Jimmy’s take on his mom’s spaghetti and meatballs recipe is packed with fresh flavors and makes excellent leftovers.
Hi, hello, happy 2020! At the end of last year I learned that two of my largest and most consistent freelance clients would be ending our contracts due to the dreaded beast known as “internal restructuring.” No one likes to go into a new year with less income than anticipated, but one of the ways I know we can save money as I pick up new clients (p.s. hire me!) is by stretching ingredients as far as we can across a variety of recipes and by planning ahead for leftovers. So, with that in mind, let’s talk about a classic: Spaghetti and Meatballs.
I didn’t grow up with a classic family spaghetti and meatballs recipe and don’t really have any nostalgic feelings for a particular kind of preparation. Which, honestly, is for the best, because I married into one — Jimmy has strong feelings about his mom’s recipe.
Even in college, when neither of us cooked much at all, Jimmy would occasionally make a huge batch of this spaghetti sauce and eat it for days. It was, for him, what angel hair pasta with chicken and tuna newberg were for me.
One of the best things about this recipe is that it makes a lot of sauce. The meatballs and sauce will stay good (separated) in the freezer for up to 3 months. The sauce is also great for chicken or eggplant parmesan, a base for shakshuka, mixed into chili, as a pizza sauce, and more. The meatballs can also be used in meatballs subs or stroganoff, paired with a Swedish meatball sauce, served up in these bahn mi bowls, or in gyro-inspired pita pockets. So yes, this is a recipe for spaghetti and meatballs, but it’s also two key building blocks for a lot of other quick and easy freezer meals.
But… it’s not my recipe, it’s Jimmy’s. Take it away, Jimmy:
Spaghetti and Meatballs for Days
To me and my siblings, our mom’s spaghetti sauce is like Oprah; we love it to death, we would vote for it to be president, and we’d bump up our cable services to have access to its television network. It’s the recipe we make when we’re homesick and the source of many of our most adorable baby pictures. If someone told me I could never eat my mom’s spaghetti sauce again unless I ate a literal concrete brick, I would get out my Vitamix and pray I could smoothie that brick.
But, look, okay, I’m aware of my subjectivity. I know the power of nostalgia when it comes to food. I know that’s one of the reasons we love her recipe. Even my mom doesn’t understand why we’re so obsessed with it. According to her, the sauce is “good at best, I don’t know, it’s fine. Have you called your sister yet?”
The recipe, as my mom made it, used mostly powdered seasonings, dried herbs, jarred garlic, etc. It might not be traditional, but it makes sense. She was cooking for three kids; shelf-stability was a priority. But the parmesan that she used was that powdered bullshit you find at a pizza place, and I just can’t endorse that shit anymore.
Now, when I make my mom’s spaghetti and meatballs, I put my own spin on it, replacing many of the dried ingredients with their fresher counterparts. I also give it time to reduce in the oven to intensify the flavors. While I prefer to keep the sauce meat-free until it’s time to add the meatballs and sausage, my sister takes a more ragu-style approach with lots of ground meat. We’ve each grown to love our own versions, and yet we both experienced the same reaction as we waited for our mom’s verdict as she took that first bite of our unique versions of that recipe we continue to cherish to this day.
“It’s good. Have you called your brother yet?” (Thanks, mom.)
Spaghetti and Meatballs FAQ
How long does it take to make the spaghetti sauce?
There’s no way around this, except to say a while. Like 2-3 hours. Spaghetti sauce is one of those recipes that can be eaten once you mix all the ingredients together and they’re hot, but it’s not truly perfected until the liquid has reduced. It can take a while for that to happen. Once it does though, you’ll be glad you waited.
To make the sauce you’ll start by sautéing onions and garlic. Then you’ll add two large cans of crushed tomatoes and one can of whole peeled plum tomatoes, which you’ll crush by hand. As the sauce reduces in the oven over the course of 2-3 hours, it soaks up additional flavor from a large onion, a carrot, fresh and dried herbs, and two bay leaves all of which you’ll remove when the sauce comes out of the oven.
