There's a reason why cocktail meatballs have been a perennial party favorite since the 1960s: They're incredibly tasty and exactly the kind of snack you want to munch on while holding a martini glass in one hand.
Warm, savory, and usually a little sweet, these little meatballs are pretty much always the first things we run out of at every holiday party we've ever hosted.
If you're grimacing and shaking your head right now, it's probably because you've only had the decidedly unglamorous classic version (frozen meatballs drowned in a cloying sauce of grape jelly and a whisper of chili sauce). While we admit we have an embarrassing nostalgic fondness for them, this version, updated and modernized with a bit of international flair, requires no such disclaimers. They're fantastic and your guests will love them unironically. They're flavored with garlic and ginger, along with some hoisin sauce, which captures the sweet-and-savory elements of classic cocktail meatballs.
We found a 50/50 mixture of beef and pork yielded the most tender and flavorful meatballs (pork fat is softer than beef fat, so it keeps the meatballs nice and tender), but using just beef works well, too. Dark meat turkey was not bad but ultra-lean white meat turkey dried out rather quickly and had a noticeably chalky texture.
On their own, meat proteins will bind to themselves, which can cause meatballs (or meatloaves, for that matter) to become tough and dense. To address this, we add a good amount of panko bread crumbs along with an egg. The bread crumbs keep the meat proteins from binding too tightly together, but they also help retain moisture the meat gives off while cooking. The egg acts as a binder, keeping the meatballs coherent.
While they are extremely easy to make, there is a little bit of finesse involved. When mixing the meatball ingredients together, we wanted the seasonings to be well integrated, but we also know that overworking the mixture can make the meatballs tough. We found that the best way to do this was with our bare hands, using our fingers to swirl the ingredients in a bowl until the beef and pork are just combined (if using both) and the seasonings are evenly distributed. Whatever you do, you don't want to squeeze and mash the meat.
To form the balls, use a tablespoon (or, even better, a portion scoop) to make even mounds and then gently roll those into balls using slightly wet hands (to keep them from sticking). To keep things simple, we bake them in the oven, which is much less messy than frying or sautéing. Once they are baked, they can be glazed and served right away or chilled in the refrigerator (or even frozen) until the day of the party. No need to defrost, just heat them on a parchment-lined baking tray in a 325°F (163°C) oven until warmed through. They should take about 10-12 minutes out of the refrigerator or 20-25 minutes if frozen. Then glaze and serve.
Speaking of the glaze, this is what it's all about, people. Hoisin sauce, sometimes referred to as Chinese barbecue sauce, is the main flavor agent and its sweet, salty, vinegary flavor is a perfect fit for the meatballs. The simple glaze, made with a combination of hoisin, ketchup, vinegar, honey, soy sauce, and sesame oil, is ready in just a few minutes and can be made several days in advance. The colder it is, the thicker it will get, so take it out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you're ready for it. If it's still too thick, stir in a teaspoon or two of hot water. Both the glaze and the meatballs can easily be doubled (or tripled) for a crowd.
Make a lot because they're going to go fast!