Last time I shared my recipe for spaghetti sauce. However without some meatballs spaghetti sauce is just the color red over some noodles. Meatballs really add depth and bulk to sauce and turn it from just one component of a meal into a meal in and of itself. As I mentioned in the last post these are recipes that I grew up with, so they don’t always follow the make-it-from-scratch philosophy that I tend to follow in other recipes. If I ever come up with a replacement recipe that I like better and follows better from first principles, I’ll post that.
- Ground beef. I like 90/10, but you can use whatever.
- Italian seasoned bread crumbs
- Seasoning (salt, pepper, garlic powder, etc)
Add the ingredients to a bowl. Kneed until well mixed, adjust levels to give the right consistency, then form into balls and cook.
It sounds easy but there’s a lot of nuance to it that can make or break your meatballs. Eggs work to really bring the meatballs together and keep them in ball shape. However too much egg makes the mixture goopy and they’ll fall apart during cooking. The bread crumbs work to keep things drier and more managable, but too dry and they’ll fall apart as well. I used three pounds of meat, two eggs, and started with about a cup of bread crumbs, which I didn’t add all at once. As I start mixing I slowly add more crumbs to absorb some of the free liquid until the mixture really starts coming together and holding shape.
Break the meat up into small chunks and roll them around in your hands until they are ball shaped. Cook.
A few years ago, back when Atkins was all the rage, I heard somebody mention that you could use parmesian cheese in place of some of the bread crumbs. This does indeed reduce the amount of carbs in the recipe and also can add a subtle flavor profile. I’ve replaced up to half of my bread crumbs with parmesian cheese before to good effect. Notice that if you do this you may want to replace some of the seasonings from the bread crumbs: some oregano, basil, rosemary or thyme might be good additions so you gain the good parm flavor without losing any of the other flavors.
Sometimes we add garlic powder. Sometimes we add finely chopped fresh garlic.
I have added some other things as well, with more or less success: small chunks of mozerella seem like a great idea but they tend to melt out when cooking (unless you cook the meatballs directly in the sauce). Diced sundried tomatoes are completely lost in the overpowering tomato flavor of the sauce. There are lots of things that you can add to your meatballs, but it doesn’t usually produce results worthy of the expended effort.
There are three methods to cooking meatballs that I’ve seen and tried. All of them have pros and cons.
- Baking: Line a roasting pan with aluminum foil. Put the meatballs on the pan and bake (covered or not seems to make no difference to me). Last time I baked them at 375 for about 30 minutes, more or less. Once they’re baked, toss the still-hot balls into the still-hot sauce. This is the method that my mother usually uses. The meatballs taste good and are supposedly healthier (just look at all the grease left in the bottom of the pan!). However, there’s a real risk that baked meatballs can come out tasting a little bit meat-loafy, so make sure you season them up good before putting them in the oven. The picture above shows a batch of baked meatballs fresh out of the oven.
- Frying: Put some olive oil in a cast iron fry pan and fry the meatballs. You’ll need to turn them several times to make sure all sides get browned and the ball is completely cooked through. Because the side on the bottom of the meatball sort of flattens out as you cook, this can lead to funny-looking angular “balls”. The frying does add heaps of extra flavor, and you can drain the fried balls on a paper towel before you drop them in the sauce to try and make them not quite so unhealthy. This is probably the tastiest of all cooking methods, but requires the most work (you have to stand there and fry them, and large batches can take an hour or more), is among the least healthy, and is the most error prone. It’s easy to burn one side of your meatballs, and if you aren’t careful they can stick to the pan and rip apart when you try to turn them. Also, fry splatter. This is the method my father uses.
- Boiling: Take your raw meatballs and drop them directly into the pot of boiling sauce. Simmer away for an hour or so, and enjoy. This is among the easiest cooking methods, has almost zero cleanup, and produces tasty balls. However all the grease comes out and forms a layer on top of your sauce which never mixes in all the way and you lose out on the added flavor you would have from browning your meatballs before adding them to the sauce. I find that this method works the best when you’re making meatballs in bulk for the express purpose of meatball sandwiches, because the sauce can get a little bit too greasy to really enjoy over noodles. Also, because of all the raw meat, you can’t even taste-test your sauce until the meat is finished cooking. This is the method my mother-in-law uses.
I use a variety of methods depending on my mood. Most recently I baked my meatballs in the oven, but times before that I’ve done a combination of frying and boiling. I’ll give them a quick fry to completely brown the outsides and then finish them by boiling in the sauce. I’ve also done the same with baking: Start the cooking and brown the outside in the oven and finish in the sauce. Doing about 50% or more of the cooking elsewhere helps to keep down the grease level in the sauce, and sealing the outside surface of the ball can help to keep more of the natural juices inside the ball where they belong.