Homemade meatballs are a fabulous mid-week meal, whether they’re drenched in sauce atop a big pile of spaghetti or loaded in a sub. But meatballs are only at their best when they’re juicy and tender, not tough and dry.
Meatballs are deservedly popular, being tasty, inexpensive and family-friendly, so there are hundreds and hundreds of recipes out there, each a little bit different. So how do you choose? To help make sense of it all, I’ve reviewed twenty-six recipes for meatballs, both oven-baked and pan-fried on the stove. I’ve figured out what’s popular and what’s not, as well as some great tips for making sure your meatballs are juicy and tender.
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Where do meatballs come from?
Meatballs are more a category of food rather than a specific dish, so there is no easy answer to this. There are known recipes as far back as the Roman empire, and even a belief that the Chinese may have been making meatballs more than 2,000 years ago. Whatever their origin, it’s lost to history, and many cultures have adopted meatballs into their own culinary repertoire. Wikipedia lists almost fifty national meatball variations! It seems that almost everyone loves meatballs.
What’s in a typical meatball?
Most of these recipes have two components – meatballs and an accompanying sauce. More often than not there is more flavour, and therefore ingredients, in the sauce. I will go into sauces a little so you’re aware of popular choices and unique options, but my focus in this review is on what makes a great meatball.
Although there’s obviously a lot of variation in the specific ingredients these authors use in their meatballs, there are a few ingredients that appear very consistently:
- Ground/minced meat
- Garlic and onion
There are a few other ingredients that I’ll touch on as well, but the five above are the heroes. All for different reasons though!
The meat in meatballs
Although there are six different types of meat used amongst these recipes, two are the most popular, with one dominating.
Nineteen of the twenty-six meatballs have beef in them. Of these, eleven are only beef. The other eight include another meat, or in one case, two other meats.
There’s a range of different grades of ground beef suggested, but presumably for different purposes.
A number of authors recommend fairly fatty ground/minced beef, with 85% lean (15% fat) and 80% lean (20% fat) each coming up several times. In one of her recipes, Stephanie from The Cozy Cook recommends beef with 30% fat! While not the healthiest choice, this will definitely make for great meatballs, both in terms of flavour (fat = flavour) and juiciness.
Several authors recommend leaner beef. While meatballs made with leaner meat won’t be quite as decadent, this is obviously a realistic trade-off if you’re making meatballs as a mid-week meal. While the reduced taste of leaner meat is hard to compensate for, there are ways to combat the dryness of lean meat which we’ll come to soon.
Eleven of the authors include ground pork in their meatballs, but only three of these are for pork-only meatballs. The other eight use pork in combination with an equal or greater amount of another meat.
One reason for this is taste. Pork does have a distinctly different taste from beef, the meat it is mainly combined with. A couple of authors and a few readers comment on this.
The more common reason surprised me a little. Several authors recommend the addition of pork because it makes for a juicier meatball. Digging into this a little deeper it seems to be because the authors recognise it as a fattier meat. This surprised me because at my local grocery store I can buy three different grades of ground/minced pork. The regular variety is 15% fat, but there are also lean (10% fat) and extra-lean (5% fat) choices. If I add the extra-lean pork to my meatballs, it’s not going to enhance the juiciness. Interestingly none of the authors specify what grade of pork to use, so I can only assume that in their local stores pork mince comes in only one grade and has relatively high fat content. The point is, if you’re adding pork to your meatballs for juiciness, make sure you’re not buying really lean ground pork.
Four other types of ground meat appear amongst the recipes, but they only appear in a few recipes each:
- Three recipes use chicken, including two recipes for chicken-only meatballs.
- Two recipes use turkey, one on its own and one with an equal amount of pork mince.
- One recipe, from Stephanie at The Cozy Cook, uses three meats – beef, pork and veal. Stephanie recognises both pork and veal as fattier meats, so again you may just want to check how lean the meat you buy is.
- One recipe, from Tieghan at Half Baked Harvest, uses Italian sausage. Widely available in North America as either sausages or ground meat, it’s typically made from ground pork and is flavoured, especially with fennel. Being a sausage mix, it usually has 20% or more fat content.
It’s not hard to imagine that meatballs made from Italian sausage would be delicious!
