Gluten-Free Baked Stuffed Shells

Gluten-Free Italian Stuffed Shells

Italian Dreams

There isn't a speck of Italian blood in me. Allegedly. No blood lines (even faint ones) to trace back to Italy's flavor and culture rich boot. I claim no Italian grandmother with deft, gnarled hands who could roll out ravioli dough in her sleep. No puttering, gardening grandfather who offered me my first taste of a sun warmed tomato straight off the string-tied vine. We didn't have lasagna on our Thanksgiving table. Or baked ziti. My mother never mixed me an almond infused Italian soda after a rough day at school.

So why is Italian food- forever, for me- the ultimate comfort food? Hungry, angry, lonely, tired- what do I crave? (Besides a bottle of wine? Darling those days are gone.)

Spaghetti slick with garlicky olive oil. Bubbling hot lasagna. Fresh baked focaccia. Bruschetta. Risotto. Baked stuffed shells.

All heaven.

The tough part is- living gluten-free AND dairy-free can seriously crush your Italian gilded comfort food dreams.

Back in the day, there were no gluten-free lasagna noodles or stuff-able GF pasta shells (not in my neck of the woods, anyway). Though times have changed, pasta-wise- thank goddess. Most supermarkets now carry gluten-free pasta in all shapes and sizes. And if you cook it just right (in salted water, till al dente) and immediately drizzle it with extra virgin olive oil- most of it tastes mighty good. And if you are among the agriculturally evolved among us who can digest milk, your cheesy world still glitters with buttery glory (cream, butter, and cheese go a long way to improving the flavor of gluten-free recipes, let's be honest). But.

If- like yours truly- you have to live without the salty flavor punch of Parmesan or creamy tang of fresh goat cheese, comfort food can turn into one big, ho-hum yawn. Vegan cheese is no substitute (yes, I've tried them all). Unless your concept of cheese involves an aerosol can, plastic-shiny slices in peel-away shrink-wrap or orange powder you added to hot milk (no offense to corporate giant produced fake foods, or anything). In that case, processed oil with pea protein vegan cheese might remind you of something seemingly related to the cheese family.

I can't get past the funky sock odor and poly-vinyl texture.

Maybe because I was lucky. I had two years of Home Economics class. I cooked my own whole milk white cheddar sauce for baked macaroni and cheese (the first thing I learned to cook, at 13, stirring a white roux with flour and unsalted butter). Post honeymoon I shaved velvet slivers of golden Parmesan from precious wedges of Italian Reggiano, thanks to two weeks in Italy. And I spoon-stuffed pasta shells with a classic blend of ricotta and shredded mozzarella thanks to an armful of hippie-vegetarian cookbooks.

So, yes, there are days I miss dairy food. Especially in winter.

And thus, began experimenting, inventing ways to make up for the loss of genuine cheesy goodness. The first part was easy. I turned to organic soft tofu for a ricotta substitute (my mainstay for years as a vegetarian goddess). I may as well admit I not only tolerate tofu, I love tofu. And lucky for me, this fermented bean curd stuff loves me, too (I know this is not the case for everyone- and for those of you with a milk allergy AND soy allergy, I truly feel your pain).

For the topping I use a blend of Italian seasoned bread crumbs (I use Udi's gluten-free white sandwich bread processed into crumbs with extra virgin olive oil, garlic, and herbs) and almond meal (almond meal has a soft, powdery mouth feel faintly reminiscent of grated cheese) with sea salt for a salty-cheesier taste.

The latest version (created back in West Hollywood) was a winner- and we've been making it ever since. The family loves it. Even the gluten-eaters.

All I know is there is never a scrap left over.

Which as any cook knows, speaks volumes

Karina's creamy, non-dairy stuffing for Italian shells
Karina's creamy, non-dairy stuffing for Italian shells.
Stuffing gluten-free pasta shells
Stuffing gluten-free Italian pasta shells...
Gluten-free stuffed shells- comfort food, Italian style, vegetarian.
Gluten-free stuffed shells- comfort food, Italian style.

Gluten-Free Baked Stuffed Shells Recipe

Recipe posted January 2013 by Karina Allrich.

