Here at Food52, we love recipes—but do we always use them? Of course not. Because once you realize you don't always need a recipe, you'll make your favorite dishes a lot more often. Today: If you can source good ground meat, you can make meatballs. Jennifer Steinhauer (a.k.a. Jenny) teaches us their ways. Photos by James Ransom.
Meatballs are by definition not a recipe kind of food. You need some meat—about a pound of it—and you will make them into balls. They need something to bind them (that's where eggs and breadcrumbs come in), and some seasoning and flavor, especially if you are using poultry meat, as I tend to. I like to dump a lot of cheese in mine for extra yum.
While traditionally I fry these mamas, of late I have been cooking them in sauce, which is far less mess and really flavorful in a different way. You can also bake them but that never yields great results for moi.
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Still, no matter which type of meat you're working with, or how you plan to cook them, there's a simple five-step formula for making meatballs that I stick to pretty much every time. It's pretty much foolproof and totally riff-able, meaning you can add spices and aromatics, depending on what you're craving.
Watch: Rao's Meatballs Are Certified Genius
How to Make Any Meatballs in 5 Steps
- Small onion or shallot, diced - Cooking oil, like vegetable oil - 1 pound ground meat (pork, beef, chicken, or dark turkey meat) - 1 tablespoon tomato paste - 1 cup salty cheese, like pecorino - 1 cup breadcrumbs - 1 splash milk - 1 egg - Chopped parsley or oregano (optional)
1. Get a small onion or some shallots cooking in oil. Once they've softened, let them cool -- they'll be going in your meatballs.
2. In a large bowl, mix up the ground meat (no, it doesn't need to be lean!) with your cooled onions, tomato paste, cheese, breadcrumbs (I use panko), a splash of milk, and an egg. If it feels too wet, add more breadcrumbs and/or cheese. I love a ton of cheese, to be candid. If you have some parsley or oregano and people who don't balk at green in their meatballs, you may chop a bit up and add it.
3. Make balls in your hand about the size of two golf balls into one. Please keep them uniform so they cook evenly.
4. Refill your frying pan with a enough oil to cover the balls halfway. Get it going till shimmering. (Alternately, you can simmer the balls in your sauce.) Add the balls one at a time. Do not crowd them. You may well have to do this in batches.
5. Nudge them around the pan with a spatula from time to time. The key here is to keep them from burning, but also to cook them all the way through. You will end up with some that are more crispy than others but just try to control the heat. Pick a sentinel meatball to test for doneness. This should take about ten minutes.
6. Now cook some pasta, while you remove your balls to drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Serve with pasta and red sauce or plain butter and cheese and black pepper. How you serve them is up to you.
Still want a recipe? Here are a few of our favorite meatball recipes for inspiration: