This rich and hearty meat sauce, aka my version of Sunday sauce, simmers all day in the slow cooker. It’s made with Italian sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, and seasonings, and all of those flavors mix and meld while it simmers, creating the most amazing hearty pasta sauce. Plus, you can freeze the leftovers to have on hand the next time a pasta craving strikes.
Hearty Meat Sauce Recipe
If you’ve ever seen The Godfather, you might remember the scene when Peter Clemenza teaches Michael Corleone how to make his Sunday sauce. He holds up a big plate of browned meatballs and sausage and tosses them in a pot with tomatoes, tomato paste, a little wine, and a few pinches of sugar. The aroma practically wafts through the screen.
That was my introduction to this classic sauce, but it’s been around longer than The Godfather, of course. While it’s usually associated with Italian-American cuisine, its origins are firmly rooted in Italy. It’s a great way to use up leftover meat from the week, makes a large batch of sauce, and the scent while it simmers… don’t get me started. Once you twirl some pasta and Sunday sauce onto your fork, you’ll see what I mean. It’s comfort food heaven.
How to Make It
There are countless ways to make Sunday sauce – sometimes, it’s made with several kinds of meat like meatballs, sausage, and ribs, and some versions stick with just one kind of meat. Most, though, start as a bright tomato-based sauce with some kind of hearty meat that’s simmered and reduced for several hours. The long cooking time concentrates the flavors until you have a rich meat sauce, also known as a perfect sauce to make on a Sunday, hence the name.
My version uses the slow cooker for a more hands-off approach and combines ground beef and Italian sausage. Traditionally, the meat in Sunday sauce is browned first and cooked whole in the sauce. Before serving, the big pieces of meat are removed, and the pasta and sauce are served as a first course, and the meat is served as a second course.
I like to brown the beef and sausage first and then slice up the sausage before adding it to the sauce. That way, you can enjoy all of it – sauce, meat, and pasta – in one hearty course.
More Slow Cooker Recipes
Slow Cooker Sunday Sauce
If you love a meat sauce, you will love this slow cooker Sunday sauce. It combines beef and Italian sausage, simmered for hours in the slow cooker with tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, garlic, and seasonings. There is some prep work that needs to happen in the morning (about 30 to 40 minutes), so plan ahead. The meat is browned first on the stove, and then the veggies are sauteed in that same pan so they soak up the flavor. Once that’s done, it all goes in the slow cooker, and it’s hands off until it’s time to dig in.
- Prep Time: 45 minutes
- Cook Time: 6 hours
- Total Time: 6 hours 45 minutes
- Yield: approximately 12 cups of sauce 1x
- Category: Dinner
- Method: Slow Cooker
- Cuisine: Italian-American
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 pound ground beef (85% lean)
- 1 pound Italian sausage links (see note)
- 8 ounces white mushrooms, sliced (see note)
- 2 tablespoons minced garlic
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 large green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano (see note)
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried parsley
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
- 1 (28-ounce) can tomato puree
- 1 (29-ounce) can diced tomatoes
- 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
- Heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Add the ground beef and break it up as it cooks. Cook it for five or so minutes, just until it’s browned. Transfer the cooked beef to the slow cooker.
- In the same pan, brown the sausages over medium heat for about five minutes, turning them halfway through the cooking time (they won’t be completely cooked through – they will finish cooking in the slow cooker). Take them out of the pan and slice them into ½” pieces. Place them in the slow cooker with the ground beef.
- Now add the sliced mushrooms to the same pan and brown them for about five minutes. If there are any large slices, you can break them apart into smaller pieces as they cook. That way, you won’t have any large pieces in the sauce.
- Add the garlic, onions, and peppers to the pan and stir to combine. Cook the veggies for a couple of minutes until they start to soften.
- Add all the dried herbs, salt, and pepper to the cooked vegetables and stir. Transfer all of the veggies to the slow cooker.
- Add the tomato paste, tomato puree, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce to the slow cooker. Stir to combine all of the ingredients.
- Cover and cook the sauce on low for six to eight hours. Give it a good stir before serving it with your favorite pasta.
Prep time: For this recipe, the prep time includes preparing the ingredients (chopping, mincing, etc) plus the cooking time before everything goes into the slow cooker.
