Confession: I'd never made meatballs for dinner until a couple weeks ago. Maybe it's because I'm gluten-free, or because I just never thought of them, or because I was traumatized by some sorry, stiff meatballs I ate in my past—I don't really know.
Whatever the reason, I'm now a convert. Because once I realized how much fun it is to flavor and shape meatballs however I want, I fell hard for them. Today my freezer is stocked with a few different kinds of uncooked meatballs that I can pull out as needed to make dinner for myself—or a group of six.
You don't need a recipe to make meatballs. In fact, they're more fun without. All you need is to memorize this golden ratio:
1. 1 pound of ground meat + 1 handful breadcrumbs + 1 handful chopped alliums + 1 egg
1 pound ground meat
This is the easy part. Meatballs can be made with ground beef, pork, veal, lamb, chicken, or turkey. You can mix two or three together for your own personal blend, or stick with just one meat. A bit of finely chopped bacon or pancetta can also be added to any of these for richer, smokier meatballs. And any raw sausage (removed from its casing) counts as ground meat, too.
A pound of meat is enough to make meatballs for 4. But while my meatball ratio scales up to serve more people, I don't recommend scaling down. Instead, make the full 1 pound batch of meatballs and freeze whatever you don't want to eat. (Freeze the meatballs raw.)
1 handful breadcrumbs
For every pound of meat, you want to add about one handful (or about 1/4 cup) of breadcrumbs, which also help hold everything together. I like to use fresh breadcrumbs made by blitzing a piece of stale bread in the food processor—they're softer and mushier and more absorbent that way. (You can use any kind of bread for this, including gluten-free bread.) If you don't want to make your own breadcrumbs, go for panko rather than traditional dried breadcrumbs; panko has better texture.
1 handful chopped alliums
For both flavor and textural variety, you want to add the same amount of finely chopped alliums (onions, shallot, and/or garlic) as breadcrumbs: one handful (or 1/4 cup) per pound of meat you use. If you can't stand alliums (or maybe you're allergic?) you can totally skip them, or add less. But don't add more—too much will compromise the structure of your meatballs.
2. Put it all in a bowl and season.
No need to mix the ground meat, breadcrumbs, and alliums together yet. Just get all of it into the same bowl and start seasoning. Begin with a good sprinkle of salt. From there, it's up to you. I like a lot of fresh herbs (try lamb meatballs loaded with chopped mint, dill, parsley, cumin and red pepper flakes). For classic Italian flavoring, add a generous dose of grated parm, some oregano (dried or fresh) and some parsley and freshly ground black pepper. Add a dollop of tomato paste if that's your thing. Or consider curry, paprika, miso, ginger or chipotle. Play, but don't go crazy: it's better to add too little than too much. How do you know how it'll taste? We'll get to that in a second, but first...
3. Don't forget the egg.
For every pound of meat you use, you need one egg to help hold it all together. Whisk the egg in a bowl, then pour it over your the meat, breadcrumbs, alliums, and seasonings. (Using two pounds of meat? Use two eggs. A pound and a half of meat? Whisk one egg, discard half of it, then add a second egg.) Now use your hands—yes, your hands—to mash and squish and combine everything together until well combined.
4. If you're not sure, just do a pan fry taste test.
Once you cook a meatball, there's really no way to change its flavor. So you have to taste the meatballs before you cook them.
Of course, you don't want to put a mixture of raw meat and eggs into your mouth. Instead, heat a small amount of oil in a skillet, add a little spoonful of meatball mixture and cook, turning once, until it's cooked through. Now eat it, and adjust the seasoning of your mixture according to your taste. You can also adjust the texture. To make your meatballs softer, add a little liquid such as milk or applesauce or tomato sauce. To make your meatballs firmer, add more breadcrumbs. Run another taste test after each adjustment. Once the meatballs are how you want them, you're ready to start shaping.
Become a true meatball master with this quintessential tips.
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