Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. Imagine having a pile of them flavored with fennel, red pepper, and oregano. Now imagine how happy you’ll be when they’re ready in half the usual time.

Ground fennel seeds lend these meatballs with a subtle licorice-like sweetness, making them reminiscent of Italian sausage. Use a spice grinder or mortar and pestle to grind the whole seeds to a powder, or if you’re able to find preground fennel seed at the store use an equal amount. You can, of course, serve the meatballs and spicy tomato sauce over pasta, or you can tuck the meatballs into toasted sub rolls lined with slices of provolone cheese, spoon some spicy tomato sauce over the top and finish with a sprinkle of grated Parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese. Don’t use ground beef that’s leaner than 85 percent or the meatballs will be dry and bland. When shaping the meat mixture, form it into firm, compact meatballs, not loosely packed orbs; this helps them hold together when pressure cooked. And don’t forget to refrigerate the meatballs for at least 15 minutes before cooking, as this helps them retain their shape.–Christopher Kimball

How do I keep my meatballs from drying out?

An Instant Pot virtually guarantees that your meatballs will come out juicy. But what if you don’t have one? Or if you just want to reheat the leftovers? The addition of milk, eggs, or bread crumbs all add more moisture as does a small amount of grated cheese. And always make sure that you’re using ground beef that’s no more than 85% lean, otherwise your meatballs will be dry and crumbly.

Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce stuffed inside an Italian roll.

Instant Pot Meatballs in Spicy Tomato Sauce

5 / 2 votes
Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce. Imagine having a pile of them flavored with fennel, red pepper, and oregano. Now imagine how happy you’ll be when they’re ready in half the usual time.
Servings4 servings
Calories362 kcal
Prep Time25 minutes
Cook Time50 minutes
Total Time1 hour 15 minutes


  • Instant Pot or pressure cooker


  • 1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs or panko
  • Two (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes drained, juices reserved
  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano
  • 2 teaspoons fennel seeds finely ground
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
  • 1 pound lean ground beef (85/15)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 stick (2 oz) salted butter
  • 3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons store-bought or homemade tomato paste
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
  • Grated Parmesan or pecorino Romano cheese to serve


  • In a large bowl, mix together the bread crumbs, 1/2 cup tomato juices, the oregano, fennel seeds, and garlic. Add the beef, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Mix with your hands until no streaks of breadcrumbs remain.

    ☞ TESTER TIP: To check that the seasoning is to your taste, fry up a tiny bit of the meatball mixture until cooked through and then taste.

  • Divvy the meatball mixture into 10 portions and form each into a compact ball about 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter, placing the meatballs on a large plate. Refrigerate for 15 minutes.
  • On a 6- or 8-quart Instant Pot or pressure cooker, select the Sauté function. Add the tomatoes and their remaining juices, the butter, and pepper flakes, then bring to a boil, stirring. Set the meatballs on top of the tomatoes in an even layer, gently pressing to submerge them.
  • Lock the lid in place and seal the pressure valve. Cook over high pressure for 3 minutes. When pressure cooking is complete, allow the pressure to reduce naturally for 10 minutes, then release the remaining steam by moving the pressure valve to Venting. Press Cancel, then carefully open the pot.
  • Using a slotted spoon, move the meatballs to a clean plate.
  • Select the Sauté function and bring the tomato mixture to a boil, using a potato masher to break up the tomatoes. Whisk in the tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, 8 to 12 minutes.
  • Taste and season with salt and black pepper. Add the basil and return the meatballs to the pot, then gently stir. Press Cancel to turn off the pot. Let stand until the meatballs are heated through, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.

Adapted From

Milk Street Fast and Slow

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Serving: 1 portionCalories: 362 kcalCarbohydrates: 26 gProtein: 26 gFat: 18 gSaturated Fat: 7 gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1 gMonounsaturated Fat: 8 gTrans Fat: 1 gCholesterol: 77 mgSodium: 801 mgPotassium: 1267 mgFiber: 6 gSugar: 11 gVitamin A: 859 IUVitamin C: 40 mgCalcium: 191 mgIron: 8 mg

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2020 Christopher Kimball. Photo © 2020 Connie Miller (CB Creatives). All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

Instant Pot Winner! Homemade meatballs in spicy tomato sauce in a little more than an hour. It’s a short time to wait for something that will taste like you worked on it for hours. I’ll definitely make this again and again and again. The meatballs were cooked to perfection and the sauce was delightful with a little bit of a kick.

There’s little prep to this recipe which contributes to the short time from start to finish. I was somewhat skeptical on the 1/2 stick of butter and thought that the butter along with the meatballs may create too much grease but that wasn’t the case. The spices and seasonings for the most part are in the meatballs. I think I would spread the love a little the next time I make this and put half of the oregano and fennel in the sauce.

I used my immersion blender to break up the tomatoes instead of using a potato masher. It was just easier for me to do it that way and probably quicker. I served these two ways, as a meatball sandwich and also with pasta. They were both delicious.

Making Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce is certainly an interesting concept, and this is sort of a one-pot-meal deal. The tomato sauce has a nice, subtle bite from the crushed red peppers and some richness from the butter. The meatballs are tender and luscious, but could be a bit more savory.

I toasted the fennel seeds before grinding them to enhance the flavor, however I think a little more garlic and adding some onion in the recipe would improve the meatballs. One will end up with a lot of sauce, so the next time I make this I will likely reduce the amount of canned tomatoes by 25%. I served the meatballs atop some roasted spaghetti squash, with a nice sprinkling of Parmesan Romano cheese.

Admittedly, I don’t make a lot of meatballs. That is largely because I think of them as a time consuming, somewhat fussy, weekend recipe with a lot of ingredients, prep and a long cook time to make them something special. I was intrigued by the idea of making them in my Instant Pot basically start to finish and I was pleased with the speed, ease and final product.

These Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce can be a weeknight winner with so few ingredients, very little prep, a fast cook time and minimal clean up. I complicated things with homemade pasta but a good dried pasta or hoagie for a meatball sandwich would fit the bill just fine!

I’m a sucker for meatballs. Having that word in a recipe’s title is usually a sure way to get my interest. This was no exception. The other attraction with this recipe was the cooking method. I like using my Instant Pot, and had never cooked meatballs in it before. However, what really sealed the deal, was the fact that the meatballs were supposed to be cooked in 3 minutes. Yeah. You read that correctly. I didn’t believe it, so I read, and reread the instructions more than once. I actually felt that it was probably a misprint, yet I was extremely interested in trying the method. And so, I did. And you know what? It did work.

A really positive aspect of this recipe is that you can have quite a good meal on the table in no time at all. Are you getting home late and have the urge for meatballs? Or, hungry but don’t have the time to make meatballs and spaghetti from scratch? After a short amount of time for prep, (during which you can cook the pasta if you want to serve it that way), if you have 3 minutes, (yeah you read that correctly, 3 minutes), you’ve got meatballs and pasta, or a meatball sandwich on your table. What more could you ask for? I can’t think of anything when it comes to Instant Pot meatballs in spicy tomato sauce.

About David Leite

David Leite has received three James Beard Awards for his writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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Recipe Rating


  1. 5 stars
    So good. Did it in my stove to pressure cooker and followed exactly as written . Easy and great over pasta. Pizza for the remaining meatballs.