The authors are almost unanimous in their use of eggs in the mixture, with only two not doing so.
Eggs are so prevalent because they play an important role. As they cook, they bind the ingredients together, helping to prevent your meatballs from falling apart as they cook.
How many eggs?
While eggs are important, it’s also important not to overdo it. Too much egg and your meatballs will become too firm and squishy. The ratio of eggs to meat needs to be right.
There’s a fair range in this ratio amongst the recipes. Several have as little as one egg per two pounds of meat (900g), and one uses two eggs per pound of meat (450g). The most common approach is in between these two extremes though, with more than half the authors using one egg per pound of meat.
Do you have to use eggs?
If you’re cooking for someone with an egg allergy, don’t have any eggs or just want to avoid them, you have a couple of options amongst these recipes:
- Maya’s recipe on Maya Kitchenette for beef meatballs.
- Cheryl from 40 Aprons’ recipe for chicken and pork meatballs.
Neither of these recipes use egg in the meatball mixture. I’ve listed them separately at the bottom if you’re interested.
Keep in mind that while you can indeed make meatballs without eggs, they may be a little more fragile without this binding ingredient. Make sure you handle them gently in the pan to prevent them from falling apart.
Another ingredient on which the authors are again almost unanimous is starch, and most commonly this is included as breadcrumbs.
It’s a common misconception that the inclusion of breadcrumbs in meatballs (and meatloaf) is to act as a binder, but this is not the case. Eggs are the binder, and breadcrumbs have a different and arguably more important role. Breadcrumbs help the meat hang onto its moisture, and prevent it from escaping during cooking. The result is juicier meatballs.
When meat cooks, the proteins contract. If you’ve ever made burgers from scratch I’m sure you’ve seen how much a burger patty can shrink during cooking. Not only does the meat become smaller and denser, the contraction also squeezes moisture out of the meat, making it drier. The starch in breadcrumbs prevents the muscle fibres from contracting too much, helping the meatball hang onto its moisture and its shape.
Breadcrumbs are the most popular way to control this problem, with sixteen recipes using them. Types vary from plain, to Italian (pre-seasoned), to panko, and typically the authors use between a quarter-cup and a half-a-cup per pound of meat (450g).
Because it’s actually starch we’re after though, you have other choices besides breadcrumbs. Four authors use chopped or torn slices of bread. One author, on The Butcher’s Wife, uses crushed Saltine crackers and Sarah on Feeding Your Fam uses regular oats. And while it may seem completely different, Natasha’s use of cooked rice in her chicken meatball recipe on Natasha’s Kitchen is just another form of starch (although the rice will also add texture).
There is something additional you can do with your starch which will make it even more effective.
Using a panade
Before adding the starch ingredient to their mixture, ten of the authors allow it to soak in either milk or water. This combination of starch and liquid is called a panade, and makes the effect I mentioned above even more effective.
By mixing your breadcrumbs or other starchy ingredient with a liquid, you form a starch paste, which coats the meat more effectively than just adding breadcrumbs. Which puts you another step closer to juicy meatballs.
Of the ten authors that take this approach, eight use milk and two use water. There’s a fair bit of variation in the ratio of liquid to solid, and no real favourite. At the end of the day, the goal is to have a paste to add to your mix, so you need to add enough of your chosen liquid to achieve a wet paste. A couple of authors advise squeezing any excess moisture out once you’ve made the paste.
If you’re interested in a bit more detail on this whole process, Jessica Gavin goes into more detail on a panade on her website.
Making meatballs without breadcrumbs
If you’re gluten intolerant, or trying to cut back on carbs, or just don’t want to have bread (or any type of starch) in your meatballs, there are three recipes here that will suit your needs. Based on some of the comments you can indeed make great meatballs without bread. I’ve listed the recipes separately at the bottom of the page if you’re interested.
Keep in mind that you’ll be losing the positive effect of the starch, so if you’re keen on juicy meatballs your best bet will be to use a fattier ground meat.
Given that it’s starch that’s doing the good work here, it’s possible either cornstarch/cornflour or potato starch could be used as a replacement. None of the authors mentions it so I can’t guess at amounts or the impact on taste or texture, but if you decide to give it a go please let me know with a comment at the bottom of the page. I’d love to know how it turns out and share your results with everyone else.
