Spaghetti and Meatballs

In the few years that I have been cooking, one of the core truths I have discovered is this: the simplest things are the hardest to perfect. Meatloaf. Potato salad. Chicken parmesan. And yes, spaghetti and meatballs.

This is not to say that these dishes are difficult to cook. Not at all. But they are hard to make truly great. Maybe it’s because these kinds of recipes lend themselves to so many variations in ingredients and methods that making what one might call a “perfect version” takes a lot of practice. Practice, repetition, trial and error.

When I first began blogging in late 2007, I had no idea how to make my own anything. I had to search for advice on times and temps and methods and measurements. And sadly, at the time, there was little help out there for those just getting started in the kitchen. Pioneer Woman stood out to me for that reason alone – she broke down each step, which was such a help for novice cooks. She still does this and kudos to her for it.

So that’s what I want to do here. For anyone out there trying to figure out how to make that classic of all Italian-American classics, spaghetti and meatballs, I am documenting my version. For you, if you need it, and for me, since I have finally, after so many tries, perfected this dish for my table.

And away we go!

Spaghetti and Meatballs

Ingredients

1 pound spaghetti

Meatballs

1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
1 large egg
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup parsley, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Extra virgin olive oil for frying

Sauce

1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt

Method

Put all the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl. This is everything but the egg.

Mix by hand until just well combined. Don’t overmix. Just make sure it all comes together. Grab little chunks of the meat and smush and roll into balls between your palms. I do mine just a bit larger than golf ball size.

Fill the bottom of a wide skillet with extra virgin olive oil. And don’t skimp. I used to try to be “healthier” and only put in a couple of tablespoons of oil. Um, don’t do that. The meatballs stick when you try to turn them. Not cool.

Heat on medium high until the oil is shimmering.

Now fry the meatballs. Two things to remember here:

1) Don’t crowd the pan. I used to do that too and the meatballs steam each other. Don’t do it. Fry in two batches to give them space.

2) Be. Patient. Brown them well. 2 minutes per side, four sides per meatball. Take the time.

See this? This is what you want.

Now pour out most of the oil, leaving the bottom of the pan just coated. Lower the heat to medium.

Throw in the diced onion and stir it up, along with the brown bits from the meatballs. Saute for 1 minute, stirring frequently.

Add the garlic and continue to saute for another minute.

Add the red pepper flake and stir for about 10 seconds.

Now add the can of crushed tomatoes, basil, thyme, oregano and salt.

Stir to combine.

Now place the meatballs back in the pan.

Cover and simmer on low for 45 minutes. Gentle bubbling is good; don’t let it boil. Remove the meatballs to a plate.

During the last 20 minutes the sauce is simmering, bring a salted pot of water to boil. Cook the spaghetti a minute or two less than package directions, until barely al dente. Drain. Pour the pasta into the sauce and toss well.

Put a pile of dressed spaghetti on a plate and serve the meatballs on top. Sprinkle with finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and crushed red pepper flake as desired. I like a lot of pepper flake on mine.

NOTES

Extremely tender, savory meatballs. Rich, herby sauce. In this, its final incarnation, Steve and I both declared it the most perfect spaghetti and meatballs we have ever had.

I know every experienced cook has their own version of this and I don’t necessarily expect my take on it to change that. But if I could leave all of you with one piece of advice, it would be this: if you’re only using 1/4 to 1/3 cup of bread crumbs per pound of meat in your meatball mix, it’s too little. Use more.

I got this tip from Mario Batali while watching the repeats of Molto Mario on Cooking Channel. His answer to “why are my meatballs not as tender as grandma’s?” is that while older generations used bread crumbs as filler to stretch the meat supply, the upshot was that the bread crumbs also made the meatballs a lot more tender. And he’s absolutely right. All the Italian grandmas were right. Trust me on this. Only when I doubled the amount of bread crumbs in my mix did my meatballs come out exactly the way I wanted.

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11 thoughts on “Spaghetti and Meatballs

  1. Hey, we were just talking about this 😀

    In an effort to avoid greasy meatballs, I used to go easy on the oil too. And because of my impatience I used to crowd the pan, to avoid having to make two (or more) batches. I learned. It does make such a huge difference.

    My meatball recipe is pretty similar (except my sauce is different), but I add ricotta. As I said, I'm not really bowled over by them and was in search of a new one. Now after reading this I'm thinking it's the bread crumbs – I'm not putting enough bread crumbs in. And I'm not using fresh *gasp* which I know makes a difference.

    Nice job on the step by step!

    Like

  2. Amy, I kept trying to remind myself last night to send you a message about the bread crumbs. But then I figured you'd read the post in the morning too. 😉 Try it and let me know if it works.

    And thank you!

    Like

  3. The “don't crowd the pan” advice is some of the most valuable I have ever received. It makes so many things, notably mushrooms, SO much better.

    This looks delicious, and I will definitely be trying it out on my meatball-lovin' sweetie! Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  4. I love Mario Batali and all his larger than life “holy cow, why didn't I think of that” advice. Seriously. Thank you for sharing that tidbit.

    And also? Your meatballs look fantastic. I think I feel a spaghetti and meatball craving coming on. And you *know* that's not a frequent thing for me!

    Also? I find it hilarious that the word verification I had to enter was redlyp and you're serving red sauce. Why do these things make me giggle?

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  5. I found that through trial & error whenever I make meatballs or meatloaf I never use eggs to bind it. I also rarely use fresh breadcrumbs. I take Panko breadcrumbs and grind them in a food processor…put them in a bowl and add milk. This makes the meat mixture very tender and moist. I also sometimes bake the meatballs when I am making a big batch.

    I did it this way today…as I'm making a large amount for Super Bowl tomorrow. I'll add them to my sauce and serve them on mini potato rolls. Meatball sliders are a big hit around here on football days.

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  6. **Forgot to add that I never use just ground beef. I try to have the ground beef…ground pork & ground veal combo for the best flavor.
    But if you can't do all 3…then try the beef/pork combo.

    The flavor is out of this world and the pork also adds to the meatballs being moist.

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  7. Julia – It really works! And thanks. 😀

    Carrie – It DOES make everything better, doesn't it? Ah, patience. Even in the kitchen.

    Pamela – Yay!

    Rebecca – That's exactly how it is with Mario. He's been a godsend to me. Redlyp. Heh.

    dkal85 – Thank you for visiting and for the suggestions. I am on the fence about milk v. using egg and may retry at some point with the former. I will, however, stick to my fresh bread crumbs, as is the old school way. 😉 Also, I have tried a blend of meats and we simply prefer the all beef ones. Of course, I'm also lucky enough to live near an unbelievably great beef shop, so that tips the scales a bit!

    Like

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