What is the perfect meatball? For me, it's a plump, juicy ball of highly seasoned meat that's so tender a spoon can pass right through it with almost no resistance. Here's how I make that a reality.
Why this recipe works:
- A panade made from buttermilk-soaked fresh bread adds tons of moisture and flavor.
- Minced pancetta and gelled stock (optional) guarantee extremely juicy meatballs.
- Plenty of onion, garlic, and other flavors deliver a rich, satisfying meatball.
Note: This recipe makes about 10 handball-sized meatballs; you can make them smaller or larger, as you prefer, but cooking times will change. The chicken stock and gelatin help make meatballs that are insanely juicy and tender, but these meatballs will still be incredibly moist even without them. When measuring salt by volume, it is important to use the type of salt specified in the recipe; other salts—such as table salt and fine sea salt—will taste too salty (if you use a different salt, please adjust accordingly). If measured by weight, the saltiness will be consistent regardless of the type of salt used. The pancetta in this recipe adds juiciness and moisture, so the fattier the better; if you use pancetta that is too lean (more than 50% muscle), you won't get the same benefit. Pancetta is easiest to mince when nearly frozen.
- 1 packet unflavored gelatin (optional, see note)
- 1/2 cup (120ml) homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth (optional, see note)
- 3 ounces (85g) crustless fresh white bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 unpacked cups)
- 1/3 cup (80ml) buttermilk, plus more as needed
- 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, minced
- 8 medium cloves garlic (about 1 3/4 ounces; 50g), finely minced
- 2 ounces (55g) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, plus more for serving.
- 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves (1 ounce; 30g), minced
- 1 tablespoon Diamond crystal kosher salt (12g); for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 3 ounces (85g) fatty pancetta, finely minced (see note)
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
- 1 pound (455g) ground beef (at least 25% fat; see note)
- 1 pound (455g) ground pork (at least 25% fat; see note)
- 5 cups (1.2L) tomato sauce, such as Quick and Easy Italian American Red Sauce, The Best Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce, or The Best Fresh Tomato Sauce
In a heatproof measuring cup, sprinkle gelatin all over surface of stock and let stand for 5 minutes (if not using stock and gelatin, proceed to Step 2). Microwave stock, stirring once or twice, until gelatin completely dissolves, about 2 minutes. Pour stock into a wide heatproof bowl and refrigerate until fully set, about 30 minutes.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine bread with buttermilk, tossing to coat. Let stand, tossing occasionally, until bread is completely moist, about 10 minutes. Squeeze bread between your fingers or mash with a spoon to make sure there are no dry spots; if there are dry spots that refuse to moisten, add more buttermilk 1 tablespoon at a time until bread is moist throughout.
Add onion, garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, salt, pepper, pancetta, egg yolks, oregano, and fennel to bread/buttermilk mixture. Finely mince gelled stock, if using, and add.
Set mixer bowl in stand mixer and attach paddle. Starting at low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high speed, beat bread mixture until thoroughly blended, stopping to scrape down sides as necessary. Add 1/3 each of the beef and pork and beat at medium-high speed until thoroughly blended with bread mixture.
Remove bowl from stand mixer and add remaining beef and pork. Using a clean hand, gently mix meatball mixture, teasing apart ground meat with your fingers, just until ground beef and pork are thoroughly mixed in and no pockets of unincorporated meat remain; avoid mixing any more than is necessary for even distribution.
Preheat broiler and set oven rack in upper position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Form meatball mixture into handball-sized balls and arrange on prepared baking sheet; you should be able to make about 10. Broil meatballs until browned on top, about 7 minutes (browning times can vary dramatically, depending on oven broiler strength).
Heat tomato sauce in a medium pot until simmering and add meatballs. Simmer until meatballs are just cooked through and register about 145°F on an instant-read thermometer, about 10 minutes.
Serve meatballs, spooning sauce all over and grating more cheese on top.
It can be difficult to guarantee the fat percentage of pre-ground meat, but a higher-fat mix of about 25% is one of the keys to juicy and tender meatballs, so do your best to track down ground beef and pork from a meat counter or butcher that can get you the meat ground to your specifications. Similarly, the meat should be a fine or medium grind, not coarse, so make sure to confirm a proper grind when buying. Of course you can control all of this by grinding the meat yourself using cuts like beef chuck and pork shoulder, which both will get you in the ballpark of the fat percentage you need; if you do grind the meat yourself, you can save time by running the pancetta through the grinder too (just make sure it's nice and cold before grinding).