Spaghetti and meatballs is a classic comfort food dish, but making it usually involves dirtying up every pan in the house. Between boiling the pasta, simmering the tomato sauce, and browning the meatballs, the clean-up doesn’t seem worth the reward. So we came up with an easier way to make spaghetti and meatballs: Instead of cooking everything on the stovetop, we bake it all in a single casserole dish.
Our easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole is ready in about 45 minutes, including all the prep time. We make our meatballs from scratch using a tried-and-true recipe that blends beef and Italian sausage, but you can shorten the prep time by picking up store-bought meatballs. Then, instead of spending hours making a tomato sauce, we use one of our favorite brands of jarred marinara. The result is a savory, filling, and ultra-cheesy casserole that captures all the flavors of your favorite restaurant’s spaghetti and meatballs.
Our easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole has a lot of ingredients, but we’ll let you in on a little secret: You don’t have to use them all. We make our meatballs from scratch in this recipe, but there are tons of great frozen meatballs out there. Your local grocery store or butcher shop may also sell pre-made refrigerated meatballs. Plant-based meatless meatballs (like Beyond meatballs) are another great choice if you want to make a vegetarian version.
That said, our meatball recipe is amazing, so go for it if you have the time! It’s made with yellow onion, garlic, salt, black pepper, paprika, red pepper flakes, ground beef, Italian sausage, eggs, Parmesan cheese, chopped parsley, and breadcrumbs. Once the meatballs are made, the only other ingredients you’ll need are olive oil, a box of spaghetti, a jar of marinara sauce, shredded mozzarella, and fresh basil. We highly recommend buying a block of mozzarella cheese and grating it yourself. It’s cheaper than pre-grated cheese, and it melts better.
What is the best meat for this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole?
You can make meatballs out of any kind of meat for this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole. Some recipes call for using several different types — beef, pork, and veal is a classic combination — while others use ground beef alone. Our favorite meatballs are made with equal parts ground beef and Italian sausage. Using 80/20 beef guarantees the meat will have enough fat to create a rich flavor, and the Italian sausage is made from ground pork, adding a subtle flavor and smooth texture to the meatball. The fact that Italian sausage is already seasoned helps out here, too, so we don’t have to add too many extra ingredients.
If you’re watching your saturated fat intake, feel free to make your meatballs with ground chicken or ground turkey. These ground meats are a little stickier than ground beef and pork, so you may have to adjust the egg and breadcrumb amounts to create the right mixture. It’s also very important to ensure that ground poultry reaches a safe internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit before serving.
Cook the pasta separately for this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
We’ve made many one-pot pasta recipes, but we don’t recommend it for this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole. We weren’t able to get the timing just right when we cooked the spaghetti directly in the sauce. When it was perfectly cooked, the meatballs were undercooked, and it ended up being soggy and unpleasantly textured by the time the meatballs finished. It was much simpler to cook the pasta to al dente and toss it all together later in the casserole dish.
Be sure to cook the pasta in salted water, or it will taste a little bland in the finished dish. Pay attention to the box’s directions for al dente pasta, too. You want the spaghetti to be a little undercooked, as it will continue to cook in the sauce when it bakes in the oven. When the spaghetti is finished cooking, drain it and toss it with half the marinara sauce. Set it aside until the meatballs are finished.
Don’t have spaghetti? Don’t worry! Any long pasta noodle works well here, so feel free to swap in linguine or fettuccine. Most short pasta shapes will work fine in this casserole too, so experiment with rotini, gemelli, cavatappi, and more.
Soften the onions before making this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
If you’re using pre-made or frozen meatballs for this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole, you can skip directly to the baking step. But if you’re making your own meatballs, you’ll want to start here. Some meatball recipes call for raw onions, and you could certainly go that route if you’re looking to save time. But we found that softening the onions in a little oil goes a long way to creating a more flavorful meatball. The Kitchn explains that you can change the intensity of onions by serving them raw or cooked. Raw onions are sharp and pungent, but their flavor mellows as they’re cooked. After a few minutes over medium heat, the onion’s natural sweetness comes out, making them perfect for meatballs.
While the pasta is cooking, heat a little olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add a diced small yellow onion and cook until it’s softened, about five minutes. Add two cloves of minced garlic, a half teaspoon each of kosher salt and smoked paprika, a quarter teaspoon ground black pepper, and an eighth of a teaspoon of crushed red pepper flakes. This gives the garlic an opportunity to soften as well, and it lets the spices bloom for maximum flavor. Cook for about one minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool slightly.
Mix the ingredients to make an easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
When the onion mixture is slightly cooled, it’s time to mix the meatballs for your easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole. Grab a large bowl and add a half-pound each of ground beef and Italian sausage, one egg, a half cup each of grated Parmesan and breadcrumbs, two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley, and the cooled onion mixture. You can use a large spoon to mix the ingredients together, but we’ve found it best to get in there with your hands. After everything has come together, add a quarter cup of water and squish it into the meat mixture until it’s well combined.
