Tender Beef and Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Meet your Italian meatball primer. Learn how to make the most tender Italian meatballs the whole family will love. Beef and pork come together with a few key ingredients to make a moist meatball that simmers in a simple San Marzano tomato sauce. Make classic Italian meatballs that are tender, easy and don’t take all day to cook.

meatball sandwich on a roll with a black and white gingham napkin, silverware and a bowl of parmesan on a dark backgroundOver the years, I have made 100’s of pounds of homemade meatballs. For each of my kids graduation parties, I have made over 30 pounds of meatballs. So you might say I’m a meatball expert.

I come from a long line of Italian women who also were famous for their traditional Italian meatballs.

And now, I’m passing on to you what they’ve shared with me…

…all the secret tips and tricks for how to make a homemade meatball that is tender, moist, and cooks in the best homemade tomato sauce.

The best way to cook meatballs

Large saucepan of meatballs cooking in tomato sauce.

There are a few schools of thought on making meatballs. Every Italian family has their method but they boil down to just a couple of options.

Bake/Fry and Simmer. This method involves either frying meatballs in batches in a skillet on the stove. Alternatively, you can par bake the meatballs on sheet pans in the oven. Both methods end with simmering the browned meatballs in tomato sauce until completely cooked.

Poach. This is the way my mom taught me and my Grandma cooked her meatballs in sauce too. Poaching meatballs saves time and also a dish or two!

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What you need for moist meatballs

old fashioned scale set on a dark background with ground beef and pork being weighed.
A mix of ground beef and pork makes a flavorful meatball.

​Gather these ingredients and you’ll never have to eat dry meatballs again.

Ground meat mix for meatballs

A variety of meat is essential for a great Italian meatball. Traditionally, ground beef, pork, and veal are used in Italy depending on which part of the country you’re from. My family is Calabrian and typically makes all beef meatballs.

Once in a while, my mom and grandma would add a couple of bone-in pork chops to the sauce to add that flavor there as opposed to directly adding it into the meatballs.

I have since added ground pork to my meatball recipe because I really like the flavor that ground pork adds to the sauce and the texture of the meatball.


Ground Beef Tip

Choose ground meat with 20% fat. Yes—20%! Fat brings the flavor in a meatball (and pretty much in any other dish) and also helps make a soft meatball.

Moisture/Liquid

There are two key ingredients that help add moisture to meatballs.

Eggs. An ingredient not be left out. Eggs are THE necessary binder in meatballs. (You can use an egg substitute.)

Water. Warm water combined with fresh bread crumbs makes for a really moist meatball. You’ll be amazed at how light and tender it helps make the meatballs.

Seasoning

In addition to a sprinkle of oregano, some kosher salt and ground black pepper, we are also adding parmesan cheese for umami and saltiness and a pinch of nutmeg which adds a surprising warmth that helps make really flavorful meatballs.

How to make meatballs- step by step

Once you have all your meatball ingredients assembled, it’s time to get rolling.

bowl with ground pork and ground beef to make homemade Italian meatballs with bread, eggs, and seasoning nearby
Gently mix the meats with the eggs, bread crumbs and seasoning together first.
Meatballs mixed with garlic and water added for tender meatballs in a white bowl on black background
Pour in water and gently blend the meatball mixture.
  • MIX
    • In a large bowl, combine the ground meats together by hand. Blend the meatball mixture thoroughly but not too roughly.
    • Next, mix in the rest of the ingredients ending with the warm water. Gently. Gently. Gently. Fold the water into the meatball mix like your working a delicate dough.
Meatball mix in white bowl on black background with wooden spoon
Make sure the meatball mix is completely blended.
homemade Italian meatballs laid on baking sheet with a white bowl of meatball mix and a scoop.
Use a medium cookie scoop to lay meatballs on a baking sheet.
  • ROLL – Once you have mixed all of the ingredients and you’re sure there aren’t any big pockets of breadcrumbs or cheese clumping together, you are ready to roll. Literally.
    • A medium-sized scoop is your best friend for a uniform meatball.
    • Scoop up a meatball and gently roll it into an easy ball.
    • Don’t squeeze or mush it together. It’ll even feel like it’s too wet or not going to hold together. It will!
  • LAYOUT  – One at a time, line up each meatball on a sheet pan. Don’t crowd them too close together. You want them to brown and if they’re too close, they won’t.

