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Homemade Dutch Oven Meatballs in Tomato Sauce

Loaded with fresh garlic, basil, and parmesan cheese, these homemade dutch oven meatballs are seared to perfection, then simmered in tomato sauce to achieve the most tender, juicy, and flavorful meatballs ever.

A white bowl filled with dutch oven meatballs in tomato sauce. The meatballs are topped with freshly grated parmesan cheese and basil.

Is there a smell better than homemade meatballs simmering in tomato sauce on the stovetop?

Meatballs in red sauce is one of those comfort food meals that just about everyone loves. And while there are lots of options for frozen and pre-made meatballs out there, nothing quite beats making them from scratch at home.

This classic Italian-American dish can be made in a million different ways. Recipe to recipe, the meats, herbs, spices, and binding ingredients all vary quite a bit. Some use only beef, while others swear a combination of beef, pork, and veal is the only way. Some recipes use fresh herbs and spices while others opt for their dried counterparts.

This Dutch oven meatball recipe is the way I’ve been making my meatballs for several years now. They’re super tender and bursting with flavor thanks to the fresh basil leaves, minced garlic, and grated onion. I love having a big batch of them simmering all day on the stove for holiday gatherings.

So, if you’re now craving a big, comforting bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, keep reading to learn how to make these Dutch oven meatballs at home today.

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Why You’ll Love This Recipe

  • Fresh Ingredients- High-quality, scratch-made meatballs require the freshest ingredients to make them truly shine. Taking the extra time to prepare your own breadcrumbs, mince a few cloves of fresh garlic, and grate your own parmesan cheese will be well worth the effort when you get to savor these delicious meatballs.
  • Tender and Juicy- Using meat with a good bit of fat, milk-soaked breadcrumbs, and freshly grated parmesan cheese makes for rich, juicy, and wonderfully tender meatballs that practically melt in your mouth. No dense, dry meatballs here.
  • Flavorful- Not only are these Dutch oven meatballs packed with flavorful ingredients like garlic, onion, basil, and parmesan cheese, but they also absorb some of the delicious flavors within the tomato sauce. So, using a high-quality tomato sauce is critical.

Ingredient Notes

Here are some notes on key ingredients. For a full list of ingredients, check out the recipe card below.

  • Ground Beef- I use 80% lean ground beef whenever I make meatballs because the fat helps to make them tender and juicy.
  • Ground Turkey- I like to make my meatballs using a mix of ground turkey and ground beef. I opt for ground turkey instead of pork because of the lower fat content in the turkey.
  • Fresh Breadcrumbs- The easiest way to make your meatballs stand out is to add homemade, fresh breadcrumbs. Milk-soaked fresh breadcrumbs add moisture and help create a softer, more tender texture.
  • Whole Milk- The whole milk is used to soak the breadcrumbs, adding moisture to the meatballs. Don’t forget to squeeze out the excess milk so you don’t end up with an overly wet meatball mixture.
  • Eggs- As a protein, eggs are used in meatballs to bind the ingredients together.
  • Parmesan Cheese- Salty, nutty, and a little sweet, parmesan cheese is a must in a good meatball recipe. As always, freshly grated cheese is best.
  • Onion- This allium adds both flavor and moisture to the meatballs. I recommend grating or finely dicing the onion so it can fully cook through. Otherwise, you’ll end up with crunchy onion pieces inside the meatballs.
  • Garlic- I love garlic so I add a lot of it. Grating or finely mincing the garlic will help disburse its flavor throughout.
  • Basil- Fresh herbs are a must in a classic Italian meatball recipe. I love basil for its peppery, anise-like notes.
  • Red Pepper Flakes- A pinch of red pepper chili flakes adds a subtle bit of heat that pairs well with the acidic tomato sauce.
  • Tomato Sauce- Homemade tomato sauce is best. I use my San Marzano Tomato Sauce recipe whenever I make these Dutch oven meatballs.

Fresh Tip: Want to have fresh basil at your fingertips whenever a recipe calls for it? Try growing your own basil right in your own kitchen.

The ingredients to make dutch oven meatballs laid out on a butcher block countertop. There is text over each ingredient labeling what it is. The ingredients include ground turkey, ground beef, eggs, parmesan cheese, whole milk, fresh breadcrumbs, onion, garlic, basil, salt, red pepper flakes, and tomato sauce.

Step by Step Instructions

Here is how to make these Dutch oven meatballs.

