Spaghetti and Meatballs

updated Nov 13, 2023

When it comes to meatballs, skip the fussy frying and bake them instead for equally satisfying results.

Serves4 to 6

Prep30 minutes

Cook45 minutes

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Spaghetti and meatballs is Italian American comfort food at its very best. While you can cozy up at just about any red sauce joint in the States to dig into a plate, making the dish at home is as satisfying to prepare as it is to enjoy. You don’t need as much time as you’d think to tackle each element — plus, the meatballs can even be made ahead of time.

Who Invented Spaghetti and Meatballs?

You won’t find spaghetti and meatballs in Italy, because they’re enjoyed separately there. Spaghetti and meatballs is actually an Italian American invention rather than a traditional Italian dish. 

While the exact origin story is a bit unclear, it’s said to have been created in New York City by Italian immigrants somewhere between 1880 and 1920. Ground beef, dried spaghetti, and canned tomatoes were some of the cheapest ingredients available, and making meatballs in red sauce and serving them over spaghetti was an inexpensive way to consume a hearty meal. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

Ingredients in Spaghetti and Meatballs 

You’ll make both the meatballs and tomato sauce for this recipe from scratch, but both come together easily without a laundry list of ingredients.

For the Meatballs:

  • Ground meat: While ground beef was traditionally the only meat used, nowadays a combination of ground beef and pork is most typical and is what is used here. You can’t usually select the fat percentage of ground pork, but for the beef select lean ground beef with 15 to 20% fat for the best flavor. You can also replace some or all of the ground beef and pork with ground dark-meat ground turkey.
  • Panko or fresh breadcrumbs: This helps bind your meatballs and ensures they’re firm when cooked.
  • Egg: This works in tandem with the breadcrumbs as a binder.
  • Milk: You can use any kind of milk, which lends moisture and prevents the meatballs from drying out.
  • Seasonings: Garlic, chopped parsley, and grated Parmesan cheese lend flavor in addition to the usual salt and pepper.

For the Sauce:

  • Crushed tomatoes: Canned crushed tomatoes are nice and thick straight out of the can so they don’t need to simmer for hours to achieve the right sauce consistency.
  • Seasonings: Onion, garlic, salt, and an optional pinch of red pepper flakes give the sauce its classic Italian flavor without overpowering the meatballs.

Combine both the meatballs and red sauce with dried spaghetti cooked to al dente and dinner is served. 

Credit: Photo: Alex Lepe; Food Styling: James Park

What to Serve with Spaghetti and Meatballs 

Spaghetti and meatballs is a hearty meal that doesn’t need much to round it out. Pair it with a crisp salad for balance, such a classic Caesar or a zippy arugula salad, garlic bread for soaking up every last bit of the sauce, and, if you so choose, your favorite red wine.

Spaghetti and Meatballs Recipe

When it comes to meatballs, skip the fussy frying and bake them instead for equally satisfying results.

Prep time 30 minutes

Cook time 45 minutes

Serves 4 to 6

Nutritional Info


  • 1

    small yellow onion

  • 4 cloves

    garlic, divided

  • 1 small bunch

    fresh parsley, plus more for serving

  • 1 ounce

    Parmesan cheese, finely grated (about 1/2 firmly packed cup grated on a Microplane or 1/3 cup store-bought), divided

  • 8 ounces

    ground beef

  • 8 ounces

    ground pork

  • 2/3 cup

    panko or fresh breadcrumbs

  • 1/4 cup


  • 1

    large egg

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons

    kosher salt, divided, plus more for the pasta water

  • 1/4 teaspoon

    red pepper flakes (optional)

  • 1 (28-ounce) can

    crushed tomatoes

  • 1 pound

    dried spaghetti


  1. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

  2. Dice 1 small yellow onion (about 2/3 cup). Mince 4 garlic cloves and place half in a large bowl. Finely chop the leaves and tender stems of 1 small bunch fresh parsley until you have 1/4 loosely packed cup and add it to the bowl (chop more for garnish if desired). Finely grate 1 ounce Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 packed cup) or measure out 1/3 cup store-bought grated, and add half to the bowl.

  3. Add 8 ounces ground beef, 8 ounces ground pork, 2/3 cup panko or fresh breadcrumbs, 1/4 cup milk, 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon of the kosher salt, and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper to the bowl. Mix lightly with a fork until just combined.

  4. Form the mixture into 16 to 18 (about 1 1/2-inch) meatballs (about 2 tablespoons each), wetting your hands with water as needed to keep the mixture from sticking. Place on the baking sheet, spacing them evenly apart.

  5. Bake until browned and cooked through or until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a meatball registers at least 165°F, 15 to 20 minutes.

  6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil over high heat. Start the sauce: Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and sauté until softened and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the remaining garlic and 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes, if using. Sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.

  7. Carefully add 1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, and stir to combine. Cover and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low. Cover with the lid ajar and continue to simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until the meatballs are ready.

  8. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer the meatballs to the sauce. Gently stir to coat the meatballs and submerge them in sauce. Continue to simmer gently, covered with the lid ajar, while you cook the pasta.

  9. Add 1 pound dried spaghetti to the boiling water and cook according to package instructions until al dente, about 10 minutes. Reserve 1/2 cup of the pasta water, then drain the pasta. Return the pasta to the now-empty pot off the heat. Add a few ladlefuls of sauce from the pot of meatballs and toss to coat, adding the reserved pasta water a tablespoon at a time as needed to loosen the sauce and coat the pasta.

  10. Transfer the pasta to individual shallow bowls or plates and top with the meatballs and more sauce. Serve garnished with the remaining Parmesan cheese and chopped parsley.

Recipe Notes

Ground turkey variation: 1 pound ground turkey, preferably dark meat, can be substituted for the beef and pork.

Make ahead: The meatballs can be shaped and refrigerated for up to 1 day before cooking. The meatballs can also be frozen uncooked or cooked. Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet and freeze until solid. Transfer the meatballs to a freezer container or freezer bag, and freeze for up to 1 month. If uncooked, thaw in a single layer in the refrigerator overnight before cooking. If cooked, either thaw in the refrigerator overnight or thaw directly in simmering sauce for 15 minutes.

Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days or frozen for up to 1 month.