There’s no shortage of meatball recipes in the food world, so what makes one better than another? In short, meatballs should be juicy in the middle, caramelized on the outside and brimming with flavor — so much flavor that they can stand on their own, with or without sauce.
This recipe delivers easy meatballs that are jam-packed with flavor thanks to aromatic onions and garlic, fresh and dried herbs and plenty of parmesan cheese. Simmer them in my savory marinara sauce for meatballs so good, you barely need the pasta.
Why are these meatballs so awesome?
First, the base is a commingling of ground beef and pork, a fatty blend that guarantees moist meatballs every time. If you’d rather skip the pork, you can use 85% lean beef. Next, the onion and garlic are grated, rather than chopped, in a simple step that infuses the entire meatball with aromatics while avoiding any chunks. For the herbs, I use both fresh and dried. The fresh herbs add a pop of color and clean taste, while the dried herbs work their way into every nook and cranny of the meatballs during baking. Lastly, there’s a generous amount of parmesan cheese, which keeps them moist and adds a robust nuttiness.
Consider this your guide to making flawless meatballs every time.
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How to make meatballs
Make a pancake. French for “bread mash”, a panade is a combination of starch and liquid blended into a paste. Commonly made with bread and milk, the panade in this recipe is made with panko breadcrumbs and milk. We add the panade to the meatballs as a buffer between the protein fibers in the beef and pork to keep the meat from shrinking and tightening during cooking. Don’t skip this step if you want moist, juicy meatballs.
Use panko breadcrumbs. I highly recommend panko breadcrumbs because they make a fantastic panade when blended with milk. Choose regular or gluten-free, both work well. If you only have regular breadcrumbs, no problem, go ahead and use them.
Grate your onions and garlic. Not only does this avoid chunks (which can cause the meatballs to fall apart), but it infuses the entire meatball with the essence of onion and garlic. Use a box grater to the grater attachment on your food processor.
Use freshly grated parmesan cheese. This isn’t crucial if you only have the shelf-stable cheese, but the flavor of fresh parmesan is far superior.
Add fresh herbs. This recipe calls for fresh parsley or basil, or both. Fresh herbs not only add color, but they also add a fresh, vibrant flavor that dried herbs can’t. I used parsley in my meatballs and then basil on top for serving.
Don’t overmix. Overmixing your meat mixture can lead to dense, hard meatballs. The same is true of shaping the meatballs. Use a light touch when gently rolling the meat mixture into balls.
Bake your meatballs. Baking meatballs guarantees they are perfectly cooked from the inside out. And, since some of the fat drips onto the baking sheet and is discarded, it’s a healthier option too.
Freeze some meatballs for a future meal. This recipe makes enough meatballs to serve 4 to 6 people. If you need less, make the whole batch anyway and freeze leftover meatballs. Once the meatballs have cooled, transfer them to a freezer bag and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator before using.
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The ultimate meatball recipe
I serve these meatballs with a classic tomato sauce and over spaghetti. But they’re so versatile, you can add them to a variety of other sauces, including mushroom gravy, Swedish cream sauce, hunter sauce, garlic butter sauce, vodka cream sauce and more. You can also add these meatballs to soup or use them in a sandwich. They’re so good, you could even just eat them on their own.
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
For the meatballs:
- ½ cup panko breadcrumbs
- ½ cup milk
- ½ pound ground beef
- ½ pound ground pork
- ½ cup grated parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
- ¼ cup grated yellow onion
- 2 cloves garlic, grated
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil or parsley, or a combination
- 2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the sauce:
- 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon Italian herb seasoning
- 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, optional
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, use more or less to taste
- 1 pound pasta of choice, cooked according to package directions
- Fresh basil or parsley, optional for serving
- Fresh grated cheese, optional for serving
- Preheat the oven to 400 F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or foil.
- To prepare the meatballs:
- In a large bowl, combine the panko breadcrumbs and milk and mix to combine. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add beef and pork to the breadcrumb and milk mixture, along with the parmesan cheese, onion, garlic, egg, fresh herbs, dry Italian herbs, Worcestershire sauce, 1 teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon black pepper. Mix until just combined, be careful not to overmix.
- Using a cookie scoop or your hands, gently shape the mixture into 20 to 24 meatballs. Use about 2 tablespoons of the meat mixture for each ball. If the meat is sticking to your hands, brush your hands with a little olive oil. Transfer the meatballs to the prepared pan.
- Bake for 15 to 25 minutes or until an instant-read thermometer reads 160 degrees. If desired, brown the meatballs under the broiler for a minute or two. Transfer the baking pan to a wire rack to cool.
- Make the sauce:
- In a large saucepan, combine the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, Italian seasoning, sugar (if using), ½ teaspoon salt, ¼ teaspoon black pepper and red pepper flakes. Set the pan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to medium-low, partially cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Season to taste with more salt and black pepper.
- Bring it all together:
- When the meatballs have finished baking, add them to the sauce. Stir to coat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to heat through.
- Spoon the meatballs and sauce over cooked pasta and top with fresh herbs. Serve with parmesan cheese on the side.
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