The Simple Trick for Tender, Juicy Meatballs

published Jun 6, 2022
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Baked turkey meatballs in a gray bowl, with a green linen napkin at the bottom.
Credit: Tara Holland

When making meatballs — whether with beef, turkey, or another meat — it’s essential to get the textural balance right. You want them firm enough so they don’t fall apart when cooking, while still keeping a tender, juicy texture. That is why it is key to use a binder or two. An egg is usually a good start, as that can help with the tenderness and texture, but the king of meatball binders is breadcrumbs soaked in milk (also known as a panade). 

Soaking the breadcrumbs first makes them pliable and soggy, which allows them to easily and evenly mix into the ground meat. The soaked breadcrumbs help keep the proteins in the meat from shrinking — usually the cause of tough meatballs — and the milk adds an additional bonus of moisture, which makes for nice, juicy meatballs. The milk also adds a pleasant acidity to meatballs. 

Milk had always been a go-to for soaking breadcrumbs for me, but a couple of years ago I was developing a meatball sub recipe that had a strict 12-ingredient limit. Once I added up all the ingredients in the meatballs alone, plus the hoagie buns, provolone cheese, marinara sauce, etc., I had too many ingredients — so I had to try and cut some corners. First, I tried soaking the breadcrumbs in water rather than milk (as water didn’t count towards the ingredient tally). Sadly, it yielded disappointing results in comparison to meatballs made with milk-soaked breadcrumbs. It just didn’t cut it for flavor, nor did it have the acidity that milk brought to the table. 

As I reluctantly returned to the drawing board, I had a eureka moment as I was grating the onion that was part of my meatball recipe (adding grated onion helps melt the onion into the meat mixture and cooks down quicker than finely chopped onion). Why not grate the onion and their juices into a bowl, add the breadcrumbs straight away, and soak them with the onion juices instead of with milk? I discovered that using a 50:50 ratio of onion and its juices to breadcrumbs not only moistens the breadcrumbs perfectly but also brings an extra punchy onion flavor and the acidity that was lacking in the water-soaked version. Needless to say, I no longer bother with milk. This happy accident has become my go-to trick for the juiciest, best meatballs.

And if I do want to add an extra touch of creaminess — and even more moistness — in addition to the breadcrumbs soaked with the onions, I also add half a cup of ricotta into the mix, just like I did when I made these baked turkey meatballs and air fryer meatballs.