How to Make Meatballs Every Which Way (& Without a Recipe)

May 23, 2016

Make meatballs how you want—we've partnered with Progresso to share every which way to mix and roll them, without a recipe.

It may be ubiquitous in Italian-American restaurants, but nowhere in Italy will you find meatballs (or "polpette” as they call them there) atop a tangle of pasta slicked with red sauce. And that’s because meatballs go their own way, served on the side: Their natural habitat is to be eaten by themselves, or joining a sauce on your fork along the way. There’s no need for a plate of bucatini to go along with it (although, let’s not rule it —we feel things for pasta.)

Meatballs, sans pasta. Photo by Bobbi Lin

A good meatball is no easy thing, either: tender, with just enough breadcrumbs and eggs to hold everything together. Maybe there’s a bit of cheese to add a salty, umami-packed bite. Perhaps there’s some dried oregano and fresh parsley. It’s possible the meatball is completely green and comprised of no meat at all, but turnip tops instead.

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Meatballs are what you make them—and make them you should, sans recipe. Whether you’re looking for a spaghetti-and-meatball meatball or one to pair with tahini sauce, you’re only 5 steps away:

1. Choose your base.

What's in your base? Photo by Bobbi Lin

First, pick your meat (or non-meat). You’ll want about 2 pounds of ground meat for every 6 to 8 people. As for vegetarian meatballs like here, you’ll want 2 bunches of greens (about 20 cups). Here are some options:

  • Ground turkey
  • Ground lamb
  • Ground chicken
  • Ground chuck and veal
  • Greens (turnip greens, spinach, kale, etc.), finely chopped by hand or in a food processor

For every two pounds of meat, you’ll also want 2 eggs and no more than 1 cup of untoasted breadcrumbs (too much could turn the texture spongy), which will act as a binder. For vegetarian meatballs, go by feel, but you’ll probably need a bit more, upwards of 2 cups, to hold everything together. And, if you’re mixing meat with vegetables (see photos and this recipe), as to not incorporate too much stuff into the meatballs, you’ll only need 1 egg and about 1/4 cup of breadcrumbs.

Mix it up! Photo by Bobbi Lin

2. Add some flavor into the blend.

Aromatics add flavor. You want flavor. So, sauté some onions and/or shallots and garlic in olive oil and season with a large pinch of salt. For every 2 pounds of meat, you’ll want about 1 small, finely chopped onion or 2 shallots and 1 minced garlic clove—or more, depending on how much garlic flavor you want. If you’re making greens-based meatballs, add the greens to the sautéed aromatics and cook for a minute or two, or until they’ve wilted. Let everything cool to room temperature before adding to the meat mixture.

Another idea, as mentioned above, is to incorporate the sauce into the meatball by adding vegetables to the aromatics. To do so, add diced zucchini and chopped tomato to your onion-garlic mixture and cook until the vegetables are very soft. You’ll need about 1/2 cup of diced zucchini and 3/4 cup of chopped fresh or canned tomatoes. Including the vegetables in the meatballs not only adds flavor, but moisture—so much so, you might not even need and/or want a sauce.

More: Meet our essential meatball guide.

Once you sauté your aromatics, add your spices. This is where you really determine your meatballs’ flavor profile. Dried spices can be added to the onion-garlic mixture and cooked for a minute or so to awaken their flavors. Don't cook condiments and liquids, fresh herbs, toasted nuts, dried fruit, or cheese, which are are best added directly to meat (see step 3). Here are some different seasoning routes you can take:

  • Mediterranean: cumin seed, fennel seed, Aleppo pepper flakes, sumac
  • Indian: cumin seed, coriander seed, garam masala
  • Greek: dried mint and oregano, finely chopped fresh parsley
  • Italian: dried oregano, fresh or dried basil, tomato paste, red pepper flakes, finely chopped fresh parsley, finely grated Parmesan
  • Vietnamese: finely chopped scallions, soy sauce, fish sauce, grated or minced ginger, finely chopped cilantro
  • Straight-up, like here: Worcestershire, dijon, mayonnaise, finely grated Parmesan
  • Korean: toasted sesame seeds, sesame oil, soy sauce, chile paste, grated or minced ginger, finely chopped scallions
  • Totally nuts: toasted pine nuts, golden raisins, oregano, crumbled feta

As for amounts, let how dominant you want the flavors to be serve as a guide. For cheese, 1/2 cup of finely grated cheese, like Parmesan, is good place to start. Try 2 teaspoons or so of dried herbs and whole spices and anywhere from 1/4 to 1/2 cup of fresh, chopped herbs. As for nuts and dried fruit, 1/2 to 1 cup of each should do. This all being said, you know what you like! Adjust accordingly.

