Time Savers: Meatballs 101
At first consideration, meatballs may not seem like a time saver to some people. However, I am willing to bet you dollars to donuts that at least 10% of the people reading this post currently have at least one bag of frozen meatballs in their freezer, and they are sagely nodding their heads and thinking, “So true, so true.” For those of us that always have a stash of meatballs on hand, we also have almost instant access to cocktail appetizers, mid-week meals, game night munchies, and family friendly feedings in a heart beat. For those of us who don’t, well, what are you waiting for?
I like to think of myself as a bit of a meatball connoisseur, if you will. Or, at the very least, a staunch and temperamental meatball critic who ridicules dense and dry balls of beef but will sigh and rhapsodize about a tasty, juicy, bite sized little ball of well seasoned meat. I am also, however, not the kind of stinker who will turn up her nose at you when you shyly admit that your delicious meatballs came out of a cardboard box from M&M, or a cryogenically sealed baggie from Ikea. At the end of the day, if it tastes good, that’s what counts. Really. I just consider it my duty to let you know how ridiculously easy it is to make your own delicious and versatile meatballs at home. You know, just in case you were one of those crazy people who likes to save money whilst feeding her family nutritious additive- and preservative-free food that they will ravage. Because they will.
These are what I consider to be the perfect meatballs. A lofty claim, true, but the perfect meatball must fall within several key parameters, including but not limited to:
- tender and light
- juicy and meaty
- flavorful without being overly seasoned or fussy
- flexible to be used in a variety of applications
These fit the bill. I’ve come a long way in my meatball making over the years, from the days when dry breadcrumbs and Dijon would have been keys to my heart, to my “purity in all” phase where the ingredients were ground beef and salt…end of story. Sometimes you need balance and binders, and sometimes the wisdom of Italian grandmothers truly is all it’s cracked up to be. You’ll get a lot of mileage out of this one basic recipe, I can promise you that, so without further ado let us roll up our sleeves and dive in!
The Perfect Basic Meatball
Makes ~ 8 dozen *
- 1.5 lb (750 g) lean ground beef
- 3/4 lb (350 g) ground pork
- 3/4 lb (350 g) ground veal
- 1 large egg
- 2 slices of fresh bread **
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1/3 very large Spanish onion
- 4 fat cloves garlic
- 1 ounce (35 g) parmigiano reggiano cheese
- 1/3 cup finely minced parsley
- 1/4 tsp red chili flakes, entirely optional
- salt and pepper, generously to taste
* It is worth noting that I halved this recipe only for your benefit, guys. When I make meatballs, it takes me about 2 hours from start to finish but I make double or triple this amount so that I can tuck away at least 4 freezer bags with 3-4 dozen regular sized meatballs in each, and at least 1 freezer bag full of the twee little minis. To me, that is a time saving economy of scale. I would rather make one big batch now and have it on hand for later, rather than fussing with several small batches every couple of weeks when I feel the yen. However, for your sake, I will start you out slow.
** Soft white Wonderbread slices are ideal, but you will
never rarely find that gracing my breadbox…mostly because I know that I can wad up the slices into little balls and eat the entire loaf during a single episode of Breaking Bad, and that’s just embarrassing and best avoided. Anyway, I speak from experience when I say that soft whole grain breads work just find and have a pleasant, hearty sweetness that camouflages well into the meat. As long as you stay away from seedy 12-grain breads (do you relish the horrified expressions on your children’s faces as they pick through dinner to remove visible flax seeds?), whatever you have on hand will probably do just fine.
Whisk together the egg and milk in a bowl. Tear the bread into small pieces, crust and all, and press it into the milk mixture. Set the bowl aside for about 20 minutes so that the bread can soften and absorb all the moisture until it has the consistency of thick oatmeal or gruel.
In the mean time, finely mince the onion. When I mince an onion, it usually looks like this (below). Sadly, that is not acceptable for The Perfect Basic Meatball. There is nothing worse that biting into a tender, delicious meatball and having a huge chunk of somewhat undercooked onion in your mouth. Consider this a first run-through with the knife, and keep chopping.
