Meatballs in the slow cooker are a gorgeous thing. They're gently simmered, so the meatballs stay tender while the sauce becomes luscious and rich. Whether they're being served over spaghetti for a weeknight dinner or piled onto a meatball sub at a Saturday potluck, these slow-cooker meatballs are going to be a hit — guaranteed.
Start with the Meatballs
Slow-cooker meatballs are really more of a cooking technique than a recipe. Any meatball recipe will do, but my favorite, and the one I've included here, is our go-to meatball recipe on The Kitchn. These meatballs are tender and well-seasoned throughout. If you have another favorite meatball recipe, feel free to swap it in! Just make sure that the amount of meat called for in your recipe is roughly the same as here so that the portions match up.
If you have the time and desire, you can sear the meatballs on the stovetop or under the broiler before putting them in the slow cooker. This adds some savory, roasted flavors to the dish, but it's also fine to skip.
Get the Recipe: How To Make Meatballs
Make the Sauce
I like to keep the sauce very simple for meatballs. It gets so flavorful just by simmering with the meatballs that you don't need much more. This recipe uses a can of crushed tomatoes, half an onion, some salt, and a bay leaf — that's it! If you have time, sauté the onions before they go into the pot, but the onions will also cook just fine on their own.
Again, this is a place where you can swap in another favorite sauce. Just make sure there's enough sauce to cover the meatballs, and you're good to go.
Put Them Together
Sauce in the slow cooker, meatballs nestled inside — all that's left is to put the cover on and walk away. Cook the meatballs on low for four to six hours. It's OK to cook them for longer, but they start to toughen up a bit and become chewier.
When you take the cover off the slow cooker, you may see some oil on the surface. This is normal and you can just stir it back into the sauce — it's very flavorful and will make your sauce taste rich.
Combine the crushed tomatoes, onions, salt, and bay leaf in the bowl of the slow cooker. Stir to combine.
How To Make Meatballs in the Slow Cooker
Serves 4 to 6
What You Need
For the tomato sauce:
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped small
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 bay leaf
For the meatballs:
1/2 cup whole or 2% milk
1/2 cup breadcrumbs or panko crumbs
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup parsley, finely chopped
1 pound ground beef, pork, lamb, or a mix
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped small
1 clove garlic, minced
6-quart slow cooker or larger
Make the sauce: Combine the crushed tomatoes, onions, salt, and bay leaf in the bowl of the slow cooker. Stir to combine.
Prepare the meatball mix: Combine the milk and breadcrumbs in a small bowl and set aside to soak for 5 minutes. Whisk together the egg, salt, Parmesan cheese, and parsley, then work in the ground meat, minced onions, minced garlic, and soaked breadcrumbs and milk. Use your fingers to work the mixture together; work only until all the ingredients are evenly combined.
Shape the meatballs and place in slow cooker: Pinch off a few tablespoons of meatball mixture and shape into balls with your hands. Place the meatball in the sauce. Continue until all the meatballs have been shaped and transferred to the slow cooker. If the meatballs aren't quite submerged, scoop a little sauce over the top so that they're coated. (Meatballs can be prepared and kept refrigerated up to a day ahead.)
Cook for 4 to 6 hours on low: The meatballs are done when no longer pink in the middle; they will likely finish cooking before 4 hours are up, but can be left to simmer.
Serve the meatballs: Stir the sauce before serving — a little fat from the meatballs will rise to the top of the sauce during cooking, but can be stirred right back in. Remove the bay leaf. Serve the meatballs over cooked pasta, greens, or polenta, or in sandwiches. Leftovers will keep for 5 days or can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Roasting the meatballs before cooking: Roast the meatballs before cooking to render out some fat and give your sauce more roasted flavor. Roast the meatballs on a baking sheet under the broiler, turning once or twice, until they are browned on all sides.
Meatballs in smaller slow cookers: Halve this recipe to make in smaller slow cookers.
Doubling the recipe: If you have a 6-quart or larger slow cooker, you can double the recipe. It's fine if some meatballs are stacked on top of others, as long as they are all covered with sauce.
(Image credits: Christine Han)