Got meatballs? These recipes step outside the box
I don’t know about you, but there is just one word — whether spoken in hushed tones or over the din of a crowded restaurant — that brings out all the passion, respect and dignity from the bottom of my dark soul. This word sends electrical shock waves up my spine like when someone mentions “prime rib,” “foie gras,” “shrimp cocktail,” “toro tuna,” or even “Velveeta grilled cheese.” That word? “Meatballs.”
Meatballs are everywhere in the world. The French have the Roussilon-styled boules de picolat made with cinnamon, beef and pork and the Croatians have a much-respected dalmatinske polpete with pork, paprika and milk. Many forms of protein balls can be found in Spain, Italy and China, some shaped like footballs and many on a stick ready for grilling.
A lot of family-owned pizzerias and restaurants have tried-and-true meatloaf and meatball recipes passed down from generation to generation. Today though, it’s easy for you as a restaurant owner to rely on the plethora of ready-made, frozen meatballs out there. These cut costs by bringing labor down and they add consistency, but the downside is that they are exactly what your competitors use! If you want to stand out from the crowd, go for the glory! Making your own meatballs will give you marketable culinary street cred and give you a new pride in your product. Your customers will thank you. Here are a few tips:
- Binder. All meatballs need some sort of binder for obvious reasons, be it straight up fat, soaked bread, breadcrumbs that soak up egg or egg whites or even ground-up chicken skin. Molecular gastronomists even throw in tapioca flour, vital wheat gluten, agar-agar, xanathan gum, guar gum and even semi-synthetic emulsifiers like cellulose derivatives. My ultimate favorite is Transglutaminase, under the name Activa, when I get the hankering to glue a chicken breast to a lamb chop to a steak… Meat glue does it all! (Ha! Let’s avoid this and make honest food, shall we?)
- Fat. Fat makes any meatball sing with a juicy, yet cooked center. Unlike most calorie-conscious ground beef customers, meatballers (for lack of a better name) want a good percentage of fat in their balls. This can be introduced as milk fats, oils such as fish, olive or canola but the special go-to fat product is fat back, leaf lard or cured lardo and bacon. It helps any meatball if you first slowly cook the fat under heat to integrate the liquid flavor everywhere in the meatball. All this fat needs a home so it won’t leak out. This is where some sort of breading comes in handy.
- Spices, fresh herbs and cheese. These are the make-or-break items in any meatball. Cumin, coriander, fennel, mustard seed, celery seed, caraway, red pepper flakes, basil, cilantro, mint, thyme and rosemary all bring any meatball to the top tier of flavor. I’ve found that toasted sesame and citrus zests add a great flavor nuance. Hard grated cheeses like Parmigiano, Romano, Manchego and Kasseri are great in limited quantities, but cheese can tend to create a sandy texture which, when cooled, can create fissures in balls.
- Refrigeration and holding. It helps greatly to hold the meatball mixture under refrigeration either overnight or at least six hours to both meld the flavors and to form the balls. Extremely fatty meatballs benefit the most from a fast balling and bake.
- Balling. The secret I’ve found to making thousands of meatballs the fastest way is to ball them in the very center of your palm using both hands at a diagonal. Do not stiffen your hands, they should be loose and the bottom one should be the only one to move in a circular motion against the top. The meatball will roll against both thumb and palm muscles in a cupping fashion, which makes this a very fast roll once you get used to it.
- Turn and Burn for Perfection. If you are presenting the whole meatballs as an appetizer and want a perfect look, the meatball should be round. As with refrigeration, letting meatballs sit on a tray before baking makes for a flat bottom. When you are finished with a tray of meatballs and are ready to fly into the oven, quickly turn them onto any side that wasn’t flattened before. Then, after five to six minutes of baking, turn them again. This ensures no burned, flat bottom.
Here are some recipes that put a global spin on any meatball:
Albondigas a la Andaluza
Yields 47-50 meatballs
In the 13th century, Spain was still under Islamic influence and the word “meatball” meant “hazelnut” in Arabic because they had the same form and size. This meatball is a combination of chicken, ham and beef with a great nuance of saffron. It is from the Granada region and is usually served with a rich broth.
Avalanche Chipotle Blue(berry) Balls
These dark orbs are sweet, savory and spicy with a hint of brightness from the lemon zest and are a perfect companion to aged provolone, spinach and potato pureed pizza.
MORE stunning meatball recipes at
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.