This week at Serious Eats is all about meatballs in all of their glorious forms. We'll share some of our favorite restaurant meatballs (from all different cuisines), and we'll feature recipes for great ones to make at home. Kicking it off this week is none other than the Italian-American meatball, topper of spaghetti, surface for cheese, famous for fleeing at the sound of a sneeze.
For the past several weeks I've been tinkering away, trying to figure out how to make the best Italian-American style meatballs possible. Halfway though my journey, my girlfriend Kate tasted a batch, looked at me and said, "Baby, you've nailed it."
"No, I haven't," I said. "These aren't even close."
I was chasing an image I had in my mind of what the perfect meatball would be, and I wasn't going to quit until I got there. What I imagined was a meatball large enough to look hefty, but so light and tender a spoon could slide through it with almost no resistance—a floater, not a sinker, as Ed put it one day in the office. In a lot of ways, I was imagining the meatball version of a matzo ball, weightless and weeping juices when you cut through it.
At times, I wondered if I was chasing a chimera.
Then, late one night over the holiday, home alone after a long day of testing, I sat down with a bowl of that day's meatballs in red sauce. I pushed my spoon into one, scooping a piece off with ease. Moisture glazed the exposed surface. I took a bite, and my eyes filled with beef- and pork-fat tears.*
*I'm happy to report my cholesterol is still good despite my recent diet.
Everyone has their own idea of what the ideal meatball is. Here's how I made mine.
A lot of people make their meatballs with three different kinds of meat: beef, pork, and veal. I decided right off the bat that I was cutting the veal from mine, for no other reason than that it's harder to find and can be expensive.
There's so much going on in these meatballs that I don't think even veal devotees will miss it, but if you're one of those folks who feel veal must be included, there's nothing stopping you—just get two-thirds of a pound of each of the three meats (to total two pounds), and then follow the recipe as written with that. It's true that veal does contain significantly more gelatin than pork or beef, and it's something we'll need to account for down the line.
In my testing of the best Swedish meatballs, I played with the beef-to-pork ratio quite a bit, since I was aiming for a very particular springy texture, the result of heavily mixed meat. Here, I simplified things with a 1:1 ratio of beef to pork, since I was going for a looser mix: not quite as loose as a good hamburger, but not tight, either.
Following on from my Swedish-meatball tests, I knew I wanted to use a panade made with fresh bread, since I had found that dried bread crumbs produce a denser, drier meatball. To add even more moisture, and to help the bread break down into the blend, it soaks in a liquid first. A lot of recipes call for water or milk, but I wanted really full-flavored meatballs here, so I experimented with a few different liquids, including milk, red wine, and buttermilk.
Buttermilk ended up winning in my taste tests, its tartness boosting the flavor of the meatballs and helping to balance some of the richness of the meat and fat. Red wine, if you're curious, is absolutely awful.
It's important to make sure that the bread is completely moist throughout; after letting it stand for several minutes, mash it with your fingers or a spoon to make sure.
I wanted a meatball with tons of flavor, so I went with a more-is-more approach. That said, if you don't want to use one of these ingredients, like the fennel seed I flavored mine with, you can just leave it out, or add a different seasoning instead. This part is highly customizable.
I started with plenty of minced onion, leaving it raw so that it would retain some texture in the finished meatballs.
I also added a really generous dose of minced garlic to the stand mixer. (Read our article on different methods of mincing garlic to learn more about how each affects your food.)
Parsley adds a fresh flavor.
And dried oregano gives the meatballs that quintessential Italian-American profile.
Then I let the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano rain down.
For the salt, I've found in my tests that four teaspoons of kosher salt provides just the right amount of seasoning for this amount of meatball mixture.
It's worth pointing out that you need to take into account the differences between types of salt when measuring by volume. Fine table salt is denser, and therefore more salty, teaspoon for teaspoon, than coarse kosher salt. So, for example, four teaspoons of table or fine sea salt will make these meatballs too salty.
You can avoid this problem by weighing the salt (18 grams, in this case) on a kitchen scale. (If you don't already own a scale, it's past time to fix that! See our review of the best kitchen scales for recommendations.)
