Big Little Recipes

One-Ingredient Meatballs Are the Ultimate Dinner Shortcut

To go with pasta, polenta, rice bowls, salads, sandwiches...

April 16, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week's recipe is as little as can be.

Meatballs and just about anything makes a great dinner. Maybe it’s spaghetti and tomato sauce. Or crusty bread and melty mozzarella. Or braised bok choy and rice. Or brothy cabbage soup.

In other words, I’m always happy to eat meatballs. But I’m not always happy to make them.

The basic meatball ingredient list is: ground meat (beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey), often bread or bread crumbs (or even grains), eggs, salt, and whatever bonuses you can dream up. Those bonuses are what make meatballs so versatile and wide-ranging.

And also so time-intensive. Chopping—and maybe sautéeing—vegetables. Mincing herbs. Grating cheese. Microplaning aromatics like ginger and garlic. Sometimes, these extra steps are fun. (Say, on a Saturday. When the laundry is already washed, dried, and folded. And the groceries are bought and unpacked. And I have no other plans.) Other times, I’m more inclined to think: Eh! I’ll just go with chicken thighs or steaks instead.

This one-ingredient “hack” fixes all that. Instead of mixing ground meat with a bunch of other stuff, just buy fresh, loose sausage.

For the record: This is not a classic, tradition-honored, play-by-the-rules meatball. It is a ball of meat, which just so happens to be well-seasoned, full of flavor, crusty on the outside, juicy in the middle, and extremely low-effort. It is a “meatball” for when you want meatballs, but don’t want to make meatballs.

A can't-go-wrong combo: pasta, sausage meatballs, broccoli rabe, olive oil, garlic, and chile flakes. Photo by Rocky Luten

All you have to do is pick whichever fresh sausage is speaking to you. (Psst: Pre-cooked sausage won’t work here.) Try sweet Italian. Or hot Italian. Or breakfast. Or spicy chorizo. Or swing by a local butcher and see if they have something custom mixed up. If you can only find sausage in links, these work too—just remove the meat from its casing. Roll the sausage into balls; these could be itty-bitty or gigunda (I like somewhere in the middle). And pan-sear in a slick of hot oil until golden-brown all over.

The best part? All that time you would have otherwise spent assembling the meatballs, you can now spend making whatever's going with the meatballs. And, just like that, what once was a weekend treat is a weekday fallback.

Here are some of my favorite ideas to get started:

  • Sweet Italian sausage meatballs in chicken broth with escarole, Parmesan, and egg
  • Hot Italian sausage meatballs with pasta, broccoli rabe, garlic, and olive oil
  • Chorizo sausage meatballs with steamed rice, pinto beans, and limey cabbage slaw
  • Breakfast sausage meatballs with garlicky yogurt, sautéed kale, and warm bread

Bonus Big Little Recipe

If you’re a Big Little fan, maybe you’re wondering: Where’s this week’s video? We’re taking a quick hiatus—yep, just like a TV show—to cook up the next season of episodes, premiering May 28. They’re gonna be bigger (and littler) and better than ever. Stay tuned! And if you have any meatball tricks up your sleeve, share 'em in the comments.

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • FrugalCat
  • Smaug
  • Bri Lavoie
    Bri Lavoie
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.


FrugalCat May 21, 2020
I do this! Sometimes I don't even roll it into balls but kind of cut the meat into squares, about the size of a meatball.
Smaug April 17, 2019
Of course, if you're going to buy something premade, you could buy premade meatballs.
Bri L. April 16, 2019
And this week’s prize for the blindingly obvious goes to: sausage... rolled into meatballs that somehow still taste like sausage (and not proper tasty meatballs...). Really F52, I am hoping for more from your site than this.