Ciao, friends! Meatballs in marinara is a magnificent Italian dish that is simply irresistible!
To create the most delicious Italian meatballs, this recipe uses a combination of ground beef and Italian sausage, mixed with bread crumbs, buttermilk, cheese, onion, garlic, and a copious amount of Italian seasoning.
Once the meatballs are formed, you have two options - fry them on the stovetop or broil them to perfection. Either way will give the meatballs a gorgeous crispy exterior. Then simply nestle the meatballs in a rich, homemade marinara sauce and let them bake until they are tender, juicy, and mouthwateringly delicious.
Honestly, if my tastebuds were fully in charge of my life, I would eat baked meatballs in marinara every single week for the rest of my life. I love them that much. I love them on homemade spaghetti noodles, on meatball sandwiches, and on Meatball Pizza. I especially love them all by themselves, covered in a thick layer of melted mozzarella cheese.
This recipe is pure comfort food and the result of years of tweaking and testing, until the meatballs were tender, juicy, and packed with Italian flavor.
"These meatballs are the best we ever tasted - all your testing really paid off!! Thank you for sharing the recipe!!! - Ana
"The best meatball marinara recipe I've ever made or tasted." - Kelli
Ingredients Needed to Prepare this Meatball Marinara
- 1 recipe Homemade Marinara Sauce (More about this incredible sauce below.)
- Extra virgin olive oil. You'll only need oil if your pan frying the meatballs. If you choose to broil them you can omit this ingredient.
- Bread cubes. Choose a good, flavorful, sturdy loaf of bread. The more flavorful the ingredients, the more flavorful the meatballs.
- Worcestershire sauce. A bit of Worcestershire in both the meatballs AND the marinara sauce adds a subtle depth and umami that's irresistible.
- Ground beef. Choose high-quality beef that's between 85 - 90% lean.
- Ground Italian sausage. Like the ground beef, choose sausage that's high quality and either spicy or sweet depending on your tolerance for heat.
- A couple of eggs.
- Grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese and grated mozzarella.
- Fresh Italian (flat-leaf) parsley.
- A few cloves of garlic.
- Salt and ground black pepper.
- Dried Italian herb seasoning. I usually use Simply Organic Italian Seasoning or Newman's Own Italian Seasoning.
- Onion powder. I like Naturevibe Botanicals Organic Ground Onion Powder.
- A pinch of granulated sugar. Just a little bit of sugar in the meatball mix brightens up all the flavors to a surprising degree.
Step-by-Step Photos and Instructions
The first thing to consider is whether you'd like to pan-fry your meatballs or broil them. Depending on which method you choose, prepare your pan as follows:
- If you plan to broil the meatballs, place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat it to 450 degrees F (232 degrees C). You can use a broiler pan, a roasting pan with a flat rack, or a rimmed baking sheet and a wire cooling rack. If using a broiler pan, spray it with non-stick spray to keep the meatballs from sticking. If using a roasting pan or baking sheet, line the inside of the pan with foil for easy cleanup. If using a baking sheet, set a wire baking rack inside the baking sheet after lining the baking sheet with foil then spray the baking rack with non-stick spray.
- If frying the meatballs: Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper or aluminum foil and add ¼ cup of extra virgin olive oil to a large, heavy bottom skillet or stockpot. Set both of the pans aside until ready to use.
Mixing up the meatball mixture is basically a 2-step process:
First, add the bread cubes and buttermilk to a large bowl and let them sit for a few minutes to soften. Every once in a while, mash them with a fork 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. I mean, you could use a spoon, but using your hands is really so much easier.
Pro tip! Before shaping the mixture into meatballs it's a good idea to test it for seasoning. Heat a little bit 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. Use a spatula to flatten it into a fat patty so the inside cooks as quickly as the outside. Fry the meatball in the skillet until the outside is deeply browned and crispy. Remove the meatball from the skillet, taste it for seasoning, and adjust your meatball mixture if necessary.
Once you've tested the meatball seasoning, shape it into balls that are about the size of a ping-pong or golf ball and place them on the prepared broiler pan, baking rack, or sheet pan.
- To broil the meatballs: Set the pan in the oven under the pre-heated broiler for about 30 minutes, until the meatballs 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 the meatballs cook, turning every now and then until they are browned on all sides. Remove the browned meatballs from the pan and repeat with the remaining meatballs.
Nestle the browned and crispy meatballs into the marinara sauce, cover the pan and bake for about an hour.
