Most Italian Americans, I know, grew up on spaghetti and meatballs. However, meatballs can sometimes be difficult to make because it is tough to get the texture and the seasonings just right. Often, they come out spongy or dry or dense.
Here are some of my tips for making good meatballs.
Some recipes call for beef and others call for pork. Some call for a mixture of beef and pork. Others call for beef, pork and veal. Then, there are the decisions about how much cheese, breadcrumbs and herbs to add or whether the meatballs should be cooked in the sauce or separately.
Meatballs need seasoning. As a rule, about 1 teaspoon of salt per pound will make for perfectly seasoned meat. Herbs are also important. Without them, your meatballs will end up tasting like a burger. Change the flavor a bit with herbs like mint, oregano and marjoram.
When using all beef to make meatballs, the meat should not be too lean. You need some fat for flavor, so buy ground beef that is labeled 75% lean. Another way to add flavor is to use part ground beef and part ground pork in the meatball mixture.
Eggs are not used for moisture. They are in the meatball mix to bind the meat, breadcrumbs, cheese and herbs together. For one to two pounds of meat, you won’t need more than one egg.
Be sure not to add too many bread crumbs–about a half cup per pound of meat will be enough.
Put all the ingredients into a bowl at once and use your hands to mix them. The light touch of your hands incorporates all of the ingredients without crushing the meat.
Depending on how you’ll serve the meatballs, you should roll them to the size appropriate for the dish. In soup, for instance, you’ll want small, bite-sized meatballs. If they’re on top of spaghetti, make them medium. If they are the main course, make them 2 inches in diameter.
If you roll meatballs with dry hands, the meat mixture will stick to your skin. To remedy this, wet your hands with water.
I never fry meatballs to keep them healthy. Baking or broiling work just fine.
Here is my basic formula for meatballs:
- 1 pound ground meat (pork, beef, veal, chicken, turkey or a combination)
- 1/2 cup plain dried bread crumbs
- 1 large egg
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 finely minced garlic clove
- 1/4 cup minced fresh parsley
- 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil
Preheat the broiler or heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a rimmed cookie sheet.
Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl. With wet hands form into 12 equal sized meatballs. (Use an ice cream scoop to make them uniform in size.)
Place the meatballs on the prepared pan and broil 5 minutes each side or until completely brown. Or bake the meatballs in the oven for about 25 minutes.
If I am making the meatballs to go with spaghetti, then I simmer them in the sauce for the last hour of cooking.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 leeks, white and pale green parts, chopped
- 1/2 pound cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 2 cups pearl barley
- 8 cups chicken broth
- 1 pound ground chicken
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 1/4 cup plain dried bread crumbs
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed fennel seed
- 2 tablespoons minced flat-leaf parsley, plus 1/2 cup chopped parsley for garnish
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
To make the soup:
In a large, heavy pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the leeks and garlic and saute until very soft, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring often, until they begin to soften, about 5 minutes.
Add the tomato paste and wine, stir to combine and cook for 4 minutes. Add the barley and the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer until the barley is tender, about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375°F. Oil a rimmed cookie sheet.
To make the meatballs:
In a mixing bowl, combine the chicken, Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, the 2 tablespoons parsley and tomato paste. Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper and mix with your hands. The mixture will be very sticky.
To form the meatballs:
Use two small spoons or a small ice cream/melon scoop to form small (1 inch) meatballs. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until the meatballs are cooked through and no longer pink in the center, about 10-12 minutes.
Add the meatballs to the soup and stir in gently. Serve the soup garnished with the 1/2 cup parsley.
Italian Meatball Stew
My mother made this often when I was growing up and I made it for my children when they were young. This dish is popular with kids if you find the right combination of vegetables that appeal to them.
- Basic Meatball recipe above, cooked
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 2 medium carrots, diced
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- Large baking potato, peeled and diced
- 4 ounces green beans, trimmed, cut into 1-inch-long pieces or the equivalent frozen
- 26-28 oz. container crushed Italian tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and saute the onion, carrot and garlic until softened. Add the potato, green beans, tomatoes and seasonings.
Bring to a low boil, reduce heat and cook mixture until the potatoes and beans are tender.
Gently stir in meatballs and heat until the meatballs are hot and the mixture has thickened slightly.
Meatballs Stuffed With Mozzarella Cheese
This makes a great entrée with a salad and Italian bread. If you make them smaller, they are very good as an appetizer.
- Double batch of the Basic Meatball recipe, above
- 1/2 lb fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/2 inch cubes or mini fresh mozzarella cheese balls called pearls
- 3 cups store-bought marinara sauce or homemade spaghetti sauce
Heat the oven to 450°F. Line a 15 x 10 inch baking pan with parchment paper; set aside.
Form meatball mixture into 2″ balls.
Press a cheese cube or ball in the middle and seal the meat around it.
Bake 12-15 minutes or until lightly brown all over. Place in a large serving bowl.
Heat marinara sauce and pour over the meatballs in the serving bowl.
Italian-American Meatball Lasagna
This is another favorite from my childhood days that my children and husband are also crazy about.
- One recipe of basic meatballs from above
- 12 traditional lasagna noodles
- 4 cups homemade or store-bought marinara sauce
- 1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, finely chopped
- Two 15 ounce containers ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup grated Parmesan, divided
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
- 1 lb mozzarella cheese, sliced thin
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Oil a rimmed cookie sheet.
In a large bowl, combine the meatball mixture. With wet hands, shape into mini meatballs, using 2 teaspoons of mixture for each. Place the meatballs on the prepared cookie sheet and bake until brown all over, about 15 minutes.
To make the lasagna:
Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boiling. Add noodles to the boiling water one at a time and cook for 10 minutes. Drain and place the noodles on kitchen towels.
Stir the chopped basil into the marinara sauce. Reserve 1 cup of the sauce for the top layer.
In a medium bowl, blend ricotta, egg, parsley and ¼ cup of the Parmesan cheese.
To assemble the lasagna:
Spread 1 cup marinara sauce in the bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2-inch baking dish. Top with 4 noodles, overlapping. Layer half of the mozzarella slices on top of the noodles, followed by half the ricotta cheese. Spread the ricotta with a spatula. Scatter half the meatballs over the noodles. Pour half 1 cup of the marinara sauce over the meatballs.
Top with 4 more noodles and layer with the remaining mozzarella and ricotta cheese. Scatter remaining meatballs over the cheese. Pour 1 cup marinara sauce over meatballs.
Top with the final 4 lasagna noodles. Spread with the reserved 1 cup of sauce. Top with the remaining Parmesan. Cover the dish with foil.
Bake at 350 degrees F for 45 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes until bubbly and slightly browned. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.