Classic Dishes Around the World: What Makes a Great Meatball?
What we’ve learned about the beloved dish through its global interpretations
Classic Dishes Around the World is our brand new collaboration with Zwilling. Over the course of a year, we will explore the relationship between global food cultures in 6 dishes to highlight the foods and flavors that bring us together and make our Culinary World more exciting. The dialogue between food cultures worldwide is a source of great inspiration—our goal is to showcase similarities and encourage our ever-more connected world to keep sharing, learning, and adapting the global food landscape.
Meatballs are known all over the world. Whether made from fish, pork, beef, mushrooms, liver, chicken, or lentils which are formed and then baked, broiled, grilled, fried, or braised—a meatball is just that: A ball (or relatively ball-ish shaped thing) made from meat or another meaty protein. There’s no arguing that they’re a beloved food, whether they’re served squished between slices of bread or topped with a thick gravy, grilled and glazed or served floating in a brothy soup.
Since it would be no more than an extremely wild goose chase through the world of meatballs to try and define all the different types out there (which in and of themselves vary widely region-by-region, city-by-city, family-by-family), we’re going to break down just three country-specific takes on the meatball: Swedish köttbullar, Canadian ragoût de boulettes, and Japanese tsukune.
Through our deep dive into these very different variations, we will explore the key factors that make the most difference before focusing in on what truly makes the best meatballs in the world. Then we’ll share how you can best harness the key aspects of the global varieties to make your own very best ball.
Köttbullar med Gräddsås (Swedish meatballs with cream sauce)
Whether you were familiar with Swedish meatballs, or köttbullar, before the days of the “infamous” Ikea version, once you’ve tasted them you’d probably agree that they are like warm, tender, meaty hugs for your mouth. Well, that sounds a bit off, but I think you get what I mean—right?
They’re made with ground meat (usually a mixture of beef and pork for the right amount of fat and flavor, but elk or venison are also used in traditional recipes), cream-soaked breadcrumbs, a bit of mustard, an egg, and buttery sautéed onion. After being mixed by hand into a homogeneous mixture, they’re rolled slightly smaller than a golf ball and fried in a hot pan until crisp and golden all around. The cream sauce is then made in the same pan to make use of all the browned bits of flavor crusted to the bottom of the pan.
With their super soft texture but deep, savory flavor they bear more than a resemblance to Italian polette, Italian American meatballs, and Danish frikadeller.
Ragoût de boulettes (French Canadian meatball stew)
Intensely spiced and served in a rich pork broth with hunks of pork knuckle, simple halved potatoes, and buttery green beans, this French-Canadian meatball stew isn’t nearly as widely recognized as a plate of Swedish meatballs—but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something from the dish!
Made with ground pork and seasoned heartily with clove, cinnamon, mustard, and raw onion, the meatballs are formed without the help of any binders (egg or breadcrumbs), but are instead rolled lightly in flour. This serves two purposes: to help the meatballs brown evenly, and to help thicken the broth. Once the balls are browned, the broth is added and everything is simmered until the meatballs are cooked through.
While the meatballs are definitely a key component of the stew, what makes this dish distinct is the broth it’s served in. A pork knuckle lends its rich, fatty texture and a slew of aromatics (most commonly a combination of celery root, parsnip, carrot, parsley, leek, onion, bay leaves, and allspice berries) adds integral, yet subtle, flavor. Similar meatball variations that either are steamed, boiled, or served in soups are China’s lion’s head meatballs, Indonesian bakso, Vietnmaese bo vien, Spanish albondigas, German Königsberger klopse, and Polish pulpety.
Tsukune (Japanese meatballs)
Formed by hand on bamboo skewers into a sort of oblong shape, Japanese tsukune are juicy and flavorful on their own, but are typically served with a thick, salty sauce made from soy sauce, mirin, sake, a bit of water and cornstarch, and a pinch of brown sugar for just a hint of caramel sweetness. If you have a meat grinder, use a mixture of white meat, dark meat, and skin, for the ground chicken for your tsukune for the best flavor and to keep the meatballs moist.
Similar to the Ragoût de Boulettes, the binder here is not your usual egg or breadcrumb mixture but a bit of miso paste. The additional flavor comes from the herby-allium mixture of shiso leaves and scallion, and toasted sesame oil keeps things nutty.
Tsukune are typically grilled over an open flame, but a cast iron pan makes it easier to cook them all year round. You could also broil them for a darker finish on the glazed meatballs, similar to how you could make Middle Eastern kofta or Greek keftedes without a grill.
What makes a good meatball?
So what really makes a good meatball? Is it the meat used? How about the binders or flavors? Maybe the technique used to cook them? Well, from the information we’ve gathered through our journey to Sweden, Canada, and Japan, it seems that there is no one greatest way to make a meatball the best it can be.
From a mix of meats to ground chicken, soaked breadcrumbs to miso paste, pan-frying to simmering in broth, all the choices you make while leading the meatball from raw ingredients to the plate will affect the final outcome—but more likely than not, it will be delicious.
Find your perfect meatball recipe!
Now that you’ve got a feel for what makes meatballs different all over the globe, it’s time to get in the kitchen and learn the best way possible: by doing. Find the meatball that fits your bill with our magical meatball flowchart.
Published on February 2, 2020