Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce

My mother made a pasta dish the other night that took everyone by surprise. My skinny-as-a-spatula 10-year old nephew who won’t eat anything, ate his serving with gusto and asked for more. My carb-avoiding sister couldn’t resist it. My father declared it a triumph. Later that night dad had my mom recount to him exactly what she did to make it. Thank goodness, because experience has shown that my mother’s memory for recipes has a half-life of only a few hours. Sure enough when we asked her to make it again a few days later (so we could get a good photo for this post) she had a hard time recalling the details. Diligent dad supplied a few notes and it all came back to her.

The main trick to this recipe? Sufficiently browning the meat. Which means using a cast iron frying pan on high heat, letting the ground beef cook in its own fat, and not stirring it, so that the meat has a chance to brown well.

Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce Recipe

  • Prep time: 10 minutes
  • Cook time: 45 minutes
  • Yield: Serves 4.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 pound penne pasta (use rice pasta for gluten-free version)
  • Salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups chopped onion (about 1 large onion)
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (blend of dried basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, and savory)
  • Dash red pepper flakes
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme (or a pinch of dried)
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 pound (16% fat) ground beef
  • 3 fresh basil leaves, chopped (or a 1/2 teaspoon of dried)
  • 2 1/2 cups canned chunky tomato sauce (almost 1 28-ounce can, Muir Glen brand if you can get it)
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley

Method

1 Heat to boiling a large pot with 4 quarts of water in it. Once the water is boiling, salt it with 2 Tbsp of salt. Once the water returns to a boil add the pasta to the pot. Leave uncovered, let cook on high heat with a vigorous boil. Put the timer on for 8-10 minutes, or whatever your pasta package says is appropriate for al dente (cooked but still a little firm). Drain.

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2 Once you've started to heat the water, start working on the sauce. Heat olive oil in a very large skillet on medium heat. Add the chopped onion, Italian seasoning and red pepper flakes. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the onions are softened. Add the garlic, fresh thyme, season with salt and pepper. Cook for an additional minute, until the garlic is fragrant. Remove from heat and set aside.

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3 Heat a large cast iron pan on high heat. Salt the bottom of the pan generously. Once the pan is hot, break up small chunks of ground beef and add them to the pan, without stirring. (You may need to work in batches; do not crowd the pan.) You want the meat to get well browned. If the pan is too hot and the meat is burning, not browning, take the pan off the heat for a little, and reduce the heat to medium high. On our coil electric stove, it takes the high heat setting for the meat to brown sufficiently, but your stove may be different. Once the meat is browned on one side (a couple of minutes), use a metal spatula to flip the meat over to brown on the other side. At this point, assuming you are using a cast iron pan, you can remove the pan from the heat. The residual heat in the pan will finish cooking the meat.

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4 Use a slotted spoon to lift the meat from the cast iron pan and add it to the pan with the seasoned onions. Add tomato sauce. Use the edge of your metal spatula to break up the bigger chunks of meat into smaller pieces. Add basil. Add a teaspoon of sugar. Bring to a simmer on low heat, let cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes.

penne-meat-sauce-6.jpg penne-meat-sauce-7.jpg

5 Once the sauce has simmered for 15 minutes, adjust seasonings. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add a little more sugar if the sauce is too acidic. Add more tomato sauce if the sauce is a little dry. Stir in the cooked penne pasta. Sprinkle with chopped parsley. Serve immediately.

Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce on Simply Recipes

55 Comments

  1. Bert NC

    I use italian sausage instead of ground beef. Take it out of its casing and brown it. Hot italian if I want some heat.

  2. Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)

    Classic! My family loves recipes like this. Hooray for your dad for writing it down.

  3. Andy

    Looks great. I like the tip on browning too. I don’t usually put it over high heat when I brown meat, but it makes sense that it would add more flavor. I’ll try it next time.

  4. Lisa_S.

    You can put a whole different spin on the sauce if you add some wine. Red, white, it doesn’t matter. I personally like Mead (honey wine) in my sauce. But what ever vino you are drinking with the meal, toss a heavy shot into the sauce and let it simmer along with everything else.

    I also love kalamata or green olives in sauce. And carrots and zucchini go into sauce just fine. You mushroom lovers can mushroom it up too – I don’t eat mushrooms.

    Ok, my puny “can of breakfast” just won’t cut it now. I am hungry!

  5. Lisa_S.

    Oh, try Muir Glen’s fire roasted tomatoes in this too. Hunts has a fire roasted canned tomato out too that’s just as good, IMO.

    We find Muir Glen’s fire roasted works best for Mexican dishes. ~Elise

  6. Kalyn

    A perfect dinner! I’d use Dreamfields Penne, which would be great for my diet.