In terms of flavours added to the meat mixture, there are three that are prevalent:
- All but three of the authors add some garlic to their meatballs, mostly fresh. The amount varies from one minced clove to two tablespoons, so it really depends on how much you like garlic.
- Sixteen recipes include onion, almost all diced fresh. There’s again a lot of variation, from a quarter-cup to a whole cup, so you can decide based on how much you enjoy the taste and texture of onion.
- Seventeen authors add one or more herbs to their mixture. Chopped fresh parsley is overwhelmingly the most popular, appearing in twelve of the recipes. Basil makes a few appearances as well.
After these three there are no particularly popular flavourings, but a few interesting options appear. A few authors add some Italian seasoning, typically a mix of dried herbs and garlic, and a few others use a bit of fresh ginger. The combination of nutmeg and allspice also appears more than once, as does the combination of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce. There are a number of unique choices, including sesame oil, cumin, soy sauce, red curry paste, paprika, garam masala and even some pomegranate molasses.
I don’t normally mention salt and pepper, because in my opinion they should be in absolutely everything (well, almost). And more often than not, they are.
Salt has, quite deservedly, earned a bad reputation when it comes to health. Like a cranky teenager, sodium has a bad effect on our blood pressure. But if you’re looking to lift your meatballs to another level, as Ashley from Baker by Nature says, “meat loves salt”.
All but one author uses salt in their meatballs. The amounts vary widely from just a pinch, to a teaspoon per pound of meat (450g). Several also recommend you use salt to taste.
I’m certainly not going to encourage you to use more salt, especially for a mid-week meal. But if you’re finding the flavour of your meatballs is a little lacklustre, and you’re using no salt, or just a little, this could be the culprit.
The only other ingredient that appears with any regularity is grated or shredded cheese. Ten recipes include some in their meatball mixture, usually at about a quarter to half-a-cup per pound of meat (450g). The most popular cheese by far is parmesan, but mozzarella appears in a couple of recipes as well.
Putting meatballs together is a fairly straightforward process of mixing all the ingredients and then rolling portions of the mixture into balls. There are a couple of key tips here though that go straight to the heart of creating tender meatballs.
Keeping your meatballs tender
How you mix the ingredients may seem fairly innocuous, but it can negatively impact the texture of your meatballs if you’re not careful. It all comes down to how vigorously you mix the ingredients and handle the raw meat. To maximise the chance of your meatballs being nice and tender, there are a couple of things you should do:
- Avoid over-working the mixture. This basically means be gentle with it, and only mix it just enough to combine everything. Your best bet is to use your hands rather than an electric or other mixer. This way you can feel how the mix is going and stop as soon as it’s well combined. Another tip that several authors give is to mix together all of your ingredients apart from the meat (breadcrumbs or panade, garlic, onion, egg, etc), then add the meat and mix until just combined.
- When you’re forming your meatballs, avoid compressing them too much. You don’t need super-compacted balls of hardened steel. Roll them into shape and compress them just enough to keep them together.
There are a few different things at play here, but overworking the mixture or the balls stretches and breaks some of the muscle fibres, and also squeezes all of the air bubbles out. Neither of these things is good for a tender meatball. You want some chunky texture in the meat still, and the air bubbles are a great place for the fat melting in the cooking meat to hide and stay inside your meatball.
Cooking your meatballs
Most of the authors use one of two main methods for cooking their meatballs:
- Pan-fried on the stove top.
A couple of authors do both, and there’s one recipe, from Katie at Life She Lives, for slow-cooker/crockpot meatballs. If you’re looking to cook your meatballs in the slow-cooker, there are certainly a lot of recipes out there, but you’ll have to search for them specifically, because based on my search this is not as popular a method of cooking them.
Baking meatballs in the oven
Fifteen of the twenty-six authors oven-bake their meatballs.
There are a range of oven temperatures, but the most popular is 400°F/200°C, which six authors use. Another four run their oven a bit cooler at 375°F/190°C. There are a couple that cook theirs cooler than this, and a few that go above 400°F.
