Everybody loves this classic Spaghetti and Meatballs! I’m sharing my secrets to the most juicy, tender Italian meatballs, simmered in a homemade marinara sauce.
Spaghetti and Meatballs are a family favorite
Nothing says comfort food like a big bowl of Spaghetti and Meatballs. Wow your family with these super soft and tender meatballs in a homemade marinara sauce tossed with swirls of hot buttered spaghetti.
The BEST Italian Meatballs
The secret to getting super soft and tender meatballs is bread soaked in milk, also called a panade. But not only do I soak the bread in milk, I grate the onion and add it to the panade. This adds a burst of extra flavor.
The softest, most tender homemade Italian meatballs
Another secret to the softest, most tender meatballs is using a light hand when mixing. Overworked meat produces a tough, dry meatball.
Mix all of the ingredients, except the ground meat, really well to form a paste before adding the ground meat. This ensures that everything is well mixed without overworking the meat. It also lets the panade soak up all the added aromatics. Add the meat and mix gently with your hands until the mixture is just combined. It’s ok to still see full pieces of ground meat.
Mixing meatball ingredients (except the meat!) by hand or machine
Combining all of the other meatball ingredients with the meat should definitely be done by hand. But what about the method of mixing all those other ingredients into a paste?
I’ve done a side by side test of combining all of the ingredients except the meat by hand and in the food processor. The food processor is the easiest way and mixes all of the ingredients to a fine paste. It even eliminates grating the onion. However, there is a slight difference in the final meatball.
Mixing the added ingredients in the food processor produces a meatball that is more uniform inside. There are no small pieces of onion, parsley, or cheese. This is neither good, nor bad, but it is up to personal preference. It does make a slightly tighter, more densely packed meatball.
Mixing the added ingredients by hand will have a looser texture in which you may detect small pieces of onion or parsley. This method produces a slightly softer meatball. I find this to be the tastiest method, however if I’m short on time, I just throw all of those added ingredients into the food processor.
No matter how I mix the added ingredients, I always mix in the meat by hand.
Italian Meatball recipe – What are the ingredients to make meatballs?
For moisture, tenderness, and binding
*White bread slices and milk – to make the panade for super soft and tender meatballs
*Egg – to bind everything together
Aromatics for flavor
I keep the meatballs simply flavored:
*Onion and garlic – both savory aromatics
*Parmesan cheese – adds salt and wonderful umami flavor
*Parsley – for its fresh herby flavor
*Pinch of nutmeg – totally optional, but it adds a depth of flavor that you won’t quite be able to put your finger on
*And of course salt and pepper
Ground meat for Spaghetti and Meatballs
I use 85% ground beef to make Spaghetti and meatballs. The fat keeps them juicy and tender. For extra flavor, I replace about 4 ounces of the beef with sweet Italian sausage. For Italian sausage flavor without adding sausage, just add a little of the same spices used in making Italian sausage: a half teaspoon each of crushed fennel seeds, paprika, dried Italian herbs, as well as an extra clove or two of garlic.
How to make Italian meatballs
Mix all of the meatball ingredients, except the ground meat, really well to form a paste before adding the ground meat.
Add the meat and mix gently with your hands until the mixture is just combined. It’s ok to still see full pieces of ground meat.
Form into 1 ½ inch sized meatballs by rolling gently in between your palms. It helps to dip your hands in water or to lightly coat them with oil to prevent the meat from sticking to your hands.
How to cook meatballs
The meatballs are browned all over in a hot skillet but not cooked through. They are removed from the pan while the marinara sauce is being started, then finished by simmering in the sauce.
Oven baked meatballs
The meatballs can also be baked in the oven. While they’ll be 1 spoon of oil healthier, they will be less moist and tender. You’ll also miss out on all the flavor that browning them in a skillet adds.
Bake them on an aluminum foil lined baking sheet or on a baking rack, both sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, at 425 F for about 10-12 minutes. They don’t need to be cooked through. They will finish cooking in the sauce.
How to make marinara sauce for Spaghetti and Meatballs
Are you in the smooth sauce or chunky sauce camp for Spaghetti and Meatballs? I most often make chunkier tomato sauces, but for Spaghetti and Meatballs I love a smooth sauce.
