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Eureka! Meatballs and Red Sauce

meatball sandwich and glass of wine

I love Italian-style meatballs, and not just with pasta.                                                                        

But I’ve always had serious meatball-making issues.  Either they wouldn’t hold together and cooked up into meat sauce or they were rock hard.  

Then a few months ago, my friend Sam of the Broke & Chic Project posted a meatball recipe that made my mouth water.  That post gave me the push I needed to try once again to master the meatball.  So with trepidation, but also excitement, I began work on my own version.  First I tried her recipe, then I got adventurous.  After a couple of tries, by Jove, I got it!         

This version is a bit complicated, but worth the effort.  You could use just 1 or 2 types of ground meat, instead of 3.  However, the combination gives the meatballs a luscious, complex taste and texture.  Besides, many groceries carry all 3 types (beef, pork and veal) and the price disparity among them is not large. 

The bread should be dense and chewy.  I used semolina, but most any good bread (other than baguette, which is mostly crust) should be fine.  

This recipe makes a big batch, but you can freeze any you won’t eat within 1-3 days.  Cook them all, then separate the ones you will eat right away and make the sauce with those.  Freeze the rest in a tightly closed and labeled container.  When you want more, defrost them in the refrigerator overnight or for several hours, and let the defrosted meatballs cook in tomato sauce per the last step in the directions below. 

Meatballs and Red Sauce 

Servings – 8 - 10 servings (26 - 30 meatballs)  Cost - $17.31 total/approx. $2 per serving


ingredients for meatballs
  • 2.75 - 3 pounds of ground meat, preferably a combination of ground beef or chuck, pork and veal.  I used about 1.2 pounds of lean ground beef, .79 pounds of ground pork and .78 pounds of ground veal.
  • 2 thick pieces of good bread, with crusts cut off
  • ⅔ cup of milk
  • Heaping ⅓ cup of fresh bread crumbs (store bought will work too, but if you have crust from the bread, just grind that up)
  • Heaping ⅓ cup of grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ small onion, finely chopped (about ⅓ cup)
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • ¼ cup or less of parsley, finely chopped     
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 dashes ground nutmeg
  • Salt (½ teaspoon for meatballs, extra for sauce) 
  • Ground black pepper to taste (few turns of the pepper mill)
  • ⅓ - ½ cup of canola or olive oil
  • 1-28 ounce can of Italian-style peeled tomatoes or chopped tomatoes


equipment to make meatballs
  • Large bowl
  • Medium size bowl
  • Measuring cup (⅓ cup size) for dry ingredients
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Measuring spoons
  • Cheese grater
  • Garlic press
  • Bread knife
  • Regular knife (for cutting onion)
  • Large fork for stirring meatball ingredients
  • 3 large spoons or tongs and spoon for cooking meatballs
  • Aluminum foil (optional) – to cover cookie sheets if you prefer to throw away foil and have less to clean up on the cookie sheets.  (Note: You should still clean them with hot, soapy water, even if using foil.)
  • Large, heavy pan
  • 2 cookie sheets

Food safety note 

In order to prevent contamination from raw meat, after your hands or equipment touch the meat, thoroughly wash them using hot, soapy water before moving onto the next step.  If you are setting equipment aside to be washed, move it to the cleaning area immediately.  Do not put it down on a counter or cutting board or you will need to wash that surface as if the raw meat had been on it.  Similarly, do not cross-contaminate surfaces by putting raw and cooked meat on the same surface. 


  • Soak the bread in the milk.
bread soaking in milk for meatballs

After  5-10 minutes (while you prepare the vegetables and cheese), break up the bread.  

breaking up bread after it soaked in milk - for meatballs
chopped parsley for meatballs
chopping onion for meatballs
  • Put all the non-meat ingredients in the large bowl and mix them together.  
meatballs - non-meat ingredients before mixing.jpg
meatballs - mixing non-meat ingredients.jpg
  • Add the chopped meats and mix, first with the fork, then with your hands. Avoid over-mixing (it makes the meatballs too dense), but don’t be afraid of getting into it with your hands.   This is art, not science.  
meatballs - adding meat.jpg
  • Form meatballs bigger than golf balls/smaller than baseballs.  Put them on a cookie sheet.  
meatballs - formed uncooked on tray.jpg
  • When all the meatballs are formed, pre-heat ⅓ cup of oil in the pan so that it is quite hot, but not burning when you put in the first batch of meatballs.  If you need more oil later, between batches add a bit more and pre-heat it before adding another batch of meatballs.  (They will not absorb as much oil if it is pre-heated.)
  • Add only as many meatballs to the pan as will comfortably fit with 1 - 2” between them.       
meatballs - starting to cook.jpg

Allow the meatballs to cook on a medium light and do not touch them for a few minutes, until they are cooked on the underside.  Then gently – and I do mean gently - roll each one with a large spoon, so that an uncooked part touches the pan bottom.   

meatballs - turning meatballs.jpg

Continue cooking (and gently turning) until all surfaces of the meatballs are browned.  Although it  may seem like a tedious process, don’t lose patience.  Better to let them cook slowly and evenly, than to have pull them apart as you wrestle burned meatball bottoms off the pan.  As each meatball is done, put it on the second cookie sheet.                                                                                                                 

meatballs - separating cooked and uncooked.jpg
  • Once all the meatballs are done, drain any remaining oil into a container and throw it in the garbage or in the freezer, not down the sink!  (I keep a container in the freezer, add used oil to it until it is full, then throw it out.)
  • Return the cooked meatballs to the pan, add the can of tomatoes and their juice.  Bring to a simmer and cook at a low simmer for 20-30 minutes, until the sauce thickens.  Add salt and pepper to taste.              
meatballs - after being cooked in tomatoes.jpg

Serve over pasta with grated cheese, on bread or a hoagie roll or on pizza.                                                       

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