Authentic, homemade Italian meatballs that are tender, easy to make and don’t take all day to cook? Oh —and they don’t come from a bag? Meet your Italian meatball primer. They’re called homemade for a reason. You’ve got this!
We all have a childhood nickname somewhere in our past. Some are last name driven – like the many Murphs in our family and others might be a little more cringeworthy. Like the one given to you by your middle-school teacher. As in “Meatball”. Yup, that might have been the nickname earned by yours truly back in seventh grade. As if 7th grade wasn’t hard enough, right? Enough about nicknames – this is all about homemade meatballs—the Italian kind.
The secret to tender meatballs
It’s no secret that in many cultures and families it’s hard to pass down recipes because cooks back in the day didn’t use a recipe. You probably have family recipes that you just can’t replicate the way Grandma or Aunt Gen made them. Because many times it’s all about the feel. Italian meatballs are no exception. This recipe isn’t my grandmas or even my mom’s EXACTLY because I’m interpreting it the way they make it. Anyway, it doesn’t matter— I’ll never get it exactly like theirs. And for my kids – no matter what- my mom’s meatballs reign. That’s because at the end of the day it’s really all about the memory behind the dish.
HOW TO MAKE a great homemade Italian meatball
- PROTEIN – A variety of meat is essential for a great Italian meatball. Traditionally, beef, pork, and veal are used in Italy depending on which part of the country you’re from. My family is Calabrian and typically uses beef. 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 really like the flavor that ground pork adds. Many Italians, especially those from the north, also add veal to the mix and that brings a whole other dimension to the meatball and sauce as well. Find your favorite combo!
- FAT – Meatball-making time isn’t the time to be fat conscious. Choose ground meat with 20% fat. Yes—20%! Fat brings the flavor in a meatball (and pretty much in any other dish) and also helps make for a tender bite. And that’s what we’re going for! We want the soft, tender meatball, not the dry, hard, tasteless one. Right? Right.
- HANDLING – If you overwork the meat mixture, you’re going to be serving up a hard meatball. Resist the urge. Grandma Nina used to say “don’t handle the meatball mix too much, Lor-Lor”. There are definitely are some jokes in there but this is a PG site so I’ll move on. You get the idea. Roll your meatballs quickly – this isn’t the time to make a hard compact, tight ball. We aren’t making golf balls. We’re a makin’ a mea-ta-ball!
- MOISTURE / LIQUID – Some use a combo of milk and eggs. We do not. We just use eggs. I also add warm water (thank you, Ina!). The warm water combined with the fresh bread crumb makes for a really moist meatball. And the word “moist” (while icky in any other setting) is totally necessary here. If you prefer milk, go for it. But whatever you do, don’t leave out the eggs. They’re THE necessary binder.
- COOKING METHOD – Bake, fry or even poach. You can do any of these when you make meatballs. Baking is the preferred method for this recipe because it saves time and is healthier— both good things, right? However, my mom “poaches” her meatballs in the sauce and cooks them for a couple of hours. No baking or frying and they are light as air. You sacrifice the fond on a baked or fried meatball. And fond=more flavor. Totally your call. If you decide to cook the meatballs completely in the sauce without baking or frying first, you might want to reduce a little bit of the water in the meatballs.
Let’s make meatballs!
- MIX – In a large mixing bowl, combine your meats together by hand. Now, this is the time to blend them together thoroughly. But not too roughly. Don’t manhandle the meatball mixture! Then, you’re going to add 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 baking sheet. Don’t crowd them too close together. You want them to brown and if they’re too close, they won’t.
- PRACTICE – The more you make ’em, the better you’ll get. It’s like anything. If you want to make good meatballs, you have to make them more than one time a year. Eventually, with enough practice, you won’t need this recipe or any other. And you’ll come up with your own riff on them. And your kids will love them (well -if you’re Italian they’ll really love their grandma’s meatballs more) but YOUR grandkids will love yours and so on and so on. It is what it is. Who knew there were so many life lessons in meatballs? And double entendres for that matter.
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. ♥️
For a crowd:
I have made 100’s of pounds of meatballs. For each of my kids graduation parties, I have made over 30 pounds of meatballs. I don’t do this all at once but over three sessions. It’s hard to do that many but totally worth it. And at every party, we ran out. 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!)
For a few:
I never make less than 4 pounds of meatballs at a time. Never. 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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Homemade Italian Meatballs
For the meatballs:
- 2 lbs. ground chuck, 80% but no more than 85%
- 2 lbs. ground pork
- 1 T kosher salt
- 3 large eggs
- 1/2 cup panko
- 6 slices fresh bread, made into crumbs in food processor or blender
- 3/4 cup fresh grated Parmesan cheese, no green can please!
- 2 T chopped fresh parsley
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- ¼ tsp nutmeg
- 2 cloves garlic, minced , or 2 tsp from a bottle
- 1 ½ cup warm tap water
- 1 recipe homemade sauce, see below
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 tsp 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.