For Even Better Meatballs, Lose the Breadcrumbs

September  7, 2018
Photo by Julia Gartland

I just read 26 meatball recipes. Only 5 of them used no binder at all. The other 21 used breadcrumbs, either dried or fresh. The dried were plain, panko, or DIY-baked. The fresh ranged from sliced bread to stale bread and were almost always soaked in liquid—usually milk but also water, buttermilk, cream, and even wine.

Fresh breadcrumbs soaked in liquid is a trick I’ve heard about more and more and more in recent years. Because a dry meatball is a bad meatball, dried breadcrumbs sound, well, bad, which makes fresh breadcrumbs sound preferable, which makes soaked fresh breadcrumbs sound even better.

Photo by Julia Gartland

But why does it always have to be breadcrumbs?

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Hop on over to veggie burgers and the binders stretch waaaaay beyond this one ingredient. Recipes use a rainbow of starchy alternatives like oats, beans, wheat germ, crackers, tortilla chips, and every grain under the sun. So why don’t meatballs use beyond-breadcrumb binders, too?

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Top Comment:
“Cooking rice or quinoa just to bind meatballs is overdoing it in my book - stale (but not dried) bread with a bit of milk is sufficient for my taste. ”
— Anke T.

Grains are just-cooked in water, so there’s no risk of them drying out the meaty mixture. And because there are so many options—buckwheat, bulgur, and rice, oh my—you have way more flexibility with flavor and texture. Your gluten-intolerant friends will thank you kindly, too.

To test out this theory, I called in my go-to honorary grain: quinoa. Quinoa’s technically a seed, but it cooks just like rice: 2 parts water to 1 part quinoa, combine in a pot, bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover the pot, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.


After cooking and cooling the quinoa, I mixed it with my dream meatball mixture (what, you don’t have one too?): ground pork, minced onion and garlic, an inappropriate amount of grated pecorino, and a pinch each of fennel seeds and chili flakes. I baked them because I’m lazy and would rather drink red wine on the couch than stand over an oil-splattering skillet. And after a little while in a super-hot oven, they turned out…

Great. Like, really great, Like, I-may-never-use-breadcrumbs-again great. The quinoa contributes fluff and bounce, with a nutty flavor and nubby crust.

While I developed them for this recipe in particular, who’s to stop you from substituting this hack into any—dare I say, every?—meatball recipe? Here’s the ratio I used: If the recipe calls for X cups breadcrumbs, cook X cups quinoa. It’s as easy as that.

What meatball recipe would you want to quinoa-fy? Tell us in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Spring L.
    Spring L.
  • Jennifer L. Lovelett
    Jennifer L. Lovelett
  • Taevia
  • Augustina Cuozzo
    Augustina Cuozzo
  • Sasha Shapiro
    Sasha Shapiro
Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Spring L. November 5, 2023
We've recently had to go gluten, soy and dairy free and have 3+ teenagers in the house, YIKES! I'm not making 6 different meals every night. What kind of adjustments could I make to this recipe using ground turkey (we use it in place of any ground beef). I'd like to try it with cooked basmati rice. Will it be the same amount as the quinoa and what about the fact that turkey is leaner than pork or beef?
Jennifer L. February 16, 2020
Any suggestions on replacing flour with... flax maybe. How about panko, chopped oats? Will it be gummy? Not Gf just don’t like a lot of processed foods
Taevia January 11, 2019
I've not used a grain, but I've used bread soaked in either water or milk for years and it works great. Get it wet, squeeze out the excess then just pinch off bits into the bowl, mix as usual. Beats keeping breadcrumbs around!
Augustina C. January 11, 2019
I basically put whatever is leftover in my turkey meatballs. Yesterday was sweet potatoes and brown rice, along with the usual suspects (shallot, garlic,herbs). It was awesome!
Sasha S. September 21, 2018
I use both quinoa and breadcrumbs in my salmon burgers.
Anke T. September 21, 2018
Here in Turkey, rice is quite routinely used as a binder, in meatballs, soups and veggie dishes. But for meatballs, I will only use it if I happen to have some leftover cooked rice or similar at hand. Cooking rice or quinoa just to bind meatballs is overdoing it in my book - stale (but not dried) bread with a bit of milk is sufficient for my taste.
Melanie N. September 8, 2018
All pork in the meatballs, huh? I'm used to a pork-beef combo.
Emma L. September 11, 2018
Hi Melanie—feel free to do half pork, half beef here! I just personally prefer all pork.
Deb January 11, 2019
My Sicilian family uses beef/pork/veal combination. THE very best cook in my husband's Calabrase family {in a family of excellent cooks} uses only pork. And now, so do I
jane P. September 7, 2018
What can be used in place of the eggs?
Emma L. September 11, 2018
Hi Jane—I haven't tried an egg replacement here, but perhaps a flax "egg" (1 tablespoon ground flaxseed + ~3 tablespoons water) would work.
FrugalCat September 7, 2018
Oatmeal is great in meatballs, so is millet.
Smaug September 7, 2018
This is true- it doesn't seem like the author's sources covered a lot of ground- I've seen and used all kinds of things in meatballs; personal favorites; grated cooked potato, grated zucchini. I keep meaning to try carrot, but I seldom make meatballs these days.
Smaug September 7, 2018
??????Yes, quinoa's a seed- so are rice, wheat, corn, oats etc.
Anja September 21, 2018
Yes, it bothers me too when people say quinoa is a seed, as opposed to the cereal grains. The cereal grains are also seeds, but are from monocots in the grass family. Quinoa is the seed of a dicot plant, related to beets and spinach.
Smaug September 21, 2018
Quinoa is the seed of a genus of Chenopodium,as is amaranth; buckwheat is also a product of a dicot plant; these things, and no doubt others that don't immediately occur to me, are generally accepted as grains, though there is no real rigorous definition. It's true that the term "cereal grains" is limited to grass seeds (family poaceae). I see this whole seeds/grains controversy, which pops up from time to time, as akin to the "tomatoes are not a vegetable?" thing- trying to apply a formal definition of a category where, for culinary purposes, none exists.