With the mercury falling faster than a drop of rain, I decided to bridge the gap between summer salads and winter braises with this comforting spaghetti and meatballs. The last batch of tomatoes ripened under the waning summer sun sat waiting on my counter, and I couldn't think of a better use for them than to make a simple tomato sauce to go with these marvelous meatballs.
I'll tell you right now that if you're looking for a quick pasta dish, this isn't it. Bookmark this dish for a weekend project and go check out my spaghetti with meat sauce recipe.
It all started when my lazy Sunday supper took a turn from an improvised dinner to an exercise in measuring, documenting, and photographing. It's a process I always go through when developing a new recipe for this blog but it's one I'd hoped to avoid that day. Thankfully all that effort was not spent in vain as this is the best spaghetti and meatballs I've ever made!
Now words like "best" are so subjective I should probably qualify it with what I value in a good meatball. For me, meatballs should be melt-in-your-mouth tender yet chock full of meaty flavor. Gently kissed with the verdant flavor of herbs and coated in a sweet sun-ripened tomato sauce, meatballs should be juicy without being greasy.
So how did I make these orbs of meaty goodness you ask? Here's my play-by-play on how I engineered these ultimate meatballs.
Making the Best Spaghetti and Meatballs
Aromatics, sautéed or raw?
I don’t think there is any doubt that caramelized onions taste better than raw onions, the question is whether the extra effort is worth it. In my experience meatballs with caramelized onions taste better than meatballs made with raw onions. However, if you’re pressed for time, you can get away with putting the onions and garlic in a safe microwave bowl, cover them with a lid, and steam them in the microwave until they are tender. You won’t get quite as much flavor out of them as sauteeing them in a pan, but it’s far less work, and it still brings out the sweetness of the aromatics.
All beef or a blend?
This is going to be a matter of personal preference. Meatballs made with all beef have a darker, meatier color and a more beefy flavor. They also tend to be a little more lean, which means they can be a bit drier. By blending some pork into the meatball mixture, you get a better balance of fat, which means the meatballs tend to be juicier. It does make the meatballs a little lighter in color, but you also get a porcine punch of umami that beef alone can’t deliver. Personally, I like using an 80:20 ratio of beef to pork. This still offers plenty of beefy flavors, while providing porky synergies that make a better meatball.
What about fillers?
Cheap fillers like breadcrumbs, ricotta, or tofu are often added as a way to stretch the meat, but are you just diluting the flavor of the meatballs, or are there some tangible benefits to adding fillers?
Perhaps the most common filler is breadcrumbs. Yes, they’re cheap, and can significantly increase the number of meatballs you can make from the same amount of meat. But this isn't just about saving money. Breadcrumbs aid in the quest to make meatballs juicier. As anyone who has ever dunked a piece of bread in a bowl of soup can attest, bread soaks up liquids like a sponge. The meatballs cook and the meat releases its juices, and the breadcrumbs are right there to sop them up so they can gush all over the inside of your mouth as you bite into one. The final benefit of adding breadcrumbs is that they don’t get hard when they’re cooked as meat does. That means the breadcrumbs also help keep your meatballs tender.
Ricotta is another common filler that’s added. While ricotta can't absorb liquids, it does have a bunch of fat, which adds flavor to your meatballs while helping to keep everything moist and tender. Of course, this is also a downside if you're trying to limit your fat or cholesterol intake. One reasonable substitute I’ve found is soft tofu, which has relatively little fat, and no cholesterol. As long as you don't add too much, it's impossible to taste it, and yet it keeps your meatballs moist and tender.
I like having very flavorful meatballs in a simple tomato sauce. That's why I add a ton of seasonings, starting with sautéed aromatics like garlic and onions. Then, I layer on additional umami-boosting ingredients such as tomato paste, soy sauce, and Parmigiano-Reggiano. If you want to go nuts on the umami, you could also add some porcini powder to the meatball mix. Fresh thyme and parsley, as well as fennel seeds, nutmeg, and black pepper, get added to the meatball mix. The result is an ultra-savory meatball with enough flavor that they're delicious on their own, but even better once cooked with the fresh tomato sauce.
Polpette Grande, Polpette, or Polpettine?
This is almost entirely a function of personal preference, and you can make them as big or as small as you want. The bigger they are, the harder they are to handle, and they tend to get flat because of gravity. My personal preference is for meatballs a little bigger than a golf ball. This is an easy size to handle, while giving them enough girth that you wouldn't want to pop a whole meatball in your mouth. If you opt for making marble-sized polpettine, be careful, as it is easy to overcook them.