How to Achieve Ultimate Tenderness and Juiciness
Perhaps the most important thing—even more important than flavorings—is that the meatballs are tender and juicy. I took a few different steps to get there.
The first thing I did was add minced pancetta to the mixture. As the meatballs cook, the tiny bits of pancetta slowly render, releasing their fat into the meatball and boosting the juiciness (not to mention the flavor).
After testing this several times, though, I need to stress that the fattiness of the pancetta is crucial—and that's a quality that can vary a lot from one product to another. In the photo above, the pancetta is at least 50% muscle, which is too lean. It didn't add as much moisture as it would have had the pancetta been mostly fat.
A couple years ago, I worked on a story about how to make soup dumplings with Chef Joe Ng, an expert in dumplings and dim sum. The general trick for soup dumplings is to fold a ball of meat, along with some gelled broth, into the dumpling skin. That way, when it's cooked, the broth melts and forms a soup in which the ball of meat floats. But in Ng's more refined version, he finely minces the gelled stock and blends it into the meat filling, so that the meatball inside practically dissolves when the dumpling is cooked.
I wanted to borrow that idea, but with a lot less stock, since I didn't want my meatballs to dissolve once cooked. I add just enough stock to create tiny little pockets of moisture inside each meatball. As they cook, they shed some of those juices, but there's still plenty left inside.
I'll admit that this is the one part of the recipe that might seem like a little too much of a pain in the butt. If this is the only thing standing between you and making these meatballs, know that it's entirely optional. You'll get amazing meatballs either way.
Okay, on to mixing it all together. Here's the challenge: The panade (that soaked-bread mixture) is essential for light and moist meatballs, but it's very difficult to mix it in thoroughly without over-beating the meat. For my Swedish meatballs, that wasn't an issue, since I wanted the meat to be heavily mixed, but here I don't—springy, emulsified Italian-American meatballs just aren't what we're going for.
But minimally mixing the meat almost always guarantees that you'll get little bits of unincorporated bread in the meatball. This is one advantage of dry bread crumbs, since their granular size means they disappear into the mixture without too much effort. But, as I mentioned above, I didn't want to use dried bread crumbs, since they make meatballs that are denser than I want.
To solve this problem, I came up with a technique I've been calling "the temper," which is very loosely inspired by the tempering of eggs into a custard (that is, gradually introducing the eggs into hot cream or milk to prevent scrambling).
Here, I start by blending the panade with all of the flavoring and moisture ingredients, whipping them until they're completely blended.
Then I add a portion of the beef and pork—about a third of each—and whip the hell out of that, until the meat is completely blended with the bread and seasonings.
All by itself, this amount of beating would produce meatballs with a tight, sausage-like texture.
To avoid that, I then work the remainder of the meat into the mixture by hand, being careful to distribute it thoroughly, but not over-mix it. Those little bits of ground meat are going to deliver a meatball that still has the texture of ground meat: not quite as loose as a hamburger, but not as tight as a sausage, either.
Now they're ready to be formed.
I go for big, handball-sized balls.
Cooking the Meatballs
There are a lot of ways to approach cooking the meatballs. For the most tender texture, you could poach them right in the sauce, but you'd lose out on the flavor that browning adds, and in this case, that flavor is important to me.
Browning, though, comes with its own set of options. Pan-frying is one, but with meatballs this large, I find it too easy to deform them in the pan, and too difficult to brown them evenly. Instead, I find that broiling on a rimmed baking sheet is the fastest way to get an even sear.
Once they're browned, I simmer the meatballs in tomato sauce until they're just cooked through. I've found that the longer they simmer, the more juices they lose.
I suppose that benefits the sauce, but I'd rather have juicy meatballs, so I try not to cook them any longer than is necessary.
As for the sauce itself, we have plenty of options for you here at Serious Eats, including Kenji's awesome slow-cooked oven sauce, my quick and easy red sauce (the one I used for all my tests here), and even my sauce made from fresh tomatoes.
It's like a dream come to life.