We All Could Use a Freezer Filled With Meatballs
Meatballs were one of the first things I became obsessed with perfecting as a young cook. I modified meat mixtures, adjusted my ratios of protein to egg to breadcrumbs to cheese. I tweaked and tinkered, took my time over a hot skillet, browning and turning, browning and turning, certain that a crispy 360-degree exterior was essential to their overall deliciousness. For years I stayed this course, dismissing grease-spattered stovetops and seared skin as small sacrifices I had to make for the very best meatballs.
And then I got over it.
These days, I only bake my meatballs. It was a gradual descent, not into laziness, but toward efficiency. I have two little kids now and a lot less time to fuss over my family’s meals. Like so many of you, I’m now providing full-time childcare while also trying to keep my professional train on the tracks. Lucky for me, making dinner (and making it look and sound easy) is literally my job.
Fast, efficient, and versatile, that’s what we’re after. This one adaptable oven-baked meatball recipe yields an entire batch ready for eating, simmering, saucing or sandwiching in just about 12 minutes. Twelve invaluable minutes. Just a little longer than it will take you to read this.
Truth be told, you can make meatballs with just about any ground meat. My favorite meatballs are made with 80/20 ground chuck. That 20 percent fat keeps the meatballs nice and juicy so you don’t have to add a bunch of other stuff to keep them moist. Ground pork is my second favorite, followed by meatloaf mix—traditionally a combination of ground beef, pork, and veal. Ground turkey works too, preferably dark meat, but turkey breast is also fine. The only protein I’d caution you against is ground chicken. It’s just, well, it’s not for me: a little too wet, a little too soft. That said, if ground chicken is what you have, or what you prefer, then go for it (though you may need to add another ¼ cup of breadcrumbs to help them hold their shape).
This oven-baked meatball recipe is intentionally lean on ingredients: meat, egg, breadcrumbs, milk or stock/broth, and some cheese, salt and pepper of course. It’s a classic combination that makes tender flavorful meatballs good enough to eat unadorned, but without so much going on that they’re distracting when tossed into other dishes. First, you'll want to mix up the binder (along with any optional add-ins—see below)—everything else in the meatballs that helps them hold together.
For every pound of ground meat, start by mixing together 1 large egg, 1/2 cup panko (or fresh breadcrumbs or cracker crumbs), 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano, 1/4 cup milk (preferably whole) or chicken broth, 1 teaspoon kosher salt, and 20 grinds of black pepper.
Add meat and use thoroughly washed hands to mix everything together until evenly combined. Roll meat mixture into roughly 1 1/2-inch balls and place on an ungreased rimmed baking sheet (you should get about 20 meatballs, more or less).
Start with the base recipe and see what you think. Once you’re familiar you can customize it to suit particular cravings. Before adding the ground meat to your binder, you can stir in:
- A grated garlic clove or two and/or a small onion (grated on the large holes of a box grater)
- A tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley or basil
- A teaspoon of dried oregano, smoked paprika, or chopped toasted fennel seed
- A quarter cup each of toasted pine nuts and golden raisins
- A different hard salty cheese in place of the Parmesan (I’ve made these with both cheddar and manchego with excellent results)
Browning meatballs on the stovetop has several drawbacks. For one, it takes a really long time. A pound of ground meat even with the most scant additions will yield close to 24 meatballs. Unless you have an enormous restaurant rondeau at home, you’ll need to brown in batches, at close to 15 minutes a batch. Then there’s the squareness. No meatball has ever been browned in a skillet and stayed ball-shaped. Which is not a big deal but I’ve had many friends text mid-meatball to figure out what they were doing wrong. (The secret to truly round meatballs? Drop them in a FryDaddy.)
Then there’s the danger: as the meatballs crisp, they sputter hot fat all over the stovetop and, likely, your forearm. Sure, you could wear an elbow-length oven mitt while you brown but it’s hard to operate tongs wearing a big mitten. And who wants to deep-clean the stovetop after dinner?
Instead, set your oven to 425°F. Bake meatballs until sizzling and no longer pink, about 10 minutes. Increase heat to broil and broil until beginning to brown on top, 2 minutes.
Baked at this relatively high temperature, you’ll get some nice browning on the underside of the meatballs but, unlike broiling, you won’t have to squat in front of an open oven to make sure they don’t burn. Let the meatballs cool just slightly, then use a spatula to transfer them to plates or sauce or what have you.
The beauty of these basic meatballs is that you can take them in different directions. Once baked, drop them into brothy soups or make a quick one on the fly: Per serving, saute 1 chopped carrot and 1 chopped celery stalk in a little olive oil. Add 1 cup of broth and a few meatballs per person. Simmer until warmed through; top with more chopped celery/celery leaves.
Or, transfer the baked meatballs to a pot of bubbling jarred (or homemade) marinara; toss with your favorite pasta shape or serve over creamy polenta. Smash on top of toasted crusty bread or a split English muffin, cover with cheese and broil. Douse them in a jar of salsa verde, simmer and serve over rice. Or line them up in a toasted, mayo-slathered hoagie roll or hot dog bun, top with cherry peppers or pickled jalapeños, smoosh, halve and serve.
This meatball recipe doubles super easily so bake a double (or triple!) batch, let them cool, and freeze as many as you like in resealable freezer bags. When you’re ready to reheat, toss them on a baking sheet at 350°F until warmed through, about 15 minutes. Proceed however you like. And enjoy those extra minutes.