The secret to making a great spaghetti and meat sauce is to build layers of flavor (beyond the meat and tomatoes), and to allow them to meld together in a balanced way. It’s a fairly simple thing to do when you’re including dozens of ingredients and simmering them together for hours, but I wanted to make a sauce that anyone can throw together on a weeknight using less than a dozen basic ingredients.
By using a few flavor-enhancing time-saving techniques, this spaghetti sauce takes less than thirty minutes from start to finish without skimping on flavor. What you get is a well balanced pasta sauce that’s neither too tart nor too sweet, with a complex savory flavor that belies the quick preparation. If you’re new to the kitchen, save this page, because I’m going to show you some techniques that can be used in almost any dish to speed it up and make it taste better.
Unlike what most jarred sauce manufacturers would have you believe, this dish is called spaghetti and MEAT sauce, not “spaghetti with tomatoes and a few crumbs of meat”. That’s why I add about as much meat as there is tomato into the sauce. That way, you’ll never be left wondering “Where’s the beef?”
To create the meaty foundation for the sauce, I use two kinds of meat: bacon and beef. By browning them both, we take advantage of the Maillard reaction, creating new flavor compounds that give the dish depth. If you don’t eat pork, you can just increase the amount of ground beef by 100 grams, and then add a few salted anchovy fillets to make up for the flavor you lose by leaving out the bacon.
The next layer of flavor comes from a mirepoix of onions, garlic and carrots that is caramelized in the rendered fat form the meat. This not only brings out the natural sweetness of the aromatics, it creates a host of additional flavor compounds that makes the sauce taste far more complex than it is. It’s important to chop the onions small, and grate the carrot finely, as this not only speeds up the caramelization process, it hastens the release of the flavors into the sauce once the liquids are added.
For the next layer of flavor, I added some white wine. This not only introduces some fruit flavors, the liquid helps release the brown fond (caramelized meat and vegetable flavor) that forms on the bottom of the pan. By boiling the mixture until there’s almost no liquid remaining, you ensure that all the alcohol has evaporated, leaving a wonderful slurry of meat, vegetable and fruit flavors behind.
Since tomatoes used for canning are usually picked before they’re fully ripe, they tend to lack the sweetness of fresh vine ripened tomatoes. Adding a little ketchup to the sauce is a quick way to bolster the tomato flavor while balancing the acidity of the canned tomatoes with a hint of sweetness.
Left to stew together while the pasta is boiling, you’ll have a delicious homemade spaghetti sauce in less time than it would have taken to order take-out. But it’s not just about saving time. With a complex flavor profile that comes together in perfect harmony, this meat sauce will put most restaurant sauces to shame.
UPDATE: Here’s an awesome fan video by Big Stu who raps this recipe while showing you how it’s done.
- Put a large pot of salted water on the stove over high heat. If you taste the water after dissolving the salt it should taste pretty salty. This flavors the pasta. Whatever you do, do not add oil to the water. This is done to keep the noodles from sticking together while boiling, but it will also keep your pasta sauce form sticking to the noodles when you eat it.
- Add the bacon to a pan over medium high heat and fry until a good amount of fat has rendered out of the bacon. Add the ground beef and brown it, breaking up the meat with a spatula until it's cooked. Transfer the meat to a bowl, leaving as much of the fat as you can in the pan.
- Turn down the heat to medium low. You should have about a tablespoon of rendered fat in the pan, if you have significantly more or less, dump some out or add some olive oil. Add the onions, carrot and garlic, and sauté until the onions are soft and the mixture is about 1/3 of its original volume. Depending on how small you diced your onions, this should take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes. This is where your sauce gets a lot of its flavor, so don't skimp on time.
- Turn up the heat to high, then return the meat to the pan. Add the white wine and boil until there's almost no liquid left, stirring to prevent burning. This not only burns off the alcohol, it concentrates the flavor of the wine.
- Turn down the heat to medium-low and add the canned tomatoes, ketchup, salt and pepper. Put the oregano in the palm of your hand, and then use your other hand to rub the oregano in a circular motion to crush it into a powder before adding it to the pan. Us a spatula to break up the tomatoes, being careful not squirt tomato juice on yourself.
- By now your water should be boiling. Add your pasta and stir during the first few minutes of cooking to keep it from sticking together. I usually boil pasta for 1 minute less than what the package directions say (i.e. 8 minutes instead of 9).
- Your meat sauce is done when your pasta is done. You can either plate the pasta and top with sauce, or personally I like to dump the pasta straight into the sauce and toss it together before serving.