“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.