How to Make the Perfect Meatball

by Matt Moore on February 25, 2014 · 24 comments

in Cooking, Food & Drink, Travel & Leisure

meatballs 4 Intro.Cover Shot

“Utah! Get me TWO!”

That iconic quote from the cult classic film Point Break reiterates the fact that you can never stop with just one meatball. Savory, hearty, and oozing with goodness in every bite, a great meatball is no doubt one of my favorite culinary creations. Unfortunately, finding a great meatball these days is easier said than done.

The truth of the matter is that everybody has an opinion or two when it comes to making the perfect meatball. Much like a good slab of slow-smoked ribs or a steaming hot bowl of seafood gumbo, meatball recipes vary greatly from family to family. As such, creating the perfect meatball is often a subject of much debate.

My meatball recipe relies on a combination of tradition, technique, and simplicity. Whether served solo, atop freshly cooked pasta, or sandwiched between two slices of bread, my straightforward recipe and suggestions will ensure that your meatballs are always top-notch. Let’s get started on perfecting this classic!

Technique and Ingredients

meatballs 2 Raw Meatballs

1. To blend or not to blend. Easy answer – blend. I prefer a combination of 80/20 ground beef, blended with equal parts ground pork. Many other traditional recipes will also incorporate an equal portion of veal. Whatever your choice, blending together different cuts and proteins provides a richer, more complex flavor.

2. Bread and eggs are not used entirely for moisture, but rather to bind. Many recipes call for too much use of either, which results in a mushy, less flavorful texture. Proper technique will prevent over-cooked, dry meatballs. Bread and eggs will hold it all together.

3. Don’t skimp on the cheese. Parmigiano Reggiano cheese adds tons of nutty, savory flavors. Use finely ground (not grated) cheese to ensure an even distribution. Regular Parmesan works as well, if that’s what you have and can find at your grocer. If at all possible, though, avoid that “cheese” that comes in the green plastic containers.

4. Herbs are a must. Finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley is traditional, but I like to change it up from time to time. For example, I sub out parsley for basil in my venison meatballs – as the sweeter basil takes out some of the gaminess in the meat.

5. Use your hands to mix and shape your meatballs. I use all ten fingers to squeeze and knead the meat and ingredients together a few times, without overworking the meat – which can cause tough meatballs. And nobody wants tough meatballs. The trick is to create meatballs that just give to the pressure of a fork, without crumbling apart.

6. Size matters. Meatballs should be made a bit larger when served solo or in sandwiches. Medium, golf-ball-sized meatballs are best in pasta dishes. Football-sized, shock-and-awe meatballs are never necessary or appropriate. Yes, I’m speaking to you Guy Fieri. Lightly coat your hands in olive oil prior to shaping your meatballs to prevent them from sticking to your hands.

7. Brown meat is good meat. My recipe is a brown and braise method, which I believe turns out the most flavorful, moist meatballs. Some others prefer to brown under the broiler, while baking everything off to cook through. While that method is also good, I believe braising the meatballs in the sauce also adds much more flavor to the sauce. It’s a win-win in my opinion. Regardless of your choice, don’t skip out on the searing process. Meatballs without a browned, crispy crust lack flavor and tend to yield mushy results.

The Perfect Meatball + Sauce Recipe

(prep 20 mins, cook 1 hour, serves 4-6)

Meatball Ingredients

  • ½ lb. 80/20 ground beef
  • ½ lb. ground pork
  • ½ cup dry breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup finely chopped Italian flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 Tbsp. finely ground sweet onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 1 cup finely ground Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

Sauce Ingredients

  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Vidalia onion, finely minced
  • 3 carrots, grated
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 2 28 oz. cans Italian plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano variety

1. Prepare meatballs by combining all meatball ingredients, except oil, into a large mixing bowl. Using your hands, knead the meat mixture several times until the ingredients are evenly combined, careful not to overwork the meat. Clean and lightly oil hands. Next, shape the meatballs into golf-ball-sized portions, placing them onto a flat surface until no more meat mixture remains.

meatballs 1 browned meatballs

2. Preheat a Dutch oven over medium heat; add oil. Add meatballs into a single layer, careful not to overcrowd the pan, and working in batches if necessary. Brown the meatballs on all sides, about 2 minutes or so per side to form a brown crust. Remove meatballs to a plate to rest, repeating the browning procedure until no more meatballs remain.

3. After meatballs have all been browned, drain the excess grease from the Dutch oven and place it back onto the stove over medium-high heat. Add remaining oil, followed by the onions and carrots and sauté until just tender, about 8 minutes. Next add garlic, bay leaf, and season with salt and pepper. Use a wooden spoon to push ingredients towards the outer edges of the pot, creating a well in the center. Add tomato paste into the center, and “toast” the paste by stirring it every so often until it is slightly charred (this cooks out the tin-y flavor in the canned tomato paste). Deglaze the pot by adding the red wine and allow the liquid to reduce by half, about 5 minutes. Finish by hand-crushing the tomatoes and adding them, with their juices, into the pot. Allow the mixture to come to a slow simmer.

meatballs 3 Cooked Meatballs

4. Carefully add the browned meatballs back into the sauce to cook through. Allow the liquid to return to a slow simmer, cover and reduce heat to low, and allow the meatballs to cook for another 15-20 min. Serve.