  7. priscilla

    ooh looks great…have you tried freezing it and adding some fresh basil when reheating it? wonding if I can make it ahead of time and take to my parents :)

    I know it makes great leftovers. The flavors had had even more time to blend. ~Elise

  8. katy

    Priscilla: My meat-sauce method is to make the sauce a day in advance to let the flavor devlelop, and then reheat it and cook the pasta at the last minute, and mix them right before serving!

    Elise: This looks amazing! Also, I bet it’s important to use a big enough pan so that the meat doesn’t render so much liquid that it doens’t brown (which is always my mistake). Looks great!

  9. Brian

    Needs some shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and a glass of wine! Sooo hungry now.

  10. LiberalFoodie

    Have you tried it with Turkey? It’d be neat to see if it tastes the same. The picture looks devouring!

  11. Kathy Casey

    Looks d’lish. Do you have a favorite wheat-free pasta brand? I find that I prefer the quinoa over rice.

  12. Ramona

    I just found out that one of the bonuses of cooking in that old cast iron skillet is that it can increase the iron in your diet. Elise, your mom’s browning technique not only adds flavor but added nutrition, also.

  13. Cashew

    I just made this for dinner tonight, and everyone absolutely loved it! It’s going into the 90 day rotation. Thanks!

  14. Ginger

    For those looking for wheat/gluten free pastas, I like the Trader Joes brown rice pasta as it is one of the few reasonably priced GF pastas ($2). For non rice GF pasta, try Mrs Leepers brand. It is usually corn based and I find it very tasty!

    Elise, thanks so much for posting when your recipes are GF or easily converted! I use your food blog search engine all the time, it is a great tool.

  15. jonathan

    I second Brian on the Parmigiano Reggiano.

    The finished dish photo also appears to have left out a nice buttery, toasty slab of garlic bread.

    Not like I noticed or anything… ;-)

  16. chris p

    I have made this same dish for years and love it–I usually make it with boneless skinless chiken breast cut into cubes, sometimes throw in a handful of kalamata olives and serve with Parmigiano Reggiano–so easy and delicious!

  17. Cookie

    MANY years ago I interviewed the winners of our local newspaper’s recipe contest. The only one I remember was a grandmotherly type whose spaghetti sauce took a prize. The ingredients were nothing surprising — the usual suspects — but the secret? Browning the meat really well, almost crisp. And here it is again. Three cheers to Mom for a great recipe, to Dad who captured the details before they were lost, and to Elise for sharing it all in a delightful story. It’s our dinner tonight!

  18. Julie

    This turned out so well — hearty and flavorful! I added some zucchini and a splash of red wine. Many compliments from the boyfriend. There were only two of us so I cut the recipe in half, but it still made enough for four, as long as you’ve got some yummy bread alongside :-)

  19. Erin

    I made this for dinner last night, and my husband (a chef) loved it – he had two plates! I added 1 lb of mushrooms (quartered), and I used Barilla Plus Whole Wheat Penne (the only whole wheat pasta my husband will eat), and we topped it with fresh grated parmesan. I’m having the leftovers for lunch today!

    Because I added the mushrooms, the sauce was almost too chunky, so next time I may use regular marinara instead. I can’t wait to make it again!

    Elise, I LOVE your site – every recipe I’ve tried has been spot-on! It’s my first-stop-shop for food and recipe info.

  20. Stasha

    Delicious! I cooked this last night to rave reviews! Doubled the recipe, and glad I did, because I know I wouldn’t have had any leftovers after feeding three hungry men. Looking forward to having it for lunch.

  21. katie

    That’s exactly how my mother would do it… I’ve forgotten that trick – of browning very, very well over high heat. It adds so much flavor!

  22. merd

    I love to use a 1/2 lb hamburger and 1/2 lb ground Italian sausage mix (either sweet or spicy – you can use the link type, and just remove the casing) and to include one diced medium green pepper in with the onion. My Grandpa always grows his own tomatoes and cans them so I use the same recipe, even if I don’t use his personally canned tomatoes. Typically after they are cooked down and loosely stewed and diced up while cooking, I will have to add a 1/2-1 can of tomato paste to thicken it up slightly. I also like to add a hint of parmesan cheese into the mix while the sauce is simmering. You can wait until the end to sprinkle on top also, but I really like the way it incorporates into the sauce for aroma and flavor.

  23. Lori

    Elise – This was delicious. Everyone in my family loved it (not usually the case). The combination of herbs really gave this dish a wonderful flavor. Please thank your mom and dad for another recipe that is already one of my family’s favorites.