It’s not quick, but it’s so worth it for the way the flavor intensifies.
How much spaghetti sauce does this make?
A lot. Like a lot a lot. It makes about 2 quarts of sauce, which is enough for probably 12-14 servings. The sauce is thick and intensely flavored, so you end up using less of it per serving it than you do of the jarred stuff.
We usually end up eating it all week long and having a little left over to freeze for later. It generally lasts long enough that I satisfy my craving for it but not so long that I can’t look at it anymore because I’ve been eating it for five f*%king days in a row.
Can I make it vegan?
Yes! Up until the point where you add the meatballs and sausage, this sauce is completely vegan.
Whoa, meatballs AND sausage?
You bet. I make the meatballs from scratch, and then poach sausage in the spaghetti sauce before pan-frying and slicing it. But if you just want one or the other, that’s fine too.
I bake the meatballs on a sheet tray, and then store them in a Tupperware or a large gallon bag in the fridge, separate from the sauce. When you reheat the sauce on the stove each night for leftovers, only add however many meatballs you plan to eat.
If you leave the meatballs in the spaghetti sauce overnight, I find they start to develop a weird texture and reheat unevenly.
Do I seriously have to make my own meatballs?! Why can’t I use the frozen ones?
No — but yes. I know not everyone has the time to make homemade spaghetti sauce and homemade meatballs on the same night. If you’re in a pinch, frozen meatballs will get the job done. But… they’re not as good.
When you make your own meatballs you control the most important variable of meatballs: bread. Meatballs usually have some sort of breading in them, whether it’s literally bits of bread or some sort of breadcrumbs. I personally don’t trust food companies making frozen meatballs to a) use quality meat and b) not cut corners by using more bread than meat. And I like a meatier meatball anyway. So I make them from scratch.
If you don’t have time to make meatballs AND sauce from scratch on the same night, you can always make the meatballs ahead of time. Fully cooked, they’ll stay good in the fridge for 3-5 days and in the freezer up to 3 months.
Do I have to make my own sausages too?
No, don’t be ridiculous. Buy sausages in the meat section of the grocery store. I recommend either sweet or hot Italian sausages. Not the pre-cooked ones, the raw ones. You don’t have to make your own sausages, but you will have to cook them.
What’s the point of poaching the sausage before pan-frying it?
The sausages poach in the finished, hot spaghetti sauce for 20 minutes. During this time they absorb lots of delicious tomato-y flavor, and the sauce absorbs delicious sausage-y flavor. They also get a jump start on cooking, so the pan-frying is mostly just to get nice browning and crispiness on the outside.
If you’re in a rush, or if you’re cooking for some vegetarian or vegan guests, you can jump straight to pan-frying them, but if you can poach first, it’s worth it.
I’ve heard people talk about “DOP San Marzano Tomatoes.” Will people judge me if I don’t buy speciality canned tomatoes from Italy?
Italians might, but they’re working from a different playbook when it comes to spaghetti sauce. San Marzano tomatoes are really great, but finding DOP San Marzano tomatoes can be a major challenge, if not completely impossible.
The good news is certain regions in California have the same climate as the San Marzano region of Italy (though the San Marzano region of Italy would disagree). The San Marzano tomatoes made in California are just as good.
Really any canned, peeled whole plum tomatoes will work here. If you like a particular brand, or one of them is on sale that week, just go for it. You’ll enjoy it. Don’t let pretentious food assholes make you feel like your sauce isn’t worth it. It’s your sauce. Own it.
This still seems like a lot of work. How is it practical, again?
There’s a bit of work upfront, sure, but think of that time as an investment in delicious, easily re-heatable leftovers. You can either make the sauce or the meatballs (or both) a day or two before you plan to eat it, and then you’re basically just reheating it on the stove each night. It tastes better than the store-bought stuff, and you’ll make a lot more of it for your money.
If you’re cooking for a crowd that includes vegetarian or vegan guests, this is a great recipe to reach for. The meatballs and sliced sausage are fully cooked outside of the sauce and can be served separately.
