Anatomy of a Meatball
A good meatball begins as a tried-and-true recipe, either passed down through family lore, or traded with a neighbor, or copied out of a cookbook, catalog, website, or magazine. It gets made, to exacting proportions, over and over, until the dish fits comfortably like a worn pair of jeans and your body and mind go on autopilot when you’re in the kitchen.
One day, based purely on a shortage of this ingredient, or an abundance of that, the meatball recipe gets a dash of improvisation, and evolves. You add something that you hadn’t thought of adding before, or add a little less or more of something else, or substitute one ingredient for something else, and not only did you still end up with meatballs, they were better, because they were no longer someone else’s recipe, they were your meatballs.
Tuesday was spaghetti and meatballs night. These are my meatballs.
In its most basic form, a meatball is a lightly blended combination of one or more types of meat, bread, some dairy, and various herbs and seasonings. Beyond the meat, bread, and dairy, your greatest potential for customization comes in the seasonings. What I am listing here is what I did on Tuesday night, which was largely dictated by what was on hand and what was growing in the garden – your mileage will definitely vary based on the unique riffs that you take off of the main tune.
Here’s my list of ingredients. The recipe is highly scalable, so go crazy with your bad self.
1.5 lbs ground beef, 80% lean
1 slice bread
4 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup grated parmesan
Bunch of herbs, 1 1/2 tsp salt, bunch of ground pepper
Olive oil for frying
Useful items – flexible spatula, high-sided frying pan, tongs
You Want The Sauce, Too?
28oz can of chopped or crushed tomatoes
More garlic, chopped
Oregano, or some other herb
Most recipes call for a blend of beef, pork, and veal, which contributes to a more delicately textured meatball than if you use just one kind. Most times, I am too lazy or frugal to hunt for ground pork and veal, so I use beef exclusively. The most important rule is this – the more fat in your meatball mix, the better the meatballs. I tried using 95% lean beef one time, and the results were horrible – dry, crumbly, rubbery meatballs that absolutely refused to absorb any sauce. I always use 80% lean; if you’re concerned about the fat content, realize that a lot of fat will be poured out and not end up in the finished dish. Then again, if you are really worried about fat content, you shouldn’t really be eating beef anyway.
Rule of thumb, one egg per pound of meat, erring on the egg side. So, I had a 1 1/2 pound pack of ground beef, so I used 2 eggs to make the meatballs. Lightly beat the eggs with a fork before adding them to the mix.
Some recipes call for soaking bread in milk, others call for bread crumbs. I don’t see a difference in the end results – I like to give a slice of bread a brief spin in the food processor to make it into crumbs. So long as, in the end, your bread has formed a pasty mush with your liquid, you’ll be fine. You could probably get away with canned crumbs provided they are not too old and dry.
I’ve seen recipes that use plain yogurt, and others that use milk. Again, for reasons of expediency, I use milk because it’s what’s most commonly on hand. I’ve used yogurt before, and you really can’t taste it in the end result, so the purpose of dairy is really as a moistening agent here.
Here’s where you get to have fun and customize according to what you like, what’s on hand, or what seems to be a good idea at the time. Beyond the usuals of salt and pepper, the variations of herbs and spices that you can add to a meatball recipe are really flexible.
My personal taste enjoys a lot of garlic, and a nice hit of grated parmesan, so, at least to me, those two add-ins are essential to my meatball recipe. I generally chop about three or four garlic cloves into the mix, along with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of grated parmesan. When I went out to the garden, I snipped a handful of italian parsley, some thyme branches, and a bunch of oregano. After rinsing these clippings, I roughly chopped the parsley and thyme and tossed them into the bowl with the rest of my dry ingredients (bread crumbs, salt, pepper, parmesan, garlic) and gave the whole thing a good toss. I reserved the oregano for the sauce.
To this bowl, I then added about 1/4 cup of milk, and the two beaten eggs. Using a whisk, I stirred the contents of the bowl until I had a uniform mixture, then folded in the ground meat using my hands. At this point, I put the bowl into the fridge so that it could firm up a bit – if you’re pressed for time, you can skip the chilling.
Here’s the cooking part. Take a large frying pan, preferably with tall sides (the meatballs will tend to splatter) and heat a small amount of olive oil on medium-high heat for about three minutes, then turn the pan so that the oil coats the bottom evenly.
Wet your hands. Take a 1/4 cup measure and measure out 1/4 cup of meatball mix from the mound, then plop it into your palm and roll it up into a meatball. The mixture should form a loose clump that holds together, but is not bouncy-bouncy hard. As you complete each meatball, place it carefully into the pan. You should be able to get a decent number of meatballs going in a ring around the edge of the pan, and a couple more in the center. Don’t crowd them.
After a few minutes, take a flexible spatula and shimmy it under each meatball, to separate it from the pan (don’t use tongs, you’ll rip the meatballs in half). After loosening the meatballs, use the tongs to carefully turn them to cook the other side. If you’re a perfectionist, you can repeat this process twice more, but generally browning them on two sides is enough to keep them from falling apart. I’ve never done this in a nonstick pan, so maybe using one would enable you to skip the flexible spatula.
As the meatballs progress to a more done state, you can begin pushing the initial batch to one side of the pan to finish cooking as you form and place more meatballs into the empty space. Don’t be overly concerned about overcooking them – they are large enough, and contain enough fat, to not dry out. As the first batch of meatballs seem done, you can transfer them to a paper towel with the tongs as you finish cooking the rest.
After all is said and done, you should now have a lovely batch of meatballs. At this point, you can let them cool completely and refrigerate or freeze them, eat them as they are, or finish them in some tomato sauce, as I have done here.
For the tomato sauce, I chopped more garlic, and set up my oregano and found myself some leftover red wine. I drained all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan and threw in the garlic, along with a little more olive oil. When the garlic turned golden, but before it burned, I added the oregano and about a cup of red wine to the pan and scraped up all of the sticky meat leavings with a wooden spoon, then added a 28oz can of chopped tomatoes. Let this come to a simmer, add the meatballs (turn them to coat evenly with sauce) and let the whole thing cook, covered, at a low simmer for about 35 minutes.