For decades of falls—usually in October—I would make a giant batch of Italian Meat Sauce and freeze portions to use throughout the coming months. After all, a hearty, meaty red sauce fits so well with colder weather. For the past few years, I dropped this sauce from my to-do list, but this fall, I’ve brought back the happy tradition.
The recipe goes back what seems lifetimes ago, when a younger me was living in Florida, married to an American of Italian descent, juggling career and college, and failing at becoming a pregnant wife. I also watched lots of college football (Go Gators!). After graduating with a second degree, I took up dance and voice lessons, which played a role in the next chapter of my life … after this chapter ended in divorce.
Among the things I took with me—aside from life lessons in marriage, divorce and a since-forgotten, deep knowledge of football—was this priceless recipe. Food is the story of our lives. This dish reminds me of good times in that phase of my life. It reminds me of people I once called family whom I still love and miss. It also reminds me of people who have passed on, because both of the women who gave me the knowledge to create this recipe have died. I’m grateful for their gift to me, and I am excited to share the fruit of that gift with you.
Italian Meat Sauce is my favorite marinara. It blends recipes from my former husband’s mother and paternal grandmother. I tended to avoid making marinara early in my cooking career because I just couldn’t get it to taste right. Then my Italian grandmother-in-law told me to put a little brown sugar in tomato sauce to cut the acidity. This tip … Changed. My. Life.
Suddenly, meals got a lot more saucy. I used this sauce in lasagna, in eggplant and chicken parmesan. I used it over spaghetti, linguine, angel hair nests … over ziti and rotini. I used it as a bread dip. I used it on pizzas and in calzones. I even ate the sauce by itself … because it tasted so good. Italian Meat Sauce soup, anyone? Yes, please.
With all this meat flavoring the sauce, is it possible to make a vegetarian version? Maybe. Try plant-based substitutes with portobello mushrooms and some olive oil to replace the meat and animal fat. It won’t taste the same, but I think it will still be tasty.
This sauce takes a long time to make, but that’s part of the fun. I start in the morning. I grab a giant stock pot for the sauce. I chop up onions and garlic. I bake ribs and cook sausages on the stovetop. I make meatballs. I load up a boatload of tomato products along with seasonings and combine it all in the stock pot. Add the meat, then simmer, stirring every so often, for hours. The aromas float through the house all day, and it’s hard to wait for dinnertime to eat the very first meal from the batch. (Back when, cooking Italian Meat Sauce was a perfect activity for college football Saturdays. And it makes so much even a small band of football fans will leave leftovers!)
Don’t have a full day? Break the tasks into different days. Putting everything together into the sauce and simmering it is the longest stretch. Save that part for a day that you have a few hours. Everything else can be prepped and cooked ahead in increments of an hour or less.
Over the years I’ve mused about canning the sauce—longer shelf life, no need to thaw frozen sauce—but so far, I’ve not undertaken the research to feel comfortable about food safety. This year my word is fearless, so this ought to be the year I do it. If you have good resources for canning meat-based sauces (or even general canning resources), please recommend in the comments.
“Nothing mitigates the throes of depression like a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs with marinara sauce and grated parmasan cheese, with a good fresh bread to wipe up.”—Paul Clayton
1. Country ribs
6 country ribs
1/4 tsp kosher salt
3/4 tsp garlic powder
2. Italian Sausage
5 hot Italian sausage links about 1 to 1/5 lb)
1 lb ground pork
1 lb ground beef (lean)
1/2 C plain bread crumbs
1/3 C parmesan
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 onion, diced
1 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp basil
1 tsp Italian seasoning
4. Tomato Sauce
1/2 onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
84 oz. tomato purée
15 oz. Tomato sauce
18 oz. Tomato paste and equal parts water
56 oz. crushed tomatoes
15 oz. diced tomatoes
1 TBSP Italian seasoning
4 tsp basil
1 tsp black pepper, ground
1 tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp fennel seeds
1/4 C brown sugar
Additional garlic powder, to taste
5. Optional Toppings
Red pepper flakes
Total prep time: about about 2 to 2 1/2 hours prep; 3 to 4 cook time
Yields about 16 cups
1. Country ribs
Sprinkle salt and garlic powder on ribs and bake in preheated 350 degree oven for about an hour, until internal temp of pork reaches 145 degrees. When done, set aside.
2. Italian Sausage
While country ribs are baking, snip and remove skin from Italian sausages and place in skillet heated at medium, turning frequently until internal temperature reaches 145 degrees. When done, set aside.
Dice onion and mince garlic. Combine all ingredients for meatballs into a large bowl and blend together by hand until well mixed. Shape into balls slightly larger than ping pong balls or to desired size. Cook in shallow pan heated to medium, turning frequently, until done. Internal temp should be 160 degrees. Optional: to release brown bits, add red wine or water and cook off, scraping bits from pan. Set meatballs aside.
4. Tomato sauce
Dice onion and mince garlic. Add oil to stock pot and heat to medium. Add onions and cook until translucent. Add garlic. Add crushed tomatoes and about half the seasoning. Add tomato sauce, tomato puree, diced tomatoes and tomato paste. Add water using the tomato paste can. Stir well and heat to a bubble. Reduce heat to low and add all meats. Stir well, scraping sides and bottom. Add brown sugar and mix in.
Simmer on low for up to three to four hours, stirring occasionally. Be sure to scrape sides and bottom when stirring to avoid burning the sauce.
After an hour, taste the sauce and add more seasoning if needed. Continue to stir and scrape the pot. After the second hour, taste the sauce and add more seasoning if needed. After the third hour, taste the sauce. If the garlic flavor is not strong enough to taste, add 1 or two tsp garlic powder. Do not simmer more than 6 hours.
Provide optional toppings at the table for individual use with each serving.
Serve warm over pasta with salad and sides. Use tomato sauce, meatballs and sausage in lasagna. Reserve sauce for eggplant or chicken parmesan. Serve meatballs in a sub sandwich.
Refrigerate for about 10 days or freeze for up to four months in airtight containers.