The secret is in the kneading. Just like kneading dough when making bread. You knead dough to coax the formation of gluten. You knead ground meat to break down fibers, and turn the bits of meat into a paste that binds more easily with the other ingredients.
First, season the ground beef and add the three ingredients that will help bind everything together. I cannot overstress the importance of binders because you don’t want the meatballs to crack and fall apart when you simmer them in the sauce.
The seasonings are, quite simply, salt, pepper, dried onion and dried garlic. Why dried? Because we don’t want to add unnecessary moisture to the mixture. Moisture creates steam inside the meatballs and that makes it more difficult for them to retain their shape. The binders are grated Pecorino, panko and egg. To make the meatballs bouncier, we add a little baking powder.
Once all the seasonings and binders have been mixed with the ground beef, we knead. Don’t think it’s a lot of hard work. A few minutes of kneading by hand is enough. But if you want to hasten the process even more, dump the ground beef mixture into the mixer and knead with the paddle attachment.
To make uniform-sized meatballs, we use an ice cream scoop. A small one about two inches in diameter. The meatballs are arranged on a baking tray and they go into the oven to brown. Browning adds flavor. It also creates a crust that makes it even harder for the meatballs to fall apart when added to the sauce.
As for the pasta sauce, we make it from scratch. Onion, garlic and oregano are sauteed in olive oil, homemade tomato sauce is poured in, bay leaf is added and the seasonings are stirred in. While the sauce simmers to reduce and concentrate the flavors, we cook the pasta.
We always add salt to the water before dropping in the noodles. We want the noodles seasoned all the way to the core. It’s smarter than simply relying on the sauce to provide flavor. By the time the sauce is simmering and the noodles are boiling, the meatballs should be ready to exit the oven.
The browned meatballs are dumped into the sauce and simmered. As the flavors of the meatballs and the sauce blend together, chances are, you will need to adjust the seasonings to balance everything.
Once the sauce is perfectly seasoned, check the spaghetti. While they are still a bit undercooked, scoop them out and add the noodles to the simmering sauce. Toss to coat each strand. The noodles will finish cooking in the hot sauce and, at the same time, soak up the lovely flavors.
- 250 grams ground beef with at least 20% fat
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 1 tablespoon dried onion
- ½ teaspoon dried garlic
- ⅓ cup grated Pecorino
- ¼ cup bread crumbs Japanese panko is recommended
- ½ teaspoon baking powder
- 1 egg
- grated Pecorino
- basil leaves
Make the meatballs
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- Place the ground beef in a mixing bowl.
- Add salt, pepper, dried onion and dried garlic.
- Mix until combined.
- Add the Pecorino and mix.
- Add the bread crumbs and baking powder. Mix until blended.
- Add the egg and mix to incorporate.
- Knead in the mixing bowl for a few minutes until everything comes together and the bits of meat appear smaller.
- Form into balls an inch and half in diameter, and arrange on a lightly oiled baking tray.
- Brown in the oven for 15 minutes.
Cook the sauce
- Heat the olive oil in a pan.
- Spread the chopped onion, garlic and oregano leaves in the hot oil and saute for a few minutes.
- Pour in the tomato sauce, add a teaspoon of salt, a quarter teaspoon of pepper and, optionally, a teaspoon of sugar.
- Bring to the boil, cover and leave to simmer.
Cook the spaghetti
- Boil water in a pot and add a teaspoon of salt.
- Dump in the spaghetti, leave until pliable, then stir during the first minute of boiling.
Complete the dish
- Take the meatballs out of the oven and dump into the simmering sauce.
- Simmer for a few minutes then taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings, if needed.
- While the spaghetti is still a bit undercooked, drain and dump into the sauce.
- Toss just until combined.
- Serve your spaghetti and meatballs with more grated Pecorino and whole basil leaves.