These gluten-free dairy-free Italian stuffed shells are lighter than traditional cheese-stuffed shells- and so fresh tasting. Chopped herbs, garlic, and crunchy bread crumbs work serious magic. This recipe is our current favorite comfort food. We make it once a week. Perfect for a chilly winter's night.


1 8-oz box gluten-free grand pasta shells
4 breakfast sized sweet Italian sausages, chopped
2 cups baby spinach leaves, stemmed
1 14-oz tub organic soft tofu, drained, pressed to release water
1 large free-range organic egg, beaten
2 tablespoons Vegenaise (just trust me)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon mild GF curry powder
Sea salt and ground pepper, to taste
16 ounces good marinara sauce (Italian red pasta sauce)

For topping:

2 slices gluten-free sandwich bread, torn into several pieces
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried thyme
Drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
2-3 tablespoons almond meal
Sea salt, to taste
Chopped fresh parsley


Bring a large pot of salted water to a medium rolling boil, add the GF shells, lower the heat to medium-high and cook on high simmer for 6 minutes, gently stirring now and then, till softened but still firm. Drain well, separate the shells and set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 350º.

In a skillet, saute the sausage briefly, till golden and starting to brown a bit.

Rinse the spinach leaves and drain well. Add them to the sausages and stir till wilted; remove from heat.

Place the drained tofu in a bowl and use a potato masher to break up the tofu into "curds". Add in the egg, Vegenaise, parsley, nutmeg and curry. Stir briefly to combine. Season with sea salt and ground pepper, to taste.

Add in the sausage-spinach mixture and lightly stir.

Pour 3/4 cup marinara sauce into the bottom of a medium-sized baking dish and spread evenly.

Spoon the tofu mixture into the par-cooked shells and place them in the baking pan stuffing side up. Cover with remaining marinara sauce. (The sauce will help cook the partially cooked pasta shells.)

In a food processor, make the topping by processing the gluten-free bread into crumbs. Add in garlic, dried basil and thyme. Drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil into the crumbs and pulse until the crumbs are moist and fall away from the sides of the processor.

Sprinkle the top of the sauced shells with the breadcrumb mixture.

Sprinkle with almond meal; season the topping with sea salt.

Sprinkle with extra chopped parsley.

That's a lot of sprinkling. Welcome to my world.

Cover with a piece of foil and bake in the center of the oven until the shells are tender, the stuffing is piping hot, and the sauce is bubbling.

Makes 4 generous servings.

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GFG Notes:

Yes, you can use moo-cow dairy cheese instead; blend 14-ounces of ricotta cheese with a cup of shredded mozzarella, and use grated Parmesan on top.

If you must be egg-free, omit the egg from the filling.

To keep this vegan, omit the egg and Italian sausage. You might have a few unstuffed shells.

xox Karina 


  1. Love the breadcrumb topping on this! I've yet to find GF shells in my local grocery stores. I have to keep searching. :)

    Come check out the Gluten Free Rum Balls I made for the New Year!


  2. Love your writing (real, humorous, bright)! Gonna try this recipe this weekend.Was gluten free 13 years ago (I needed you then!)...time to do it again. Thanks for sharing your journey, Carmen

  3. i've never seen the shells. Would you use the same process for a lasagna or a ziti casserole, maybe?

    1. Sure, why not? I've made lasagna with this filling, too.

  4. Oh BOY! I can't wait to make this - twice. As far as I know, I have no gluten issues (or dairy), but dying to try out your tofu mixture, so I'll just have to try both ways:) Oh, and thank you! Never in my life made stuffed shells, but it sure looks delicious.

    1. I used to make these with Italian shells when I was simply dairy-free back in the day. And prior to that--- Mama Mia- real ricotta!

  5. Hi Karina - What brand of GF shells do you use? I haven't seen them in my grocery store yet either. And what kind of breakfast sausage? Thanks so much!

  6. I use Tinkyada pasta shells (brown rice pasta). I've seen them at various natural food markets, but I also buy them by the case from Amazon.

    Yes, you could use the filling, sauce and topping in a lasagna, too.

    The sausages we used are chicken sausages- breakfast style; they say Gluten-Free on the label (I don't have a package in front of me, sorry; we found them at our local market). I've seen several chicken and turkey sausages that are GF, and dairy-free- more and more- read labels, as always.

