Italian Meatballs

These meatballs are light and tender, using just the right balance of meat, cheese, egg, and breadcrumbs. But what makes them so delicious is the fresh parsley, so don’t skip it and don’t substitute it! Not unless you really, really have to 😉 Serve these any way you like–with spaghetti and tomato sauce, mashed up into lasagna, with gravy, enveloped in a red wine sauce, formed into a patty for a burger, or my personal favorite, broken up into pasta Alfredo.


THE RECIPE


Don’t forget to check out my Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions at the bottom of the recipe.

Ingredients

  • 2.5 cups dried, unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
  • 1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 1/2 tsp coarse black pepper, freshly ground
  • 1 medium cooking onion, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp lukewarm water
  • 3 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2 lbs ground meat of your choice (I use beef with a fat ratio of 85/15, but use lean if you like. I’ve also used ground turkey and love it. Many Italians use equal parts ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal.)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Brush a light coating of olive oil or set a layer of parchment paper on two sheet pans.
  3. In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients except the eggs and meat.
  4. Add the eggs and meat and gently mix with the remaining ingredients, without squeezing or compacting the meat, but more tossing it together until fairly uniform throughout.
    • Yes, you need to use your hands! They’re one of your best kitchen tools, especially for this!
  5. Shape the meat into spheres slightly bigger than a golf ball and place on the sheet pans.
  6. Bake for about 20 minutes, until browned.

Tips, Tricks, and Substitutions

Breadcrumbs: Breadcrumbs absorb the juices that the meat sheds and, without them, meatballs are dense and tough, like an overcooked hamburger. Some recipes call for fresh bread soaked in milk, but that’s not how my family does it and I find adds too much moisture to the meatballs.

You can make your own breadcrumbs by grinding dry bread in a food processor or crushing it in a sealed plastic bag with a rolling pin or similar instrument. If you don’t have dry bread, put slices directly on the rack of a 300 degree oven and bake for 15 minutes, until dried out.

If you purchase breadcrumbs, just make sure they’re “plain” or “unseasoned” because seasoning is being added to the meatball mixture already.

If you’re gluten free or have a wheat allergy, any bread works perfectly well, even gluten free bread. If for some reason you can’t use that, try ground gluten free rolled oats.

Parmesan and Romano Cheese: I will always say…please do not use cheese out of a can on the grocery store shelf. The best is something freshly grated, but if you’re going to insist on buying it pre-grated, at least buy it from a reputable deli.

For the Parmesan, any type is fine whether Parmigiano Reggiano, domestic Parmesan, or Grana Padana. And remember that brand does matter. I once bought domestic Parmesan by my local grocery store’s brand and it ended up in the garbage, yet I love the Stella and Bel Gioioso that I get at my local Italian produce market.

You may decrease the amount of cheese to 1/2 cup, but don’t increase it or it will ooze out of the meatballs, which is a bit unappealing.

Fresh Herbs: If you can’t get fresh herbs, dried is fine if you cut the amount in half. Don’t forget to rub it between your fingers to release the oils. And remember, fresh parsley has a huge impact on the flavor of these meatballs, so absolutely use it if you can!

Fine Sea Salt: If you use a coarser grind of salt, the meatballs may be underseasoned. In that case, saute a small patty (like you would a hamburger) and taste it for seasoning, adding more salt to the mixture, if necessary.

Cooking Onion: Almost any onion is really fine here, but preferably something fairly mild like a cooking onion, Vidalia onion, or Spanish onion as opposed to a red onion, which wouldn’t really be appropriate in this dish.

Mixing in the Meat: You’re not supposed to compact the meat as you mix because that results in a tougher meatball. Let’s be honest here, though…with these ingredients, you’re going to have a delicious, tender meatball no matter what. If you end up compacting it just so you can get all those ingredients incorporated, don’t worry about it!

Shaping the Meatballs: A great idea I got while watching Pioneer Woman is to use a release-mechanism ice cream scoop to measure out the meatballs. It makes the work fly by! Just make sure you buy an appropriate sized scoop, clean it really well when you’re done with it, and, preferably, only use it for meatballs, not for ice cream 😉

Baking Different Sizes: If you want to make a smaller or larger meatball, just remember that your cook time may vary. Smaller meatballs = shorter cook time, larger meatballs = longer cook time. Once they’re beautifully golden brown on the outside, cut one open to see if it’s cooked inside. If you made them so big they’re cooking too fast on the outside and might burn before the inside is done, reduce the heat. Always apply this type of common sense when you’re cooking, especially while altering a recipe!


THE STORY


Short and sweet. I’m Italian, so it’s no wonder that I grew up on my mother’s and grandmother’s meatballs and have come to adore them. Every once in a while, my mother will make a big batch of meatballs and tomato sauce. There will be a tall stock pot on the stove, bubbling away with the rich, red sauce, its scent spreading all over the house, beckoning us to taste it. Then my dad would take out a big mixing bowl and set to work on the meatballs, first mixing everything together, then filling sheet tray after sheet tray with those round beauties. My mother always bakes them in the oven, but my grandmother would brown them and add them to the tomato sauce where the juices of the meat give it even more flavor. Afterward, they’re divided up into 4-quart freezer bags and stowed away for easy meals.

This is the type of convenience food I can get behind. I would never trade the memory of my family’s loving efforts in the kitchen–the warmth of the oven, the delightful scents, the picture of my parents cooking. I would never want to buy a bag of frozen meatballs or serve that to my family to save a bit of time. These are beautiful times, beautiful memories, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to pass down something from my parents to my husband and own children and now onto you.

When you’re done rolling these imperfectly round treats between your now messy hands…and you open that oven door as the scent bursts forth, trays of delicious, golden baked meat gleaming at you, you’ll feel so accomplished and so happy that you took the time to do this for yourself and, perhaps, for someone you love.

And, as always, don’t forget to get the kids involved 🙂 This is something really fun for them to do, just make sure they wash their hands immediately after.

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