5 Tips for Italian Meatballs that are Tender and Juicy
#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 - here are 24 of my favorite buttermilk baking recipes. It contributes flavor and acts as a tenderizer, adding moisture and juiciness to these meatballs that you just can't get otherwise.
(By the way, if you marinate a whole chicken in buttermilk it makes 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.
AND, if you don't have any buttermilk, here are 7 ways to make it.
#3. A little bit of cheese goes a long way
The key to 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 maximum flavor, add a LOT of fresh herbs, garlic, onions, and Italian 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 first then let them bake in homemade marinara sauce.
This recipe gives you the option of broiling or panfrying your meatballs until the outside is brown and crisp. Both cooking methods produce a gorgeous dark brown crispy exterior so here are a couple of things to consider:
- 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.
So, pick your poison and start cooking.
After browning, pop the meatballs into the marinara sauce and let the whole thing cook in the oven for about an hour.
The Best Marinara Sauce for Meatballs
What good is it to make mouthwateringly delicious meatballs only to drown them in mediocre sauce????
My favorite homemade marinara sauce is incredibly rich and thick, and packed with flavor that's both complex and comforting. And, making this delicious 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 more crushed tomatoes.
Let the sauce simmer away happily on the stovetop for about an hour until it looks like this....
What to Do with Leftover Meatballs
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, but they also 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 the marinara sauce gets better with time. The next day, after all those flavors have marinated together in the refrigerator, the sauce gets even richer and more delicious.
My two favorite recipes that use leftover meatballs are:
If you don't end up using the leftover meatballs in other meals, here's how to freeze them:
- Set the meatballs on a foil-lined plate or baking sheet that's been sprayed with non-stick baking spray.
- Place in the freezer for about an hour, until the meatballs are getting hard but are not frozen through.
- Remove them to a zip-top bag or other container and freeze them for up to 3 months.
What to Serve with Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
Regardless of whether you're eating these meatballs straight from the pan, smothered in melted mozzarella cheese, piled over plates of homemade spaghetti noodles, or spooned onto buns for meatball sandwiches, I like to serve meatball marinara with some crusty bread and veggies or a salad. Here are a few of my favorites:
- 1 recipe Homemade Marinara Sauce
- ¼ cup (1.34 ounces/ 50 grams) extra virgin olive oil (Omit if broiling the meatballs instead of frying them.)
- 1 ½ cups (178 grams) of bread cubes cut or torn into ½-inch pieces
- 1 cup (8 ounces/ 227 grams) of buttermilk (*If you don't have buttermilk, here are 7 ways to make it)
- 1 tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce
- 1 pound (16 ounces/ 450 grams) ground beef, 85 - 90% lean
- 1 pound (16 ounces/ 450 grams) of ground Italian sausage, spicy or sweet
- 2 large egg yolks, lightly beaten with a fork
- ½ cup (45 grams ) grated parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese
- ¾ cup (75 grams) grated mozzarella cheese
- ¾ cup (15 grams) minced fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon minced garlic (about 4-6 large cloves)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 ½ tablespoons dried Italian herb seasoning
- 2 teaspoons onion powder
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar
*Get the Marinara Sauce started first. While the marinara sauce simmers on the stovetop, make the meatballs.
- If broiling the meatballs: Place a rack in the center of your oven and preheat it to 450 degrees F (232 degrees C). Spray a broiler pan with non-stick spray. Or, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, top it with a wire baking rack, and spray the baking rack with non-stick spray. Or, line the inside of a roasting pan with foil, set the pan's flat rack inside the pan, and spray the rack with nonstick spray. (*See links to all of these pans below.)
- 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 teaspoon 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. Use a spatula to flatten the meatball into a fat patty so the inside cooks as quickly as the outside. 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 ping-pong or golf ball and place them on the 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 F (176 degrees C). Nestle the meatballs in the marinara sauce. Cover and bake for 1 hour.
- If broiling the meatballs, it's important to place them on something that will allow the excess grease to drip out as they bake. Good options include a broiler pan, a roasting pan with a rack, or a wire cooling rack set inside a foil-lined rimmed baking sheet. (See links below.)
- It’s important to use a heavy-bottom, oven-proof pot in which to cook the meatballs in the marinara sauce. Good options include a Dutch oven, a stoneware casserole dish, or a large heavy-bottom saucepan.
- A delicious way to serve meatballs in marinara sauce is covered in melted mozzarella cheese. After baking, simply cover the meatballs with shredded or thinly sliced mozzarella and place the pan under the broiler until the cheese is melted and starting to brown in places.
- My favorite way to eat meatball marinara is over homemade spaghetti noodles.
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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