Juicy Homemade Italian Meatballs and Marinara Sauce
This Italian meatball marinara recipe includes a delicious balance of ground beef, Italian sausage, bread crumbs, buttermilk, cheese, onion, garlic, and tons of Italian seasoning. After briefly frying or broiling the meatballs, they are slowly baked in rich homemade marinara sauce until they are tender, juicy, and mouthwateringly delicious.
If my tastebuds were fully in charge of my life, I would eat these Homemade Italian Meatballs in marinara sauce every single week for the rest of my life. I love them that much. I love them on pasta and on meatball sandwiches. I love them on Meatball Pizza. I especially love them all by themselves, covered in a thick layer of melted mozzarella cheese.
This recipe is the result of years of tweaking and testing, until I had a rich, intensely flavorful marinara sauce and meatballs that are incredibly tender and juicy, while still managing to hold their shape throughout a long, slow simmer in the sauce.
5 Tips for Tender and Juicy Homemade Italian Meatballs:
#1. Use a 50/50 blend of high quality ground beef and Italian Sausage
Most meatball recipes call for a mix of ground meats, generally some combination of ground beef and pork. This recipe calls for a mix of ground beef and Italian sausage. The sausage brings a lot to the table, adding flavor and just enough fat to keep the meatballs from being dry.
I've played around with all sorts of ratios of ground beef to Italian sausage and a 50/50 mix produces the perfect balance of flavor and texture.
It goes without saying that your meatballs will be as good as the quality of the meat you use, so choose the highest quality you can find. Choose bland, overly fatty meat, and you'll get bland, greasy meatballs. 85 - 90% lean ground beef is ideal for meatballs that are juicy and moist. Try to find an Italian Sausage for which all the ingredients are recognizable and the fat content is close to 20%.
#2. Buttermilk makes meatballs tender and extra flavorful
Buttermilk is one of my all-time favorite ingredients to use in cooking and baking. It not only contributes flavor, the acid in buttermilk acts as a tenderizer, adding moisture and juiciness to these meatballs that you just can't get otherwise. (Pro tip: Marinate a whole chicken in buttermilk for the BEST Roast Chicken ever.)
In this recipe, hunks of fresh bread are soaked in buttermilk until the bread absorbs most of the liquid. This soggy bread mixture will keep the meatballs moist AND help them stay together while they cook.
#3. A little bit of cheese goes a long way
The key with adding cheese to meatballs is to add just enough to boost the flavor without adding so much that they become more cheesy than meaty. After trying several different combinations of cheeses, I settled on a mixture of parmesan and mozzarella. Parmesan contributes flavor and mozzarella contributes a satisfying amount of melty cheesy goodness without going overboard and interfering with the meaty texture.
#4. For the most flavorful meatballs, add a lot of fresh herbs, garlic, onions, and seasoning
If you want flavorful meatballs, you can't skimp on the garlic, onion, parsley and Italian seasoning. To add even more umami, I've also included a touch of Worcestershire sauce to both the meatballs and the marinara sauce.
#5. Brown the meatballs, then cook them low and slow in homemade marinara sauce
This recipe gives you the option of broiling or panfrying your meatballs until the outside is brown and crisp. Either option is good. If you have a large sheet pan or broiling pan, you can broil all the meatballs at once, which takes a bit less effort than pan frying them, which you'll need to do in batches.
The downside of broiling is that some meatball grease will likely splatter over the inside of your oven. This will happen if you pan fry them as well, but the splatters will be contained to your stovetop.
Since either method produces a gorgeously crips and flavorful crust on the meatballs, I usually make the decision based solely on whether I want to wipe up grease splatters from my stovetop or my oven. 🤷🏻♀️
After browning, pop the meatballs into the marinara sauce and let the whole thing cook in the oven for about an hour. The long cook time of the meatballs in the sauce is essential to getting the most flavorful, tender meatballs possible.
How to make the most delicious marinara sauce ever:
This sauce is guaranteed to make your house smell like an Italian grandmother moved in and started cooking for you.
I know of no better way, in fact, to draw my family (and probably at least a couple of my neighbors) to the dinner table than with a big pot of this marinara sauce simmering away on the stovetop. It will make your house smell so, sooooo good.
It's incredibly rich and thick, and packed with flavor that's both complex and comforting. While a long simmer is highly recommended, making this homemade marinara sauce is super simple.
Simply add some onion, garlic, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, sugar, salt, and pepper to the bowl of a food processor, and process it into a paste.
Cook the herbs and vegetables in some olive oil to release all their flavors and soften the garlic and onion. Then add some of the crushed tomatoes, cooking them down until they are rich and concentrated before adding some red wine, Worcestershire sauce, and and more crushed tomatoes.
Let the sauce simmer away happily on the stovetop for about an hour until it looks like this....
Leftover Meatballs are the BEST
This recipe makes quite a few meatballs for a reason - Leftover Meatballs rock. Not only can they be used as the basis for several other meals throughout the week, they freeze beautifully. Because of this, most of the time, I actually double the recipe. I figure, if I'm going to make homemade meatballs and marinara sauce at all, I might as well make a lot.
