This Simple Trick Will Get You the Greatest Ground Chicken

And Tyler Kord's chicken and broccoli meatballs are the perfect place to use it.

October 14, 2019

Chicken is pretty much universally beloved—every part of it. The white meat is tender, lean, and mild; the dark meat a little richer and gamier; the wings and other bonier parts chock-full of the meat's essence. In recipes, each has a purpose: chicken breasts offer a juicy blank canvas for powerful bursts of flavor to shine, like this smoky grilled rendition; thighs bring an unctuousness and meatiness anywhere they're involved, and can stand up to braising (no less, in chocolate milk!) for extended periods to become helplessly tender. And the bones and skin and other tendony bits of chicken offer deep—well—chickeniness to stock; they also bring a whole lot of the protein, collagen, that helps make stock thick and luxurious (we'll get into this topic another time).

But today, we're not here to talk about the nuances of tender braised chicken thighs or a smoky, juicy grilled chicken breast. Today, we're here to talk about chicken meatballs, aka chicken that's been blown to smithereens. Specifically, we're exploring Chicken & Broccoli Meatball Subs with Apple Giardiniera by Tyler Kord, chef–owner of No. 7 Restaurant and author of our most recent cookbook, Dynamite Chicken. Because it turns out that blown-to-smithereens chicken can have a whole lot of nuance, too.

The recipe is in a chapter of Dynamite Chicken that's aptly named "Dishes to Get Your Picky Kids to Eat Real Food, Chicken Edition." Tyler was inspired by his own childhood to create the dish. He explains in the recipe's headnote: "Growing up, my mother cooked dinner for our family most nights. On the rare occasions when my parents went out, we either ate pizza or got Chinese food. Because of this, chicken and broccoli has consistently been one of the most important relationships in my life. This sandwich harnesses that magic...and rounds it out with mayo and cilantro. But feel free to skip the sandwich and just eat these meatballs, as an amazing snack straight out of the refrigerator." And because Tyler wanted to show , he and his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Barbara, made the meatballs together in the (unbelievably adorable) video above.

As we know from the video, and from common sense, chicken meatballs are made primarily from ground chicken. I know, I know, ground chicken often comprises too-lean meat that can be flavorless and insipid, dry and mealy. Meaning that your chicken meatballs can be flavorless and insipid, dry and mealy, and not worth your time.

Not Tyler's. Despite the ways ground chicken may have wronged you in the past, his broccoli meatballs prove that ground chicken can definitely be delicious, and most certainly deserves your attention. It's all about his unique approach.

"At the grocery stores by my house," Tyler tells me, "the only ground chicken I can usually find is from one of the big, industrial chicken producers. The package has all of the right words: 'No Antibiotics, Cage Free, etc.' but I still can’t get behind it. So I grind my own! It’s not hard and you can just use a food processor.

"I recommend using chicken thighs for this because they’re tougher and fattier, which makes for better texture and flavor in the ground meat. Just cut deboned chicken thighs into even, 1-inch pieces before putting them in the bowl of the processor, because if they go in even, they are more likely to come out even. Then, working in small batches, us the pulse function to chop them up enough so they're ground, but not so much that you end up making a mousse—which is good for some things, but not exactly what people have in mind for meatballs!"

So, Tyler's meatballs start with a great foundation—moist, flavorful chicken thigh meat—and get a hand from blitzed-up broccoli, Parmesan cheese, and an egg to bind them up.

But the meat is not the only way Tyler sneaks in extra flavor and texture into the dish. The other secret ingredient in these meatballs is something you might see more often at your breakfast table, atop pancakes and waffles and steaming bowls of oatmeal. Yep, Tyler puts of all things, maple syrup—just a bit!—into his meatball mix. And you really can't tell that it's there! But again, Tyler explains why he does this:

"Every single chicken dish you make is like a glass of lemonade. That might sound dumb, but hear me out. Lemonade is pretty much always good, but if you strike the right balance of sweet, sour, bitter, and salty (yes, there should be just the tiniest amount of salt in lemonade), it can be the most delicious beverage in the "known" universe. The same is true of a plate of chicken. By tasting and tweaking acid, salt, and sugar, I tried to turn each of the dishes in this book into the most perfect glass of lemonade that I could. To do this, I often used two important ingredients: distilled white vinegar and maple syrup.

Even though maple syrup has a distinct flavor, for whatever mystical reason it just blends into food in ways that I don’t understand, and improves it by balancing and enhancing salty, sour, and bitter elements. Try making the meatballs without the maple syrup first, by mixing everything together, cooking off a tiny bit of the meat mixture in a sauté pan, and tasting it. Then mix in the syrup and cook it and try it again, and the difference will be crystal clear. You’ll taste the savory chickeniness even more when you add sweetness."

Wacky? Sure, maybe a little. But it works—an extra insurance policy against ground chicken's typical insipidity.

And it especially works in conjunction with the next couple steps: shape the meatballs; stick them in the oven until cooked through (and, ideally, slightly caramelized); top with salty–sweet pickled apples and fennel, spiced with star anise (that's apple giardiniera, to you); place said meatballs and giardiniera on a mayo-doused hero roll; enjoy the heck out of it.

Is there a lot going on, with the meatballs, and the maple syrup, and the mayo, and the salty–sweet pickled fennel and apples? Perhaps. But again, it works: According to Samin Nosrat in Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, we should "always balance sweetness with acid, and not only in desserts. Anything that's developed sweetness from browning"—like our maple-y chicken meatballs that have further caramelized in the oven—"will always appreciate a squeeze of lemon or a touch of vinegar. A little will go a long way."

If there's anything I've learned lately, it's that we should always listen to Samin. And Tyler, of course.

What's your favorite way to enjoy ground chicken? Let us know in the comments!
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The Dynamite Chicken cookbook is here! Get ready for 60 brand-new ways to love your favorite bird. Inside this clever collection by Food52 and chef Tyler Kord, you'll find everything from lightning-quick weeknight dinners to the coziest of comfort foods.

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Brinda is the Director of Content at Food52, where she oversees all site content across Food52 and Home52. She likes chewy Neapolitan pizza, stinky cheese of all sorts, and tahini-flavored anything. Brinda lives in Brooklyn with 18 plants and at least one foster pup (sometimes more). Find her at @brindayesterday on Twitter and Instagram.