American

Grape Jelly Meatballs

May 15, 2020
3 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

These sheet-pan meatballs are a delightful one- or two-bite appetizer on their own, with a bowl of sweet chili sauce or warm marinara on the side for dipping. All this said—don’t sleep on the slow-cooker grape jelly sauce in the recipe. It may sound strange, but fruit and meat are actually a classic combination (think: pork and apple or turkey and cranberry). Here, the sweet jelly is blended with tomato-based chili sauce (the Heinz variety is a solid bet) or barbecue sauce to replicate a recipe that’s been a favorite American appetizer since the 1960s. —Rebecca Firkser

Test Kitchen Notes

Grape jelly meatballs may be a go-to appetizer on your holiday or Super Bowl table, but did you know they’ve actually been popular since the 1960s? Though it’s nearly impossible to know who was the first to plunk cocktail meatballs in a sticky-sweet mixture of grape jelly and chili sauce (or ketchup, or barbecue sauce!), we know there was a recipe in Marian Burros and Lois Levine’s 1967 Elegant But Easy Cookbook, as well as the 1978 edition of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, not to mention countless community cookbooks compiled during these decades. At this time, the meatballs and sauce were typically made on the stove and served in a chafing dish.

Grape jelly meatballs really took off in the 1970s, thanks to the popularization of the slow-cooker, specifically the Crock-Pot. Home cooks realized the device could act similarly to a chafing dish, but they didn’t have to worry about a live flame on the buffet table. More people began serving grape jelly meatballs at parties—and they still do today.

Though you could simply toss frozen, pre-cooked cocktail meatballs into your slow-cooked sauce and defrost, we developed a recipe to make them from scratch. These simple beef and shallot meatballs are mild enough to pair well with the grape jelly sauce, but go just as well with warm marinara or a gochujang-based cocktail sauce should you want to go in another flavor-direction. You do have to cook the meatballs in the oven before transferring them to the slow-cooker, but we promise it’s worth the extra effort. —The Editors

  • Prep time 25 minutes
  • Cook time 3 hours 25 minutes
  • Makes 20 meatballs
Ingredients
  • 12 ounces tomato-based chili sauce (like Heinz brand) or barbecue sauce
  • 10 ounces grape jelly
  • 1 tablespoon to 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef (15 to 20 percent fat)
  • 2 large shallots, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, grated
  • 1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs
  • 1/2 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more if needed
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. In the bowl of a slow-cooker (at least 5 quarts) whisk together chili or barbecue sauce and grape jelly. Place the lid on the slow-cooker and cook on high for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and whisk until smooth. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice.
  2. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and drizzle olive oil over a sheet pan. In a large bowl, combine beef, onion, garlic, Panko, egg, salt and red pepper flakes until just combined. Form into 20 to 22 scant 1-inch meatballs. (If you have a little over 1 pound meat, make meatballs ever so slightly smaller and make another one or two; the idea is that these are one- or two-bite meatballs so smaller is okay.)
  3. Place meatballs on the prepared sheet pan and bake, shaking the pan halfway through, until browned, 10 minutes.
  4. Transfer warm meatballs to the slow-cooker with the sauce. Gently toss meatballs in sauce to coat. Place the lid on the slow-cooker and cook, tossing halfway through, on high for 1 to 2 hours, or low for 3 to 4 hours. Taste, and stir in another tablespoon lemon juice mixed with a pinch of kosher salt if you find the sauce a bit too sweet. Serve warm with toothpicks.

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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, The Strategist, Eater, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl. You can follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

    3 Reviews

    Rebecca J. June 20, 2020
    This recipe has been around in wide use at least since the sixties when it became as popular as avocado green, harvest gold, and burnt orange! My sister-in-law makes it every Christmas and 4th of July, our two big family get-togethers. I’ve figured out it works really well with ground turkey too, but I also use my own homemade gluten-free breadcrumbs! Nothing makes meatballs taste quite the same as homemade crumbs! I also add a bit of dried basil.
     
    Tracey June 19, 2020
    For a really quick appetizer, use cocktail franks instead of making meatballs. I keep a package of cocktail franks in the freezer and use any kind of jelly and place both in a crockpot for any easy peasy appetizers and it's always a hit.
     
    K. A. May 21, 2020
    My mother made Sweet And Sour Meatball for New Years Eve Parties in the 60's.
    Now I've brought the recipe to Australia and everyone loves it so much that my kids want it for dinner. I've had to find substitutes for the grape jelly and chili sauce but it actually tastes exactly the same as I remember.