    And thank you, Everyone! xox


  7. Karina, straight up, I love you!

  8. Have you tried freezing this? I would love to make this ahead of time and bring it to work for lunch. I would divide it into four servings.

    1. No- sorry- I have not frozen it; but I expect it would be fine.

  9. karina, i love your blog. have made this before, but never with those sexy breadcrumbs of yours! just in case you ever need an extra hearty version, I added to the filling the vegan cream cheese... i know you already might avoid or not tolerate the stuff, but It was extra delicious and creamy & with all the garlic i used couldnt taste the fake cheese funk :) baking with other things seems bring out the good of it :)
    either way, thank you for being my recipe instructor for the last 6 years. you are awesome :)

  10. I can't wait to try this yummy looking recipe! Unfortunately I have a soy allergy so no tofu. I'm sure my vegan college student will have me make both recipes.

  11. Thank you, I have not seen the shells, but will look for them or do as you said you do. Looks so yummy, but I am one who cannot have soy, so will have to use something else.

  12. So glad you figured out how to make the Italian food thing work, and if you're turning out dishes like this in the new place, you must be getting settled in. xo

    1. Thank you, Kalyn- yes, settling in--- but not for long... ;-)

  13. This would be a real treat to bring to a friend in need who needs to eat gluten and dairy free. Your recipes are always so great!

  14. I've found the combination of chopped almonds and glutenfree tamari sauce (I used Clearspring) to produce a result reminiscent of parmesan.....

  15. Karina, I love all of your recipes and have enjoyed making a variety over the last year since I have been gluten free.

    I wanted to ask you. I make a lot of your baked goods and I have a hard time getting them to last. It seems as soon as I take something out of the oven and let it cool, within a day it is breaking down. By this I mean the top is gooey, almost like it is too moist however the flavor is all wrong too. Any ideas? I freeze most but would like to know I can make a cake or bread and have it last a couple days on the counter!!!


    1. Gluten-free flours do not hold up as well as wheat flour- they attract moisture, and yes, get gummy. I always wrap servings, bag and freeze them the first day. That way I always have a fresh, easy to grab treat on hand.

  16. I have not tried freezing this recipe- but I know you can freeze tofu, so I don't see why not.

    And yes, gluten-free baked goods lose texture/taste after a day kept at room temperature. This is a frustrating fact for home-baked GF baked goods. I recommend wrapping and freezing all baked goods that contain gluten-free flours. Commercial products add cellulose and preservatives that we home cooks do not (though most packaged GF goods are better frozen, too).

    Thanks to you all for your lovely comments!

    Cheers- Karina

  17. These are Beautiful! What brand of gluten-free pasta shells did you use? I've never seen any in the stores and would love to try them. Happy New Year and hope you are well!

    1. Look for Tinkyada shells- they come in a smallish blue box. I have found them in the oddest places- tucked into lone displays apart from pasta, or on the bottom of some random"health food" shelf. We use them so much now, though, I buy a case of them at Amazon.

  18. This is just what I'm looking for! I crave the pasta all the time! Great blog!

  19. Such a wonderful resource, Karina! I made this last night for a large group with a few gluten-free dairy-free folks and it was a hit! Those without food allergies thought it was delish. One of the teens in the group couldn't stop hugging me, she was so excited to eat "regular food". Thank you, thank you!

    1. How wonderful! That makes my day- hope it made yours!

  20. How long does it usually take for the shells to get tender?

    1. I am guessing seven to eight minutes... I just keep an eye on them and check them periodically. You don't want them cooked to the point of mushy.

  21. Have you found a good soy free substitute for tofu??

    1. That's a tough one (for a recipe like this). You'll need to come up with a cooked veggie filling, I think.

    2. Try this "ricotta" filling that uses cashews. It was surprisingly delicious! I can't wait to try it in this recipe too!

  22. Looks amazing! I was ooooh so hopeful until I saw the tofu. {sigh} yeah. No soy either.

    I'm with you: Italian rules, I always make mac-n-cheese from scratch and cheese substitutes are gross. Although if you pretend a little, Daiya fake cheddar almost makes rice elbows taste like real fake mac-n-cheese. ;)

  23. Glad I stumbled upon this on pinterest. I've totally been craving it! Thanks so much for posting and all you do for the GF community!


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Karina - Gluten-Free Goddess xox