How to Make Tender, Golden-Crisp Meatballs With Impossible Burger

Plus, a few tasty ideas for riffing on them.

September 30, 2020
Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Lauren LaPenna. Prop Stylist: Veronica Olson.

We've teamed up with Impossible Foods to highlight delicious ideas for using their Impossible™ Burger 12-ounce pack at home. Impossible Burger is meat made from plants for people who love meat. It can be cooked just like the ground beef that comes from animals—meaning you can use it to whip up burgers, chili, tacos, and more. Here, we're showing you why it's perfect for making juicy, crispy-crusted meatballs.

In my daily life, meatballs are the sixth essential food group. They’re my go-to when I need a satisfying dinner in under an hour, roasted at high heat with whatever vegetables in my crisper drawer need using up, then topped with generous spoonfuls of yogurt. They’re what I crave when all I want is to wrap myself up in a bowlful of something warm and cozy, braised in tomato sauce and served atop spaghetti or cheesy polenta.

Whatever my mood, meatballs are always there for me.

Like many people, over the past few years, one of my goals has been to cut down my meat consumption—lessening my personal global footprint one plate of good, plant-based food at a time.

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Top Comment:
“For tomatoes we use roasted red bell peppers, simmered long with onion garlic, a bit of balsamic to mimic the acidity of tomatoes sauce and some seasoning. Then we throw it in the blender until smooth. Makes awesome spaghetti and many other Italian dishes. Thanks so much for new ideas to continue to eat healthier!!”
— Miss T.

But, really, don’t ask me to give up meatballs. Enter: the Impossible Burger 12-ounce pack.

The folks at Impossible Foods have identified the iron-containing molecule—it’s called heme—that makes meat taste like, well, meat. This molecule is found in abundance in animal protein, and their scientists have figured out a way to re-create it using yeast fermentation (a process similar to making beer). Their plant-based protein tastes big and beefy, with an umami richness. Lucky for us at home, it cooks up like ground beef, too.

Though plant-based ground beef is often served in burger form, its possibilities go on and on. Think: keema paratha, Cincinnati chili, shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, and, of course, meatballs.

What makes the perfect meatball?

To me, the ideal meatball is plush, supple, and moist (read: never dry!) on the inside with a crisp, golden brown exterior. It should be flavorful enough to eat straight from the pan after browning and sturdy enough to stand up to a long simmer. After many rounds of testing meatballs using plant-based ground beef—with bread crumbs, without bread crumbs, with eggs, egg-free, pan-fried, and baked—I can say with certainty (and a stomach full of meatballs) that any of these variations will please herbivores and omnivores alike.

For classic Italian-American-inspired meatballs, I used my Grandma Rose’s recipe as a jumping-off point (a neighbor by blood, a grandmother by name, her meatballs were legendary). First, panko bread crumbs are combined with a couple tablespoons of milk, inspired by the French panade (a milk-and-bread paste added to ground meat). These moistened crumbs will help prevent the meatballs from drying out.

The rest of the flavorings are simple: plenty of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, fresh parsley, garlic, fennel, and Calabrian chile paste (the latter two give these little meatballs spicy Italian sausage vibes).

Raw, plant-based ground beef is softer than your typical ground animal protein, so chilling the meatball mixture for 30 minutes before rolling and cooking helps the meatballs keep their shape instead of sinking into mini patties.

The first batch of these meatballs was so good that I had a hard time not eating them before they went into their simmering bath of tomato sauce. The finished result was—chef’s kiss—pillowy yet meaty in texture, cheesy and savory, with a dash of pickled pepper heat from the Calabrian chiles. Even now, as I type, I am dreaming of nestling those saucy little numbers in a hoagie roll with melty mozzarella for the ultimate meat(less)ball sandwich.

How to make ’em gluten-free

If you’re wondering whether or not you can make a very good gluten-free meatball with plant-based ground beef, the answer is: heck yes.

For juiciness without bread crumbs and milk, the vegetable kingdom is here for us. The substitution is easy: Swap in 2/3 cup of cooked, finely chopped vegetables for the breadcrumbs and milk. My favorite vegetable combo is 6 ounces of finely chopped mushrooms and 3 tablespoons finely chopped onion, sautéed in a tablespoon of olive oil until the mushrooms are golden and the onions are soft and translucent. (I like to add the mushrooms first, allowing them to start to caramelize for about 3 minutes, and then add the onions and cook about 3 minutes more.)

The mushrooms’ umami depth beefs up the meaty flavor for an even bigger, bolder meatball. While the texture is a little firmer, these meatballs are ideal for simmering, since they’ll soak up some of the moisture from the sauce. Other cooked veggie options: thawed, frozen spinach and onions; peppers and onions; or mushrooms and an extra few tablespoons of mixed herbs.

