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I made meatballs yesterday in the oven and I'm going to add them to pasta sauce tonight to heat them up and add them to spaghetti. My question is how long should I boil the meatballs for in the sauce before adding it to the pasta and serving.

The recipe I was looking at didn't use the oven so they cooked the meatballs in the sauce for 20 minutes without stirring and then another 20 minutes while stirring. So I would assume I just have to boil the meatballs long enough to heat the sauce and the meatballs. However contrary to this while looking up how long I should cook the meatballs for I came across one recipe that cooked the meatballs in the oven and then cooked them in the pasta for one hour even though the meatballs were already cooked.

So my question is how long should I cook the meatballs in the sauce? What are the benefits to cooking them for a longer or shorter time? Can you cook them for too long and if so what is too long?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

20 or so minutes cooking the meatballs in the sauce has always done the job for me. You want to cook them sufficiently long so that they absorb the moisture and flavour of the sauce, but not too long such that they lose their firm texture. The reverse process of the meat flavouring the sauce is also an important one.

As a side note, it is more advisable to simmer the sauce, rather than boil it, or it will likely become too thick and may even burn.

In general, the combination of initially cooking the meatballs in the oven, and then simmering in the pan is the right way to do things. This ensures that the meatballs are sufficiently cooked, do not fall apart, and have the right firmness. Worth noting is that you should pad off the grease on the meatballs before putting them in the sauce.

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I have no objections to baking them first, but I'd like to point out that I have never had a meatball fall apart when cooked in the sauce, nor has one ever been undercooked. –  Aaronut Aug 4 '10 at 14:58
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@Aaronut: Depends on the variation of ingredients you use. Also depends on what sort of firmness/texture you want. The traditional Italian method definitely requires baking. –  Noldorin Aug 4 '10 at 15:01

If the meatballs are already cooked, then leaving them in the boiling/simmering sauce for a longer period is just going to cause them to absorb more moisture. Depending on exactly how you made the meatballs, that could make them softer, or... it could make them fall apart. They'll also pick up more flavour from the sauce.

You certainly don't need to simmer them for more than a few minutes if they're already cooked and have the texture and flavour you want. There's no food safety issue here and they're not going to burn (when making a stew or chili you would usually simmer the meat for several hours). It's purely a matter of taste. If you want them to absorb as much flavour as possible from the sauce, then simmer them as long as you can until and unless you see them starting to break apart.

Personally, I'd toss them in for 10-20 minutes and be done with it. I prefer to actually cook the meatballs in the sauce for tenderness; presumably, if you made them separately, you'd want them to remain firm, so don't overdo it.

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Three concepts apply here:

1) cooking the meatballs -- 20-30 minutes should be enough to properly cook the meatballs;

2) flavoring the sauce -- you can leave the meatballs in a gently simmering sauce for up to 90 minutes to flavor the sauce;

3) texture of the meatballs -- there is a split of preference between those who like to brown the meatballs in a frying pan with a little oil or in an oven on a sheet pan, and those who prefer to put them in the sauce raw and simply poach. if the meatballs are "loose" or fragile in composition, the browning can help them stay together in the sauce, but mostly this choice affects texture. I like the caramelized, slightly crisp outer crust that forms when meatballs are browned before being placed in the sauce.

NOTE: the comment above about the fat is key. Browning in advance will allow you to drain off SOME of the fat, but you will want to skim the fat from your sauce towards the end of the meatball cooking time.

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