Got some more tricks or special recipes? Share your secrets to making the perfect meatball in the comments below!

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tyler February 25, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Probably won’t be able to try it until the weekend, but this sounds too good not to try!

2 Gilbert February 25, 2014 at 6:34 pm

I’ve been practicing making a family favorite of my wife’s; Albondigas (gringo translation: meatball soup) and the secret ingredient for the meatballs is chopped mint.

3 Roberto February 25, 2014 at 7:51 pm

The meatball recipe is on point. Basically what I do expect I don’t use Worcestershire sauce and I coat the meatballs in flour then fry them before putting them in the sauce to finish.

The sauce recipe though, no fresh basil? smh, AoM.

4 Kieran February 25, 2014 at 9:27 pm

Good god that looks delicious.

5 Scott Sheridan February 25, 2014 at 10:16 pm

No! Do not fry at all – simmer in a pan with the sauce. Also, pork and veal blend works best.

Source: Italian wife

6 Mike R February 26, 2014 at 6:25 am

The parsley bit made me smile. My Italian grandpa who recently passed told me that was the secret to great meatballs (that and the cheese).

Very similar to a recipe I’ve developed over the years. I prefer my mix to have hot italian sausage instead of just ground pork (especially with the braise method for flavor). I also don’t use Worcestershire sauce.

I also like to leave about a 1/4 or 1/5 of my meat out to cook in a little beer (not traditional, but fantastic elements of flavor). Though I’m a craft beer drinker, you really need to use a beer similar to a yuengling so it compliments but doesn’t overpower the meat. I use maybe a 1/3rd a can and throw it in the pan.

7 Gary February 26, 2014 at 6:37 am

I agree that simmering the meatballs in the pan with the sauce is the best way to get all the flavours into the sauce – the meatballs should be soft, tender and deliciously meaty. It’s how my mum always made them ;9

8 Serafin Nunez February 26, 2014 at 7:16 am

Are the egg and cheese enough to bind this without using breadcrumbs? Trying to avoid the carbs and the gluten.

9 Matt Fitz February 26, 2014 at 7:30 am

Fantastic. I doubled up on the garlic and added a bit of black truffle oil to the sauce. Will make again.

Does anyone else think that that photo of the meatball and noodles looks like a Buddhist monk’s self-immolation? That’s what caught my eye and made me click on the article.

10 Clint February 26, 2014 at 8:30 am

Serafin I was wondering the same thing. Maybe almond flour to bind? Or would that make the flavor to nutty?

11 Nate February 26, 2014 at 10:34 am

Great stuff. I made meatballs over the weekend with some venison. Even more delicious than beef.

12 Mike R February 26, 2014 at 11:25 am

I’m not sure an acceptable non-bread crumb substitute. Breadcrumbs really aid in texture. My grandpa taught me to add extra herbs for texture and flavor as well (A lot of times I sneak basil in) and maybe some of what would work? Another trick is the more egg/oil you use the more bread you will need. If you use less of those, it should still bind, but the texture will be more in line with a hamburger

13 Chase February 26, 2014 at 11:53 am

My girlfriend is a great cook (She’s Italian) but the “Almighty Meat Ball” has never been one of her best recipes, nor many restaurants we go to. Hopefully, this recipe will correct that.

14 Johnny February 26, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Great looking meatballs. I’ll have to try this. Normally I use the recipe on the Meatball Throwdown with Bobby Flay. Not Flay’s meatball but the competitor.

15 Matt Johnson February 26, 2014 at 1:18 pm

Does anyone else find it very unmanly that most men still drink breast milk as adults?

It’s just not from their mom’s anymore, it’s from a cows. Big babies drinking mother’s milk… pathetic.

How about some vegan cooking posts? :]

16 The MaD HaCkER February 26, 2014 at 2:11 pm

To make a batch of meatballs all the same size roll the meat mix out flat in a kind of square on the counter and scour into cubes with the back of a knife or spatula and then roll each cube into a ball. All of them come out the same general size without playing the “this one is just a little larger than that one” Game ;)

17 TakomaMark February 26, 2014 at 3:17 pm

This looks like a really good Italian meatball recipe, but there’s a world of meatballs outside Italy.

18 Roy Lofquist February 26, 2014 at 8:45 pm

Meatball surprise: Form the meatballs around a medium sized stuffed green olive, pimiento or garlic.

19 ThomasD February 27, 2014 at 5:30 am

Rather than commercial breadcrumb try stale break, cut or broken into peas sized bits, then moistened with milk. It keeps the inside texture light but not uniformly so.

20 derfel cadarn February 28, 2014 at 5:49 am

Stated simply, if your venison tastes gamey it was improperly handled after the kill.

21 Scott Sideleau February 28, 2014 at 2:47 pm

I love meatballs. Bonus tip: try adding one or two raisins to the center of your meatballs for a unique flavor kick.

22 J.P. March 2, 2014 at 7:18 pm

too much pork…and when you are making sauce, put the meatballs in…not browned,raw…simmer all day and let the magic ever.

23 Todd March 6, 2014 at 4:18 pm

Cut the ground beef quantity in half and replace that half with ground lamb or veal and you have an incredibly moist and totally different tasting meatball!

24 Jeff March 20, 2014 at 10:44 am

Serafin- My Aunt does gluten free by replacing breadcrumbs with smashed up Rice Chex. Can kinda tell the difference but still tastes great.

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