The Best Meatball Sauce Recipe

A skillet with chopped onions being sauteed for Italian meatballs with a wooden paddle
Saute onions in olive oil until golden.
Onions and tomato paste being sauteed in skillet with wooden paddle for Italian meatballs.
After cooking down red wine if using, add tomato paste and caramelize.
Sauce pan of tomato sauce for Italian meatballs with a wooden paddle.
Pour in tomato sauce and seasoning and simmer while you make the meatballs.

Making homemade sauce for meatballs is so easy. You’ll start by:

  • Sauteing onion in olive oil and eventually add some garlic.
  • Next, add some red wine which creates really great flavor.
  • After the wine has cooked down, you’ll stir in some tomato paste, tomatoes and seasoning and allow it to simmer while you make meatballs.

The best thing about meatballs is their ability to flavor spaghetti sauce as they cook. The sauce soaks in the flavor of the meat helping to make the best meatballs!

Tips for really great meatballs

  • Don’t overwork the meat mixture or you’ll also end up with a hard meatball. Our goal is a light, tender meatball so you don’t want to handle the meatball mixture too much
  • Roll your meatballs lightly. This isn’t the time to make a hard compact, tight ball. We aren’t making golf balls.

​What to do with leftover meatballs

Finished baked pan of meatball lasagna uncut
Meatball lasagna is a great idea for leftover meatballs.

​Meatball lasagna. Use leftover meatballs in this easy meatball lasagna recipe perfect for two

Meatball subs. Add meatballs and some sharp provolone to a hoagie roll. Toast the whole thing in the oven for the best meatball sub for lunch.

Easy party appetizer. Add some meatballs to a baking dish and top with fresh grated parmesan. Serve with some skewers and a side of tomato sauce for dipping.

Tips for Cooking with Family

meatballs on sandwich with cheese melted on one side of bread on a black and white checked napkin with a knife, gravyboat and spoon next to plateSpeaking of life…here are a couple of things I know:

  • Cook with your kids. Let them do more than stir. Teach them how to crack an egg, flip a pancake, make a pizza. Let them make a mess. Eventually, you’ll have kids who want to feed themselves and those they love with good, fresh, homemade food.
  • Cook with your mom, sister, grandma, aunts and extended family. Some of the best memories are made in the kitchen. And some of the best life lessons and family stories are shared and happen there. Our parents, grandparents and relatives are treasure-troves of life experience. And they want to pass it on. Let them. ♥️

Serving and storage

Serving

No matter how many meatballs I make, I usually run out. (TIP: Meatballs and slider buns for a big party are a HUGE crowd-pleaser.) Just make sure to have a big bowl of freshly grated Parmesan or Romano. And lots of extra sauce (and napkins!)

Make ahead. Make meatballs and sauce up to 3 days ahead. They get better as they sit in the fridge!

Storage. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 days.

Freezer. Meatballs are made for the freezer. You can freeze them in smaller packets. I double bag them, label them with a date and always add extra sauce. Defrost overnight in the fridge and you have a weeknight dinner they’ll run home for. And probably want to bring their friends. Guaranteed.


Made this recipe?

I’d love it if you’d share your review and leave a star rating and comment!


meatball sandwich on a roll with a black and white gingham napkin, silverware and a bowl of parmesan on a dark background.
5 from 16 votes

Tender Beef and Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Meet your Italian meatball primer. Learn how to make the most tender Italian meatballs the whole family will love. Beef and pork come together with a few key ingredients to make a moist meatball that simmers in a easy San Marzano tomato sauce. Make classic Italian meatballs that are tender, easy and don't take all day to cook.
Prep Time:30 minutes
Cook Time:12 minutes
Sauce Time:1 hour 30 minutes
Total Time:2 hours 12 minutes
Servings 12

Ingredients
 

For the meatballs:

For the sauce:

Instructions

For the meatballs:

  • Preheat oven to 400°.
  • Drizzle a baking sheet with olive oil.
  • In a large bowl and using your hands, blend the meats together until mixed well. You don't want to see big clumps of either meat but a nice uniform mixture.
  • One at a time, crack the eggs into the side of the bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Of course, you can beat them in a separate small bowl and then add them but I'm all about saving some dishes. 😀
  • Add the salt, pepper, oregano, both breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley and spices. Mix well into the meat along with the eggs.
  • Add the warm water and mix gently with both hands making sure to incorporate all the water. It will feel like it won't mix together but it will eventually!
  • Shape into 2” balls using either your hands or a medium-sized scoop. The mix will be very wet. As you go along and your hands start to get a little sticky, rinse your hands with warm water but don't dry them and go back to making your meatballs.
  • One at a time, line up meatballs on your baking sheet being careful not to overcrowd. Depending on the size of your sheet, you'll likely get anywhere from 5-7 meatballs across and about 6-8 rows down.
  • Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned, switching the pans in the oven halfway through to cook them evenly.
    Remove from oven and set aside.

