Unlock the mysteries of meatballs for me please
January 28, 2010 6:42 AM   Subscribe

What is the secret of really great meatballs?

Two nearby restaurants make great ones, my mom makes great ones -- mine are just okay.

I would describe the characteristics of 'great' as: very light texture, seems to be a finer grind than what I wind up with. When you cut them they don't really crumble, you can slice them with a fork and it's pretty smooth -- they don't break off into little bits of hamburger. They are extremely moist and have the quality of having absorbed the sauce. They're very well-integrated into the whole dish.

I know at least one of restaurants in question cooks theirs in sauce for a day or more, my mother cooks hers in the sauce for at least a few hours. Neither one of them uses meat other than beef (one of the restaurants I mention might, but I can't tell) and my parents have never, and would never consider, grinding their own meat.

What I've been doing: ground beef, 85% lean, bread crumbs, egg, parsley, salt and pepper. Brown on all sides, then simmer in sauce.

So--enlighten me. What makes great meatballs? What kind of beef, what fat percentage, cooking methods, etc.

Is there like a secret society of great meatball makers somewhere?
posted by A Terrible Llama to Food & Drink (44 answers total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Buy quality cuts of meat and grind them at home. If you don't have a meat grinder, find a butcher who will grind a sirloin for you right when you buy it.

posted by InsanePenguin at 6:48 AM on January 28, 2010

Somehow skipped the part of your question where your parents don't grind their own. May I suggest that instead of trying so hard to copy your mom's meatballs, you try other ways to make your own fantastic meatballs? I would start by grinding your own! Other then that, low and slow is the way to go and it's all in the sauce. Don't make them huge or the sauce won't absorb very far into the meatballs. I think my mom used to let the ground beef soak in a marinade before actually forming them, but I'd have to ask her to be sure.
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:51 AM on January 28, 2010

I find that using half ground beef (80/20) and half ground pork really helps meatball taste and texture. Additionally, I add a little half and half to the mixture.
posted by paperzach at 6:54 AM on January 28, 2010

I am pretty sure my mom makes the best meatballs in the world*, and she uses a mix of veal, pork, and beef. Though these are of the Swedish variety, and don't require sauce, so I'm not sure it will help much, except that the mix of meats makes for great flavor!

* - my world, at least
posted by Grither at 6:54 AM on January 28, 2010

Best answer: The way to keep well-done beef really moist is to use a panade which is bread soaked in milk. There's really cool science behind it if you google it (sorry I'm on my phone or I would link) and there are lots of recipes out there that use it. The meat stays tender and moist.
posted by Kimberly at 6:55 AM on January 28, 2010 [7 favorites]

Try adding milk to your bread crumbs then add in the eggs, followed by the meat and seasonings. This keeps mine from getting too crumbly.

A word on bread crumbs: You're not using the crap from the can are you? Make 4-5 slices of toast and them run them through your food processor or cut them up to the size of large croutons. It makes a world of difference.

This recipe is similar to mine except they cook the meat in the oven and only add back to the sauce for 15 minutes. Probably healthier, but I enjoy frying the meatballs and giving them a long soak in the sauce.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 6:56 AM on January 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

You sound pretty close. Here is the official, Mrs. HotBot's Mom, straight off the boat recipie

1 lb ground meat
Equal amount by volume stale Italian bread, soaked in water
1/2 cup Romano cheese
2 eggs
2tbs finely chopped parsley

Squeeze all the water out of the bread, then mix ingredients. Form into balls and brown on all sides in canola oil. Don't fuss with the meatballs as they cook.

I actually make it with about 1/3 a cup of bread crumbs, soaked in water. My mother in law can tell the difference when I make it with bread crumbs or with stale Italian bread, but my wife and I can not. So the differences I see are: the cheese and soaking the bread crumbs in water.
posted by shothotbot at 6:56 AM on January 28, 2010 [4 favorites]

Neither one of them uses meat other than beef

Man, I really wish I could think of everything to put in one post. Ah, well. C'est la vie.