As for cooking times, there’s a similar amount of variation, and not necessarily in line with cooler or hotter oven temperatures. Times range from as little as fifteen minutes to as much as fifty minutes. Things like meatball size, individual oven calibration, meatball density and more will all influence this. Plus some recipes cook the meatballs on their own, which will be faster than others which cook them for at least some of the time in the sauce.
Why oven-bake meatballs?
It’s easy to understand the appeal of cooking your meatballs in the oven. It’s less messy than pan-frying, with no oil spitting all over the stove top. And it’s easier for larger batches of meatballs. Rather than having to fry them in small batches, you can put them all on a large oven tray or baking sheet and pop them all in at once. It’s also, albeit arguably, more difficult to overcook your meatballs in the gentler heat of the oven.
But while the benefits are obvious, there’s one significant risk to the taste of your meatballs if it’s not done right. And the risk is that you don’t activate the Maillard reaction.
Browning foods with the Maillard reaction
You may not have heard of the Maillard reaction, but you’ve definitely experienced it, and used it as well.
The Maillard reaction is the chemical magic that happens to proteins in meat at high temperatures. It creates an array of delicious flavours and aromas, not to mention the glorious brown colour we love on (properly) cooked meat.
While it can occur at lower temperatures, the reaction really kicks in once the surface of the food reaches about 300°F/150°C. It’s easy to think that in a 350°F/175°C oven the surface of the food is definitely hitting this mark, and more, but it’s not that simple. While the air temperature in the oven may be hot enough to trigger the Maillard reaction, the surface of your meatballs is quite likely lower, at least for a good portion of the cooking time. This happens for a few reasons:
- The meatball goes into the oven at room temperature or lower. The temperature of the meatball then equalises over time, which means the cold interior cools the hot exterior (and vice-versa).
- The other cooling affect is evaporation. Water evaporates from the surface of the meatball as it heats up, which has a cooling effect.
- Air is not a perfect conductor of heat, so it won’t immediately transfer all of that temperature to the meat.
What does all of this mean? Depending on how long your meatballs are in the oven, and what temperature you set it at, the meat may have limited or almost no time above 300°F. And if you’re cooking your meatballs in a sauce, the water in it will prevent it from ever reaching the right temperature (because it boils at 212°F/100°C). Which means you’ll miss out on the wonderful taste benefits of Maillard browning.
This doesn’t mean your meatballs won’t cook. And it doesn’t mean they won’t necessarily be tasty. It just means they won’t be as tasty as they could have been.
Browning meatballs cooked in the oven
There are a few different things you can do to ensure you get at least some Maillard browning occurring:
- Pan-fry your meatballs for a few minutes before placing them in the oven. Sarah from Feeding Your Fam and Lyuba from Will Cook for Smiles both do this in their recipes.
- Cook your meatballs on their own in the oven first before adding the sauce, or cook them entirely in the oven and add them to the sauce when you serve up. Several authors take variations on this approach.
- Run your oven hotter to ensure the surface temperature of the meat quickly reaches 300°F. As mentioned above, a few authors cook their meatballs at 425°F220°C or 450°F/230°F for this reason.
- A couple of authors suggest broiling/grilling your meatballs at the end for additional browning.
Cooking meatballs on the stove top
Ten authors prefer to pan-fry their meatballs. As you can imagine this is faster than oven-baking, because heat transfer by direct contact with the metal pan (conduction) is significantly greater than heat transfer from the oven air (convection). Times again vary because of the factors I mentioned earlier, plus differences in pans and cook-tops, but the longest suggested time is fifteen minutes, with most suggesting it will take less than ten minutes.
The authors all recommend browning your meatballs on all sides, which with a spherical piece of meat is more complicated than it sounds! Your meatballs will tend to square up a little if cooked in the frying pan, simply because they spend time sitting in one position before being turned.
Given how much we’ve talked about the Maillard reaction, it’s worth mentioning a couple of tips to ensure you maximise it here:
- Don’t turn your meatballs too often. The more time each surface sits on the hot pan, the more it will brown properly. Of course, don’t burn them either!