  24. April

    Isn’t it bad to use tomato-based sauces in cast iron? Or is that a myth? It looks like it turned out fine for you. :)

    In this recipe you use cast iron to brown the meat. Then you transfer the meat to another skillet with the tomato sauce. Regarding cooking tomatoes in cast iron in general, tomatoes are acidic and will possibly leach some of the iron from the pan. But iron is good for you, helps prevent anemia, so I personally wouldn’t have any problem cooking tomatoes in cast iron. ~Elise

  25. GC

    Great information; everyone cleaned their plate!

  26. Suki

    Made this for dinner last night and it was delicious. Thanks for the recipe!

  27. Christine

    My personal meat sauce method includes using the “meatloaf” mix ( also sometimes called “Italian” or “meatball” mix) of ground meat from the grocery store. It is a mix of ground beef, pork and veal. Delicious.

  28. Lauren

    I cheated and used a jar of Ragu (it was all I had in the house, but wow, in combination with the spices and meat, it was the best sauce I ever had!

  29. Amy

    I just made this for dinner tonight. I loved it. It has so much flavor. I am going to add this to my rotation!

    Elise, I get so much inspiration from your site. Thanks!

  30. caitlyn

    Thanks for the great recipe, Elise! We made this last Sunday and it was a hit!

  31. Lindsay

    Made this for dinner tonight. Had a jar of Emeril’s gaaaahhhlic spaghetti sauce that I have been saving for that *special* recipe, and this was it. This was a huge hit. Thanks Elise, your recipes are, as always, amazing.

    And I loved the browning in the cast iron skillet technique. Most recipes would have you brown the meat with the onions. This was very much worth the extra time and mess. The flavors were delicious!

  32. carknoll

    This is an excellent recipe. My family does not eat red meat so I made it with ground turkey. The turkey does not brown as well but still excellent. I added extra tomatoes and some red cooking wine. My 4 year old son LOVES it and so does the rest of my family.

    Thanks!

  33. Kathy

    When browning the meat in a stainless steel pan, (I don’t have a cast iron one) should I still salt the bottom of the pan? TIA

    Yes. ~Elise

  34. Wendy

    Very nice easy, delicious, rich meaty sauce. I didn’t have penne so I substituted with large shell pasta, it was great because the meat and sauce gets inside the shell and so every bite is yummy. Thanks Elise!

  35. Amy

    I made this last night for my husband & another couple. The other couple can be pretty picky eaters. Everyone loved it! Thank you so much for the recipe. I used 1/2 ground beef & 1/2 sausage, and added a red pepper that needed to be used up along with the onion. I’ll be making this again. :)

  36. Lisa

    I made this for a baby shower. I tripled the reciepe and EVERONE loved it. The sauce is so creamy too. I love the idea of chunking up the meat instead of breaking it down to nothing. I love it! Thanks for sharing.

  37. Kathy

    Elise.. I really liked how you started with a comment about some of the more picky eaters in your family. Reading through most of your recipes, and my stomach starting to really make noise, I still hesistate to try some things because my teenage kids have become horribly picky. Not that I base too much of my meal decisions around them anymore, but when I do think I have found something that will really appeal to them, and then they pick it apart with their comments, it can become quite depressing. So many of your moms recipes sound amazingly wonderful, and you sound so proud of your mom. (makes me envious!!) But, these comments will help keep me going in the quest to have such rave reviews of my renditions of your recipes. I’m starting with the “HMO” tonight!! Thanks Elise!!!

  38. Jane

    Hi Elise. I’ve been in your site since last year. All the things that I’ve tried here were the best. I am a Filipino,married to an American and this is my first time to give a comment. Every time I cook something, I always ask my husband to rate them 1-10 so I would know if I’m gonna keep the recipe and do it again next time and he gladly rated this recipe,10. I also tried the Pot Roast and he rated it 10 also. Tonight I’m gonna try the Pork Medallion with Mustard-Caper Sauce and I’ll let you know soon how its gonna come out. Thanks so much for sharing all the recipes Elise, you made me cook like a pro,Godbless :)

  39. Anne

    Wow!

    This is the first time at your site & both recipes I tried out worked perfectly! Wow! I Can Cook! I was just taught wrong originally but thanks to you Elise, there’s hope! :)

    I was craving an artichoke that I bought at the farmers market, but remembered that my mom boiled them & they were sometimes bitter. So I googled how to prepare an artichoke & there you were! I trimmed, steamed w/garlic in the water & voila! Sooo tender & yummo.

    And since I was on a roll I craved pasta to go with my artichoke & this recipe popped up. I didn’t have ground beef, so I substituted stewing beef, but the BEST TIP EVER was to have a screaming hot, salted, cast iron pan! I mean within a few seconds it didn’t smell like my normal cooking, it smelled like a restaurant cooking steak! I also added some vineripened small tomatos & portobello mushrooms. Devine!

    Merci BouCoup! Gratzi! & A Big Thank You!

    Signed,
    An extremely grateful invidual who’s never posted a comment on ANY recipe website EVER.

  40. Stefani Sarah

    Why oh why? Mine turned out a bit on the bland side. Could it be the tomato sauce? If so, the herbs don’t do anything particular then. Neither do the browning and not crowding the ground meat. :(

  41. Laur

    this is the 2nd dish i’ve tried and it was wonderful!!! i even used ground turkey and the flavor was still savory. i added mushrooms and shell pasta. i love muir glen tomato products… you can tell a rich difference. thanks elise… u’ve got this single 26yr old cookin!

  42. faeriehazel

    This has become a staple for us. It’s so easy to make and so satisfying to wolf down. :) I love your tip about browning the meat – I think it does make a noticeable difference.

  43. Shar

    This recipe is awesome. Browning the meat is a must.I also cheated and used a jar sauce but it was still great. For those who said it was bland be sure to season it to your own taste by adding a little of your own special house seasoning.

  44. Hawaiianguy

    I liked the dish a lot. I added a full pound of beef to the mix, I found it quite pleasing and it stretched the dollar much further for lunches and later on snacks. P.P.S. The parsley is a garnish!
    Ha ha ha. Sincerely~ your friendly college bachelor~ (who ate the Parsley)

    Hmm, you definitely do want to eat the parsley. It’s a “bitter” which heightens the flavor of the dish. It’s also great for digestion, so it’s good to eat. ~Elise

  45. Julia

    Just a quick question: can you freeze the meat sauce without adding pasta to it?
    thanks:)

    Yes. ~Elise

  46. Carol

    This was GREAT and EASY too! To me the secret is browning the little chunks of ground beef in batches so the chunks all get nicely browned and salted. I don’t have cast iron so used stainless on medium high. I used 1 can tomato sauce and 1 can diced tomatoes. Topped with fresh grated parmesan. This is definitely a new favorite!

  47. "M"

    This is a great quick and easy recipe, I added a twist like most above, but the base is what matters. To keep this meal warm and a no frill simmering, I combined the pasta and meat sauce within the slow cooker and sprinkled a little basil on top. This not only made easy for clean-up, this made getting seconds a snap without drying out the meal. I followed everything else to the “t” and added cheese sauce to the meat sauce.

  48. Morgan

    i made this for my boyfriend and one of our housemates tonight with “italian style” ground turkey and it was delicious! to help keep the turkey from going dry, i drizzled the meat with a little olive oil and let it soak in before breaking the meat up and putting it in the pan. i also added some mushrooms. it was a hit! =)

  49. Laura

    Amazing recipe! Just tried it…..Simply Delicious, thanks to you and your mom ^_-!

  50. Christine

    So this past Saturday, I decided I wanted to do a meat sauce with cellantani. I didn’t want to go with my boring sauce recipe so I went to the web to see if there was anything jazzier — of course this recipe came up as one of the first entries! I asked myself why I didn’t just come to your blog first… Thank you as ALWAYS for the easy, well written and YUMMY recipes!!

    When are you going to write a book? I can tell you it would be my go-to cookbook and would be well worn in a year….

  51. Sue

    This was very good. My family really liked it. I could not find chunky tomato sauce and used Muir Glen tomato puree instead. I think I would prefer a chunkier tomato taste. What should I substitute for chunky tomato sauce? I’ve never seen that before.

  52. Taryn

    I’m with Sue – my grocery aisle didn’t have cans of chunky tomato sauce in any brand (Muir Glen was around, but again, only in other tomato forms.) We opted for regular sauce, and I think I have some crushed tomatoes in the pantry. I saw that someone else used one can sauce, one can diced tomatoes. But what’s more critical – the thickness of the sauce or actual tomato chunks?

    You can use whatever tomato sauce you want, chunky or smooth. I think the type my mother prefers is chunky, but it works either way. ~Elise

  53. Heather Ann

    Added more than a dash of red pepper flakes…now a bit spicy….oh well…love your site you have inspired me to cook…made your shephard’s pie a couple days ago…it was fab! Next I want to make the civil war Mac n cheese. Thanks again!

  54. Mike

    …skinny-as-a-spatula 10-year old nephew. That phrase is just too good to let languish on a blog. I’m with Christine–when is the book coming out?

  55. Adrianne

    This was wonderful. I made it just as the recipe directed and it was a phenomenal hit. Definitely going into the recipe box. Thank you, Elise and Elise’s mom!

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