Meet your Italian meatball primer. Learn how to make the most tender Italian meatballs the whole family will love. Beef and pork come together with a few key ingredients to make a moist meatball that simmers in a simple San Marzano tomato sauce. Make classic Italian meatballs that are tender, easy and don't take all day to cook.
Over the years, I have made 100's of pounds of homemade meatballs. For each of my kids graduation parties, I have made over 30 pounds of meatballs. So you might say I'm a meatball expert.
I come from a long line of Italian women who also were famous for their traditional Italian meatballs.
And now, I'm passing on to you what they've shared with me...
...all the secret tips and tricks for how to make a homemade meatball that is tender, moist, and cooks in the best homemade tomato sauce.
The best way to cook meatballs
There are a few schools of thought on making meatballs. Every Italian family has their method but they boil down to just a couple of options.
Bake/Fry and Simmer. This method involves either frying meatballs in batches in a skillet on the stove. Alternatively, you can par bake the meatballs on sheet pans in the oven. Both methods end with simmering the browned meatballs in tomato sauce until completely cooked.
Poach. This is the way my mom taught me and my Grandma cooked her meatballs in sauce too. Poaching meatballs saves time and also a dish or two!
What you need for moist meatballs
Gather these ingredients and you'll never have to eat dry meatballs again.
Ground meat mix for meatballs
A variety of meat is essential for a great Italian meatball. Traditionally, ground beef, pork, and veal are used in Italy depending on which part of the country you're from. My family is Calabrian and typically makes all beef meatballs.
Once in a while, my mom and grandma would add a couple of bone-in pork chops to the sauce to add that flavor there as opposed to directly adding it into the meatballs.
I have since added ground pork to my meatball recipe because I really like the flavor that ground pork adds to the sauce and the texture of the meatball.
There are two key ingredients that help add moisture to meatballs.
Eggs. An ingredient not be left out. Eggs are THE necessary binder in meatballs. (You can use an egg substitute.)
Water. Warm water combined with fresh bread crumbs makes for a really moist meatball. You'll be amazed at how light and tender it helps make the meatballs.
In addition to a sprinkle of oregano, some kosher salt and ground black pepper, we are also adding parmesan cheese for umami and saltiness and a pinch of nutmeg which adds a surprising warmth that helps make really flavorful meatballs.
How to make meatballs- step by step
Once you have all your meatball ingredients assembled, it's time to get rolling.
- MIX -
- In a large bowl, combine the ground meats together by hand. Blend the meatball mixture thoroughly but not too roughly.
- Next, mix in the rest of the ingredients ending with the warm water. Gently. Gently. Gently. Fold the water into the meatball mix like your working a delicate dough.
- ROLL - Once you have mixed all of the ingredients and you're sure there aren't any big pockets of breadcrumbs or cheese clumping together, you are ready to roll. Literally.
- A medium-sized scoop is your best friend for a uniform meatball.
- Scoop up a meatball and gently roll it into an easy ball.
- Don't squeeze or mush it together. It'll even feel like it's too wet or not going to hold together. It will!
- LAYOUT - One at a time, line up each meatball on a sheet pan. Don't crowd them too close together. You want them to brown and if they're too close, they won't.
The Best Meatball Sauce Recipe
Making homemade sauce for meatballs is so easy. You'll start by:
The best thing about meatballs is their ability to flavor spaghetti sauce as they cook. The sauce soaks in the flavor of the meat helping to make the best meatballs!
Tips for really great meatballs
- Don't overwork the meat mixture or you'll also end up with a hard meatball. Our goal is a light, tender meatball so you don't want to handle the meatball mixture too much
- Roll your meatballs lightly. This isn't the time to make a hard compact, tight ball. We aren't making golf balls.
What to do with leftover meatballs
Meatball lasagna. Use leftover meatballs in this easy meatball lasagna recipe perfect for two
Meatball subs. Add meatballs and some sharp provolone to a hoagie roll. Toast the whole thing in the oven for the best meatball sub for lunch.