I also think this marinara sauce gets better with time. The next day, after all those flavors have been marinating together in the refrigerator, will find your sauce even richer and more delicious.
If you're making this as a part of Weekly Winter Meal Plan #3, you'll use leftover meatballs and marinara sauce to make Homemade Meatball Pizza, Indian Shrimp and Rice, and Meatball Sandwiches later in the week.
If you don't want to use leftover meatballs later in the week, simply divide them into portions, place them in zip-top bags or airtight containers, and freeze for up to 6 months.
Weekly Meal Plans that include Homemade Meatballs and Marinara Sauce:
If you give this recipe a try, let me know! Scroll down to rate this recipe and leave a comment for me, or take a picture and tag it @alittleandalot on Instagram.
FOR THE MARINARA SAUCE:
- 1 large yellow onion, peeled and cut into quarters
- 8 large garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 tbsp dried Italian seasoning
- 1 ½ tsp crushed red pepper
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- ¼ cup (62ml) olive oil
- Three 28 ounce/ 784g cans crushed tomatoes
- ¾ cup (187ml) dry red wine
- 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup (5g) fresh minced parsley
- ½ cup (10g) fresh minced basil
FOR THE MEATBALLS:
- ¼ cup (62ml) olive oil (Omit if broiling. *See note.)
- 1 ½ cups (178g) of bread cubes cut or torn into ½ inch pieces
- 1 cup (250ml) buttermilk
- 1 tbsp of Worcestershire sauce
- 1 lb (16oz/ 450g) ground beef, 85 - 90% lean
- 1 pound (16oz/ 450g) ground Italian sausage, spicy or sweet
- 2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten with a fork
- ½ cup (45g) grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese
- ¾ cup (75g) grated mozzarella cheese
- ¾ cup (15g) minced fresh parsley
- 1 tbsp minced garlic (about 4-6 large cloves)
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 ½ tbsp dried Italian herb seasoning
- 2 tsp onion powder
- 1 tsp granulated sugar
MAKE THE MARINARA SAUCE:
- Add the onion, garlic, Italian seasoning, crushed red pepper, sugar, salt, and pepper to the bowl of a food processor fitted with the chopping blade. Pulse until the ingredients form a paste.
- Pour the olive oil into a large, heavy bottomed sauce pan or dutch oven and add the vegetable mixture. Set the pot over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, for 5-6 minutes.
- Add one of the cans of crushed tomatoes and cook, stirring frequently, until thick and darkened in color - about 10 minutes.
- Stir in the wine, the rest of the crushed tomatoes, and the Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil and cook, partially covered to avoid splatters, over medium low heat for an hour, stirring occasionally. After cooking for an hour, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Stir in the fresh parsley, but reserve the basil. It will be added later, after the meatballs have cooked in the sauce.
*While the marinara sauce simmers away on the stove, make the meatballs.
MAKE THE MEATBALLS:
- If broiling the meatballs: Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. Spray a broiler pan with non-stick spray. Alternatively, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and top with a wire baking rack. Spray the baking rack with non-stick spray.
- If frying the meatballs: Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Add ¼ cup olive oil to a large, heavy bottom skillet or saucepan and set aside.
- Add the bread cubes and buttermilk to a large bowl and let sit, mashing with a fork occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the bread is breaking down and the mixture resembles a paste.
- Add all remaining meatball ingredients to the bowl with the bread cubes and buttermilk. Mix with your hands until all the ingredients are well combined.
- Test the meatball seasoning: Heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a small skillet over medium high heat. Make one small meatball - about the size of a ping pong or golf ball. Fry the meatball in the skillet for about 3-5 minutes on each side, until deeply browned and crispy. Remove the meatball from the skillet, taste it for seasoning, and adjust your meatball mixture if necessary.
- Form the mixture balls that are about the size of a pingpong or golf ball and place on prepared broiler pan or baking rack, or sheet pan.
- To broil the meatballs: Broil meatballs for about 30 minutes, until they are well browned.
- To fry the meatballs: Set the skillet with olive oil in it over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot and shimmering, add about 8 - 10 meatballs to the pan. Let cook, turning every so often, until the meatballs are browned on all sides. Remove the browned meatballs from the pan and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
- Cook the meatballs in the marinara sauce: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Nestle the meatballs in the marinara sauce. Cover and bake 1 hour.
- Remove from the oven and gently stir in the fresh basil. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary.
If broiling the meatballs (rather than pan frying), it's important to bake them on something that will allow the excess grease to drip out as they bake. A broiler pan is ideal, but you can also place a baking rack inside a foil lined rimmed baking sheet.
It’s important to use a heavy bottom, oven proof pot in which to cook meatballs in marinara sauce, like a dutch oven or stoneware casserole dish. If you don’t have a dutch oven, I encourage you to invest in one. They are extremely useful and will last for years. Mine generally gets used at least once a week, often much more than that.
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Serving Size:3 meatballs
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 386Total Fat: 23gSaturated Fat: 8gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 14gCholesterol: 96mgSodium: 1390mgCarbohydrates: 23gFiber: 4gSugar: 11gProtein: 23g