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This authentic Italian meat sauce recipe is made with seven simple ingredients and has been the trusted go-to in my family for over a century.
A TRUSTED RECIPE: THIS HOMEMADE PASTA SAUCE HAS HISTORY
When a recipe has been around for over a century, you know it’s something special. This spaghetti sauce recipe made its debut in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1935 at my grandparents’ family restaurant, which is still in operation, just under new ownership with an incredible family. This reliable and authentic tomato-based sauce is surprisingly simple, very hands-off, and perfect for everything from pasta to a topping for vegetables and scrambled eggs.
In fact, the current owners of my family’s restaurant still use this great recipe as originally written alongside staples like the original meatballs and traditional Italian-style pizza.
THIS IS THE BEST ITALIAN MEAT SAUCE RECIPE
I know. Bold statement. But I assure you, there is merit to this claim.
While I think there are some really great pasta sauces out there that you can buy from the store, I am of the opinion that there are too many that are packed full of way too many ingredients that completely mask the basic, fundamental spaghetti sauce recipes (as well as other authentic Italian recipes) that my great grandparents brought with them directly from Italy.
Furthermore, sometimes I find that store-bought meat sauces can be a little too thin for my liking, and what I love about this particular homemade meat sauce is that you can absolutely cook it to your liking.
If you like a hardy, thick sauce, cook it for a longer time than you might if you prefer a thinner one. The good news is if you cook it down too far, you can always add back in some water or continue to cook it if you feel it isn’t quite thick enough. It’s flexible. It’s customizable. And that, in turn, makes it so simple and easy.
That’s the beauty of the “basic bones” style of this homemade spaghetti sauce: you don’t have to try to find more wine or more jarred sauce because you’re working with nothing but meat and tomatoes (that’s like “meat and potatoes” but the Italian version). It’s hard to screw it up if you follow the recipe card below.
CLASSIC ITALIAN MEAT SAUCE INGREDIENTS
This homemade meat sauce recipe is very very simple with just a 7-ingredient list. And I am going to be very very snobby-ish about why (so that Nonna and Nonno DeAngelis don’t haunt me for obliterating their recipe).
We don’t need a ton of fancy spices or fresh herbs, nor do we need red wine or white wine, or, god forbid, SUGAR for simple spaghetti meat sauce. The best meat sauce lets the tomatoes and the meat shine through without many things to mask the natural flavors of these important components.
For this spaghetti meat sauce recipe, you will need:
• olive oil
• fresh garlic
• meat (more on this in a bit)
• crushed tomatoes (more on these in a bit, too)
• tomato paste
DO NOT USE SUGAR: SWEETEN WITH AN ONION
This is where you’ll find my snobbiness, and I will not apologize for it.
In our family’s opinion, sugar absolutely does not belong in pasta sauce.
In fact, when he emailed me the recipe, my dad said in his typical silly humor, “during this entire process, ensure that your sugar container remains in your cupboard.”
If you’re looking for subtle sweetness, that’s where a sweet onion can come in.
My dad has always used a white onion, but I find that I really enjoy the natural sweetness of a simple tomato sauce + a sweet onion. It’s absolutely perfect against all that savory meat flavor. Use whatever type of onion you prefer, I just wouldn’t use a red onion– it is a little punchy against Italian flavor profiles or any Italian seasoning you might be using on your pasta dish.
TYPES OF MEAT FOR THIS RED SAUCE
While my family has typically always turned to ground pork for this homemade meat sauce, you can certainly use ground beef, ground turkey, ground chicken, or even Italian sausage.
Just keep in mind that if you choose to go with poultry or a lean ground beef, you may want to use a little extra olive oil while cooking your onions and garlic so the mixture doesn’t dry out.
PICK THE RIGHT CANNED TOMATOES
There are so many different types of tomatoes out there, and while many folks say the key to the perfect sauce is San Marzano tomatoes, we have found that any brand will do. The main key is to be sure you use canned crushed tomatoes.
