Italian oven baked meatballs are a great dinner idea that will surely please everyone. Baking the meatballs in cast iron in the oven makes this recipe easy and the homemade pasta sauce is amazing. It also has the flavor of an all day sauce but is ready in under an hour.
If there was ever a dish that can conjures up good memories or makes you feel so happy after eating it, it is homemade Italian meatballs with pasta. Maybe it is all of the movies that show off this dish or knowing it is a dish that is the essence of homemade goodness.
Perhaps homemade Italian meatballs is a dish that you grew up with where the amazing smells of it cooking all day long emanated from the kitchen. Whatever the reason, this is a dish that can bring smiles!
Let me show you how to make the most delicious Italian meatballs in the oven and get that all day taste without cooking all day!
With this easy meatball recipe, you will have the flavor of an all day sauce:
You don't have to cook your sauce and meatballs all day long to have an amazing pasta with meatballs meal. It is all about maximizing flavor where it is important. How you cook your meatballs and the ingredients you use will be what makes this meatballs and pasta recipe amazing.
Cooking these Homemade Italian Meatballs in Cast Iron (Note: sheet pan instructions are included in recipe below):
How to make the best oven baked Italian Meatballs:
I have tried many different recipes for meatballs over the years. From cooking the meatballs in the sauce, to browning them in a pan first then adding them to the sauce, to cooking meatballs in the slow cooker with no browning whatsoever. There has been lots of practice here.
These methods have all been very good but I wanted something that was still easy, wasn't pan fried where I am getting grease splatter on me and still tastes amazing, like an all day Italian sauce.
Getting that delicious crisp outside on your meatballs:
First, to achieve that beautiful golden crust on the meatballs that you would normally get when pan frying, I used a cast iron pan. Now, if I am making a really big batch of meatballs I will cook the meatballs on a large sheet pan, since only so many will fit in a cast iron pan.
But here, we are going for that all day sauce taste along with crisp and juicy meatballs which happens with the cast iron. If you can, try to use the cast iron because it really makes such a difference.
Making Italian meatballs that are tender on the inside:
If you are wondering how to make tender Italian meatballs, read this section carefully.
When making your meatballs you want to avoid over rolling them and applying too much pressure. This is the best way to ensure that you will not have tough meatballs. Italian meatballs are meant to have some rustic texture on the outside and not be completely smooth.
Another important point about making tender meatballs is you need to have some moisture in your recipe. Even if you are working with a fattier ground beef, you still need to add some moisture. I love using ricotta in my meatballs because you do not taste it but it just keeps the meatballs really tender.
Getting that all day Italian sauce flavor without cooking all day:
When making this recipe, I cook my meatballs in cast iron in the oven first then add the pasta sauce to the pan of meatballs later on. I also add olive oil to the meatballs before they cook to help them get that nice crust.
This does a couple things. First, the delicious juices from the meatballs will be in the cast iron pan so when you add the sauce to the pan later, the sauce marries with those pan juices. This gives that all day taste.
The other thing this does is the caramelization on the meatballs will give that delicious all day sauce taste to your dish.
When you add the sauce into the cast iron pan at the end, it also helps thicken up the sauce a bit. You do this step on the stove top and it only takes an extra 5 minutes at the end.
The ingredients you will need to make these Italian baked meatballs are:
- Ground beef (or a mixture of beef and pork). I like a 90/10 or 80/20 mix. This is ricotta in this meatball recipe so you can get away with a leaner mix if you prefer that.
- Panko bread crumbs. This really makes a difference so try to use this if you can.
- Olive oil
- Ricotta (or milk)
- Oregano and Italian parsley
Making the Italian Meatballs:
All of these ingredients are mixed together and rolled into a ball and then baked off in the oven. The juices from the meatball will coat the cast iron and add to the flavor of the sauce that you add to it later.
Pro tip for making the best Italian meatballs!
When you are rolling your meatballs, gently rolling them is key to having tender meatballs. I like to say that if a meatball looks really smooth then it was over rolled.
You will notice that my meatballs have some texture on the outside. That is how they should look.
The ingredients you will need to make the marinara sauce for the meatballs are:
- San Marzano tomatoes (canned)
- Olive oil
- Red pepper flakes (it will not make it spicy)
This Italian baked meatball recipe is sort of a hybrid of all the ways I have learned to make meatballs and sauce. The flavor of the meatballs and the sauce cooked this way is amazing and very simple.
The meatballs are wonderfully crisp on the outside and moist on the inside just as they should be.
I even threw in my favorite Italian restaurant tricks which is to add a touch of butter at the end (though this is totally optional). I have known enough people who have worked in Italian restaurants and many of them have told me about the butter addition.
One tablespoon of butter is not that much when it is mixed into an entire sauce.
Adding the sauce to your meatballs in the cast iron pan at the end:
When you remove your cast iron pan from the oven you will see some of the fat from the meatballs in your pan. When you mix your sauce into the pan, you are mixing the fat from the meat and drippings into your sauce.
This is why you are getting that all day sauce flavor.
If you prefer less fat in your sauce just scoop a little of the fat out of your pan before pouring in your sauce. You will still get some of that delicious flavor but just less oil.
