When I get a craving for meatballs, I have a very specific meatball in mind: They're completely tender all the way through without even a hint of toughness. They're big enough to require a fork, but modest enough to justify several on the plate. Maybe some onions and fresh herbs mixed in ... maybe. Nothing fancy. Totally old-school.
Yes, this is a recipe for those very meatballs. More than a recipe — I'm walking you through each step, from mixing the meat (use your hands!) to shaping the meatballs to cooking them to perfection. I know what I'm having for dinner tonight. Do you?
I don't want to make anything too complicated here — meatballs are comfort food and should therefore be kept simple — but let me just touch on some basics:
How to Make Meatballs: Watch the Video
The Ground Meat
You can use any ground meat or mix of ground meat you like. My personal favorite is a blend of ground beef and pork. I've also done just ground beef and just pork. Ground lamb, turkey, chicken, veal, or buffalo are all also fair game.
Keep in mind that the fattier the meat you use, the more tender your meatballs, and vice versa if you use leaner meats. If you want to make meatballs with turkey, chicken, or lean ground meat (or a mix of these), watch the cooking a little more carefully; because they lack fat, they can overcook and become tough much more quickly.
Breadcrumb & Milk Binder
One trick to making sure meatballs are totally tender once they're cooked is to use a binder. Here, we're soaking breadcrumbs in a little milk until the bread becomes soggy, then mixing that right into the meat. This binder (aka panade) helps add moisture to the meatballs and also prevents the meat proteins from shrinking and becoming tough. (Eggs also contribute to tenderness, so don't skip them!)
If you don't have breadcrumbs handy, you can use panko, a slice of torn-up bread, or even crumbled saltine crackers. A little yogurt or buttermilk thinned with water also makes a handy stand-in for the milk.
Don't Overwork the Meat
Another trick to tender meatballs is not overworking the meat — mix the meat with the binder and other ingredients just until they're combined. I also recommend using your hands for this step; since you can actually feel when things are mixed, you're less likely to overwork the meat.
This said, I understand why the idea of squishing meat with your fingers might be a little disconcerting. If you prefer, you can use a stiff spatula or spoon instead.
Roasting vs. Simmering the Meatballs
Last but not least, we should talk about how to cook the meatballs! You have two options: roasting them or simmering them in a sauce.
Roasting is the best option if you're planning on serving the meatballs in something other than a sauce or if you're planning to freeze the meatballs for later. Roasting also gives the meatballs a little more flavor since the outside sears in the heat of the oven. You can roast the meatballs under the broiler for maximum browning and crispy-edged effect, or you can cook them more gently by roasting in a hot oven. Both options are described below.
If you're planning on serving the meatballs with a sauce, you can also cook the meatballs right along with the sauce. Not only does this gentle simmering make some of the most tender and most flavorful meatballs you've ever had, but the sauce also becomes richer and more savory in the process.
Ready to make some meatballs? I certainly hope so. Let's cook some dinner!
To make basic meatballs, you'll need 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs, 1 large egg, 1 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1/4 cup finely minced Italian parsley, 1 pound ground meat (such as beef, pork, turkey, chicken, or veal, or a mix), 1/2 cup finely chopped onion (or grated on a coarse grater) from 1 small yellow onion, and 1 clove garlic (finely minced).
How To Make Meatballs
Makes about 28 meatballs
What You Need
1/2 cup milk (whole, 2%, or skim)
1/2 cup fine breadcrumbs
1 large egg
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup finely minced Italian parsley
1 pound ground meat such as beef, pork, turkey, chicken, or veal, or a mix
1/2 cup finely chopped onion (or grated on a coarse grater) from 1 small yellow onion
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Small mixing bowl
Large mixing bowl
Combine the milk and breadcrumbs: Pour the milk over the breadcrumbs in a small bowl and set aside while preparing the rest of the meatball mix. The breadcrumbs will absorb the milk and become soggy.
Whisk the egg, salt, pepper, Parmesan, and parsley: Whisk the egg in a large bowl until blended. Whisk in the salt and a generous quantity of black pepper, then whisk in the Parmesan and parsley.
Combine the egg and ground meat: Add the meat to the egg mixture. Use your hands to thoroughly mix the egg into the ground meat.
Add the onions and soaked breadcrumbs: Add the onions, garlic, and soaked breadcrumbs to the meat. Mix them thoroughly into the meat with your fingers. Try not to overwork the meat; pinch the meat between your fingers rather than kneading it.
Form the meat into meat balls: Pinch off a piece of the meat mixture and gently roll between your hands to form 1 1/2-inch meatballs. Continue shaping until all the meat is used.
To roast the meatballs in the oven: Arrange the meatballs spaced slightly apart on a baking sheet. Cook under the broiler for 20 to 25 minutes or bake at 400°F for 25 to 30 minutes. (Watch closely if cooking meatballs made with lean meat.) The meatballs are done when cooked through and the outsides are browned, and when they register 165°F in the middle on an instant read thermometer. Serve immediately.
To cook the meatballs in sauce: Bring a marinara sauce or other pasta sauce to a simmer and add as many meatballs as will fit comfortably in the pan. Cover and simmer for 30 to 35 minutes. The meatballs are done when they're cooked through and register 165°F in the middle on an instant read thermometer. Serve immediately.
Doubling this recipe: This recipe can be doubled for larger crowds.
Storing leftover meatballs: Store leftover meatballs, either on their own or in a sauce, in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Reheat over low heat in a saucepan or in the microwave.
Make-ahead meatballs: Meatballs can be shaped and kept refrigerated up to a day ahead. Arrange them in a casserole dish or on a baking sheet, but don't squish together. Cover and refrigerate for up to 1 day.
Freezing uncooked meatballs: Prepare the meatballs through the shaping step. Arrange them spaced slightly apart on a parchment-lined baking sheet and freeze until solid. Transfer the meatballs to a freezer container or freezer bag, and freeze for up to 1 month. (Meatballs can be frozen for longer, but tend to develop freezer burn.) Thaw meatballs in the refrigerator overnight before cooking.
Freezing cooked meatballs: Let the cooked meatballs cool completely, then transfer to a freezer container or bag. Freeze for up to 2 months. Frozen meatballs can be thawed overnight or reheated directly from the freezer. Reheat meatballs in a simmering sauce for 10 to 15 minutes or in a warm oven for 10 to 15 minutes.
This piece has been updated — originally posted September 2015.
(Image credits: Leela Cyd; Faith Durand)