You don’t have to be a pasta aficionado to love these Italian meatballs! Perfect on their own or with a full array of sides – make your own healthy and fresh Italian meatballs in the slow cooker for delicious results every time. This low-prep beef meatball recipe will be a timesaver and a new favorite on the menu!
This may shock you, but the classic spaghetti and meatballs plate is not actually Italian! What most Americans know as Italian meatballs is actually an Italian-American version served with red sauce over pasta. The Italian meatballs in this recipe follow an Italian-American style by incorporating Italian seasoning (lots of herbs like basil and oregano) and parmesan cheese.
There are many other regional twists on meatballs such as Swedish or Greek variations. Usually, the spice combination and added sauces distinguish them from each other.
Meatballs that are true to Italian cooking are called polpette and are often served as a single course in a full menu or as a stand-alone dish – no red sauce added! Polpette typically includes smaller, bite-sized meatballs made of mixed meats and more parmesan cheese.
Most meatball recipes require these basic ingredient categories: the meat or meat mixture, the binding (what holds them all together), and the sauces or flavoring additions. Once you have these, there are many ways to vary the recipe!
For the best Italian meatballs in the slow cooker, combine these ingredients featuring an added veggie and lots of flavor!
- Meat – Lean ground beef works well since it reduces grease in the slow cooker. You could do a mixture of ground beef and ground turkey as another lean option. In this recipe, I used 94% lean ground beef.
- Binding – Panko breadcrumbs are a great binder for the meatballs and keep them from being too dense. You can use either a regular or gluten-free variety. Grated zucchini holds the meatballs together while keeping them juicy with a bit of extra nutrition.
- Flavors and Extras – The remaining ingredients bring the delicious Italian flavors all together! You’ll need shredded parmesan cheese, a lightly beaten egg, and milk (whole or 2%). For spices and sauce, use salt and my easy Homemade Italian Dressing seasoning along with your favorite marinara sauce.
How To Make Italian Meatballs In The Slow Cooker
- Start your Italian meatballs by combining the panko breadcrumbs with the milk. Then, add all ingredients (except the marinara sauce) to the mixing bowl.
- Mix by hand (or with forks) until the ingredients are well combined. Tip: If your meat has been frozen, be sure it is fully defrosted to be able to mix thoroughly.
- Next, use a large spoon or an ice cream scoop to measure the amounts evenly. Form into meatballs and place them in a single layer across the bottom of the slow cooker. Mine were slightly larger than golf balls and made 8 total.
- Pour the ½ cup of marinara sauce over the top of the meatballs.
- Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 hours until meatballs are cooked through. To ensure that they are completely cooked, you can check with an instant-read thermometer to see that they have reached an internal temperature of 165 ℉.
If you like, heat additional marinara or other tomato sauce and serve over the meatballs with your sides.
What To Serve With Slow Cooker Italian Meatballs
It may seem an obvious choice to serve pasta like spaghetti or fettuccine, but you can go either classic or creative here! Nowadays there are so many alternative ingredients for pasta to meet many different dietary needs.
I have tried this with quinoa pasta as a gluten-free and fiber-rich option. Pastas made from chickpeas as well as corn and rice blends also hold their shape well and would be a great pairing for hearty Italian meatballs. Of course, you could also serve with another option like Slow Cooker Creamy Garlic Mashed Potatoes.
Garlic bread, Caesar salad, and a veggie make a perfectly well-rounded meal for meatballs and pasta. Some of the best veggies like broccoli and green beans can be quickly cooked in a skillet with olive oil or butter. Or, try Sautéed Carrots with Honey to add some sweetness to the meal!
Don’t forget to save the remaining marinara sauce! You’ll want extra to heat and serve poured over the top once plated.
Storing and Reheating
This is a great make-ahead option!
To make ahead as a freezer meal, complete all mixing steps, roll into evenly sized meatballs, and store in a freezer-safe bag or container for up to 3 months. When you are ready to cook, allow time to defrost and follow cooking directions. Add marinara sauce at the time of cooking.
After you have cooked the meatballs, store them in the fridge for up to 3 days. This is such an easy option if you want to make lunch portions for a few days of the week! You can also freeze the cooked meatballs for up to 3 months in an airtight container.
Reheat in the microwave or oven until warmed through in the middle.
Italian Meatball FAQs
- What are some alternative sauces to try with Italian meatballs in the slow cooker? Italian flavors are so versatile that you can pair them with many different sauces! I like a plain marinara sauce, but you could also use tomato basil, a cheesy-tomato sauce, a spicy marinara, or a vodka and cream sauce. Really, any flavor of red sauce is bound to be delicious!
- Can you put raw meatballs into the slow cooker? Yes, this recipe is designed to cook raw meatballs until completely done.
- How can I ensure my meatballs stay intact during slow cooking? Using panko breadcrumbs will help keep the meatballs intact since the panko will absorb some of the moisture. I have found that it helps to soak the panko breadcrumbs with the milk prior to mixing together to allow for a fluffier textured meatball. Also, to help the meatballs hold their shape, pack them tightly when rolling and don’t stack them in the slow cooker.
- How long does it take to heat fully cooked meatballs in a slow cooker? Meatballs should reach an internal temperature of 165 ℉. The meatballs should reach this temperature well within the designated cooking time if they are evenly placed across the slow cooker. You can check the temperature by using an instant-read thermometer near the end of cooking and adjust the time as needed.
Italian Meatballs In The Slow Cooker
- Slow Cooker
- 1 pound lean ground beef I used 94% lean
- 1/4 cup grated zucchini
- 1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
- 1 egg lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon Homemade Italian Dressing Mix
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs regular or gluten-free
- 2 tablespoons milk
- ½ cup marinara sauce
- Mix panko breadcrumbs with milk, then combine all ingredients (except marinara sauce) in mixing bowl
- Mix by hand until combined
- Form into meatballs and place in single layer in slow cooker (I made mine slightly larger than golf balls and it made 8)
- Pour marinara sauce across meatballs
- Cover and cook on high for 3-4 hours or low for 6-8 until meatballs are cooked through
- To make this as a freezer meal, complete all preparation steps, except adding marinara, and store in a freezer-safe bag or container for up to 3 months. Defrost and follow cooking directions.
- Store leftovers in the fridge for up to 3 days and freeze for up to 3 months in an airtight container.
- Reheat in the microwave or oven until warmed through.
- I prefer using an ice cream scoop for even measuring.
- Use a larger slow cooker to evenly spread the meatballs in a single layer.