Easy party appetizer. Add some meatballs to a baking dish and top with fresh grated parmesan. Serve with some skewers and a side of tomato sauce for dipping.
Tips for Cooking with Family
Speaking of life...here are a couple of things I know:
- Cook with your kids. Let them do more than stir. Teach them how to crack an egg, flip a pancake, make a pizza. Let them make a mess. Eventually, you'll have kids who want to feed themselves and those they love with good, fresh, homemade food.
- Cook with your mom, sister, grandma, aunts and extended family. Some of the best memories are made in the kitchen. And some of the best life lessons and family stories are shared and happen there. Our parents, grandparents and relatives are treasure-troves of life experience. And they want to pass it on. Let them. ♥️
Serving and storage
No matter how many meatballs I make, I usually run out. (TIP: Meatballs and slider buns for a big party are a HUGE crowd-pleaser.) Just make sure to have a big bowl of freshly grated Parmesan or Romano. And lots of extra sauce (and napkins!)
Make ahead. Make meatballs and sauce up to 3 days ahead. They get better as they sit in the fridge!
Storage. Store in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
Freezer. Meatballs are made for the freezer. You can freeze them in smaller packets. I double bag them, label them with a date and always add extra sauce. Defrost overnight in the fridge and you have a weeknight dinner they'll run home for. And probably want to bring their friends. Guaranteed.
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Tender Beef and Pork Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
For the meatballs:
- 2 lbs. ground chuck, 80% but no more than 85%
- 2 lbs. ground pork
- 1 T kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- ½ cup panko
- 6 slices fresh bread, made into crumbs in food processor or blender
- ¾ cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese, no green can please!
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cloves garlic, minced , or 2 teaspoon from a bottle
- 1 ½ cup warm tap water
- 1 recipe San Marzano tomato sauce, more information on tomato sauce
For the sauce:
- 3 T olive oil
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 1 ¼ cup red wine
- 1 T chopped garlic
- 6 oz can tomato paste
- 2 cans WHOLE San Marzano tomatoes, pureed in blender (no blender? use tomato puree but whole is preferred for freshness and taste)
- 1 T kosher salt
- 1 ½ t ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoon sugar
- ½ cup water , if needed
- crushed red pepper, optional
For the meatballs:
- Preheat oven to 400°.
- Drizzle a baking sheet with olive oil.
- In a large bowl and using your hands, blend the meats together until mixed well. You don't want to see big clumps of either meat but a nice uniform mixture.
- One at a time, crack the eggs into the side of the bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Of course, you can beat them in a separate small bowl and then add them but I'm all about saving some dishes. 😀
- Add the salt, pepper, oregano, both breadcrumbs, Parmesan, parsley and spices. Mix well into the meat along with the eggs.
- Add the warm water and mix gently with both hands making sure to incorporate all the water. It will feel like it won't mix together but it will eventually!
- Shape into 2” balls using either your hands or a medium-sized scoop. The mix will be very wet. As you go along and your hands start to get a little sticky, rinse your hands with warm water but don't dry them and go back to making your meatballs.
- One at a time, line up meatballs on your baking sheet being careful not to overcrowd. Depending on the size of your sheet, you'll likely get anywhere from 5-7 meatballs across and about 6-8 rows down.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes until lightly browned, switching the pans in the oven halfway through to cook them evenly.Remove from oven and set aside.
For the sauce:
- Sauté chopped onions in olive oil for about 5 minutes until browned. Add garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
- Add red wine and cook for about 3-5 minutes until most of the wine is absorbed and the onions are syrupy.
- Add the tomato paste and sauté it for about 2 minutes.
- Add the tomatoes along with the remaining ingredients.
- If making meatballs add browned/partially cooked meatballs (or uncooked if poaching meatballs).
- Simmer for about an hour to an hour and a half and taste for seasoning.