Mom's Homemade Spaghetti Sauce is the best! Made with sausage, ground beef, onions, and tomatoes, then perfectly seasoned and simmered, this classic Italian-American meat sauce is a hearty, full-flavored family favorite.
What's the Story behind this Recipe?
My childhood food memories are filled with meals like tuna casserole studded with green-gray peas, and creamed chipped beef over white rice. Mom was from the Midwest, where "they didn't have fancy foods like pizza or hummus," as she liked to tell me.
However, despite her aversion to cooking or eating anything not common among Depression-era Missourians, Mom did make some wonderful dishes, and the best of best was her rich, meaty homemade spaghetti sauce.
When it came to making spaghetti sauce, Mom was meticulous in her onion chopping. Each batch of sauce required four large onions, thus requiring a lot of time and tears; so spaghetti at our house was reserved for special occasions.
Oh, but when she made that amazing sauce! Thick, rick, deep scents would fill our house to the eaves, enticing me to the kitchen, where I would wait until Mom wasn't looking to sneak spoonfuls of hot, bubbly spaghetti sauce onto Saltine crackers, nearly always burning my tongue in my hurry.
It was always worth it.
What Goes into this Recipe
Ingredient Notes & Substitutions
This classic American-style spaghetti sauce recipe is based on Mom's original recipe, with just a few small adjustments. It retains all of the richness and depth that I remember.
★ Ground beef & Italian sausage: I use a combination of 1:1:1 of low-fat ground beef, sweet Italian sausage, and mild Italian sausage. However any combination will work. (If you prefer a spicier spaghetti sauce, try using spicy Italian sausage!)
We've also made this sauce with ground turkey and ground chicken Italian sausage with great results.
★ Canned tomatoes: I recommend using petite-cut canned tomatoes with garlic and basil if you can find them.
★ Tomato sauce: If I can find it, use a tomato sauce infused with garlic and onion. Regular tomato sauce will work fine, too.
★ Tomato paste: Same as the tomato sauce.
★ Onions: Mom used plain old yellow onions. Yellow onions have more natural sugars in them than sweet onions do, and thus impart a sweeter undertone to the sauce.
★ Garlic: The recipe calls for four cloves. Don't go crazy.
★ Salted butter: You can use unsalted butter. If you do so, add an extra ½ teaspoon of kosher salt to the sauce before simmering.
How to Make Classic American Spaghetti Sauce with Meat
My best advice: if you have the time, make this sauce a day ahead (and be sure to have some Saltines on hand for tasting).
In a large, heavy Dutch oven or stock pot, brown sausage and ground beef together over MEDIUM.
Remove browned meat from heat, and drain in colander. (Do not rinse the browned meat, please. Just let it drain.)
In same large, heavy pot, melt the butter and olive oil together over MEDIUM heat.
Add chopped onions to butter and olive oil, reduce the heat. to MEDIUM-LOW, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.
You aren't trying to caramelize the onions (which is an hour-long process). You want to fry them until they are just beginning to turn light, golden brown.
Add minced garlic and continue to cook until onions are very soft and begin to take on a very light caramel color. (The onions in the image below are about halfway done.)
Reduce heat to LOW and add the drained, browned meat, tomato sauce, tomato paste, herbs, spices, and brown sugar to the onions in the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined.
Once everything is stirred together well, bring the sauce to a low, slow simmer.
Cover and simmer for an hour, stirring frequently.
Turn the heat off and allow to steep with the cover on for another hour before serving.
I don't usually simmer it any longer than an hour, because the meat can take on a tough, spongy texture if it is overcooked. Allowing the sauce to steep in the pot off the heat alleviates this issue. (You also don't have to babysit it as much.)
Spaghetti sauce can be served immediately; however, it will be so much better when you reheat it the next day! Salt and pepper to taste.
FAQs & Expert Tips
When I was growing up, Mom always serve spaghetti by placing a pile of plain, undressed noodles on a plate, and topping it first with a ladle of spaghetti sauce and then a snowfall of grated parmesan. (Honestly, that is still the way I like it best.)
However, this iconic image from middle America isn't the traditional (or even the best) way to serve spaghetti.
For the best flavor outcome, the hot, drained pasta should be tossed with some of the hot pasta sauce, allowing it to absorb the flavors. Your cooked pasta shouldn't have to heat up the sauce, and your pasta shouldn’t sit in hot water slowly getting mushy.
To make the pasta ahead of time, cook it until it is tender, and then drain it to stop the cooking process. Toss the spaghetti noodles with a little olive oil, and then put it in a container and refrigerate until needed (up to two days).
To reheat, start by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Place the refrigerated noodles in a pasta insert or colander and plunge the cold spaghetti into the boiling water for 30 seconds to one minute to reheat it.
When you are ready, toss the hot pasta with warm sauce and serve.
Serve with a fresh, green salad and warm garlic bread!
Homemade pasta sauce will keep in the refrigerator for three to four days. Allow sauce to cool completely before refrigerating or freezing.
You can freeze this pasta sauce in freezer bags, quart jars, or freezer containers. It will maintain its flavor for up to six months.
When you want to use it, defrost in the fridge or on the counter before heating.
More Italian-inspired Recipes
Classic Homemade Spaghetti Sauce
- 1 10-inch Enameled Cast Iron Dutch Oven or Large, Heavy Stock Pot
- 4 large sweet onions chopped; 1½ pounds, prepped
- 4 cloves garlic minced
- ¼ cup salted butter
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 16 ounces tomato sauce
- 12 ounces tomato paste
- 16 ounces petite diced canned tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- ¾ pound ground beef
- ¾ pound sweet Italian sausage and/or mild Italian sausage
- 2 tablespoons brown sugar
- 1 teaspoons dried basil give or take
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ½ teaspoons whole fennel seeds
- Dash fresh nutmeg
- In a large, heavy Dutch oven or stock pot, brown sausage and ground beef together over MEDIUM.Remove browned meat from heat, and drain in colander. Do not rinse the browned meat. Just let it drain.
- In same large, heavy pot, melt the butter and olive oil together over MEDIUM heat.Add chopped onions to butter and olive oil, reduce the heat. to MEDIUM-LOW, and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently.Add minced garlic and continue to cook until onions are very soft and begin to take on a very light caramel color. You aren't trying to caramelize the onions (which is an hour-long process). You want to fry them until they are just beginning to turn light, golden brown.
- Reduce heat to LOW and add the drained, browned meat, tomato sauce, tomato paste, herbs, spices, and brown sugar to the onions in the pan. Stir with a wooden spoon until thoroughly combined. Once everything is stirred together well, bring the sauce to a low, slow simmer.Cover and simmer for an hour, stirring frequently.Turn the heat off and allow to steep with the cover on for another hour before serving.
- Spaghetti sauce can be served immediately; however, it will be taste even better when you reheat it the next day!
We usually make this the day before to allow the flavors to fully blend, and reheat it in the slow cooker on low for serving.
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Recipe Updated September 20, 2021 (Originally published January 14, 2013)