For the sauce:

  • Sauté chopped onions in olive oil for about 5 minutes until browned. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
  • Add red wine and cook for about 3-5 minutes until most of the wine is absorbed and the onions are syrupy.
  • Add the tomato paste and sauté it for about 2 minutes.
  • Add the tomatoes along with the remaining ingredients.
  • If making meatballs add browned/partially cooked meatballs (or uncooked if poaching meatballs).
  • Simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half and taste for seasoning.
Course: Main Course
Cuisine: Italian
Author: Lori Murphy
Did you make this recipe? Tag @josieandnina or tag #josieandnina!

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27 Comments

  1. My grandmother was 100% Italian and was the only person that would make the sauce for the holidays. But since her passing I found this and made it for the family and got glowing reviews, definitely a winner. I do not post on recepies usually but this one demands a comment.5 stars

    1. Douglas, I can’t tell you how happy I was to read your comment 😊 You literally made my day…heck, my week! Thank you! For trying my recipe and for taking the time to share. It means so much! I know your grandma, as well as mine, are all smiling that we are continuing their legacies of making sauce and meatballs for our families. Happy Holidays and thanks again!

    1. Hi Grace! Per the recipe card, it serves about 12 but you can easily serve more depending on how you’re serving them. You can easily halve the recipe as well or freeze half for later. Hope that helps and thank you!

      1. Thank you! For some reason I couldn’t find that. We have 7 very hungry people so that should be perfect! Four are growing teenagers in sports and my boys are huge. Yay perfect meal.

        1. Yippeee! You’ll have plenty and enough for leftovers. I probably underestimate how many it’ll serve but I will tell you my son and my nephews (also were in sports and big eaters and always hungry😂) probably could have eaten the whole pot themselves which is why I make such big portions. Still to this day, they all are big foodies and love to eat, talk about and cook food (they’re already asking what we’re serving for Thanksgiving)! Enjoy and please let me know how they work out!

          1. It was a success and not that difficult! Fed everyone a TON and still leftovers. I was praised and praised. I felt like a classic Italian. Thank you so much!!! Even the baby wanted to keep eating the sauce.

  2. Hey Lori!
    I made this entire recipe today! It was absolutely fantastic! So excited to of found it. I did do half of the meatballs in the sauce because I wanted to poach them like your grandmother did.. The other half I baked in the oven. I tried one of the baked ones and they seemed a bit more flavorful. The ones in the sauce we’re delicious also and I’m sure they made the sauce taste even better! Thanks for all your amazing directions my meatballs were so moist!

    1. Hi Mary! That makes me so happy! Glad you all enjoyed them. And so fun that you experimented with both ways. My mom always poaches them but I usually bake them (unless I’m in a hurry). I do agree that the baked ones get that awesome extra flavor boost from all those yummy brown bits created while baking!

  3. Wow, were these delicious!! So flavorful and moist. I made them exactly as directed and will not change a thing next time. My new go to meatball recipe. Thank you so much for this wonderful recipe.5 stars

    1. Thank you, Laura – so so happy to hear that you enjoyed them!! They are def a family favorite here – makes me so happy they’ll be a tradition for you too 😊

  4. Lori, do you freeze the meatballs before or after you cook them? Was thinking of tray freezing them, so I could pull out as many as I need.
    Thanks
    Denisr

    1. Hey there Denise – I have done it both ways depending on the situation. When I make a lot for a larger gathering, I’ll freeze the leftovers in the sauce. If I want to make them as your describing so I can pull out what I need, I’ll freeze them after I do the first bake and they’ve cooled. Then bag them in the quantities that work for you and defrost them and cook them in the sauce. Hope that helps! And thanks for your question!!

  5. I am going to get my fork and come to your place! Meatballs are my fav and yours look delicious. Glass of white, some rich sauce, a few of these and I am in!5 stars

    1. Laura, you made my day! Thank you so much! And yes, they are perfect for the freezer the next time a craving hits!

  6. What could be a better dinner meal than Italian meatballs?! I am studying your recipe… love the addition of oregano, nutmeg, and Parmesan cheese. I have never used it before. Interesting! I cannot wait to try!5 stars