The following prices were pulled from a mid-range grocery store here in Los Angeles. Most of the ingredients will be used up in the process of making this. And I didn’t include vegetable or olive oil, salt, and pepper because those are pantry staples.
You may already have some of the ingredients on hand (oregano, bay leaves, red pepper flakes, garlic) but I included the cost to buy them new just in case you’re buying them for the first time. You will probably have a few cloves of garlic left over, and you will definitely have extra bread crumbs, red pepper flakes, oregano, parmesan cheese, and bay leaves.
|QUANTITY / INGREDIENT||PRICE|
|1 bulb garlic||$0.50|
|1 package fresh basil||$1.99|
|2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes ($2.49 ea)||$4.98|
|1 28 oz can whole peeled plum tomatoes||$2.19|
|1 bunch fresh parsley||$0.99|
|1 large carrot (optional)||$0.25|
|Crushed red pepper flakes||$2.20|
|1 lb 80/20 ground beef||$4.99|
|1 lb ground pork sausage||$5.99|
|Wedge of parmesan cheese||$6.99|
|Italian bread crumbs||$1.19|
|1 package Italian sausage (sweet or spicy)||$2.99|
|2 boxes pasta of your choosing ($1.69 ea)||$3.38|
If $42.11 seems like a lot for one recipe, just remember this makes 12-14 servings (if not more), which makes the per-serving cost $3.51-$3.01.
If you omit the red pepper flakes, carrot, and just use sausage instead of meatballs, you can drop the total cost significantly to just $28.68, for a per-serving cost of $2.38-$2.04.
Oh, and pro-tip for not spending a lot on spices: Check the “international” aisle of your grocery store for bagged spices.
Recommended tools for Spaghetti and Meatballs:
- A large, oven-safe pot (I use a cast iron enameled dutch oven)
- A can opener
- A knife
- A cutting board
- Oven mitts
- A large bowl
- A baking sheet
- Aluminum foil
- A microplane or zester (you’ll also want this to grate more parmesan cheese over the top at the end!)
- A medium-sized skillet
- A pair of kitchen tongs
- A medium-sized pot
- A colander or strainer
- (optional) Latex gloves for squeezing whole tomatoes and for shaping meatballs. (I always have these on hand for when I make hot sauce, so I like to use them for this.)
Head over to A Well Stocked Kitchen to learn more about why I recommend a hydroponic garden for growing herbs in your kitchen. Yes, it’s an investment up front, but so handy when you need just a bit of fresh basil here and there and don’t want to buy those individual plastic packages.
Now what are you waiting for? Get cooking!
Update 1/27/2020 — Half of an onion and the egg were missing from the ingredients list for the meatballs and have now been added. Thanks to an eagle-eyed Twitter user for pointing this out.
Spaghetti and Meatballs for DaysCourse: DinnerDifficulty: Medium
This richly flavored tomato sauce benefits from 2-3 hours reducing in the oven. Add the meatballs and sausage before serving, or serve on the side if you prefer.
Yield: 2 quarts of spaghetti sauce and 24-30 meatballs.
- For the sauce
1 TBSP olive oil
1/2 medium onion, finely diced (save the other half for the meatballs!)
6 cloves garlic, minced
(2) 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes
(1) 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes (San Marzano if you can find them, but any plum tomato variety will do)
1 or 2 large carrots, peeled and cut in half (optional)
1 large onion, peeled and cut into quarters, with the hairy stem end removed
2 fresh basil stems
2 bay leaves
2 tsp dried oregano
Fresh basil (leaves and stems)
Crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsely
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil leaves
- For the meatballs and sausage:
2 lbs of 80% lean ground meat (a mixture of pork and beef)
1/2 medium onion, finely diced (the other half of the diced onion from the sauce)
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
3 TBSP fresh basil, chopped
1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/3 – 3/4 cup Italian bread crumbs (more bread crumbs = softer meatballs)
Salt and pepper for seasoning
1 package Italian sausage (sweet or spicy)
1 TBSP vegetable or olive oil
- For the pasta
Pasta shape of your choice, however much you need to feed however many people are eating and cooked according to package directions
- To make the sauce
- Preheat oven to 325F.