You want a very fine mince, like so (below). If you don’t feel comfortable with your knife skills, or you simply don’t have the patience for that, you can always grate the onion using the large holes on a box grater. This will produce a fair bit of liquid, and some of that (although not all) can be drained and discarded before you push the rest of the mass into your bowl. Either way, you have options, but no excuse for leaving large and unappetizing chunks.
Put the ground meats into a large mixing bowl and scrape the milky bread on top along with the finely minced onion.
Finely mince the garlic cloves until they are like a paste, or use a garlic press to make short work of the cloves, and add them in to the mix.
Finely mince the parsley so that you have little green specks and no pieces that are recognizable as leaves.
Grate the Parmigiano Reggiano using the smallish holes on a box grater or a microplane rasp.
Season the mixture generously with salt and pepper to taste. If you like, add a pinch of hot chili flakes (around 1/4 tsp). You don’t want to add so much that these become spicy meat balls, but just enough for a bit of kick and interest. Again, entirely optional.
Now to get down and dirty with your meat. Wash your hands thoroughly and, using only your fingertips, begin coaxing the mixture together and folding handfuls over as you go. The trick is to have a light touch and you will have lighter meatballs…which is a good thing. Instead of mashing the meat and squeezing it through your fingers, use your finger tips to reach in, grasp and lift, almost like you are gently “fluffing” the meat (not that there is anything fluffy about ground beef, but hey, I said imagine). Make sure that everything is well combined and the garlic and parsley are adequately dispersed. After mixing, let the meat sit for at least 20 minutes for the flavors to combine and the tenderizing onions to work their magic.
Before you start the meatball assembly, there is one more step that you absolutely MUST do. Heat a small teaspoon of neutral oil in a frying pan (or use non-stick) over medium-high heat and fry up a small patty of meat. What you want to do is check for seasoning, because the meatballs probably need a bit more salt and/or pepper than you originally added to the mix. Don’t be shy, but that’s why we do this exercise. Far better to take 3 minutes to fry up a slider now than to make dozens of meatballs and then find out that they’re bland and under-seasoned when it is too late to do anything about it.
I always make two little patties because it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion, and people are more likely to help you roll meatballs for half an hour after they’ve had a bite of the finished product.
Pre-heat your oven to a piping 450ºF with your racks near the upper third.
Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper before you get rolling. The parchment paper will help ensure that the meatballs don’t stick to your tray without adding any additional fat, and it also aids with faster clean up later. I reuse the same piece of parchment for about 2 batches of balls, rotating baking sheets so that I always have a cool one for the raw meatballs as I roll. If you don’t have parchment paper, don’t worry; simply spray the sheets lightly with non-stick spray or wipe with a thin film of neutral oil.
To form the balls, pinch off a smallish amount of meat, approximately 1.5 heaping tablespoons in size. Lightly roll the meat between your palms to form a ball about the same size as a ping-pong ball.
Size is a matter of personal choice and will also have an impact on your final application. I find that a small meatball is the most flexible as it can be used as a cocktail appetizer, with pasta, soups and stews, etc. However, feel free to make a tray of bigger ones about the size of golf balls (perfect for spaghetti and meatballs), or smaller ones about the size of marbles (ideal for Italian wedding soup). The only thing you want to watch is that you keep the size consistent on each tray so that they brown and cook at the same speed.
Tuck the tray of meatballs onto the upper rack of your oven for about 8-10 minutes, turning the balls over and rotating the tray about halfway through so that they brown evenly and on all sides. The purpose is not to fully cook the meat and they may still be slightly pink in the middle. This is fine because you just want to brown the outside and seal in the juices so that they can finish cooking in whatever will become their final dish.
Obviously, if you made larger balls then they might take a few minutes longer to brown, and the twee little mini-balls will be done in about 5 minutes total.
And with that, the meatballs are made. Let the browned balls cool completely before packing them into sturdy freezer bags that are labeled with the date. For easy stacking, it helps to fill each bag with about 3 dozen meatballs and then lay it flat, with the balls in a single layer, before you press out as much air as you can and seal it. The meatballs will keep in your freezer for at least 6 months if you have a nice seal on the baggie.
Stay tuned for Meatballs 201: The Application! In case you still don’t believe me, I’ll show you how a few bags of meatballs in your freezer are all that you need for a last minute party appetizer, Tuesday night dinner, or late night snack.