For meatball mixing, make your hand into a claw! Photo by Bobbi Lin

3. Mix and shape your ingredients into balls.

In a large bowl, combine the meat, breadcrumbs, and cheese (if using). Using two forks, gently work everything together. Using your hands, work in the egg(s), cooled vegetables, and any seasonings (including salt and pepper).

If you haven’t done so, try the mixing technique Molly Wizenberg calls “The Claw.” To do so, pretend you’re a bear and make a claw with you hand, bending and tensing your fingers slightly. Move your hand in quick circles until everything just comes together. This mixing method ensure the meatballs have a smoother texture. You can chill the mixture for 15 minutes to an hour, which will make it a little easier to shape.

As for forming the meatballs, you could go rogue, shaping them into about 2 tablespoons or 1 1/2 inch-sized balls using your hands, spoons, or an ice cream scoop. Or, you could follow our advice for perfectly formed meatballs that involve little more than a baking sheet, parchment paper, a paring knife, and cutting even squares out of a rectangle.

Cook 'em any which way. Photo by Bobbi Lin

4. It's now time to cook those meatballs.

If you want a browned, crispier exterior, pan-frying is the way to go. However, for a super soft meatball, add it directly to the sauce. For the best of both words, sear the meatballs and then add them to the sauce. Here are some cooking options:

  • Pan-fry: In a large frying pan over medium heat, pan-fry the meatballs in a thin layer of olive oil (making sure not to crowd them in the pan and working in batches if needed). Brown them on all sides, then cover the pan and reduce the heat to low to finish cooking. Drain the meatballs on paper towels.
  • Pan-fry and finish in oven: Do as described above, but once the meatballs are browned, remove from the pan and place into a large baking dish. Cover the dish with foil, and bake at 350°F for 15 to 20 minutes or until cooked through.
  • Sear and add to sauce: In a large frying pan over medium heat, brown the meatballs on all sides in a thin layer of olive oil, then braise them in sauce (like tomato) for 15 to 20 minutes. Since the meatballs are in liquid, it’s hard to overcook them.
  • Add directly to sauce: In a large, wide pot, arrange the meatballs in a single layer in the sauce. Bring to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are cooked through.
  • Broil: Place the meatballs about 1 inch apart on an oiled, rimmed baking sheet. Brush the tops of the meatballs with olive oil (or oil of choice), then broil 7 to 10 minutes, flipping once, or until the meatballs are browned on all sides.
  • Bake: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Arrange the meatballs about 1 inch apart on a rimmed baking sheet lined with oiled aluminum foil—or, do as Alton Brown does and opt for a miniature muffin tin. Brush the tops of the meatballs with oil and bake for about 20 minutes or until golden and cooked through.
Ta da! Time to eat. Photo by Bobbi Lin

5. Pick a sauce and garnish your dish.

How you chose to season the meatballs determines your sauce and garnish. For example, a Korean-style meatballs’ perfect match is not marinara. Think about what flavors are inside the meatball, and match those to what’s going on the outside. Here are some ideas:

Want more meatballs? Look no further:

How do you do meatballs? Tell us in the comments below!

We've partnered with Progresso to share how to make meatballs—without a recipe, every which way. See all their styles of breadcrumbs here.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Joe Chaffee
    Joe Chaffee
  • Smaug
  • 702551
I fall in love with every sandwich I ever meet.


Joe C. May 29, 2016
Under the list of sauces for the meatballs, what happened to Alfredo sauce and pesto sauce?
Smaug May 23, 2016
In my experience, pork (not mentioned as a possibility) and beef (not necessarily chuck) are nearly universal for meatballs. So is meat; otherwise they're just balls. Pan frying- really the only way to go-works much better with at least 1/4" of oil so the balls are partly floating, otherwise they won't stay anywhere near round.
702551 June 4, 2016
I agree that the omission of ground pork as a possible ingredient is a peculiar oversight.

Moreover, ground poultry (turkey, chicken) are not typical Italian cuisine ingredients for meatballs.

Veal should be noted is really just young, less flavorful beef.

Some very perplexing advice in this article.