Meatballs and Marinara

From Cook's Country | December/January 2007
  • Shopping list
  • Print

Why this recipe works:

Great big meatballs served over pasta are often better in theory than in practice. We wanted to change that with a recipe for tender and moist meatballs that had enough structure to hold their shape. Most meatball recipes call for equal amounts of pork and beef, but ours has much more beef… read more

Great big meatballs served over pasta are often better in theory than in practice. We wanted to change that with a recipe for tender and moist meatballs that had enough structure to hold their shape. Most meatball recipes call for equal amounts of pork and beef, but ours has much more beef than pork. This drier, leaner mixture held its shape well.


Serves 8

The meatballs and sauce both use the same onion mixture.


  • Onion Mixture
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 3 onions, chopped fine
  • 8 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • Easy Marinara
  • 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 1 cup water
  • 4 (28-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil leaf
  • Salt
  • 1 - 2 teaspoons sugar, as needed
  • Meatballs
  • 4 slices hearty white sandwich bread
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 2 1/2 pounds ground beef chuck (80 percent lean)


  1. 1. For the onion mixture: Heat oil in Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Cook onions until golden, 10 to 15 minutes. Add garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Transfer half of onion mixture to large bowl and set aside.

    2. For the marinara: Add tomato paste to remaining onion mixture in pot and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add wine and cook until slightly thickened, about 2 minutes. Stir in water and tomatoes and simmer over low heat until sauce is no longer watery, 45 to 60 minutes. Stir in cheese and basil and adjust seasonings with salt and sugar.

    3. For the meatballs: Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 475 degrees. Mash bread and milk in bowl with reserved onion mixture until smooth. Add remaining ingredients, except ground beef, to bowl and mash to combine. Add beef and knead with hands until well combined. Form mixture into 2 1/2-inch meatballs (you should have about 16 meatballs), place on rimmed baking sheet, and bake until well browned, about 20 minutes.

    4. Transfer meatballs to pot with sauce. Simmer for 15 minutes. Serve over pasta. (Meatballs and marinara can be frozen for up to 1 month.)

Who's Frying Now?

Not us, that's for sure. We found that a super-hot oven was all we needed to get a golden brown crust on these meatballs. Finally, a short dunk in the sauce allows the sauce to season the meat, and vice versa.

1. For a great crust without the hassle of frying, bake the meatballs in a very hot oven.

2. For the best flavor, let the meatballs sit in the simmering sauce for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Pasta Primer

USE PLENTY OF WATER and a big pot. We recommend 8 quarts of water for 2 pounds of dried pasta (to feed eight to 12 people). A large pot helps prevent boilovers.

SALT THE WATER to season the pasta. Add 1 tablespoon of table salt per 4 quarts of water.

STIR IMMEDIATELY to prevent sticking. Then stir the pasta every few minutes to minimize clumping and sticking.

DON’T ADD OIL to the water. It won’t prevent the pasta from sticking, and it will prevent the pasta from absorbing the sauce.

TRUST YOURSELF, not the instructions on the package. Check the pasta for doneness early and often by fishing out a noodle and biting into it (you can cool the pasta under cold running water for a few seconds).

DON’T RINSE the cooked pasta. You’ll wash away the starch that helps unify the pasta and sauce.


Panade: Must It Use Milk?

A panade is a paste of bread (or bread crumbs or crackers) and milk, which is used to bind and add moisture to ground-meat preparations (like meatballs). We also use panade in meatloaf, and in turkey burgers and hamburgers that we’re going to cook to well-done; the extra moisture keeps the well-done meat moist. We wondered if the milk in traditional panade did more than add moisture; does it, for instance, add proteins that somehow help ground meat bind? To test this, we made recipes for meatballs, meatloaves, and well-done burgers, swapping beef broth, chicken broth, and water for the milk. All held their shape just fine, and their flavor was acceptable (keep in mind that the broths contain salt). So, if you prefer, you can use broth instead of milk in panade.

Key Ingredient: Canned Crushed Tomatoes

We use canned crushed tomatoes in tomato sauces, stews, braises, and any number of other recipes. To find out which brand of crushed tomatoes is best, we tasted 10 products plain and in a quick tomato sauce. Some brands were almost as thick as tomato paste, were bland, or had rubbery bits of tomato. We preferred products with recognizable, tender chunks of tomato in plenty of fresh-tasting liquid.

WINNING BRAND: Tuttorosso Crushed Tomatoes in Thick Puree with Basil.

Essential Gear: Rimmed Baking Sheet

In the test kitchen, we use our collection of rimmed baking sheets (called half-sheet pans in professional kitchens) for baking (cookies, biscuits, rolls) and roasting (chicken parts, oven fries, asparagus, meatballs). With a wire cooling rack set inside, the sheets are good for broiling, roasting, or holding cooked foods like fried chicken or pancakes in a warm oven.

We tested eight brands and learned that the most important traits are solid construction and a heavy gauge—you do not want these pans to warp or pop with hot fat in them, as many thinner, inferior “jelly roll pans” are apt to do.

OUR FAVORITE: Wear-Ever Half Size Heavy Duty Sheet Pan (13 gauge) by Vollrath ($21.79).

Detail sfs meatball marinara 13
In My Favorites
Please Wait…
Remove Favorite
Add to custom collection