Step 1: Soak the breadcrumbs. In a small mixing bowl, combine the fresh breadcrumbs and milk. Stir well to make sure all of the breadcrumbs are saturated with the liquid. Set aside to soak while you prepare the meatball mixture.

A clear glass bowl filled with fresh breadcrumbs soaking in whole milk.

Step 2: Make the meatball mixture. Add the ground beef, ground turkey, eggs, parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, and salt to a large mixing bowl. Then, add the soaked breadcrumbs, making sure to squeeze any excess milk from them before adding. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, gently mix everything together until just combined. Loosely shape the meatball mixture into approximately 24 meatballs, taking care not to over-work the meat.

Raw meatball mixture in a royal blue mixing bowl.

Step 3: Sear the meatballs. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sear the meatballs for 4-5 minutes per side. Since these meatballs are very tender, you may lose some small bits and pieces as you flip them. However, these chunks of meatball will just add more flavor and body to the tomato sauce. When the last batch of meatballs has finished cooking, pour in the tomato sauce.

Raw meatballs being seared in olive oil in a dutch oven.
Browned meatballs being seared in a dutch oven.

Step 4: Simmer the meatballs. Add all of the meatballs back into the pot and reduce to low heat. Carefully stir the meatballs into the sauce to ensure all of them are covered. Cover the pot with the lid and simmer the meatballs for 20-25 minutes or until they’re cooked through. Serve and enjoy!

Meatballs simmering in tomato sauce.

How to Make Fresh Breadcrumbs

Making fresh breadcrumbs at home is so simple, quick, and easy. Plus, it’s a fantastic way to use up all of those stale bread scraps that you probably would have tossed out anyway.

Breadcrumbs can be made out of just about any type of bread. Sandwich bread, hotdog buns, or even dinner rolls will all work. I’m partial to sourdough bread because of the flavor and firm texture, but use whatever bread you have on hand.

For this recipe, you need approximately 2 cups of breadcrumbs. In my experience, 3 cups of cubed bread make just over 2 cups of fresh breadcrumbs.

Instructions

Step 1: Cube the bread. Cut or tear the bread into small, uniform pieces.

Step 2: Add the bread to the food processor. Place all of your bread cubes into the bowl of a food processor or blender.

Step 3: Pulse pulse pulse. Using the pulse feature on your food processor, pulse the bread until fine breadcrumbs begin to form. If your bread has a lot of crust, there may be a few slightly large pieces that remain. For this recipe, that’s perfectly fine.

A loaf of sourdough bread on a cutting board. Some of the bread has been cubed.
Homemade fresh breadcrumbs in a clear glass bowl.

Tips for Making the Best Homemade Meatballs

  • Keep things cold. You want to work quickly and handle the meat minimally to ensure you don’t melt the fat in the meat prior to cooking. If necessary, keep the meatball mixture and any rolled meatballs in the refrigerator until just before you’re ready to cook them.
  • Handle the meat gently. Both during mixing and when forming the meatballs, be careful not to over-work the meat. Meatballs that have been formed and packed too tightly will be dense, rubbery, and chewy.
  • Don’t overcrowd the meatballs. Unless you have a very large Dutch oven, you’ll likely have to sear the meatballs in batches. I found that two batches worked for me in my 6-quart cast iron Dutch oven.
  • Take care when flipping. Use a flat-edged wooden utensil and tongs to gently flip the meatballs. Since these meatballs are so soft and tender, they may fall apart a bit if they’re handled too roughly. Simply use a flat edge to unstick them from the bottom of the pot. Then, using tongs, carefully flip them over to cook on the other side. As the meatballs cook, they become less delicate.

Substitutions and Variations

Here are a few ways you can customize this Dutch oven meatball recipe to fit your diet and taste preferences.

Substitutions

  • Ground Meat- I use a combination of ground beef and turkey in my recipe, but you can easily use all beef, all turkey, or even mix in some ground pork or ground veal, if you’d like.
  • Breadcrumbs- You can always use store-bought regular or panko breadcrumbs in place of the fresh breadcrumbs. Completely out of breadcrumbs and bread? Try using ground oats, crackers, or croutons instead.
  • Whole Milk- Any type of milk, or even water, will work in place of the whole milk. The milk’s primary role is to moisten the breadcrumbs.
  • Eggs- While I haven’t tried any of these myself, according to my research, you can try substituting the eggs with mashed potatoes, ricotta cheese, unsweetened applesauce, tomato paste, buttermilk, or mayonnaise.
  • Parmesan Cheese- Pecorino Romano, Asiago, ground pine nuts, or even nutritional yeast can be swapped for the parmesan cheese.
  • Onion & Garlic- All out of fresh garlic and onion? You can substitute them with 1 teaspoon each garlic powder and onion powder.
  • Basil- While fresh is best, dried basil can work in a pinch. Use 1 tablespoon of dried basil to replace the ½ cup of fresh basil. Alternately, you could use 1 tablespoon of Italian seasoning.

