“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
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)
- 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
- 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.
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.
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!