Melt in your Mouth Meatballs

Okay so let’s talk meatballs, they are delicious and a little polarizing if I am being honest; seems like everyone likes them prepared in a different way.

First is size, some think size matters but I don’t necessarily think that is important unless you consider for what purpose you are using them. Generally speaking, smaller meatballs are good for soups and I think that’s about it. The medium sized ones are good for appetizers, sandwiches and pasta dishes. The larger ones, I believe, are good for side dishes only. Seriously, what else could you use a larger meatball for? Seriously, I am asking…..

I used the medium sized meatballs for this dish because I was serving with gnocchi and crusty garlic bread. There are many tricks to a good meatball:

  • binding agent – what you use to “bind” the mixturerest – letting the ball
  • cheese – isn’t cheese important in all regards?
  • size of ingredients – consistency is key
  • meat used – this is a big one, what to use….
  • a compact ball – really ensuring the mixture is combined well and there are no “pockets”
  • rest after you have formed it
  • pre-cook method – this one is pretty polarizing on its own

The binding agent is really the most important part, there are so many options but I found the best one to be panko bread crumbs. You can use really anything that is “bread like” such as crackers, potato chips or bread but my best experience has been with the panko, more about how they are used in the recipe below.

The cheese you use, to me, is negligible. I like to use pecorino romano if I have it but I won’t die if I have to use Parmesan, use what ever you have really as long as it is a hard cheese. No food wasted right?

I guess size does matter because this is the second time I am mentioning it. You need to make sure all components of the ingredients are small; this applies specifically to the onion. There is nothing worse than a meatball with giant chunks of onion, my last batch had some larger pieces I wasn’t happy with but it didn’t ruin them. The larger pieces also create “cracks” that will break the ball apart when you cook them.

A compact ball is achieved by really mixing the mixture together before you add the meat and mixing with your hands; any other implement could lead to an inadequately mixed composition. I mean, you could use anything you like but it is my recommendation you use your hands because that gives you the best result.

Forming the balls is part of the “comparing” process. I use a large ice scream scoop with one of those handle things that “pushes” the ice cream out to scoop the mixture. I scoop out an amount that fills the scoop itself without a significant amount meaning over the top, you can use the handle thing to sweep the mixture out of just hit it on the bottom part of your hand to force it from the scoop.

Next you just press the mixture together with your hands compacting it as much as possible. I toss the meatballs between my hands pretty aggressively to help compact them then rolls them in my palms To form a perfect “ball”. You will notice if there are crack and you can just continue to compact them. A bowl of water helps if you dip your hands in it before working each meatball.

Rest is super important, you really need to give them a time out in the fridge before you cook them. This helps the flavors meld and the “ball” to stay intact when you cook it.

The meat is use is also heavily debated and I am a firm believer that it really doesn’t make that much difference if you use good quality meat [see note]. Some people will tell you using pork, beef and veal is the key but I don’t necessarily agree with that because it is up to your preference. For me, using different meats makes it more difficult to get a nicely compacted meatball because of the different textures. I use just ground beef a lot, it is just my preference but use what you have.

Note: whichever combination of meat you choose, be conscious of the fat content of the meat. A fattier ground beef will result in a potentially disastrous result looking like a bolognese because the meatballs could disintegrate, look for a lesser fat content when making meatballs, I use 96%.

Pre-cooking method is another hot topic for sure: some say fry them and some say bake them. They are very aggressive in their opinions about this. For me, I bake them for less mess and, if you turn them often while baking, you can get an “all around brown” if appearance matters to you. That’s really my only opinion on it.

Now let’s get to the size discussion, regardless of the desired size, consistency is important. If you don’t make them all the same size, you will have a cooking disaster. You don’t need a scale or anything dramatic like that, just use your eyes and if the look to be consistent, you are okay.

