Thursday, February 3, 2011

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


1 pound spaghetti


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


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


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.


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.