Red Sauce Spaghetti and Chicken Thigh Meatballs

Wait, chicken thigh meatballs? You’re kidding, right? 

No. I’m not.

This is another in my series of “chicken thighs are a great stand in for other meats” recipes.  In this case, again, they’re standing in for pork.  Or maybe veal. Or both.  

Italian American Spaghetti and Meatballs is classic comfort food.  Usually a combination of meats – often pork, beef, and veal – slowly braised in a classic red sauce, they’re toothsome, and satisfying and just well, make me happy.  I make a big batch of meatballs about three times a year.  Most of them get poached (or occasionally deep fried), then baked, then vacuum sealed and frozen for later.  Then throughout the next few months they get pulled out, dropped into a Dutch oven full of red sauce, and slowly oven braise to perfection.  I love them.


I set out to make a chicken thigh version because, well, first of all that’s what I do. Secondly, not everyone can or wants to eat pork, beef or other of the traditional meats.

The end result is a lot like really old school veal meatballs.  Chicken, even the high collagen dark meat of chicken thighs doesn’t have some of the same deep flavor that beef adds.   Instead they produce tender, sometimes slightly bouncy meatballs that really bring the herb and aromatics forward.  It’s different, but no less delicious and no less satisfying.

This recipe calls for a few extra steps that really improve the quality of the end product.  I poach or deep fry my meatballs (chicken or otherwise) so that they remain round – this extra step eliminates the flat meatball, while still letting you get a good sear or oven browning later. It also means the final meatballs cook more evenly and look a lot better on the plate. 


After poaching, they get a quick trip through a very hot oven. This adds the deep browning that will really add flavor to the sauce later on.

Finally, they get a long open braise with the sauce. This deepens the flavor (and color) of the sauce, as well as slowly rendering the meat into unctuously tender meatballs that you can cut with a fork. 

It’s extra work. Sure. But it’s so worth it.

Chicken Thigh Meatballs with Old School Red Sauce

Recipe by DrewCourse: Boneless, italian, Oven Braised DishesCuisine: Italian AmericanDifficulty: Medium


Prep time


Cooking time


Resting TIme



Old school red sauce with chicken thigh meatballs.


  • Meatballs**
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (approx. 1 lb total)

  • 4 cups chicken stock

  • ½ cup toasted breadcrumbs

  • ¼ cup whole milk

  • ¼ cup grated parmesan cheese

  • 1 large egg

  • 4 cloves garlic

  • 1 medium onion

  • 1 tbsp chopped parsely

  • 1 tsp olive oil

  • 1 tsp fennel seed

  • 1 tsp red pepper flake

  • 1 tsp dried oregano

  • 1 tsp kosher salt

  • ½ tsp fresh rosemary leaves

  • ½ tsp fresh ground pepper

  • Old School Red Sauce
  • 2 12-13oz cans peeled diced tomatoes

  • 2 cups chicken stock

  • 1 can tomato paste

  • ½ cup red wine

  • 2 cloves garlic

  • 1 medium onion

  • 1 tbsp olive oil

  • 1 tsp dried basil

  • 1 tsp dried oregano

  • 1 tsp white sugar

  • 1 tsp kosher salt

  • 1 tsp dried red pepper flake (opt)


  • Meatballs
  • Peel, trim, and finely dice the onion.
  • Add 1 tsp oil to a pan over medium heat and cook onion until translucent.
  • Remove the onion from the heat and allow to cool.
  • Combine milk and breadcrumbs. Allow to rest while preparing the chicken mixture.
  • Peel, trim and mince the garlic.
  • Finely chop the rosemary leaves.
  • Cut the chicken into 1-2in pieces.
  • Add the chicken, onions, garlic, herbs, spices, 1 tsp salt, and ½ tsp pepper to the bowl of a food processor and process until the chicken is finely ground and almost smooth.
  • Crack and lightly beat the egg into the breadcrumb mixture. Using your hands, combine the chicken and egg and breadcrumb mixture until uniform and well mixed. Place mixture in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to hydrate and improve flavor.
  • Preheat your oven to 400° F
  • In a medium pot, bring four cups of chicken stock to a rapid simmer.
  • Retrieve the chicken mixture from the refrigerator.
  • Using wet hands, form balls of 2-3 inches from the chicken mixture. Working in batches, drop these balls into the simmering stock and allow to poach for several minutes or until just beginning to firm up.
  • Using a slotted spoon, remove the meatballs to a sheetpan lined with foil. Transfer to the middle rack of a hot oven and cook until the meatballs start to brown.
  • Remove and allow to cool before putting into the sauce to braise.
  • Old School Red Sauce
  • Preheat your oven to 350° F
  • Peel, trim, and finely dice the onion.
  • Peel, trim, and mince the garlic.
  • Add 1 tbsp olive oil to an oven proof pan or dutch oven over medium heat..
  • Add onions and cook until transparent.
  • Add garlic, oregano, salt, and red pepper and cook for 1 minute or until very fragrant.
  • Add red wine, tomato paste, tomatoes, and chicken stock.
  • Bring to a simmer, stirring to combine well.
  • Add meatballs to simmering sauce and return to a low simmer.
  • Transfer to the oven and cook uncovered for 2 hours or more, until the sauce has thickened.
  • To Finish
  • Cook spaghetti according to package directions.
  • Top with meatballs, sauce, and huge piles of freshly grated parmesan cheese.


  • Instead of poaching, then roasting, you can deep fry the meatballs until they begin to brown. Pan frying them will not keep the round shape.

Be sure to check out my other food project, The Weekly Menu!

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