Italian sausage: You can use the same kind of sausage or mix it up. Try combining sweet Italian sausage with hot or mild Italian sausage. You can also use ground Italian sausage instead of links. Just make sure you use a total of one pound.
Mushrooms: You can use any mushrooms – I like cremini or other white mushrooms. Or use portobello mushrooms.
Herbs: If you don’t have the individual herbs on hand but have some Italian seasoning, you can use three tablespoons of that instead.
Pasta: This is a thick and hearty sauce that pairs well with several pasta shapes. I like spaghetti or bucatini, but penne, rotini, rigatoni, or cavatappi would work great, too. Keep the sauce warm in the slow cooker while you boil the pasta.
Storage tips: This sauce stores well in the refrigerator (3 to 4 days) or in the freezer (one to two months). I like to portion it out into containers that hold two to four servings so it’s easy to reheat.
Please see the post for more tips and variations!
- Serving Size: 1 cup
- Calories: 315
- Sugar: 10g
- Sodium: 590.2mg
- Fat: 20.5g
- Saturated Fat: 6.9g
- Unsaturated Fat: 11.8g
- Trans Fat: 0.3g
- Carbohydrates: 19.1g
- Fiber: 4.4g
- Protein: 16.3g
- Cholesterol: 54.4mg
Keywords: meat sauce recipe, slow cooker spaghetti meat sauce, Sunday sauce
The nutrition is an estimate only. It was calculated using Nutrifox, an online nutrition calculator.
Never Miss a Recipe!
More About the Ingredients
For this recipe, I like to use one pound total of mild Italian sausage and hot Italian sausage, but you do end up with some extra meat (I just pop it in the freezer to use later), so you can go with all hot or mild. It’s up to you!
It’s always good to make a recipe as written the first time (unless you like to live on the edge), but after that, feel free to get creative with the meat you add to your sauce – two pounds total is what you need. You could try meatballs, short ribs, spare ribs, or swap the sausage links for ground sausage. Just keep in mind the cooking time may vary, and don’t skip the browning step. It’s key in developing the best flavor.
If you’re not a mushroom fan, feel free to leave them out. You could add more diced bell peppers or other veggies like diced carrots. Oh, and about the peppers, any bell pepper will work, so if you prefer the sweeter ones (like red, orange, and yellow), use those instead. Or do a mix.
Maybe you’re wondering about red wine? I skipped it for this recipe because I don’t always have a bottle of red wine on hand. That said, if you feel a red sauce without wine is wrong, feel free to add a couple of splashes of dry red wine to your sauce before you cook it.
Oh, and the same goes for the garlic. Love it? Like, really love it? Add as much as you want! You could even do some roasted garlic cloves. When it comes to garlic, you should always measure it with your heart, friends.
I know we all want slow cooker recipes to be dump-and-stir affairs, but in the case of this Sunday gravy, we really do need to do some pre-cooking steps. When you brown the meat first (especially the sausage), it develops a delicious crust that adds depth of flavor to the sauce.
After you brown the meat, there will be some fat and delicious browned bits left in the pan. We don’t want to waste that, so that’s why I like to saute the veggies, too. They (especially the mushrooms) soak up all that deliciousness, making the sauce even better.
Remember, it’s called Sunday sauce for a reason – it takes a day to get it right.
This recipe was developed specifically for the slow cooker. When you first mix up all the ingredients, the sauce will be super thick. When you cover it and simmer it, moisture builds up in the slow cooker and thins the sauce to the perfect consistency once it’s done.
If you don’t have a slow cooker, you can cook it on the stove. I recommend cooking it very low and slow with a lid. Don’t keep the burner too high because the sauce will burn on the bottom of the pot – lower heat is better, and so is a good stir every so often. It’s less hands-off than the slow cooker, but the results will be just as delicious.
- I love this sauce with spaghetti or bucatini, but other long pasta shapes are great, too. If you want to use a short pasta, try penne, rigatoni, ziti, or cavatappi.
- Of course, I garnish it with some chopped fresh parsley, but sliced basil leaves would be good, too.
- Once you toss the pasta with the sauce, I like a generous topping of freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
- If you’re feeling extra (I see you), go ahead and make a batch of garlic toast to have on the side. You know you want to!