wanted to make a recipe that calls for frozen meatballs, but i want to make my own. what is the best way to brown them first and will they fall apart when i put into a crock pot and add sauce?
Shape your meatballs and pan-fry on the stovetop until cooked through. Proceed with the crock pot & sauce.
Pan frying, definitely. You should have enough oil that the balls are floating a bit- at least a quarter inch- if you want balls rather than squiggets.
Yes, brown them in a pan. Incorporate some egg and bread into your meatball mix which will help bind them together during that step so that they hold their shape. Then finish cooking in your sauce.
I have been making meatballs in sauce for 30+ years and never brown them first. The trick is to make sure the sauce is brought up to a simmer, then gently put the raw meatballs into the sauce. They will not fall apart. If you put the meatballs into the sauce before it is simmering the meatballs will fall apart. With my method there is no reason to make an extra step or extra mess in browning meatballs.
Don't forget that one of the reasons to brown them is to Carmelize the meat enough to add more depth of flavor.
i have no doubt your meatballs are delish and will try this next time. i think they will come out more like my mom's italian wedding soup with chicken meatballs which were not browned but put in the soup. however, when my mom did make beef/pork/veal meatballs (depending on what was available) she of course would use egg, breadcrumbs, garlic, grated cheese and italian parsley and would handle them very lightly and not compact too much. browning was done in the cast iron pan with maybe medium heat, not on high, and she would check and roll them as needed. pretty high maintenance meatballs but were they ever yummy! they weren't huge but a little less in size of as a golf ball or ping pong ball.
I bake or broil them, less mess on the stovetop.
I bake at 425 or 450 for 10-12 minutes on a greased cookie sheet. Way less mess than pan frying.
Personally, I'd much rather clean the frying pan than the baking sheet.