- Don’t overcrowd your pan. A crowded pan traps the moisture escaping the meat, which you’ll usually see as fluid bubbling up between them. This will cool the surface, preventing browning and essentially boiling or poaching your meatballs. Not the effect we want! This doesn’t just go for meatballs by the way. It’s critical with all pan-fried foods that you want to brown – ground meat/mince, steaks, bacon – everything.
How do you know when your meatballs are cooked?
Most of the recipes provide fairly specific cooking times, but these all vary, as do ovens, meats, weather, altitude and more. So you’ll need to use another method to check if they’re done. And this is important, because like many meats, meatballs quickly go from tender and juicy to tough and dry if they’re overcooked.
A number of authors suggest cutting a meatball open to check if they’re cooked. But to get the most accurate idea of when your meatballs are done, your best bet is as per a few authors’ suggestion and measure the internal temperature with a meat thermometer.
For a dish like this you want an instant-read thermometer, which will very quickly measure the temperature of a meatball once the probe is inserted. I use this digital fast-reading meat thermometer, and it works brilliantly, giving me the exact internal temperature in about four or five seconds.
Three of the authors offer suggested internal temperatures, and they’re all in line with the US Department of Agriculture’s safe minimum cooking temperatures. The USDA recommend 160°F/71°C for ground beef, pork, veal and lamb, and 165°F/74°C for ground chicken and turkey.
Can you cook meatballs from raw in the sauce?
If you’re looking for a really quick and easy approach, you can put raw meatballs into a hot sauce and fully cook them this way. Stephanie’s baked meatballs on The Cozy Cook are cooked from raw in the sauce, in the oven. And Katie’s recipe on Life She Lives is done wholly in the slow cooker, no sauteing required.
So long as you have egg in your meatball mixture, they shouldn’t fall apart. But be aware, you’ll get no Maillard browning this way, which means you’ll miss out on some wonderful additional flavours.
Making meatballs in advance
Meatballs freeze well either raw or cooked, and most of the authors provide guidance for doing so.
One helpful tip that a number of the authors mention is to first place your meatballs in the freezer for up to an hour on a plate, separated. This allows them to freeze individually on the outside, so they won’t stick together so much when you then freeze them crowded in a container or freezer bag.
When you’re reheating cooked meatballs, be careful not to overheat them. Although you can definitely have reheated meatballs that are tender and juicy, it is even easier to dry them out when you reheat them.
Sauce for your meatballs
As I mentioned earlier, all but four of these recipes include a sauce. While this is not the focus of my review, it’s worth touching on the options available, and pointing out the most popular choices:
- An Italian-style sauce is the most popular, used in nine of the recipes. This typically involves a marinara/tomato-based sauce, and often some parmesan or mozzarella on top.
- Three authors like gravy with their meatballs.
- A few Asian-inspired options appear, including a sticky Hoisin glaze, a coconut curry, Mongolian meatballs and a sweet and sour option.
- The influence of Ikea’s famous meatballs is evident, with two Swedish meatball recipes, both including a creamy sauce.
- Cheryl from 40 Aprons does a butter chicken style sauce with her meatballs.
Keep in mind though that the best sauce in the world wont make up for tough, dry pellets of meat. To really make your sauce shine, you need to make sure your meatballs are tender and juicy as well.
The essence of homemade meatballs
If you’re looking to put together a batch of meatballs, you’ll need the following:
- Ground meat of your choice. Beef is very popular.
- Egg, typically one per pound of meat (450g).
- Breadcrumbs, half-a-cup or less per pound of meat.
- Fresh garlic and onion.
- Fresh herbs, especially parsley, are a great addition too.
Once you’ve mixed it all up and shaped them into balls, try baking them in the oven at 400°F/200°C until they’re done, about fifteen to twenty minutes.
The secrets to tender, juicy meatballs
If you want to make sure your meatballs are not tough or dry, there’re a few things you should do:
- Use a fattier ground meat.
- Mix your breadcrumbs with milk before adding them to the mix.
- Be gentle with your meatball mixture. Combine it by hand, and just until everything’s mixed through.
- Don’t overcook your meatballs.
So there you have it – the essence of meatballs, and the “secrets” to making sure they’re moist and tender. Hopefully this has helped you to choose an approach or a recipe that suits you the best, and equipped you to make them beautifully juicy.