Variations

  • Gluten-Free- Make fresh breadcrumbs using gluten-free bread or use your favorite brand of gluten-free breadcrumbs.
  • Dairy-Free- Soak the breadcrumbs in dairy-free milk and swap out the parmesan cheese for nutritional yeast, ground pine nuts, or vegan parmesan cheese.
  • Reduced Fat- Using leaner ground beef and turkey will help reduce the fat in this recipe. Keep in mind, however, that lowering the fat in meatballs will make them less tender and juicy.
  • Spicy- Increase the amount of red pepper flakes to make these meatballs a little spicer. Alternately, you can add some fresh minced jalapeño into the meatball mix.
  • Herbed- Can’t get enough fresh herbs? Make these meatballs extra herbaceous by mixing in some fresh parsley, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, or thyme.

What to Serve with Dutch Oven Meatballs

Served over spaghetti is the classic way to eat meatballs. But, what are some other ways you can enjoy these Dutch oven meatballs in tomato sauce? Here are a few of my favorites.

  • Vegetables- Broccoli, asparagus, spinach, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, or eggplant all pair well with meatballs in sauce. A lightly dressed, leafy green salad would also be delicious and refreshing.
  • Starches- Spaghetti isn’t the only starch you can serve with meatballs. Try filled pastas such as ravioli or tortellini, mashed potatoes, rice, garlic bread, or polenta to switch things up.
  • Meatball Subs- Meatballs topped with melty provolone on a crusty sub roll? Yes, please.
  • Pizza or Calzone- Swap the pepperoni for sliced meatballs on a pizza or in a calzone. Or do both! Why not? My 72-Hour Pizza Dough recipe is perfect for making pizzas and calzones.
  • Straight Up- You can also just eat the meatballs as is, maybe with a little sprinkle of parmesan cheese or some fresh herbs. And a glass of red wine, of course.
Two meatball and provolone sandwiches on a large white plate. The sandwich on the left has a top bun while the sandwich on the right is open. The top bun for the right sandwich is out of focus in the background.

Storage and Reheating

Meatballs are perfect for making large batches since the leftovers freeze so well. You can even freeze the raw meatballs so you can have freshly cooked meatballs whenever you’re in the mood.

Here are my tips for storing, freezing, and reheating meatballs.

Refrigerating

  • Cooked- Store cooked meatballs in an airtight container for 3-4 days in the refrigerator.
  • Raw- Meatballs, like other raw ground meats, should only be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

Freezing

  • Cooked- You can freeze cooked meatballs along with the tomato sauce they were cooked in. Meatballs will maintain optimal quality in the freezer for 3-4 months. Don’t forget to use a freezer-safe container or bag to prevent freezer burn.
  • Raw- You can store raw meatballs in the freezer for up to 2 months. Simply place the meatballs in a single layer on a parchment-lined, rimmed baking sheet in the freezer. Then, once frozen, store them together in a freezer-safe bag or container.

How to Reheat Cooked Meatballs

You can reheat meatballs on the stovetop, in the oven, or in the microwave. If using the stovetop or oven method, you may need to add a splash of water to loosen the tomato sauce and keep the meatballs from drying out.

If your meatballs are frozen, I recommend allowing them to thaw for 1-2 days in the refrigerator prior to reheating. Otherwise, you can reheat frozen meatballs following these same methods mentioned below simply by increasing the cooking time.

  • Stovetop- Heat the meatballs in a saucepan over medium heat until warmed through.
  • Oven- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread the meatballs out in an oven-safe casserole dish and cover them loosely with aluminum foil. Heat for 15-20 minutes or until the meatballs are warmed through.
  • Microwave- Place the meatballs in a microwave-safe dish and heat on half power for 3-4 minutes, stirring halfway through.
A large dutch oven filled with meatballs in tomato sauce. There is a wooden spoon sticking out of the pot to the left.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do I prevent the meatball mixture from sticking to my hands?

Raw ground meat, especially when it’s mixed with breadcrumbs and liquids, can be sticky. An easy way to stop the meatball mixture from sticking to your hands is to coat your hands in a small amount of oil or water. You may have to reapply throughout the meatball rolling process.