Beef can mean so many different things! A sirloin is very different from a rib, is different from chuck (what most ground beef is,) is different than a tenderloin. Let's not even get into brisket and flank!

I love you, yummy, yummy cows. You are my everything. What's that noise?! OH NO! The girlfriend is home, hide the beef websites!
posted by InsanePenguin at 6:58 AM on January 28, 2010

Adding some ricotta cheese to the mix is great for both lightness and flavor. And I think using at least some pork makes for a tastier meatball. I usually improvise, but the absolute best recipe I've found is this one, from A16 in SF--all pork, cooked in the oven.
posted by neroli at 6:59 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Alton Brown swears by baking the meatballs (in mini muffin tins to allow fat to drain) and adding them to the sauce relatively late -- I have not tried this, but his reasoning seamed sound). You might also get some mileage out of experimenting with the meat -- adding pork and/or lamb might give you a smoother texture.

My own experiences with meatballs have mainly been with turkey and chicken. I find that thigh meat, ground in the food processor (with a few flavorings added), makes for a smoother meatball than using meat pre-ground at the store, so I will nth the "grind at home" suggestion -- outside of having a food processor to clean, there is no downside, and it will probably save you money as well as mildly reducing the chance of food-borne illness.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:59 AM on January 28, 2010

Response by poster: You're not using the crap from the can are you?

I spaced on this -- I think I used breadcrumbs (crap brand breadcrumbs) once and a panade once -- no real difference, but I think I might have the proportions wrong.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:59 AM on January 28, 2010

Plain ol' grocery store ground beef is fine. As fatty as you can get it, 85% sounds right. Probably don't want to overmix, maybe? Just combine the stuff, doesn't have to be super perfect. The best 'balls are the ones that cook in the fat of the italian sausages you cooked them in before. You are cooking sausages before you cook your balls, right?

Meatball fail comes around when people add too much breadcrumbs or add too much 'fancy spices'. Meatballs are not supposed to be spicy, they're supposed to taste like beef.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 7:00 AM on January 28, 2010

I had the best meatballs of my life recently at my in-laws and I was told: 1/3 ground young lamb, 2/3 ground beef, and then mix in some foie gras.
posted by creasy boy at 7:03 AM on January 28, 2010

Milk is a key ingredient. My aunt makes delicious meatballs with the texture you describe, and I believe she uses 1/4 cup of milk (ideally whole fat) per pound of meat. I like to soak my torn up stale bread in the milk before adding it to the meat, but I'm pretty sure my aunt uses store bought bread crumbs (gasp!) and her meatballs are a little bit better than mine. She also just uses 85% ground beef.
posted by katie at 7:07 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Came in here to mention the cheese, parsley, and fresh soaked breadcrumbs. My 100% Italian babysitter taught me how to make her amazing meatballs, and her recipe includes those items.

of course, mine never taste like hers
posted by yawper at 7:07 AM on January 28, 2010

I love my meatballs.

1/3 beef
1/3 pork
1/3 veal (With apologies to any Christians reading this, this is the real Holy Trinity.)
grated parmesan reggiano
chopped onion
chopped garlic
bit of Worcestershire sauce
bit of fish sauce (I know, I know. Just try it.)

As for as proportions go, I pretty much just eyeball it, so I'm afraid I can't be of more help there. Mix all the dairy and seasonings together first, add the meat last. Let the mixture sit in the refrigerator for a couple hours if possible. After forming the balls, roll them in additional breadcrumbs; it forms a crust that helps retain juices while baking. Yes, baking. I use the previously mentioned Alton Brown method of baking them in a mini-muffin tray, then adding them to the sauce.

I love my meatballs.
posted by gettingpaidforthis at 7:22 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Three things off the top of my head:

1. breadcrumbs soaked in milk. I use ripped-up pitta bread soaked in milk for about 10 minutes before I start adding the rest of the ingredients

2. a *lot* of mixing before you start shaping. I throw my mixture in a stand mixer on low for about 5 minutes. I think this gives you a homogeneous, spongy inside

3. brown the outside on maximum heat, for the minimum amount of time necessary to get some colour on them. Most of the cooking happens in the sauce.

