Big Little Recipes

Extra-Crispy Chicken Meatballs Need Only 3 Ingredients

February 25, 2020

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. Today, we're saying goodbye to dry, dense chicken meatballs forever.

If you've ever made meatballs before, you know that it involves more than just meat, rolled into balls, to get to where you want to go. Well, maybe, maybe not. I’ve been known to buy sausage and call it a day. But if you’re starting with straight-up ground meat, you’re going to need to add some friends to the mix to achieve the big-flavor, wow-worthy meatballs we're after.


What you add, of course, depends on the recipe. Rao’s Genius Meatballs are a good example of an Italian-American classic. You’ve got beef, veal, and pork, plus eggs, bread crumbs, grated cheese, fresh parsley, and then some. Cynthia Chen McTernan’s Lion’s Head Meatballs showcase the Shanghainese approach—with sugar, shaoxing wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion, ginger, garlic, eggs, and cornstarch. (Both have honorary Big Little ingredient salt, but you knew that already.)

But what are the essentials here? Meat, obviously. And some sort of binder. Eggs and crumbs both fit the bill, which is why lots of recipes include both. But there’s something else that I like even better: cooked whole grains. This is an awesome way to stretch a high-value ingredient and add another hearty, nutty flavor to the mix. Whatever is in your pantry will probably work—be it rice, bulgur, or, my personal favorite, quinoa.

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Top Comment:
“Sounds good! Any reason to think red quinoa would not work? I happen to have that at home, rather than white. ”
— amanda

I’ve applied this method toward Italian-style pork meatballs with Pecorino, garlic, and fennel seeds. Not only does the quinoa fluff up the texture, yielding lighter, airier meatballs, but it creates an unbelievably crusty crust when crisped in oil.

In this case, I turn to chicken. Which, if I’m being honest, has always been my last pick when it comes to ground-meat dishes, whether it’s meatballs, meatloaf, meat sauce, you get the idea. Unlike beef or pork, the ground chicken you typically find at the supermarket is all white meat, lean and dry and flavorless.

Then I read our latest book, Dynamite Chicken and found a better way: chopping up chicken thighs, pulsing them in a food processor, and ending up with DIY ground chicken. Because it starts with dark meat, the meatballs are flavorful to the nines, not to mention almost impossible to dry out. Combine this with just-cooked quinoa and you end up with a meatball that thinks it’s a chicken nugget. And maybe it is!

You could put these toward a million things, and I hope you do. Pile them on tomato-sauced spaghetti. Sandwich them between a warm hoagie with mayo-mustard and bread-and-butter pickles. Plunk them next to tater tots and ketchup. But before you do any of that, serve them with garlicky greens.

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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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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Rosa
  • amanda
  • AntoniaJames
  • Emma Laperruque
    Emma Laperruque
  • Karen Wadman
    Karen Wadman
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.


Rosa February 25, 2020
Been looking and looking...when can I order the Big Little Recipe cookbook!!!?? 😁❤️
Emma L. February 26, 2020
That's very kind, thank you :) We don't have a publish date just yet, but it's in the works!
amanda February 25, 2020
Sounds good! Any reason to think red quinoa would not work? I happen to have that at home, rather than white.
Emma L. February 25, 2020
Thanks, Amanda! Red should work—the color of the meatballs will just be a bit different/darker than in the photo.
Karen W. February 26, 2020
Is quinoa a rice? I remember putting rice into hamburg to make a meatball but not chicken into meatballs.
Karen W. February 26, 2020
Porcupine meatballs is what we called rice in meatballs.
AntoniaJames February 25, 2020
These look great. Onto the "Recipes to Try in March" list it goes! ;o)
Emma L. February 25, 2020
Thanks so much, AntoniaJames! Hope you enjoy them.