For a smooth marinara sauce:
My favorite tomato to use for a smooth marinara sauce is Pomi Passata or Pomi Strained Crushed Tomatoes. Made in Italy with end-of-summer tomatoes, passata is pureed, strained, uncooked tomatoes. It makes a thicker, more intensely flavored sauce than crushed tomatoes, and it doesn’t need to simmer for a long time to break down into a thick sauce.
I find passata, including Pomi Passata, also called Pomi Strained Crushed Tomatoes, at my local Walmart. You can also find it online. 26 ounces (750ml) of passata, thinned with a little water, is what is used in the pictures shown here.
A 28 ounce (800g) can of tomato puree can be used as a substitute for passata. Add water if necessary to reach the desired consistency, about a half a cup.
For a chunky tomato sauce
For a chunkier tomato sauce with bits of tomato, use 43 ounces of crushed tomatoes – a 28oz (800g) can plus a 15oz (425g) can. Because crushed tomatoes aren’t as thick and concentrated as passata, no added water will be necessary.
Making the marinara sauce
After the meatballs are browned and removed from the pan, onion and garlic is sautéed in the pan. The tomatoes and seasonings are added and the sauce is brought to a simmer.
The right balance of salt, sugar, and acid gives the tomato sauce the perfect intensity of flavor. If I find my sauce tasting a little flat, I use a teaspoon of each. This may be different for you depending on your taste and the type of tomato sauce you use. Taste your sauce before adding sugar and vinegar. If you’re happy with it, you don’t need to add any. If it tastes a little flat, add some sugar and /or vinegar and adjust accordingly.
Add the Meatballs to the sauce
The browned meatballs are added back to the sauce and simmered for 15 minutes.
If you use crushed tomatoes, you can simmer them for about 5-10 minutes before adding the meatballs to give the sauce a chance to thicken.
Serving the Spaghetti and Meatballs
You can either top the spaghetti with the meatballs and marinara, or toss them all together.
Garnish with freshly grated parmesan cheese and freshly chopped parsley.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
For the Meatballs:
- 2 slices white sandwich bread crusts removed and cut into small squares
- 1 medium onion
- 3 tablespoons milk
- 1 egg
- One handful fresh parsley (¼ cup chopped)
- 3 garlic cloves minced
- 1/4 cup (28g) parmesan cheese freshly grated
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp black pepper
- Optional: Pinch of nutmeg
- 1 lb (454g) ground beef (See Note 1)
For the Marinara sauce:
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves minced
- 1 medium onion finely chopped
- 28 oz (800g) can tomato passata, puree, or 43oz (1220g) crushed tomatoes (See Note 2)
- 1/2 cup water if using passata or puree
- 1 teaspoon dried Italian herbs mix or 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar or to taste
- 1 teaspoon vinegar or to taste (See Note 3)
- Black pepper to taste
- Red chili flakes optional and to taste
- 1 lb box (500g) spaghetti cooked until al dente and tossed with 1 tablespoon butter
- Parmesan cheese
- Optional garnish: finely chopped parsley
Make the Meatballs:
- Grate the onion using a standard size grater until you have about 1/2 cup of grated onion and juices.
- Combine grated onion and juices with bread cubes and milk. Set aside for a few minutes to allow the bread to absorb the liquid, then mash with a fork.
- Add the remaining Meatball ingredients, except the meat, and mix well.
- Add the meat and gently mix until just combined. Don’t overmix or the meatballs will be tough and dry. It’s ok to still see full pieces of ground meat.
- Form into 1 ½ inch sized meatballs by rolling in between your palms. It helps to dip your hands in water or to lightly coat them with oil to prevent the meat from sticking to your hands.
- Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pan, either a large skillet or a dutch oven.
- Add the meatballs and brown all over – about 3 – 4 minutes.
- When they are browned but not yet cooked through, carefully transfer them onto a plate.
Make the marinara sauce:
- In the same skillet over medium heat, add more oil if needed and sauté chopped onion stirring often until soft and golden, about 5 minutes. Add 4 cloves minced garlic and stir 1 minute.
- Add the tomatoes and the remaining sauce ingredients and bring to a simmer.
- Add the meatballs and any juices to the sauce and simmer on low for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. (If you use crushed tomatoes, you can simmer them for about 5-10 minutes before adding the meatballs to give the sauce a chance to thicken.)
- Taste and adjust the seasonings (salt, vinegar, sugar, chili flakes).
- Serve the meatballs with the hot buttered spaghetti. You can either top the spaghetti with the meatballs and marinara, or toss them all together. Garnished with extra parmesan and parsley, if using.
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