It might seem weird to add water to meatballs, but this is our secret ingredient! It introduces extra liquid into the meatballs, helping them stay soft and moist as they cook. The mixture might seem a little wet, but trust us: It will come together perfectly in the end. From here, you can make the meatballs any size you like. Make 24 mini meatballs or eight large ones — your choice! We like medium-sized meatballs (slightly larger than a golf ball) because they cook quickly and evenly, so we formed the mixture into 12 meatballs. Roll the balls in between your palms to create smooth, round meatballs.
Brown the meatballs for our easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
You might be tempted to toss the formed meatballs directly into the casserole dish and let the heat of the oven cook them, but we advise against it. It is possible to bake meatballs without searing them, but it will take longer for them to cook through. Plus, Bon Appetit advises that searing your meatballs first is one of the crucial steps to creating a better meatball. It caramelizes the edges, creating texture and deepening the meatball’s flavor.
Grab the skillet you used for cooking the onion mixture. If it’s really dirty, you can clean it with soap and water. Ours didn’t have any burnt or browned bits, so we simply wiped it out with a clean towel to remove any excess residue. Add a quarter-inch of oil to the pan and heat it over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs and brown them on all sides, about ten minutes. They should be almost cooked through by the time you’re finished. Depending on the size of the pan, you may have to cook the meatballs in two batches to keep them from overcrowding the pan.
Bake the easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
Now that everything is ready, all we need to do is layer it in a baking dish and cook it to perfection. Start by preheating the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and spreading a spoonful of the remaining marinara sauce on the bottom of a 9×9 baking dish. This will help keep the spaghetti from sticking without adding excess oil. Add the marinara-tossed spaghetti to the pan and top it with a layer of meatballs. You can lightly push the meatballs into the spaghetti to help them all fit, but you want them floating above the noodles to help them finish cooking through. Top the meatballs with the remaining marinara, and sprinkle the top with two cups of shredded mozzarella.
We’ll bake this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole for 15 to 20 minutes, until the meatballs register 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. If you don’t have a thermometer, you’ll want to look for bubbly sauce, melted cheese, and meatballs that are browned all the way through when you cut into them with a knife. We start by covering the dish with aluminum foil to help the meatballs finish cooking, but you can remove it for the last five minutes to help the cheese brown.
How to serve this easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole
This easy spaghetti and meatballs casserole is a complete meal, so don’t feel like you have to go crazy with the side dishes! Spoon the casserole into individual serving dishes and top each one with chopped fresh basil. You can add a little shredded Parmesan cheese to the top, but it’s not strictly necessary.
We usually serve spaghetti and meatballs with a side of garlic bread to soak up all the tasty sauce. A simple side salad is a great way to lighten up the meal, or you can serve it with a vegetable side dish like sauteed green beans or zucchini, roasted broccoli or Brussels sprouts, or a fresh tomato and herb platter. If you want to add vegetables without creating extra dishes, don’t be afraid to add a bag of frozen spinach (thawed with the excess water squeezed out) to the casserole before baking it.
- 12 ounces spaghetti
- 1 (24-ounce) jar marinara sauce
- 1 teaspoon olive oil, plus additional for cooking the meatballs
- 1 small yellow onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ⅛ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- ½ pound 80/20 ground beef
- ½ pound Italian sausage
- 1 large egg
- ½ cup grated Parmesan
- ½ cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
- ¼ cup water
- 2 cups shredded mozzarella
- Chopped fresh basil, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the spaghetti to the package directions for al dente, about 8 to 12 minutes. Drain the spaghetti and toss it with half of the marinara sauce. Set aside.
- While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onion and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic, salt, paprika, black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes to the pan. Cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove the pan from the heat and let the mixture cool slightly.
- In large bowl, combine the ground beef, Italian sausage, egg, Parmesan, breadcrumbs, parsley, and the cooled onion mixture. It’s best to use your hands to combine the meatball mixture, but a large spoon would work here, too. When the ingredients are combined, add the water and squish it into the meat mixture using your hands.
- Form the mixture into 12 meatballs slightly larger than a golf ball, rolling the meatballs until they’re smooth and round.
- Wipe out the onion skillet or clean it with soap and water if it has any burnt bits on the bottom. Add about ¼ inch of oil to the pan. Heat the oil over medium heat and add the meatballs, cooking in batches if necessary to keep from crowding the pan. Cook the meatballs until they’re browned on all sides and almost cooked through, about 10 minutes.
- Spread a spoonful of the remaining marinara sauce to a 9×9 baking dish. Add the marinara-tossed spaghetti and top it with the meatballs.
- Top the meatballs with the remaining marinara and sprinkle the top with the mozzarella.
- Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake it until the cheese is melted and the meatballs register 165 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the foil for the last 5 minutes of cook time to brown the top of the mozzarella.