I learned all these things from this recipe, but I bet they apply to beef meatballs too.
posted by primer_dimer at 7:25 AM on January 28, 2010

I am pretty sure my mom makes the best meatballs in the world*, and she uses a mix of veal, pork, and beef.

This is the secret recipe of all the Italian grandmas in my neighborhood, too.
posted by desuetude at 7:25 AM on January 28, 2010

I learned to make fantastic meatballs from my very Italian boss. Key ingredients were pretty much as everyone has described (mix beef with veal and/or pork, milk, egg, crumbs, parsley, romano).

The thing that really rounded out the flavour was mint

These meatballs were baked, so they had fabulous consistency. They kept together because of the firm outside, but remained juicy and soft on the inside.
posted by sunshinesky at 7:25 AM on January 28, 2010

nthing beef, veal and pork. That's how my nonna, my mom and my wife the chef all make them. Brown them.
posted by fixedgear at 7:32 AM on January 28, 2010

My suggestion is to use ground chuck or sirloin - ground beef dries out far too easily (since crushed ice is usually ground in to give the meat extra weight).

I also start my meatball making by adding 2 teaspoons of plain (unflavored) gelatin to 1/2 a cup of chicken broth/stock (or you can do this with whatever liquids you are basing on your sauce upon) and letting it soak for five minutes. Then mix in the ground meat - the gelatin makes the meatballs super succulent and able to absorb even more flavors from the sauce.

I also like to brown my meatballs in bacon fat...

(My mother always used balsamic vinegar and grape jelly as the base for her sauce - this was for swedish-styled meatballs not for anything going in a red sauce...)
posted by cinemafiend at 7:37 AM on January 28, 2010

I use almost roughly the ingredients as gettingpaidforthis -- including the fish sauce. However, I never use parsley (I think it's kind of an insipid green) and instead substitute whatever fresh herbage I have lying around. Rosemary, thyme, mint, basil, lemon verbena... any will do nicely. Additionally, I do not bake the meatballs. I pan-fry them in a little olive oil for color and texture, then finish them in whatever sauce I have for them.
posted by mr. remy at 7:41 AM on January 28, 2010

One more thing. Don't pack the meat too tightly: it'll dry out/toughen up the balls. Just pat it into balls until the balls loosely -- loosely -- hangs together. The egg will make the balls pretty rough-and-ready. When you have finished, make sure to check that the ball sizes are consistent. Pull a little mixture off the largest ball and stick it on the smallest ball, a little less from the second-largest ball and put it on the second smallest... etc. etc. Consistency of ball-size is a major factor, and contributes to an enjoyable ball eating. There's nothing worse than the presentation of visibly uneven balls.
posted by mr. remy at 7:47 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Carol Blymire (of FL at home and Alinea at home) started a blog about meatballs. Looks like she hasn't updated recently but I've made a recipe based on hers there (which includes the milk+breadcrumbs mentioned above) and they were great
posted by sanko at 7:48 AM on January 28, 2010

I always grate an onion (on the tiny side of the cheese grater) and use a couple spoonfuls of the onion juice/goop in my hamburgers and meatballs. Really tasty.
posted by phunniemee at 8:04 AM on January 28, 2010

I agree on the milk+bread tips above, but in addition to that, I'll let you in on this: My Italian mom swears that the secret to a lighter, fluffier texture is letting the meatball mixture sit (in the fridge, of course) for several hours, preferably over night, before forming and cooking the meatballs. And she's pretty much always right.
posted by ferociouskitty at 8:21 AM on January 28, 2010

Agreed with these points that have already been made above:

1) Use a mix of meat that includes veal and pork. I think this helps with the texture of the grind -- it seems finer. I usually do 1/3 ground chuck, 1/3 ground veal, 1/3 ground pork (I think this is a pretty standard Italian grandma mix).
2) Use torn up stale bread that has been soaked in milk. I think this is the most important thing for making sure meatballs are light and tender. I don't tear up the bread into too small pieces; in fact, in the raw product, you should be able to see a couple large-ish spots of bread in each ball.
3) Don't overmix and don't pack the meat too tightly. This is more of a feel thing, though, and I suspect there's a good amount of leeway.