No eggs? No problem

In pandemic times, going to the grocery store is an involved task in and of itself, so we’ve all adapted to using the odds and ends in our fridge, or substituting when needed. I always have one or more plain yogurts in my fridge, and one day I was craving meatballs but needed my last few precious eggs for recipe testing. As it turns out, 3 tablespoons of yogurt (any fat percentage will do; a nut- or oat-based yogurt would also work for a vegan substitute) instead of the egg results in a tender, tasty meatball. Their texture is a little bouncier; they would be amazing browned and then added to a soup.

To pan-fry or bake? That is the question

All three variations of these meatballs (classic, gluten-free, and egg-free) can be pan-fried or baked with delectable results, but the plant-based ground beef really takes to pan-frying. When cooked in a couple tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, the meatballs develop a crust that is superior to that of actual ground beef. Pan-frying also allows you to get a deeply golden, crisp exterior on all sides of the meatball, while baking gives you only two crispy sides.

That being said, baking is a great option for sheet-pan dinners. You can roast the meatballs at 450°F for about 15 minutes, flipping halfway through. Throw in some broccolini, slices of lemon, and white beans, and you’ve got yourself a meal. The baked meatballs are just as moist and flavorful as the pan-fried ones, just not with that crust that makes the perfect meatball.

The world is your meatball, so let’s get rolling

Once you have the method down, the meatball possibilities are endless. Mix and match spices, vegetable add-ins, cheeses, and sauces. Here are a few ideas:

Photo by Ty Mecham. Food Stylist: Lauren LaPenna. Prop Stylist: Veronica Olson.
  • Cozy up with these herby meatballs with caramelized cabbage. This one-skillet meal is inspired by the flavors of classic stuffed cabbage rolls. The meatballs are packed with herbs like dill, chives, and parsley, and braised with wedges of caramelized cabbage in a spiced tomato sauce. Finished with dollops of sour cream, plenty of fresh dill, and lemon juice, this dish will be gracing my table frequently as autumn descends.
  • Switch out the Calabrian chile paste for harissa, add a couple tablespoons of mint and chopped preserved lemon to the mix, and omit the Parmesan cheese for Moroccan-inspired meatballs. Serve atop plain yogurt (bonus points for artfully swooshing it on the plate) and a mess of fresh herbs.
  • Give your meatballs Caprese feels. Stir a couple of tablespoons of pesto sauce into the bread crumbs instead of milk, double the garlic, and simmer the browned meatballs in a burst cherry tomato sauce. Add a handful of bocconcini off the heat and garnish with fresh basil leaves and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

What's your go-to method for making meatballs? Tell us in the comments!

You don't need to give up your favorite beefy dishes to cut down on your meat consumption. With the new Impossible Burger Convenience Pack, which includes four 12-ounce packages of Impossible Burger, you can still cook up your go-to recipes that call for ground beef—like classic meatballs simmered in an herby tomato sauce—while knowing that it's free of antibiotics and animal hormones, and all-around better for the planet.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • chef2222
  • clarklm2
  • Miss Teresa
    Miss Teresa
  • Asha Loupy
    Asha Loupy
Food writer & recipe developer


chef2222 November 12, 2020
These come out great, I use Italian bread to make panade with fresh nutmeg, black pepper, ground fennel, pinch oregano, pinch cayenne, fresh parsley and a lot of pecorino romano cheese. These meatballs taste identical to beef, but they do not hold up in sauce like a regular meatball. They turn into mush if you leave them in sauce overnight. So I just fry them up and freeze them, whenever I want meatball with sauce I just add it to the simmering sauce but only for a few minutes to heat it through. These taste best if not cooked in sauce for more than 5 or 6 minutes, after that they start turning too soft for my liking. I am Italian and can tell you these are very good. The recipe that is on Impossible website sounds horrible loaded with so much spice yours is much more like a real Italian meatball
clarklm2 October 6, 2020
Thank you I've been looking for this! Will try soon as I have a 12 oz pack of Impossible meat in my freezer. I appreciate all of the research you have done! Have you tried using an air fryer to cook the "meat"balls?
Asha L. October 6, 2020
You're welcome! It was such a pleasure writing this article and even more pleasurable feasting on many, MANY Impossible™ meatballs. I haven't tested an air fryer (I don't currently own one), but am eager to hear the results if you try it out! Happy plant-based ballin'!
Miss T. October 5, 2020
I am just now working on changing my lifestyle for health reasons. Several years ago we changed our diet because of my daughter's food allergies. We use gluten free panko. A good substitute for eggs sometimes is the broth of canned chick peas. These recipes have given me SOOO many ideas of things to add to our diet!! For tomatoes we use roasted red bell peppers, simmered long with onion garlic, a bit of balsamic to mimic the acidity of tomatoes sauce and some seasoning. Then we throw it in the blender until smooth. Makes awesome spaghetti and many other Italian dishes. Thanks so much for new ideas to continue to eat healthier!!
Asha L. October 6, 2020
That roasted red pepper sauce sounds divine! My most recent batch of Impossible™ meatballs were packed with lots of chopped mint & dill, plus chopped preserved lemon and a heaping spoonful of ras el hanout. I can see those going very well with a roasted red pepper sauce! I also tested these out with a flax egg to great avail as well. Happy cooking!