I will include a simple tomato sauce with this recipe, I could write six blogs about the types of sauce to use but that’s for another day. What you will need for the meatballs and a simple ragu (makes ~13 medium sized meatballs):

  • 1 1/2 lbs ground beef (I used 96%, see note above)
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 7 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes
  • 1 3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
  • 1 cup pecorino Romano
  • 1 small chunk of pecorino Romano or a Parmesan rind
  • 1 large egg plus 1 yolk, beaten together
  • 1 28 oz can of tomatoes [see note]
  • 1 small can or jar of tomato puree (you can use tomato sauce if you can’t find tomato puree)
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning (or 1/2 each of basil and oregano)
  • olive oil

Note: I use whole peeled tomatoes, San Marzano, and blend them using an immersion blender but you can use crushed tomatoes if you like.

First you want to Cook the onions and garlic. Place 3 turns of olive oil (maybe 2 tbsp) into a non-stick pan, make it large enough that you can make the sauce and add the meatballs to finish, I use a Le Creuset 3 1/2 quart braiser but you can use a large sauté pan; a wide pan with lower sides is best.

Once the oil is heated, add the onions and cook for ~5 minutes then add the garlic and 1/2 of the red pepper flakes, garlic cooks quicker and tastes bitter when overcooked so be sure to let the onions cook a bit first; you will cook this mixture for ~2 more minutes. Add salt and pepper liberally. Turn off the heat and relocate ~1/2 of the mixture to a large bowl.

While that is cooling, measure out the panko and do it in at least a 2 cup measuring vessel so you can add the water to that. Put enough water in the container with the panko so the water just reaches the top of the panko, you can judge this by slowly adding water to the container and pressing with the pack of your hand on the panko and feeling the water (I used a little more than 3/4 of a cup but less than 1 cup). You don’t want to see the water but you want it to almost cover the panko. Let that sit for at least 5 minutes but you can let it sit for more if you like, you want the panko to absorb all of the water.

While that is sitting, grate the cheese and place in the bowl with the onions and garlic and add the egg and extra egg yolk plus 1 tbsp olive oil; add a dash of salt and pepper.

Now you want to address the panko which should have absorbed the water by now. With your hands, “mash” it together in the same container. If there is extra water (and it has been more than 5 minutes), add a little more panko and mix it together and if the crumbs are still “crusty”, add a little water and let it sit for 5 minutes more. It should look like a paste when you mix it all together. You don’t want extra water or to feel the “stiffness” of the panko, it should feel… You want it to look as close to this as possible.

It should look pretty close to this.

Now this is where you really use your hands, roll up your sleeves because it is about to get messy. You really need to mix this well so you don’t see “clumps” of meat or panko or onion, really dig in and mix with your fingers; don’t just use your whole hand. Once you feel is is combined enough, start forming (see notes above on forming), you should have about 13 medium sized meatballs that are now ready for a rest.

Now this is where you really use your hands, roll up your sleeves because it is about to get messy. You really need to mix this well so you don’t see “clumps” of meat or panko or onion, really dig in and mix with your fingers; don’t just use your whole hand. Once you feel is is combined enough, start forming (see notes above on forming), you should have about 13 medium sized meatballs that are now ready for a rest.

Place them on a foil lined baking sheet in the fridge for ~30 minutes (you can leave them overnight also if you like), don’t cover them. Pre-heat the oven to 475 (if you are baking as the pre-cook method which is what I do) once you put them in the fridge. After the 30 minutes, remove the meatballs from the fridge and place them in the oven for ~20 minutes on the center rack.

Note: to ensure the oven has actually reached the proper temperature, you should wait at least 10 minutes after the oven indicates it has reached the desired temp.

While the meatballs cook, reheat the onions and garlic remaining in the pan and add the tomatoes (both kinds), sugar, spices, remaining red pepper flakes and the rind or chunk of cheese; let it simmer while the meatballs cook.

When the meatballs are done, place them in the pot with the ragu (turning them to coat) and let them simmer covered for about 15 minutes. I threw in some fresh mozzarella but you can finish your dish with some shaved parm of whatever you like. It is your food, make it your own. Enjoy!