Swedish meatballs … Porcupine meatballs … Italian meatballs … Spaghetti and meatballs … Meatball subs … Meatball soup … Baked meatballs … Fried meatballs … Crock Pot meatballs …
I start thinking about the versatility of meatballs and end up channeling my inner Forrest Gump!
“I know everything there is to know about … ” meatballs.
… well, maybe not everything. But I sure have done my fair share of experimenting!
While versatility is probably my favorite thing about meatballs, let’s not forget simple, inexpensive, healthy, kid-friendly and efficient.
The basic meatball recipe requires 6 ingredients: ground meat, bread crumbs, eggs, milk, salt and pepper. You can make smaller batches but I like to make a big batch once and reap the benefits of my labor for meals to come (we’ll talk efficient later).
3 pounds ground meat
2 cups bread crumbs
2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Ground Meat: I like to use a mixture of meats for two reasons. First, I think the flavor and texture is improved when two or three compatible meats are combined. Second, it allows me to control the nutritional value of the recipe. If I am choosing to use a ground meat with a higher fat/calorie content like Italian sausage, I can balance it with a leaner protein like turkey or ground pork.
Bread Crumbs: Not all bread crumbs are created equal. The texture of a meatball is a result of the type of bread crumb used. Tenderness is best achieved with a flaky crumb, like Panko. If you have a dense-style crumb, I would recommend soaking the crumbs in the milk before adding them to the other ingredients.
Rather than throwing away the last slices a loaf of bread, leftover hamburger or hot dog buns or dried out garlic bread, tear them up, let them dry out a bit on a cookie sheet for about an hour, toss in a food processor and pulse until fine crumbs are produced. I do this whenever I have the bread and then store the crumbs in the freezer.
Need an emergency substitution? Try crushed up crackers or cereal (like corn flakes). Oatmeal will work too (soak in milk before adding).
Eggs: The least complicated of the ingredients, eggs simply act to hold all the ingredients together.
Milk: The type of milk is not as important as the amount of milk. I always recommend adding only half of the milk (or liquid) called for in a recipe, at least in the first mixing of ingredients. The types, and even the brands, of meat and bread crumbs make a huge difference in how much milk is needed. If the mixture does not hold together well or seems dry, add more milk, a little at a time, until the desired consistency is reached.
Salt & Pepper: These are especially critical when some type of sausage is not included as one of the meats. Sausage has salt and seasonings added whereas other ground meats do not. Knowing what you are working with helps you decide how much to add. Of course, other herbs, spices and condiments can be added for personal preference.
Tools: Clean hands and a cookie scoop are the best tools for making meatballs. Mixing the ingredients with your hands allows you to feel the texture and to know when all the ingredients are thoroughly combined.
Cookie scoops are the easiest way to ensure size consistency. Variation in size creates potential for the smaller ones to be overcooked and the larger ones to be undercooked. A scoop like the one on the left is about 1 1/2″ in diameter. The above recipe will result in about 60 meatballs of this size. The scoop on the right is closer to 1″ in diameter and will make 110-120 smaller meatballs.
Cooking Methods: The easiest way to cook meatballs is to bake them in the oven. The oven temperature can be anywhere from 300-400 degrees (a lower temperature will require longer cooking times a higher temp will require shorter cooking times). Smaller meatballs will require about 20-30 minutes, depending on the oven temp. Larger ones will require 30-40 minutes. Turn the meatballs once half-way through the cooking time to help the browning process. Make sure they are cooked through (especially if using ground chicken or turkey) before serving. Simply remove one from the middle of the pan and cut it in half. The color and texture should be consistent to the center.
Cooking the meatballs in a dutch oven or skillet on the stove top in a little oil will give the outside that nice color and crispy outside texture. Use a medium to medium-high heat to brown the meatballs on all sides (about 5-8 minutes depending on size) and then reduce the temperature to low, partially cover the pan with the lid (to allow the steam to escape) and continue to cook another 5-8 minutes or until thoroughly cooked.
If you are going to add a sauce like marinara, add it just after the meatballs have browned and simmer on low for 10-15 minutes. The extra moisture from the sauce will keep them from drying out.
NOTE: Cooking times depend greatly on the size of the meatball
and the cooking temperature. Always test before serving.
Of course the cost of making this recipe depends fully on choice of meat as well as where you buy it. Where I live, I can make this full recipe for under $15 (well under if I manage to buy ahead and on sale). Considering this recipe makes two to three times as many meatballs as a standard recipe, that’s pretty impressive! Using leftover bread to make bread crumbs reduces that cost even more.
As mentioned earlier, the ability to choose the type of meat that goes into the meatballs has amazing health benefits. Ground turkey, chicken and pork are all lean protein choices. Choose a leaner ground beef (like 90/10) to avoid the extra and unnecessary fat. Sausages like breakfast sausage, Italian sausage and turkey pepperoni add great flavor and balance out the other leaner meats.
Meatballs are the perfect opportunity to let kids help in the kitchen. Get the paper towels ready and let them get their hands in the mix! Measuring the milk and bread crumbs, cracking the eggs, forming the balls (parents scoop and kids roll): these are the building blocks for young chefs.
Kids love small, bite-size food. Especially if you let them use toothpicks to spear the meatball and dip it in a sauce or ketchup! Make individual pizzas and have them add some as a topping.
How are meatballs “efficient”? One big batch results in many meals. The freezer is your friend. Divide leftover meatballs into resealable plastic bags and freeze. Defrost what you need to add to soups, hoagies (teenage boys love this … trust me), pizza and pasta. Need a quick appetizer? Pull out the slow cooker and add some sauce!
And now we’re back to my inner Forest Gump. Versatility. Let your imagination go!
What are your families favorite flavors? What do they order when you eat out?
Keep in mind, a meatball is simply a deconstructed sandwich … a sandwich for the kid in all of us. Grab your toothpicks!