do this as the fat in the bacon will melt and release fat into the pan. So it cooks in its own fat!
Drain on paper towels, leaving the fat in the pan (we will use this to cook the chicken). The bacon will go crispy when it cools, then chop into pieces.
2. Making the pasta bake
Toss the chicken in the Italian herbs, garlic powder, salt and pepper.
Sear – Using a very big pan or a large pot (because we’re mixing the sauce with pasta in this pan), sear the chicken until light golden in the reserved bacon fat.
Don’t worry whether it’s cooked through inside, it will finish cooking in the sauce and oven. Remove chicken with a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl, leaving the tasty chicken/bacon fat in the pan (you see all this flavour building going on, right??!)
Sauté the onion and garlic with the chilli flakes and dried oregano – good trick for bringing out extra flavour from dried herbs! Then add the wine and simmer rapidly to mostly reduce – this cooks out the alcohol and removes the winey flavour, just leaving behind tasty flavour which adds a little something-something into the sauce.
Sauce – Next, cook off the tomato paste. Similar to toasting the herbs, this improves the flavour of tomato paste, taking off the sour edge, intensifying the tomato flavour and sweetening it. Good Cheffy tip!
Then we add all the liquids – the tomato passata, water (use it to rinse out the bottle) – salt and pepper for seasoning.
Simmer – Then stir in the chicken – don’t forget to add all the juices pooled in the bowl! Simmer for 5 minutes to bring the flavours together – this is when the magic happens so don’t skip or shortcut this step. I tried – to speed things up – but the sauce just lacked flavour.
Add-ins – Add the baby spinach, tomato, cooked pasta and bacon in that order, so the heavier add-ins weigh down the considerable volume of baby spinach.
Oh! If you remember, you can hold back a bit of bacon for sprinkling on at the end. But to be honest, I usually forget.
Mix well – Give it all a good stir to mix it all together. You DID use a big pan, right?? 🙂 If you didn’t, this is the part where you’ll start crying or cursing – been there, done that!
Baking pan – Transfer to a 23 x 33cm / 9 x 13″ pan and level the surface.
Cheese it! Top with mozzarella then parmesan cheese. Doing it in this order gives the surface a lovely golden crust thanks to the parmesan, but it’s not the end of the world if you do it the other way.
Bake for just 25 minutes until the cheese is melted with some lovely golden spots. Rest for 5 minutes, just to let it settle so the sauce clings to the pasta a bit better. Then serve!
Make-ahead / freezing tip
Most pasta bakes are terrific make-ahead-bake-later options, and this chicken pasta bake is no exception!
The best way to make ahead is to cook the sauce and pasta separately, allow both to cool completely. Then toss together and assemble the pasta bake – including topping with cheese. Cover well with cling wrap and refrigerate 3 days or freeze up to 3 months (thaw thoroughly). Then bake covered for 20 minutes then uncovered for 20 minutes. It will take longer for the centre to get hot if you’re baking from fridge-cold but the cheese will get too brown if you leave it uncovered for this full baking time.
Complete meal – veg, starch, protein!
It is not often I get to tell you that a pasta dish is a complete meal, so let me enjoy the moment. This one’s got it all! Starch, protein and plenty of vegetables – the tomato passata (yes it’s a vegetable!), chunks of fresh tomato and a good amount of baby spinach too.
Which means – unlike most of my creamy pasta bakes – no need to make a salad for the side to round out the meal. Always a bonus when it comes to choosing what to make for dinner tonight, right?? – Nagi x
PS Having just made that statement, I just realised the photo above has a side salad in it. 😂 It’s the rocket salad (arugula) with balsamic dressing minus the parmesan shavings (because I figured there was enough cheese in the pasta bake!). It was already made for another recipe I was shooting so I just grabbed it as a background prop for the photo!
PPS Despite saying this is a complete meal, a side of garlic bread would certainly take dinner to another level!
Watch how to make it
Chicken pasta bake
- 500g / 1 lb chicken thighs , cut into small bite size pieces (Note 1)
- 1/2 tsp cooking/kosher salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- 1/2 tsp garlic powder
- 2 tsp Italian herb mix , any store bought type
- 300g/10oz rigatoni (or penne, elbow macaroni, shells or similar)
- 2 tsp salt , for cooking pasta
- 5 slices streaky bacon
- 1/2 onion , finely chopped
- 2 garlic cloves , minced
- 1 1/2 tsp dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp chilli flakes / red pepper flakes
- 1/2 cup chardonnay or other dry white wine (Note 2)
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 700g / 24oz tomato passata (Note 3)
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tsp cooking/kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp black pepper
- 3 tomatoes , cut into 8 wedges then halved
- 2 big handfuls baby spinach (or bite size kale)
- 2 cups mozzarella, shredded
- 1/2 cup (tightly packed) parmesan, finely shredded
- Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F (160°C fan).
- Cook pasta per packet directions, using boiling water seasoned with the 2 teaspoons of salt. Drain, rinse briefly under tap water, then set aside to cool while making the sauce.
- Season chicken – Toss together Seasoned Chicken ingredients in a bowl.
- Crisp bacon – Put bacon in an unheated very large non-stick pan (Note 2). Turn stove on medium high. The fat will melt so the bacon cooks in its own fat. Cook until light golden, remove onto paper towels, leaving fat in the pan. Once cool, cut into 1cm / 1/3" pieces.
- Sizzle chicken – Top up bacon fat with olive oil if you don’t have at least 1 tbsp. Increase heat to high. Cook chicken for 3 minutes until light golden on the outside but still raw inside. Remove into a bowl with a slotted spoon.
- Sauce – In the same pan, cook garlic and onion for 1 minute, then add chilli flakes and oregano. Cook for 2 minutes until onion is translucent. Add wine and rapidly simmer for 1 to 2 minutes until mostly evaporated. Add tomato paste and cook for 1 minute to concentrate and improve flavour. Add passata, then use the water to rinse out the bottle. Add salt, pepper, chicken (including all juices on the plate). Mix, then simmer for 5 minutes on medium.
- Toss – Add baby spinach, tomato, pasta and bacon. Toss well.
- Assemble – Transfer to 23 x 33cm/9 x 13" pan. Top with mozzarella then parmesan. Bake 25 minutes until melted with some golden spots.
- Serve – Stand for 5 minutes then serve!
Life of Dozer
Sunset walk. Such a beautiful part of Sydney! (It’s Bayview dog park in Sydney’s northern beaches).