- Heat large oven safe pot over medium-low heat. Add 1 TBSP olive oil and swirl it around. When it’s shimmering, add onions and sauté until translucent, stirring occasionally.
- Add minced garlic, and stir frequently for 1 minute. Then add in the 2 cans of crushed tomatoes and stir to combine.
- One at a time, add the whole peeled tomatoes, squeezing each tomato in your hand over the pot before gently dropping it in. Once all the tomatoes are in, pour the remaining liquid from the can into the pot and stir.
- Add the carrot, two large onion halves, bay leaves, basil stems, red pepper flakes, dried oregano, pinch of salt, and a few grinds of pepper to the pot. Stir until everything is submerged.
NOTE: Don’t add too much salt in this step. Just a pinch will do. It’s about to reduce, and if it’s too salty now it’ll be wayyyy too salty later.
- Increase the heat to medium-high. Stir frequently to prevent the bottom from burning. When the sauce begins to bubble, put the lid on the pot and place it in the oven for 2-3 hours until it has reduced by 1/3 and is deep red in color. Stir every hour.
NOTE: If making meatballs, now is a good time to do so!
- When the sauce has reduced and taken on a dark red color, take the pot out of the oven and throw out the carrot, onion halves, bay leaves, and basil stems. Stir in chopped basil and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.
- If eating immediately, keep the pot on the stove on low-medium heat to poach the sausages and heat the meatballs).
If prepping ahead, let the sauce cool to room temperature before transferring to an airtight container and placing in the fridge or freezer.
- To make the meatballs
- Preheat oven to 325F.
- Add onion, garlic, parsley, basil, ground meat, breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, egg, salt and pepper to a large bowl. Mix with your hands just until combined. Do not overwork it.
- Shape golf ball sized meatballs and arrange them in rows on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 minutes.
- If using immediately, add to finished spaghetti sauce (step 8, above) and cook for an additional 15 minutes.
If prepping ahead, let cool on the sheet pan before transferring to an airtight container in the fridge or freezer.
- To poach a sausage
- Submerge sausages in the sauce for 20 minutes at medium-low heat.
NOTE: If serving vegetarian or vegan guests, skip straight to step 4.
- In the last few minutes of poaching, heat 1 TBSP oil in a medium skillet over medium heat until shimmering.
- Remove the sausages from the sauce, being careful not to tear the delicate outer skin. Gently shake or scrape the excess sauce back into the sauce pot.
- Place the sausages in the skillet and cook 3.5 minutes on each side.
NOTE: The sausages will brown quickly because of the sugars from the tomato sauce, but if the sausages start smoking, lower the heat.
- Remove sausages from pan and let rest on a cutting board for 5 minutes.
- Slice into rounds and add back into the spaghetti sauce.
- To serve
- Cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and return to pot. Toss pasta with a few tablespoons of sauce, just enough to lightly coat the noodles so they don’t stick together.
- Heat (or reheat) sauce over medium-low heat. Add desired number of meatballs. Poach, pan-fry, and slice sausage according to directions above. Add sausage to sauce.
- Serve sauce over noodles in bowls, OR place the pasta and sauce (with meat or with meat on the side) in separate serving bowls on the table and let diners serve themselves. Garnish with additional grated parmesan cheese and thinly sliced fresh basil if desired.
- Both the sauce and the meatballs will stay good in the fridge 3-5 days and in the freezer up to 3 months. Meatballs can be defrosted in the sauce from frozen.
- The sausages can be poached all at once and then refrigerated in an airtight container. Pan fry, rest, and slice before adding to the sauce. DO NOT freeze the sausages after poaching.
- The sauce and the meatballs cook at the same temperature (325F). Arrange your oven racks so the meatballs can cook on the lowest while the sauce cooks on the middle.
- Adding the cooked meatballs and sausage back to the sauce before serving is mostly to get them up to temperature and to give them a chance to absorb some tomato-y flavor. Since they’re fully cooked, however, you can serve them on the side if you need to.