Do I have to pan-sear the meatballs?

Of course not! If pan-searing sounds like too much work, you can either bake the meatballs before adding them to the sauce or add them raw directly to the simmering tomato sauce, essentially poaching them. To bake, preheat your oven to 400°F and bake the meatballs for 20-25 minutes.

Why did my meatballs fall apart?

These Dutch oven meatballs are intentionally soft and delicate, especially in their raw state. While this produces a tender and juicy meatball, it can be a little tricky to keep them from breaking apart while searing. I like to use a flat-edged wooden utensil along with some tongs to gently lift and flip the meatballs while searing.

Luckily, all of those tasty, browned meatball bits add flavor to the sauce. Plus, once the meatballs are cooked, they’re less likely to fall apart.

Can I simmer these meatballs longer than 20 minutes?

Definitely. In fact, the longer they simmer, the more tender and flavorful they’ll be. I often make a big batch of these meatballs on Christmas and keep them simmering on the stovetop all day for people to enjoy as they get hungry.

More Recipes You May Enjoy

Dutch Oven Meatballs

Loaded with fresh garlic, basil, and parmesan cheese, these homemade dutch oven meatballs are seared to perfection, then simmered in tomato sauce to achieve the most tender, juicy, and flavorful meatballs ever.
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 40 minutes
Total Time 1 hour
Servings 24 meatballs
Calories 179kcal
Author Ashley Petrie

Ingredients

  • 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs see notes for instructions*
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 pound ground beef 80% lean
  • 1 ¼ pounds ground turkey 85-93% lean
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup parmesan cheese grated
  • ½ large yellow onion grated or finely minced
  • 4 cloves garlic grated or finely minced
  • ½ cup fresh basil finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil for searing
  • 6 cups tomato sauce preferably homemade

Instructions

  • In a small mixing bowl, combine the fresh breadcrumbs and milk. Stir well to make sure all of the breadcrumbs are saturated with the liquid. Set aside to soak while you prepare the meatball mixture.
    2 cups fresh breadcrumbs, 1 cup whole milk
  • Add the ground beef, ground turkey, eggs, parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, basil, red pepper flakes, and salt to a large mixing bowl. Then, add the soaked breadcrumbs, making sure to squeeze any excess milk from them before adding. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, gently mix everything together until just combined. Loosely shape the meatball mixture into approximately 24 meatballs, taking care not to over-work the meat.
    1 pound ground beef, 1 ¼ pounds ground turkey, 2 large eggs, ½ cup parmesan cheese, ½ large yellow onion, 4 cloves garlic, ½ cup fresh basil, ½ teaspoon kosher salt, ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes, 2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
  • Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Working in batches, sear the meatballs for 4-5 minutes per side. Since these meatballs are very tender, you may lose some small bits and pieces as you flip them. However, these chunks of meatball will just add more flavor and body to the tomato sauce. When the last batch of meatballs has finished cooking, pour in the tomato sauce.
    4 tablespoons olive oil, 6 cups tomato sauce
  • Add all of the meatballs back into the pot and reduce to low heat. Carefully stir the meatballs into the sauce to ensure all of them are covered. Cover the pot with the lid and simmer the meatballs for 20-25 minutes or until they’re cooked through. Serve and enjoy!

Notes

*To make fresh breadcrumbs:
  1. Cut or tear any type of bread into small, uniform pieces. You’ll need approximately 3 cups of torn bread cubes for this recipe.
  2. Place the bread cubes into the bowl of a food processor or blender.
  3. Using the pulse feature on your food processor, pulse the bread until fine breadcrumbs begin to form. If your bread has a lot of crust, there may be a few slightly large pieces that remain. For this recipe, that’s perfectly fine.

Nutrition

Serving: 1meatball | Calories: 179kcal | Carbohydrates: 7g | Protein: 14g | Fat: 10.5g | Saturated Fat: 3g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 1.5g | Monounsaturated Fat: 4.5g | Cholesterol: 59mg | Sodium: 344mg | Potassium: 326mg | Fiber: 1.2g | Sugar: 3g | Vitamin C: 0.5mg | Calcium: 69mg | Iron: 1.4mg
Did you try this recipe?Let me know! Comment below, or take a picture and tag me on Instagram @enwnutrition.
Dutch oven meatballs in tomato sauce garnished with freshly grated parmesan cheese and fresh basil.

Did you try this recipe?

Let me know! Comment below, or take a picture and tag me on Instagram @enwnutrition.

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