Tender and Juicy Slow-Cooker Meatballs Recipe

A slow cooker meatball that actually lives up to its imagined ideal.

Slow cooker meat lifted out of tomato sauce with a wooden spoon.
The slow cooker takes the work out of slow-simmering sauce for you, and offers tender meatballs that are ready when you are.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Why It Works

  • A carefully blended mixture of bread, eggs, cheese, and meat forms well-seasoned, juicy meatballs.
  • Incorporating some of the meatball mixture into the sauce gives it built-in meatiness.
  • Leaving the meatballs out of the sauce until the last 30 minutes of cooking ensures that they stay juicy and tender.

The idea of a slow cooker meatball recipe seems like a good one at first. After all, how many meatball recipes have you read out there that tell you to simmer the meatballs for a good, long time in their bath of tomato sauce? Long-simmering leads to better flavor and more tender texture, right?

Not so fast. We're people of science here! We don't put stock in hearsay! To test out this idea, I cooked up a few batches of Daniel's exemplary juicy and tender Italian meatballs, leaving out the gelled chicken stock as I was afraid it might be too much of a confounding factor in my testing. I also streamlined a couple of the steps and ingredients—after all, slow cooker recipes are meant to be minimal fuss. After broiling the meatballs and heating up the sauce, I transferred the sauce to a slow cooker set on low heat.

I then added my meatballs to the pot, removing them one at a time at 15-minute intervals from 15 minutes all the way to seven hours later. I also removed a tablespoon of sauce each time in order to gauge the effects of long cooking on its flavor. While slow-cookers vary, and there's no industry standard on what "high," "low," or "warm" means, I monitored the temperature of my cooker and know that it held steady at between 185 and 190°F (85 and 88°C) for the entire time. Once all the meatballs were removed, I refrigerated all of them overnight, then gently reheated them to 140°F (60°C) before tasting in order to iron out any differences that their final temperature might have made.

What did I find after tasting the meatballs? Not only does extended cooking make a difference in how the meatballs taste, but it's a drastic one, and not in the right direction. Meatballs cooked for 15 to 45 minutes or so were still tender and moist with a smooth, almost custard-like texture that just melts in your mouth. Between one hour and four hours, the meatballs become increasingly tougher and dryer. By the time you're over the five-hour mark, the meatballs are dry and crumbly, having expelled a good chunk of their moisture to the pot of sauce:

Side-by-side comparison of meatballs cooked 30 minutes (left) and 5 hours (right)
Note: the difference in size of the meatballs is not an effect of different cooking times.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

Next I figured I'd go at a lower temperature: my slow cooker holds around 165°F (74°C) when set to "warm." Even at this temperature, the meatballs ended up starting to dry at nearly the same time.

It's pretty clear that longer cooking does not benefit the meatballs in any way. Just like a sausage, a hamburger, or a steak, the hotter you get them and the longer you cook them, the more moisture they lose.

On the other hand, it was undeniable that the sauce got better and better as it cooked, both by reducing and by picking up flavor from the meatballs as they simmered.

So what's a cook to do? Cook the meatballs for a short time in the sauce and you've got excellent balls but sub-par sauce. The other way around and you've got great sauce and meatballs that are tough as balls.

The solution turned out to be similar to what I did for my meatball pizza: flavor the sauce with some of the meat mixture before you form it into balls.

By sautéing the mixture in some olive oil, then adding an onion, garlic, oregano, and red pepper flakes, I created a really flavorful base for my tomatoes. What's more, once the sauce was in the slow cooker, it continued to reduce, the flavors of the meat and tomatoes exchanging.

Uncooked meatballs on a white plate, next to a metal scoop.

Serious Eats / J. Kenji López-Alt

So how does it all break down? Well, the night before (or the morning of) the day I want to eat my meal, I make my meatball mixture, form the meatballs, and construct the sauce. When I'm ready to go, I let the sauce cook for anywhere between seven to 10 hours at low heat (perfect for when you get home from work). When I want to serve the meatballs, I just drop the refrigerated meatballs into the sauce (you can broil them prior to refrigerating if you want a bit more browned flavor, or just drop them in completely raw) and let them cook through for about 30 minutes.

A bowl of meatballs in tomato sauce, garnished with Parmesan cheese.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

You end up with meatballs that are as tender as any you've ever had, with a sauce that's rich and thick, packed with intense meaty flavor. Finally, a slow cooker meatball that actually lives up to its imagined ideal.

January 2015

Recipe Facts

Active: 60 mins
Total: 7 hrs
Serves: 4 to 6 servings

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Ingredients

  • 3 slices white bread, crusts removed, roughly torn

  • 1/3 cup buttermilk, plus more as needed

  • 1 large onion, minced (about 1 1/2 cups), divided

  • 12 cloves garlicfinely minced, divided

  • 2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, plus more for serving

  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves, minced

  • 4 teaspoons (18g) kosher salt

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 2 large eggs

  • 2 teaspoons dried oregano, divided

  • 1 pound ground beef (at least 25% fat)

  • 1 1/4 pounds ground pork (at least 25% fat)

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

  • 3 (28-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand

  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

  • 1 sprig fresh basil

  • Cooked pasta, for serving

Directions

  1. 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. Add half of onion, 8 cloves of minced garlic, Parmigiano-Reggiano, parsley, salt, pepper, egg, and half of oregano to bread/buttermilk mixture.

    Adding chopped onion into stand mixer.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  2. 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.

    Mixing ground beef and pork into meatball base.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  3. Remove bowl from stand mixer and add remaining beef and pork. Using a clean hand, gently mix meatball mixture, tearing apart ground meat with your fingers, just until ground beef and pork and thoroughly distributed throughout; avoid mixing any more than is necessary for even distribution.

    Ground beef and pork added to meatball base.

    Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

  4. Preheat broiler and set oven rack in upper position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Set aside 6 ounces of meatball mixture. Form remaining meatball mixture into golfball-sized balls and arrange on prepared baking sheet; you should be able to make about 16. Broil meatballs until browned on top, about 7 minutes (browning times can vary dramatically, depending on oven broiler strength). Transfer meatballs to a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until ready to use.

  5. Heat oil in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add remaining meat mixture and cook, stirring, until no longer pink, about 3 minutes. Add remaining onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add remaining oregano and pepper flakes and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Season with salt.

    Browning ground meat mixture in skillet.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

  6. Transfer tomato sauce and basil sprig to slow cooker. Cook on low heat for 6 to 10 hours. Gently fold meatballs into mixture for last 30 minutes of cooking. Serve with pasta and Parmesan cheese.

    Meatballs in a tomato sauce in the pan.

    Serious Eats / J. Kenji Lopez-Alt

Notes

For an even more streamlined version, do not broil the meatballs: drop them into the sauce raw directly from the refrigerator and cook without stirring for the first 15 minutes. Fold gently to redistribute, then continue cooking for the remaining 15 minutes.

Special Equipment

Stand mixer, slow cooker

Nutrition Facts (per serving)
698 Calories
40g Fat
41g Carbs
45g Protein
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Nutrition Facts
Servings: 4 to 6
Amount per serving
Calories 698
% Daily Value*
Total Fat 40g 51%
Saturated Fat 13g 65%
Cholesterol 188mg 63%
Sodium 1534mg 67%
Total Carbohydrate 41g 15%
Dietary Fiber 7g 24%
Total Sugars 14g
Protein 45g
Vitamin C 63mg 314%
Calcium 229mg 18%
Iron 5mg 29%
Potassium 1611mg 34%
*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.
(Nutrition information is calculated using an ingredient database and should be considered an estimate.)