As for other ingredients, I use egg, a mix of parmesan and romano cheese, and whatever herbs I've got (usually Italian parsley and a small amount of thyme). Sometimes I add grated onion, like phunniemee does, and that's nice. I prefer browning the meatballs in some olive oil then finishing the cooking in the sauce.

I want to try cinemafiend's suggestion of gelatin (maybe instead of regular gelatin, adding a bit of a really good beef demi-glace or glace de viande) and gettingpaidforthis's suggestion of fish sauce (for the umami oomph)!
posted by odin53 at 8:25 AM on January 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I once accidentally added twice the amount of parmesan called for (I think I was using Mark Bittman's recipe from How to Cook Everything) and they were by far the best meatballs I've ever made.

I also use breadcrumbs soaked in milk, and usually I broil/bake them for 15-20 minutes before adding them to the sauce,
posted by raxast at 8:30 AM on January 28, 2010

One word: venison.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:42 AM on January 28, 2010

Yeah, seconding what raxast says. Mr. WanKenobi is allergic to eggs, among other things, but my eggless cheesy meatballs always hold together fairly well and are really tender.

Cheese makes everything better.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:52 AM on January 28, 2010

My girlfriend makes awesome meatballs. The secret, according to her, is to use the best you can get of everything. She doesn't go so far as to grind the meat herself, but we get our meat at Whole Foods. Half ground sirloin, half mild Italian pork sausage. The bread should be artisanal French or Italian bread and free of added sugar; she actually bakes her own bread. Don't overseason; most of the spice will come from the sausage.
posted by kindall at 8:59 AM on January 28, 2010

It's unorthodox, but try adding some Goya Sazon. It's basically a packet of spicy MSG. You can also use beef bouillon or the flavoring packet from beef ramen, which are basically just beef-flavored MSG. Adding MSG to savory things is a cheap and unfair way to make them taste better, because you're pretty much just adding in something that will make people chemically addicted to your food. Experienced cooks I know scorn the tactic, but man, it works.
posted by painquale at 9:31 AM on January 28, 2010

Just to pile on what everyone else has pretty much said:
-make sure your meat has a good amount of fat - I use ground chuck mixed w/ pork butt.
-panade (just dunk some white bread in milk), egg, herbs (parsley, oregano, marjoram, whatever you've got), salt, pepper. lemon zest is a great touch.
-here's the trick - don't over work the mix, and don't over-pack the meatballs. toss them from hand to hand until they just come together.
-bake on a sheet pan to get them to hold together.
-finish in sauce.
posted by Gilbert at 10:07 AM on January 28, 2010

Odin53 (I think) was the only one to hit upon what I suspect is your issue - don't over mix!

Also, don't pack too tight

I'm sorry. I can't remember the science behind this, but I do remember the angry french men in the white hats admonishing me about this during certain levels in culinary school.

FWIW - I think you might find success by tweaking your technique. And by this I mean you should gently mix by hand, yes use a panade/milk soaked bread, and pack gently.

Take a small ball and fry up - test for seasoning before forming balls.

We sear the balls in batches and then simmer in sauce. This technique is always GOLD, no matter the flavors/recipe/meat.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 10:21 AM on January 28, 2010

The secret is to touch the meatballs the least possible amount. This is what gets you the great light texture (Note: this is also the secret to hamburgers).

Also, I always brown my meatballs before sticking them in the sauce.
posted by shownomercy at 10:24 AM on January 28, 2010

The tastiest meatballs I've had involved a mix of beef and pork, bread crumbs soaked in *cream*, egg, parmesan, salt, pepper, parsley and lemon zest. Now that I think of it, there may have been some garlic in there as well. The touch of lemon zest really added a nice component to the taste.

