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.
But why does it always have to be breadcrumbs?
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?
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.
MORE QUINOA, RIGHT THIS WAY
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.
- 1/2 cup quinoa, well-rinsed
- 1 pound ground pork
- 1/2 cup minced or grated yellow onion
- 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino
- 1/3 cup finely chopped parsley
- 2 large eggs
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, preferably toasted
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
What meatball recipe would you want to quinoa-fy? Tell us in the comments!