Recipe Review

My Honest Review of Smitten Kitchen’s “Perfect” Meatballs and Spaghetti

published Feb 19, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

I’m a hut fan of Smitten Kitchen: I’ve bought Deb’s cookbooks, followed her blog and Instagram, and made countless recipes, all of which work exactly as she says they will. I think of Deb as akin to Ina Garten, creating delicious recipes that consistently work year after year. I love that she also tweaks and updates past recipes. She truly wants to deliver recipes you can make again and again.

To me, spaghetti and meatballs — an approachable, solidly good, homey dish — epitomizes everything Smitten Kitchen stands for. Deb’s first recipe for spaghetti and meatballs was a riff of Ina Garten’s recipe (which I also included in this celebrity recipe showdown), but this year, she released a new weeknight-friendly version. See how it stacks up below. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

How to Make Smitten Kitchen’s Meatballs and Spaghetti

This recipe delivered on its weeknight-friendly promise — it was incredibly easy to throw together. First, you mash together the ground meat, breadcrumbs, milk, parsley, salt, pepper, onion powder, eggs, and garlic until evenly combined. Wet your hands and form the meat mixture into 2-inch balls and place them on a lightly greased, aluminum foil-lined baking sheet and bake for 12 minutes at 425°F. (Of the four meatball recipes I tested, Smitten Kitchen’s was the only one to bake the meatballs, rather than fry them, which made cleanup much faster.)

While the meatballs are baking, two things need to happen. First, boil spaghetti until al dente, reserving one cup of starchy pasta water. Second, start the tomato sauce. 

For the sauce, you’ll cook garlic and red pepper flakes in olive oil until the garlic is golden and fragrant. Next, you’ll add canned crushed tomatoes and salt and simmer for about five minutes. At this point, the meatballs should be out of the oven. Add the meatballs to the sauce, put the lid on the pot, and simmer for another 10 minutes. 

Lastly, you’ll add the pasta back to the pot it was cooked in, along with a few spoonfuls of sauce and half the reserved pasta water, over high heat, tossing with tongs for one minute. If you want a looser sauce, add more water. Add the saucy noodles to a bowl and top with the remaining sauce and meatballs. Serve with parsley and cheese.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

My Honest Review of Smitten Kitchen’s Meatballs and Spaghetti

These are good meatballs. Not great, but good. I had two main issues with this recipe. The first was that I didn’t find them particularly flavorful. To really make these shine, I’d add more salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, onion powder, and garlic.

But the more glaring issue with the recipe is the sauce. Canned tomatoes are simmered for 15 minutes with a little garlic, a pinch of pepper flakes, and a mere teaspoon of salt. The result was a sauce that tasted like straight canned tomatoes. I know the emphasis here was on creating a weeknight-friendly sauce, but to me, it fell flat. I’d skip the sauce in this recipe and use Marcella Hazan’s famous four-ingredient tomato sauce instead, which takes a little longer but has far more flavor with even less effort.

The best part about these meatballs was how easy they were to make. Skipping the frying and baking them in the oven meant the clean up was far easier than all the other recipes, and there was no risk of a burnt outside. The downside was that the meatballs didn’t stay round, which could perhaps be fixed by baking them at a lower temperature for a longer period of time, but honestly, that wasn’t a dealbreaker.

I appreciated the flexibility of the recipe — Deb calls for any combination of ground beef, pork, or veal. I opted to use all three, but realistically, if I was making these again on a weeknight, I probably wouldn’t hunt down ground veal.

Credit: Alexis deBoschnek
Smitten Kitchen Meatballs

If You’re Making Smitten Kitchen’s Spaghetti and Meatballs, a Few Tips

All in all, if you’re short on time, these meatballs are a fine option, but I wouldn’t make them again without tweaking them a bit. Take this recipe from good to great with the following tips:

  1. Skip the sauce: The sauce in this recipe is essentially just canned tomatoes. Use your own sauce recipe, or buy a premade option. 
  2. Boost the seasonings: Up the salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, onion powder, and garlic for a more full-flavored meatball. 
  3. Keep in mind how many people you’re feeding: This recipe makes only enough meatballs for one dinner. If you’re cooking for a crowd, or have more than three adults, I’d recommend scaling up the recipe so everyone can have seconds.

Rating: 7/10

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn