Simple Italian-style Meat Sauce (gluten-free option)

What a doozy of a week – snow, subzero temperatures, icy roads, frozen hot water pipes (at my house at least!) – and I’m glad things are getting back to normal.  In light of all this, I thought I’d pick a recipe this week that would be the heart of a warming meal.  I went to Cooks Illustrated for inspiration (one of my favorite sources), and found what I was looking for in their recipe for Simple Italian-style Meat Sauce, from the March 2008 issue of the magazine (you can also find it on their website, but you have to subscribe for access – if you cook a lot, I feel that it is well worth it due to the sheer volume of tried and true recipes they offer).

While this recipe has many ingredients, there aren’t so many that it becomes unwieldy, and you use a food processor to do most of the prep work so it is pretty simple to make.  The recipe requires you to brown the mushrooms instead of the meat, which I thought was interesting.  Their theory is that the browned mushrooms enhance the flavor of the beef, and I agree with them.  I used local grass-fed ground beef from Matheson Farms, which is rich in flavor and is higher in Omega 3 fatty acids than beef raised on grain (which is what most cows are fed), so the mushrooms just enhanced the goodness even more!

I used a sweet onion (which is my preference – they taste good and are much easier on your eyes when you are cutting them) and local organic hardneck red garlic in the recipe (easy to peel and has a strong flavor).  You can use any kind of onion or garlic – it just depends on what flavors you prefer.  Since you have to either mince the garlic or crush it through a press, you could even opt to get the minced garlic cubes we sell in the frozen department (if you haven’t seen these new herbs from Dorot, they are really cool – frozen herbs pre-portioned so you don’t have any prep).

It only took me about an hour to make the sauce, including prep time and letting it simmer for a half hour, and it tasted like it had cooked for hours because the flavors meld together so well – someone even told me it was better than their grandma’s meat sauce!  I served it with a choice of Field Day Organics traditional penne pasta or Tinkyada organic brown rice spirals (my favorite brand for gluten-free pasta because it tastes great and has good texture).  I also used a slice of Rudy’s Gluten-free bread as a substitution to the original recipe’s call for a slice of high-quality white bread so the sauce would be gluten-free.

photo of meat sauce

Simple Italian Meat Sauce © 2012 Sassy Sampler

Simple Italian-style Meat Sauce

adapted from March 2008 issue of Cooks Illustrated
Makes enough for 2 pounds of pasta


  • 4 oz white mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed and broken into rough pieces (about 6 mushrooms)
  • 1 large slice of sandwich bread, torn into quarters
  • 2 T whole milk
  • Sea salt and ground black pepper
  • 1 # lean ground been
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped fine (about 1 1/2 c)
  • 4-6 garlic cloves, minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 2 T)
  • 1/4 t red pepper flakes
  • 1 T tomato paste
  • 1 (14.5 oz) can diced tomatoes, drained, 1/4 c liquid reserved
  • 1 T minced fresh oregano leaves or 1 t dried oregano
  • 1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
  • 1/2 oz grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/4 c)


  1. Process mushrooms in food processor until finely chopped, about eight 1-second pulses, scraping down the side of the bowl as needed; transfer to a medium bowl.
  2. Add bread, milk, 1/2 t sea salt, and 1/2 t pepper to empty food processor and process until a paste forms, about eight 1-second pulses.
  3. Add beef and pulse until the mixture is well combined, about six 1-second pulses.
  4. Heat oil in a large stainless saucepan* over medium-high heat until just smoking.  Add onion and mushrooms; cook, stirring frequently,  until vegetables are browned and dark bits form on the pan bottom, 6-12 minutes.
  5. Stir in the garlic, pepper flakes, and tomato paste; cook until fragrant and tomato paste starts to brown, about 1 minute.
  6. Add the 1/4 c reserved tomato liquid and 2 t fresh oregano (use the whole 1 t if using dried), scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits.
  7. Add meat mixture and cook, breaking meat into small pieces with your wooden spoon, until beef loses its raw color, 2-4 minutes, making sure that meat does not brown.
  8. Stir in crushed and drained diced tomatoes and bring to a simmer.  Reduce heat to low and gently simmer until sauce has thickened and flavors have blended, about 30 minutes.
  9. Stir in cheese and remaining teaspoon of fresh oregano (if using); season with salt and pepper to taste.

Leftover sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for 3 days or frozen for 1 month.

* non-stick cookware won’t work as well for this recipe, as you won’t get the delicious browned bits on the bottom of the pan.

Simple Italian-style Meat Sauce PDF

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