Fry in olive oil (or maybe it was a mix of olive and canola or something) until cooked (they'll start to brown before they are cooked). But now I'm wondering how they'd taste baked in the oven, since frying can be labor intensive/messy.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 10:43 AM on January 28, 2010

A few tips:

1. If you are using onions, chop them to a fine dice or finer (or grate them)
2. Do use bread soaked in milk instead of breadcrumbs. Cooked rice works too.
3. A pinch of baking soda helps with fluffiness.
4. Don't overmix the ingredients.
5. Saute the aromatics (until soft) before adding to the meat.
6. Use fresh herbs.
7. Eggs, cream, milk, all help.
8. Do not use meat that is too lean. A mix of beef, pork, etc is better than just beef.
9. If mixing by hand, make sure your hands are wet.
10. You can brown them in a pan on the stovetop first and they'll hold together better.
posted by AceRock at 11:04 AM on January 28, 2010

"Hello, Ma? It's me. Ya know, your meatballs are the best ever. I just love 'em! And I wanna learn how to make them just like you do. Can I come over and watch everything you do?" (Bring pencil and paper, or (better) video cam. Post results on web. Link from this page.)
posted by exphysicist345 at 5:05 PM on January 28, 2010

My mom's meatballs have most of your good qualities, I think.

Pretty much the same ingredients, perhaps a bit of milk, maybe some oregano. But! She mixes everything together in the food processor and uses stale white bread instead of bread crumbs. The food processor makes for a nice smooth texture, and relatively loose balling makes them more absorbent.

She then cooks them in the sauce for a while. And then recooks them in the sauce when the leftovers are eaten the following week. And my mom is only person I know of who doesn't use any sugar in her sauce.
posted by that girl at 5:17 PM on January 28, 2010

Moisture. Add milk, broth or cream.
posted by theora55 at 5:25 PM on January 28, 2010

Sausage. Raw, bulk sausage. 2 parts ground beef to 1 part sausage. Lots of parmesan, panko (Japanese style bread crumbs) or toast and make your own, mixed with less than one egg. Too much egg makes them too wet, and more likely to crumble, in my experience. Add basil, oregano, minced garlic, salt, and pepper. Finely minced onion is also worth tossing in. Brown well, in batches, drain, and add to sauce.

I like to reuse the sauce as a lasagna sauce, too. In essence, it's the same sauce, just crushing up the meatballs.
posted by Ghidorah at 6:17 PM on January 28, 2010

I am late to this thread, and there's a lot of good advice, specifically don't handle the meat a lot, but one thing I caught in the OP's question that I don't think anyone else recommended was this:

To get that velvety, cut-with-a-fork-sans-crumbling texture, believe it or not, I've found that a chili grind (which is counterintuitively, a coarser grind) works like a charm. I don't know if you want to go to the extra step, but what I do when I make any ground beef product is start with buying a slab of beef and then ask the guy at the butcher counter for a chili grind.

Also, knowing what is done to bulk packaged (especially cheap packaged) ground meat these days, I prefer to have the grind done at the store. Most grocery stores will happily do this for you, and even if it costs a bit more, it's considerably better quality than even the costliest bulk ground products.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:45 AM on January 29, 2010

I usually practice fairly healthy cooking, but frying meatballs in about 1/4 inch of oil gives them that crispyness you can't get in the oven or cooking in their own grease. They are done when the center hits 160, don't overcook.
posted by ShootTheMoon at 11:54 AM on January 29, 2010

Response by poster: Okay, I'll be running some tests over the next month.

One thing that I remembered about watching my parents make them is how wet and sticky they were on the outside when they were raw, not dripping, but pretty messy and quite cohesive, like when you make a snowball with the wetter kind of snow. Heavy.

I had already gotten my mom's recipe when I posted, but just in fairly vague terms (use beef, an egg yolk, parm cheese, bread crumbs, bake at 400 for 25 minutes then simmer in sauce) but I didn't get the proportion details and now don't want to ask because we don't want to give my mom the impression I'm going to start taking her advice. Where will that lead? To a life of yogurt and ten minute cat naps, that's where.

One thing that stood out for me here is the extra parmesan cheese -- that sounds about right for my family.

Anyway, next time I do it I'm going to read through here, try some different ideas and see what I come up with.

Thanks everyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:18 AM on January 30, 2010

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