Do you know how to make perfectly juicy, flavorful meatballs? No, it’s not simply a matter of forming ground meat into orbs frying them up, and calling it dinner.
There’s an art to making the perfect meatball: a combination of proper ingredients, preparation method and cooking technique.
We’ve assembled nine must-know tips for making perfect meatballs every time.
There’s also a simple but reliable recipe at the end of the post, so that you can put your newfound knowledge to work right away!
1. Use good quality meat.
Like with any recipe, the quality of your outcome depends on the quality of your ingredients. In the case of meatballs, meat is your primary ingredient, so it’s important to use the best quality that you can get your hands on.
Purchase your ground meat from a trusted source. Be sure to choose ground meat that is vibrantly pink or red (be wary of brown or gray spots).
2. Don’t forget the fat.
When it comes to meatballs, fat equals flavor. While it may be tempting to choose the leanest meat possible to keep the health quotient higher, you may sacrifice flavor and moisture.
Personally, I like to use a ground beef that contains about 25 percent fat (sometimes marketed as “75 percent lean”) for meatballs. Plain and simple.
If you prefer a leaner meat than that, you can amp up the flavor by adding just a bit of a higher-fat meat. For instance, you might use ¾ lbs. of lean meat and combine it with ¼ lbs. of a higher-fat meat . The higher-fat meat might be veal, or it could simply be a higher-fat version of the same type of meat.
3. Embrace seasoning.
Seasoning makes the difference between meatballs and mere balls of meat. Salt is absolutely vital; about 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat is a good rule of thumb.
But don’t stop at salt. Herbs can also contribute to the meatball’s overall deliciousness. Basil, oregano or parsley are all classic choices. For something a little different, try adding a touch of sage or rosemary. Choose spices that will be harmonious with the sauce or side dishes you’ll be serving with the meatballs.
4. Don’t be too much of an egghead.
Many people make the mistake of using a leaner meat and trying to compensate for the dryness by adding more egg. Wrong!
The egg actually acts more as a binder than as an arbiter of moisture. Its key job is to help everything stick together. As such, too much egg is not a good thing. It makes your meatballs sponge-like in texture, which can make them too absorbent, which can make them soggy and overly dense after simmering in sauce for a while.
So how much egg should you use? One to two eggs maximum per pound of meat.
5. Careful with those crumbs.
Breadcrumbs help give meatballs their texture and bulk. But don’t overdo it, otherwise you’ll be left with something that has a texture more like a matzoh ball than a meatball!
In most recipes, ¼ to ½ cup of breadcrumbs per pound of meat should suffice. Also, be sure to use bread crumbs that are fairly finely crumbled for the best texture.
6. Don’t over-mix.
In my opinion, “don’t over-mix” is one of the vague, maddening recipe instructions ever (and yet one that I’m guilty of using). But when it comes to meatballs, it’s an important instruction. If you mix the ingredients too thoroughly, it can keep meatballs from having the perfect texture.
So how do you keep them from becoming a mush, over-mixed mess? Use your hands or a wooden spoon to mix your ingredients together. Mix just until everything looks cohesive and evenly distributed, then stop fussing with the mixture. Over-mixing avoided.
7. Roll with care.
When rolling your meatballs, follow these two easy tips to ensure success:
Get your hands dirty
First, slightly wet your hands (or give them a little sheen with olive oil). This small layer of lubrication keeps the meatballs from sticking to you, which means they’ll stay as orbs and won’t have a craggy texture that can make them stick to the pan later.
Don’t roll the balls too tightly.
Light and easy is the key here. You want to roll the meatballs securely enough that they hold their shape, but don’t compress them. You want a little bit of air so that they can absorb your sauce and flavorings.
8. Take the time to brown ’em.
This is vital to meatball success: You must sear the meatballs. Briefly cooking the meatballs in a very hot pan forms a slight crust that simultaneously brings out the flavor of the meat and seals in moisture.
To clarify, this doesn’t mean you’re cooking the meat through. Simply place the meatballs in a searing hot pan and cook until browned on all sides, then remove from heat. They’ll finish cooking when you simmer them in sauce.
9. Don’t rush it.
Great meatballs should never be rushed. You can’t simply sear the meat, soak it in sauce, and call it done.
Once you’ve seared the meat and added it to your sauce, let the mixture slowly simmer for 20-30 minutes. You can even use a slow cooker set on the low setting to do this over a longer period of time. This effectively braises the meat and finishes the cooking, and it also allows them to soak in all of the delicious flavorings of your sauce and seasonings.
An easy meatball recipe
Put all of the above tips into action with this easy recipe.
Makes about 9 meatballs
- 1 pound ground beef (or a mixture of meats)
- ¼ cup breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1½ to 2 jars (25 ounces each) tomato sauce
- Spaghetti, for serving (optional)
In a large bowl, combine the beef, breadcrumbs, Parmesan, salt, basil, pepper, garlic, pepper flakes (if using) and egg. Mix with a wooden spoon or clean hands until everything is just combined and no streaks of a single ingredient remain.
Shape the mixture into about nine 2″ balls.
Place the olive oil in a 12″ skillet and heat to medium-high. Once the oil has heated, add the meatballs to the pan, making sure not to crowd them (if using a smaller pan, work in batches).
Cook until just lightly browned on all sides. You don’t have to worry about fully cooking the meat at this point; they will finish cooking in the next step. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Add the tomato sauce to the pan. Turn the heat back on low. Slowly simmer for 20-30 minutes, turning the meatballs occasionally.
Serve the meatballs solo, in sandwiches, or (my favorite) atop a big bowl of pasta.