The Best Slow Cooker Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs

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The holiday season is upon us, and so is the cold weather. We’re all pressed for time but still want hearty, warming food to share with our families. It’s a good thing we have slow cookers – they make it so easy to make soups and stews. (I prefer pressure cooking for a lot of other tasks people do in a slow cooker or Crock Pot, but more on that another time – it’s great for some things, like spaghetti sauce!)

This spaghetti sauce is very basic but super super delicious. You can vary it by adding onions, mushrooms, peppers, sausage, or whatever you’d like, rather than meatballs. As I note in the recipe, you can also add grated carrot. It makes a much sweeter sauce but it definitely gets an extra bit of veggies down the kids in a sneaky way! It even gives it a slightly orange hue and may fool them into thinking they’re eating Chef Boyardee.

Super simple, super fast, super cheap - but one of the most delicious dinners around!

I always buy 80/20 ground beef, because for most applications you can drain the extra fat after you’ve cooked it and the price per pound is still better than leaner ground beef. For something like meatballs, I don’t mind having that extra fat in the sauce; it makes it more filling when there’s sauce left but we’re out of meatballs. I don’t worry about it too much since we aren’t eating beef every day or even most days, and I appreciate the savings in my wallet.

As you can tell by the photo, we use whatever pasta is around, and last time that happened to be the box ends of some rotini and penne. I think grabbable shapes like that are best for young kids – I prefer penne for the baby, because the rotini kind of break off and she tends to gag a bit more on it. She doesn’t care, but it gets old after a while! Wheel-shaped pasta is a favorite here, but I can only ever find it at Giant Eagle. I love using actual spaghetti but I don’t love cleaning up after it with a one-year-old, so.

Recipes don’t get much easier. If you’re really pressed for time, you can skip the meatballs altogether. I recommend adding a tablespoon of butter or olive oil if you do, because it makes a huge difference in the finished sauce. Fat gives things a more satisfying “mouthfeel,” which is just what it sounds like – the way it feels in your mouth. Think about the difference between skim milk and whole milk, for example. It also makes them more satiating – it will keep you full for longer, basically.

All you have to do is open some cans and jars. You can use fresh garlic and grate real Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, but you can also use pre-minced garlic (they sell GIANT jars at Costco, if you use a lot) and what we call “shake cheese.” You know, the stuff that comes in a plastic bottle in the grocery aisle. Here’s the thing. 10 years ago I would not have been caught dead using shake cheese. Now, I use what we have on hand and what we can afford, and if that means shake cheese, so be it. The result is still delicious. I’ve given up a lot of foodie snobbery in the interests of just doing the thing. Don’t discount recipes just because they use convenience ingredients – sometimes, as in this case, they can be really good and save you time and money.

The most important part, honestly, is the part where you put a spoon between the pot and the lid. I picked this tip up from Mom’s Bistro and it changed my life in terms of cooking tomato sauces. Mine always came out kind of runny and underflavored and watery and uninspiring, so I kept buying jars at the store when I didn’t have time to simmer on the stovetop. It makes all the difference in the world. All the steam escapes and your sauce reduces and the flavors condense and everything is richly tomatoey in the best possible way.

You’ll have to cook the pasta separately, not in the slow cooker. Sorry. I think once you have the sauce made that you could do the Instant Pot trick and cook pasta right in the sauce, but I haven’t actually tried it. We follow the Serious Eats methodology and use very little water to cook pasta. It sounds ridiculous but it really works, and it saves time and water.

This is a great freezer meal, too. You can freeze it already cooked, or just double the recipe and throw half of everything into a freezer bag. Thaw in the refrigerator – it always takes two days for us; I don’t know how anyone thaws anything “overnight” in the fridge – and put it in the slow cooker for a delicious dinner with zero effort that day.

One recipe makes about 8 adult-size servings. We are two adults, one preschooler, and one toddler, so we typically get 3 meals out of this: Two with pasta and one with meatball hoagies. It’s great leftover. I don’t say that about many things, but it is.

This will take you about fifteen minutes of active time, most of that rolling meatballs. I hope you’ll give it a try during this busy season.

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Slow Cooker Spaghetti Sauce and Meatballs

This sauce couldn't be any easier, and it's far less expensive - and far more delicious - than what you can buy in a jar at the store. If you don't eat meat, you can easily leave the meatballs out! If you skip the meatballs, I recommend adding a tablespoon of olive oil or butter to give the sauce a richer taste and mouthfeel. You can sneak about half a cup of grated carrot into the sauce and about a quarter cup into the meatballs - you might need more breadcrumbs for the latter. It will taste different, but still good, and it gets some extra veggies in.
Course Main Dish
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 6 hours
Total Time 6 hours 15 minutes
Servings 8 people

Ingredients

Sauce

  • 2 28 oz cans crushed tomatoes you can also use diced, or even tomato sauce, if you have them on hand
  • 1 heaping Tbsp minced garlic jarred is fine
  • 2 Tbsp dried parsley
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese grated, or use a Parmesan rind; even the "parmesan" in a can is OK - really!
  • 2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper I just do 10 turns on my pepper mill
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil or butter; optional

Meatballs

  • 1 lb ground beef 80/20 is fine here but you can use leaner beef if you like
  • 1/4 cup breadcrumbs use whatever you have - dry, fresh, or panko
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese grated - again, from a can is fine.
  • 2 Tbsp dried parsley
  • 1 heaping Tbsp minced garlic again, jarred is fine
  • 1-1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp black pepper I just do 10 turns on my pepper mill

Instructions

Sauce

  1. For the sauce, simply combine all sauce ingredients in the liner of your slow cooker. Stir to combine. If you are using diced or peeled whole tomatoes, you may want to use a stick blender (or a regular blender) to puree them if you don't want a chunky sauce.

Meatballs

  1. For the meatballs, place all the ingredients together in a large mixing bowl. Mix together with your hands (it's really the easiest way) until they are evenly combined. Try not to overwork the meatball mixture - the more you squish it, the more it breaks down the meat, so the texture can end up a little weird. It takes a fair bit of work to combine everything but don't take out ALL the stresses of the day, right?
  2. Take a bit of meatball mixture that fits nicely in the palm of your hand and roll into meatballs. Mine are usually about 2T worth, but I don't measure. It doesn't matter a whole lot if you get different sizes because they will cook for a long time in the slow cooker. Place each meatball gently into the sauce as you roll.
  3. Use a spoon or spatula to gently push the meatballs down into the sauce so they are completely covered.

Cooking

  1. Set a spoon in between the slow cooker liner and its lid - see picture! This lets alllll the steam escape and allows the sauce to cook down and really develop in flavor. If you skip this step, the sauce will be watery and kind of meh. Trust me. Turn your slow cooker on high and cook for 4-6 hours, as fits your schedule. Now, slow cookers vary in temperature, and I'm using an Instant Pot, so the first time you make this please keep an eye on the sauce. If your cooker runs super hot, it may be done much faster and you may want to use a low setting instead.
  2. Serve over pasta, or use to make meatball subs, or both!

 

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2 Comments

  1. Hope you are having a great week and thanks so much for sharing your awesome post with us at Full Plate Thursday. We look forward to seeing you again real soon!
    Miz Helen

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