We’re still getting the last of this summer’s tomatoes, and for meatballs, I love using fresh sun-ripened tomatoes as the sauce ends up light and mildly sweet. This simple sauce makes for a beautiful contrast to the rich complexity of the meatballs. If the tomato skins aren't too thick, I usually just chop the whole tomato up to save time, but the skins and seeds do make the sauce a bit rustic. If you're looking to do this properly, you'll want to peel the tomatoes and remove their seeds. If you do go down this route, be sure to weight the tomatoes after you've peeled and chopped them.
If tomatoes are no longer in season, head over to my Basic Tomato Sauce recipe, which uses canned tomatoes to make a respectably delicious sauce for your meatballs and spaghetti.
Most of us who grew up in the US think of Spaghetti and Meatballs as Italian as red Ferraris and Chianti, but they're actually an Italian-American culinary innovation. In Italy, Polpette are served in soup, or as a main (sans the pasta). While it's unclear who the genius was that first brought these two together, it's become an enduring part of the Italian-American culinary legacy.
Now that we have that out of the way, what's the best pasta to pair with meatballs? Everyone has their preferences for pasta, and whether you serve these meatballs with tagliatelle, penne or farfalle, you’re still going to have a big bowl of deliciousness. That said, spaghetti is the classic pick, and for nostalgic reasons alone I can’t imagine serving these meatballs with anything else. I mean, who can forget that scene in Lady and the Tramp where a shared plate of spaghetti and meatballs blossoms the most unlikely of romances?
Putting it all together
Baking the meatballs helps retain their shape while allowing you to cook a ton of meatballs in one go. The only drawback is that you don't get as much browning on the exterior of the meatball. This is why I prefer frying them in a pan, as the browned meat juices dissolve into our tomato sauce giving it a ton of flavor.
You may notice that the photos show a stainless steel pan, but this is a bad idea as the cheese in the meatballs causes them to stick, which makes it difficult to retain their shape. In a non-stick frying pan, you can roll the meatballs around with a wooden spoon to evenly brown every surface while keeping them nice and round.
Once you've browned the meatballs, they need to come out of the pan while you make the sauce. Using the same pan not only saves a bit of work, but it also adds additional flavor to our sauce. After the tomatoes go into the sauce, you return the meatballs to the pan to finish cooking them. This also gives the sauce a chance to draw some of the flavors from the meatballs.
The final big question is whether to toss the spaghetti straight into the meatballs and sauce or not. The classic presentation is to put the spaghetti down first and then layer on the meatballs and sauce. Personally, I like to mix the spaghetti straight into the sauce. For one thing, this helps prevent the spaghetti from sticking together. It also makes the dish easier to eat as you don't need to mix the components together on your plate. But perhaps the most compelling reason to mix everything in the pan is that it gives the spaghetti, meatballs, and sauce a chance to get friendly, marrying the textures, tastes, and flavors in a way that can only happen over heat. Still, layering the components does look very pretty...
- 140 grams onion (1 small onion, minced)
- 10 grams garlic (2 medium cloves, minced)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 400 grams ground beef
- 100 grams ground pork
- 100 grams ricotta cheese (or soft tofu)
- 1 small egg
- ¾ cup panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- 25 grams Parmigiano-Reggiano (grated)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1 gram fresh thyme (~3 sprigs, leaves minced)
- 3 grams flat-leaf parsley (~2 sprigs, leaves minced)
- 1 teaspoon soy sauce
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
- ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- 15 grams garlic (3 medium cloves, minced)
- 140 grams onion (1 small onion, minced)
- 650 grams tomato (cored and chopped)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 400 grams spaghetti
- flat-leaf parsley (minced for garnish)
- For the meatballs, fry the onions and garlic in olive oil until they're tender and starting to brown. Remove the pan from the heat and let them cool.
- In a large bowl, add the beef, pork, ricotta, egg, panko, Parmigiano-Reggiano, thyme, parsley, soy sauce, salt, fennel seeds, nutmeg, and pepper along with the caramelized onion mixture. Put some gloves on and use your hands to knead the mixture together until all the ingredients are evenly distributed and the meatball mixture is the consistency of bread dough.
- Use your hands to roll the mixture into meatballs. I like to make about 16 balls that are about 2-inches in diameter.
- Heat a frying pan up over medium-high heat, then add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Fry the meatballs in batches, gently rolling them around with tongs to maintain their shape until browned on all sides.
- Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of oil then sauté the garlic and onions until they are soft. The browned meat juices on the bottom of the pan are where the sauce get's its flavor, so be sure to scrape those up. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and salt and bring the mixture to a boil.
- Add the meatballs into the tomato sauce along with any collected juices. Turn the heat down to low and gently simmer until the sauce is thick and the meatballs are tender (about 15-20 minutes)
- Boil the spaghetti in salted water according to the package directions. Drain the pasta, then toss the pasta together with the sauce. Plate the spaghetti, then top each serving with meatballs, minced parsley, and parmesan cheese.