This is totally up to you!
Tips when making these Italian Baked Meatballs:
Freezing the meatballs:
This recipe makes a lot of large meatballs so you will probably have leftovers. These meatballs and sauce freeze beautifully.
To freeze the meatballs just let the meatballs and sauce come to almost room temperature and place them in a freezer proof container and in the freezer.
You can freeze these meatballs for up to two months.
To thaw, just remove your meatballs and sauce from the freezer and place in the fridge overnight.
Add your meatballs and sauce to a medium sauce pan and simmer on low until the meatballs and sauce are completely warmed through. If the sauce is too thick just thin it a bit with a little water and stir well.
Adjust for seasoning with salt if you do this.
What to serve with your meatballs:
- My absolute favorite thing to serve with these is actually just a good warm Italian oregano crostini.
- To lighten things up a bit you can serve a light Italian spinach and mushroom salad.
- I also would recommend a very easy charred broccoli with lemon. The flavors go well with the meatballs and it is not overly heavy.
For more Italian Pasta Recipes:
- Spaghetti with Pork Bolognese
- Pasta with Fresh Cherry Tomatoes
- Pasta with Tomatoes and Anchovies
- Pasta with Chickpeas Spinach and Lemon
- Carbonara with Roasted Cauliflower
- Spaghetti Aglio e Olio
I hope you give these a try and see for yourself why I love it so much!
Italian Oven Baked Meatballs with Pasta
- 2 lbs of 85/15 ground beef This ratio of fat keeps the meatballs tender. If you use lean ground beef the meatballs will not be as moist.
- ½ cup of whole milk ricotta if you do not have ricotta you can use whole milk instead.
- 1 ½ cups of dried bread crumbs preferably panko
- 2 eggs lightly beaten
- ½ cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese plus more for the table later
- 4 tbsp milk
- 2 tbsp of finely chopped parsley
- 2 tbsp of finely chipped fresh basil
- 3 cloves minced garlic
- 1 tbsp kosher salt
- ½ tbsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cloves of garlic minced
- ¼ tsp of crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 small yellow onion spanish finely chopped
- 2 28 oz cans of whole San Marzano tomatoes
- 1 tbsp of butter
- 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil best quality you can find
- 1 tsp of salt and pepper and more to taste
- 1 tbsp fresh chopped basil
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 tbsp salt plus more to taste
- 1 box of spaghetti you can use a whole box of ziti, penne or rigatoni as a substitute
- a handful of salt for the pasta water
- Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.
- In a large bowl combine your dried breadcrumbs and milk. Mix and let sit for a couple minutes to let the bread crumbs absorb the milk
- Next add 3 cloves of minced garlic, 2 tbsp of chopped basil, 2 tbsp of chopped parsley and ½ cup of freshly grated Parmesan and mix well.
- Now, take in the amazing scent!
- Next add your ground beef, ricotta and beaten eggs along with 1 tsp of salt and pepper
- With your hands gently work all of the ingredients together.
- Grab your cast iron pan (or a large sheet pan or other oven proof heavy bottom pan) and place next to your bowl.
- With an ice cream scoop, scoop out heaping scoops of your meatball mixture and gently roll the meatballs into round balls and place in your cast iron pan. If using a sheet pan: If you are using a sheet pan, just place the meatballs on to your sheet pan.
- Repeat this until all the meatballs are made.
- Once all the meatballs are in the pan, drizzle them all with a little olive oil which will help them get that nice outer crust when cooking.
- Bake for about 35 minutes or until the meatballs are nicely browned and crisp.
- While the meatballs are cooking, start the sauce.
- In a large saute pan over medium heat, add your olive oil, red pepper flakes, oregano, onions and garlic and cook for about 4-5 minutes or until the onions begin to soften.
- Now add your canned whole tomatoes and with a potato masher or with a large spoon, begin gently pressing down on the whole tomatoes so they begin to break apart. Be careful because the juices will shoot out of the tomatoes when you do this so proceed slowly!
- Next, add 1 tbsp of fresh basil, 1 tbsp of kosher salt and and stir well.
- Cover with a tight fitting lid and turn down heat down to low and allow to gently simmer for 15 minutes.
- Once your meatballs are fully cooked, remove from the oven and place on the stove top over low heat.
- Now add your sauce to the cast iron pan and cook for another 5 minutes. Make sure you coat all the meatballs with the sauce and gently stir the sauce and meatballs well. If you are using a sheet pan: Scoop your meatballs off of your sheet pan and place in your sauce. Mix the meatballs around well so they well coated.
- Now go ahead and add your tbsp of butter and gently mix that into the sauce.
- Taste for seasoning and see if it needs any salt.
- Cover cast iron with aluminum foil or lid and proceed to making the pasta.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil on the stove.
- When the water is boiling salt it well and follow the instructions on the box of pasta for cooking to al dente.
- Once the pasta if cooked drain the pasta and place it back into the pot.
- Add 1 ladle of the red sauce to the pasta and mix well to prevent it from sticking to itself.
- You can plate this family style by placing your pasta in a large platter style bowl and scooping out the meatballs over top and then pour your sauce right over that.
- Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and enjoy!