Crushed tomatoes, as opposed to canned whole tomatoes, contain tomato puree which gives them a thicker texture. Since there is less liquid, the flavor of crushed tomatoes lends a more intense and rich flavor after they’ve been cooked in your Italian pasta sauce. Not only that, crushed tomatoes also cook more quickly since they have been flash cooked before canning.
Alongside of these tomatoes, you’ll use tomato paste, which is a thick paste made from seedless, skinless cooked tomatoes, reduced to a rich, flavorful concentrate.
The combination of canned tomatoes with the puree included + tomato paste means we’re packing an incredibly tomato-y punch into the sauce. No watered down tomato flavor in this recipe!
ALTERNATIVE: FRESH TOMATOES
While my dad and I both have only ever used canned crushed tomatoes, you may be looking for an even easier homemade meat sauce made with fresh tomatoes.
Guess what? I have GOOD NEWS– you can absolutely use fresh tomatoes in place of canned crushed tomatoes. Just keep in mind that you may need to cook the sauce longer since your fresh tomatoes will not be pre-cooked like the canned crushed ones will.
This crushed tomatoes + tomato paste combination make the perfect simple base for this meaty spaghetti sauce without drowning out the flavors of the meat nor making the sauce too runny. I think you’re going to love the combo!
You can absolutely use fresh tomatoes in place of canned crushed tomatoes. See my notes at the bottom of the recipe for how to make homemade crushed tomatoes.
HOW TO MAKE PERFECT ITALIAN MEAT SAUCE
Making this sauce is very simple. The total time from start to finish is about 2 hours, but the hands-off time while it cooks is about 1 and ½ hours.
Start by adding the olive oil to a large warmed skillet or saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, and ground meat and cook over medium heat (or low heat if you’re using lower fat poultry) until the meat is browned and the onion is translucent.
Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and salt to the skillet, then simmer sauce on low heat for at least 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until it reaches your desired thickness. Add water if sauce is too thick for your liking.
WANT TO MAKE THIS SAUCE IN THE SLOW COOKER?
You can absolutely make this sauce in a slow cooker! Simply brown the meat on the stovetop just as you would if you were using a skillet or saucepan, then transfer all of the meat, juices, and fat to the slow cooker, then add all of the remaining ingredients and cook on low for 1 hour and 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Your sauce is ready to use right away, but in my 35+ years of enjoying this sauce, I find it gets even more flavorful the longer it marries together in the refrigerator. It’s perfect for anything from soaking up with garlic bread to using in lasagna, or even on top of vegetables or eggs (one of my favorite uses for it!).
Homemade Italian Meat Sauce Recipe
- 2 Tablespoons (27g) extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion I prefer a sweet one
- 3 cloves of garlic minced
- 1 and ½ to 2 pounds (680-907g) ground meat I prefer pork– if you use a lean meat, add more olive oil
- 28 ounces (794g) crushed tomatoes1
- 12 ounces (340g) tomato paste
- ½ to 1 teaspoon salt
- Add the olive oil to a large warmed skillet or saucepan. Add the onion, garlic, and ground meat and cook until meat is browned and onion is translucent.
- Add the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and salt to the skillet, then simmer sauce on low at least 1 hour and 30 minutes, or until desired thickness. Add water if sauce is too thick for your liking. Store leftovers in the refrigerator up to 1 week. Sauce freezes well, up to 3 months. Thaw in refrigerator overnight.
- Fresh tomatoes: you can make your own crushed tomatoes– using a sharp knife, score the bottom of each tomato with an “X” and boil in water until skin pulls away (approximately 1 minute). Transfer boiled tomatoes to a bowl of ice water and allow to cool. Peel and quarter tomatoes, then pulse in a food processor until crushed.
All nutritional values are approximate and provided to the reader as a courtesy. Changing ingredients and/or quantities will alter the estimated nutritional calculations.