How to Make the Best Meatballs at Home (Without a Recipe)
Become a believer in the magic of the meatball
Meatballs are having a moment, and if you’re not a believer already, it’s about time you became one. Infinitely variable (we’re talking about you, meatless meatballs) they’re loved and lauded the world over with variations springing up in the traditional cuisines of China (lion’s head), Holland (bitterballen), Sweden (köttbullar), Germany (Königsberger Klopse), Denmark (Frikkadeller), Japan (tsukune), Spain (albondigas), the Middle East (kofta), Italy (polpette), and Poland (pulpety)—just to name a few.
Every international variation on the meatball has unique characteristics that serve to set it apart—from the unexpected surprise encased within the crunch of a Dutch bitterbal to the buttery, white sauce doused German Königsberger Klopse (literally “meatballs in the style of Königsberg,” a Prussian city now Kaliningrad, Russia)—the best thing about a meatball is it’s shape-shifting ability. If you can dream it, you can meatball it, and all you need to get started is a base “recipe.” From there, you can endlessly riff, tweak, and experiment to create your perfect meatball match.
How to make meatballs without a recipe
To make great meatballs without a recipe, first you’ve got to get a handle on the importance of the three main components: the meat, the binders, and the additional flavorings. The emphasis you give to these components and the ingredients you should reach for depends on the meatball you’re aiming to make, so ask yourself these questions: What flavor profile are you looking for—something classic, a veggie take, or maybe a spiced up ball that can stand on its own? How do you plan to cook the meatballs—pan fried for a crisper texture, boiled for something softer, or baked à la sheet pan for the sake of ease and a quick clean up? How will they be served in the end—all sauced up, in a soup, with a thick yogurt dip?
Once you have your answers, it will be that much easier to narrow down your choices and make the meatball you desire, so gather your notes (mentally, down on paper, or on your phone) and let’s get rolling.
The base of any meatball is one, or multiple, ground meat(s). Beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, and lamb are the most common choices and can stand on their own, be combined with one another, (think beef and pork for a classic Italian-American meatball or beef and lamb for a Turkish-inspired take) or be stretched with other proteins like cooked grains, lentils, or chopped mushrooms. Bacon or sausage are other meaty additions that offer some fat and added flavor—it’s even possible to create meatballs made solely out of sausage, just be careful with adding too many other additional flavorings and binders, as they don't need much.
If you’d prefer meatless, don’t fear, there are plenty of options for you. To get that same heft and depth of flavor, a combination of cooked green or brown lentils and chopped mushrooms make an excellent base, but you can also mix in oats, tempeh, tofu, quinoa, beans, chickpeas, or cauliflower.
There are a few things you can do to help ensure a tasty, whole, but not dry meatless-meatball. First, make sure all of your ingredients are relatively small in size—a cooked green lentil is about as big as you want to get. The easiest way is to use a food processor to pulse your base ingredients together. Once your ingredients are ready to be mixed up, bind them with eggs or a vegan egg substitute, breadcrumbs, grated cheese, or ground nuts, and/or thick flavorful pastes like tomato paste, harissa, or curry paste (more on the binders coming up below.)
The notoriously tricky thing about a meatless meatball is getting it to the right texture so that it’ll stay together while you cook it but not be too dry. If the mixture ever feels too dry, try adding another egg or a flavored oil like toasted sesame oil, grated onions, or a splash of your favorite plant-based milk. When you’re ready to form your meatless balls, they should hold together when pressed firmly—if they don’t, they probably won’t keep together when you cook them, so add more dry binder to thicken up the mixture until they do. And lest I forget, if you have a favorite vegetarian or vegan burger recipe, you’re in luck—make meatless meatballs out of them!
The binder is very important when it comes to making your meatballs—it’s what keeps them whole. You can use eggs, breadcrumbs, grated or creamy cheeses (think ricotta or feta here), ground nuts, or a mixture of these ingredients to bind the balls and help them stay together while you cook them and as you eat them—no one wants a meatball that breaks apart all over the plate.
Depending on what your base is, what flavorings you want to add, and how you plan to cook your meatballs, you might want to go easy or heavy on the binders. For example, if you plan to add plenty of additional flavorings and are going to pan fry the meatballs, add a bit more of the binder(s) just to be on the safe side. However, a general rule of thumb when it comes to keeping your meatballs together is this: If you can scoop and roll your meatballs and they hold their shape on a plate, you should be fine. If you’re still unsure, transfer them to the fridge for at least 15 minutes before cooking.
Now that the base and bindings for your balls are done, it’s time to hop on the train to the only place on “Earth” where Guy Fieri could be king—flavortown. When it comes to adding flavor to a meatball, there are rules of thumb, but few limitations. Classic choices include minced or grated onions or shallots, garlic, ginger, fresh herbs, minced vegetables like celery or carrot, tomato paste, dried or fresh spices, and sauces or other liquids like fish sauce or milk, plus of course salt and pepper which—in my humble opinion—should season every meatball you make. To go out on a limb and experiment with things like minced lemongrass, preserved lemon, curry or harissa paste, or even minced dried fruits (think dates with lamb or apricots with pork) might sound crazy to the fundamentalist, but not to us.
If it all sounds like too much to wrap your head around and you’re just not sure where to start, try out our 5 favorite meatball variations first—then decide what you like and what you don’t, and pull your own recipe together from there.
The magic meatball ratio
As it would feel a little unfair to leave you with a “recipe without a recipe” that doesn’t have any information about how much of each component should be used, we came up with our very own (patent and trademark pending) magic meatball ratio. Stick close to this, remember what you’ve already learned, and you’re golden.
How to form a meatball
With your meatball mixture assembled and the magic meatball ratio employed, it’s time to roll ‘em—but not just any old way, no, you’ve got to do it with care. How? Wed your hands before rolling so the meat doesn’t stick your hands, then use an ice cream scoop (seriously the best way!) or tablespoon for even portions, and gently roll each meatball between your palms to make them as round as possible. Don’t press too firmly together and try to handle them as little as possible when you’re mixing so they’re not too tough. Feel free to make them mini or giant—size doesn’t matter—just keep them all approximately the same size for even cooking and think about how you’re planning to cook them as bigger meatballs might be better suited to the oven (they take a bit longer to cook), smaller meatballs to simmering in a soup (they don’t take quite as long.).
5 ways to cook a meatball
There are at least 5 ways (baking, braising, pan frying, boiling, and steaming) to cook a meatball, and each has its benefits. To crisp up and brown the outside of your meatballs, opt to bake or pan fry—baking being my favorite method as it makes clean up easy and is the most hands off approach. If you’re serving your meatballs in a sauce, braising the balls directly in the sauce might be your best option for building flavor and keeping the meatballs moist. Boiled and steamed meatballs might not look the most appetizing, but they have a juicy texture and will definitely not dry out. You can also always boil or steam them just until they’re cooked through and then quickly pan fry or broil to get that enviable brown crust.
How to bake meatballs: Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F. Place the meatballs on a baking sheet, making sure to leave some space around them so they will brown properly, then bake for approximately 20 – 30 minutes depending on how big they are. You can turn them once if you like, or simply let them be until they’re cooked through—test this with a thermometer or simply break a ball open to check. For more color, you can turn the broiler on and give them 3 – 5 minutes there—just adjust the rack so the meatballs are closer to the heat source so they brown more quickly and evenly.
How to boil meatballs: To boil meatballs, bring a large pot of water to a simmer—you don’t want the water to be boiling ferociously here, as this will break the meatballs apart. Add the meatballs gently using tongs or a slotted spoon and let simmer away until they hold fast and are cooked through when tested with a thermometer. If you want to boil meatballs directly in a soup, you can do that as well! Just remember to keep the liquid at a simmer instead of letting it boil.
How to steam meatballs: To steam meatballs, prep whatever steaming vessel you usually use (steamer pot, bamboo steamer basket, etc.) and bring some water or broth to a boil in it. Add the meatballs to the steamer basket set over your boiling water liquid, cover, and let steam approximately 15 minutes, or until cooked through.
How to pan fry meatballs: To pan-fry meatballs, heat your favorite frying pan over medium high heat (cast iron works great here) and add a thin layer of vegetable oil. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs. Flip them around as each side forms a nice crust, and adjust the heat as needed to avoid burning them.
How to braise meatballs: To braise meatballs, simply prepare the sauce you’d like to braise the meatballs in—be that an Italian tomato sauce, a soft Japanese curry, or perhaps a tangy homemade barbecue sauce. Once your sauce is warmed up and gently simmering, nestle the raw meatballs in, making sure they’re covered with the sauce. Lower the heat and cover the pot. Let them cook, checking often after 30 minutes, until cooked through. If the sauce gets too thick, add some broth or water to loosen it up.
How to freeze and reheat meatballs
The magic of meatballs should, by now, not be lost on you—but in case you remain unconvinced, this should sway you: you can freeze leftover cooked meatballs and simply heat them up whenever you need them. A busy weeknight where you open the fridge and it’s just about empty? Meatballs. A group of friends spontaneously ends up at your place after a few drinks, hungry and not able to agree on what pizza to order? Meatballs. Questionable leftovers for a mid-afternoon snack? Nope, choose meatballs instead. So, you should always make a bigger batch of meatballs than you plan to use and simply freeze the remainder for a rainy day.
While you can freeze raw meatballs, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you cook them first, freeze, and reheat. After making and cooking your meatballs, let them cool completely then transfer to your freezer storage container of choice: an airtight container or resealable freezer bag. Label it with a date (if you keep your freezer super tidy and organized, maybe you won’t feel this is necessary) and transfer them to the freezer.
To ensure your meatballs freeze individually so you can easily pull out just as many as you want, you can freeze them first just on a baking sheet until they are pretty solid, 3 – 4 hours, before transferring them to an airtight container or freezer bag.
To reheat frozen, cooked meatballs, place the frozen meatballs on a baking sheet and cover with foil. Bake at 150°C/300°F for approx. 30 minutes, or until hot all the way through. You can also simmer them gently in sauce or broth until hot. That’s it! You can even freeze meatballs directly in tomato sauce, thaw, and reheat slowly in a covered pot on low heat.
What are your favorite kinds of meatballs? Let us know in the comments!
Published on August 23, 2019