Meatballs

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This page is about how to come up with a meatball recipe. Meatballs are really simple, but also admit a lot of variation. This is nice because it means you can make meatballs that fit almost any theme and that fit in with almost any dish.

Meatballs can go with lots of things. As an American, I associate meatballs with spaghetti, but meatballs by themselves are common as tapas or an appetizer in Spain and other Mediterranean cuisine. There are also Chinese meatballs. This approach also works well for making hamburgers!

Now, before I start discussing the wide array of possible variations, let me describe the general appearance of a meatball recipe. Typically it will look something like this:

1lb meat
1-2 eggs
1/4 cup some filler (vegetable)
Some spices
(Possibly bread crumbs + a liquid ingredient)
(Possibly some oil)

Meat: I believe you can make meatballs with virtually any meat, but I usually do it with beef, so I can’t give advice about how to handle other types of meat. The type of meat – how lean it is, what the grain of the meat is like – will affect the texture of the meatballs, so you should keep this in mind. If your meat is very lean, adding more “fluff” to the recipe might help to keep the meatballs from being too dense and tough.

The quantity of the meat is the reference point. Decide how much meat you want, and then decide all the other quantities after that.

Eggs: Eggs are frustrating because recipes usually call for a number of eggs, but eggs can vary a LOT in size. In this recipe, the purpose of the egg is to help hold the meatballs together. If you want to add a lot of other stuff in addition to meat, more egg may be needed. If you are going for a simple recipe that’s mostly just meat, probably 1 egg is sufficient for 1lb of meat, even if it’s on the small size. If your eggs are very large, you probably only need 1 even if you are putting lots of other stuff in.

Filler: You can do whatever you want here. If your meatballs are the highlight of the dish, this part of the recipe is important. This is what makes meatballs different from just grilling meat – the texture and the blend of flavors. Some examples of things I have or might put into meatballs are garlic, cilantro, jalapenos, olives, onions, chives, roasted red peppers, etc. You can also put regular hearty vegetables in if you want, but make sure you don’t put too much. I think 1/4 cup of stuff total is good, probably 1/2 cup will still be okay for 1lb of meat, but you need to make sure your meatballs won’t fall apart. Make sure that if you put in something watery, you also consider adding bread crumbs (see below).

Spices: Once you’ve decided what main ingredients you want, you can decide what spices are good to accent them. You should almost certainly put salt in. Other than that, it’s wide open – basically anything that’s normally associated with meat and the type of cuisine you’re going for should work. This isn’t the place for a discourse on how to choose spices. I think the meatballs will be boring if you don’t put at least one or two different flavors in; if you haven’t done much at the Filler step, you should definitely put some strong spices in. If you put in strong fillers like onion or garlic or olive, you might not need as much spice on top of that.

Adding liquid: One thing that’s cool about meatballs is that you can get some unique flavors by adding liquid ingredients that have distinctive tastes. In most dishes, this would be achieved by making a sauce, but with meatballs you can put the liquid in directly and the meatballs can stand alone as awesomely delicious! Wine and beer are the obvious choices, but you have all kinds of options. Worcestershire sauce? Lemon juice? Rum? Go crazy!

But if you want to add liquid, you need to make sure the meatballs can absorb it, otherwise they’ll be too soft and will not form into balls and will fall apart and otherwise misbehave. The best way to get meatballs to absorb liquid is to add bread crumbs. The bread crumbs won’t affect the taste, they’ll make the meatballs lighter and more fluffy, and they make your recipes even more flexible. Just don’t add too much, or your meatballs will be fragile and will break apart easily. I’d guess 1 cup of bread crumbs is about the most you can do for 1lb of meat.

For cooks on a budget, the bread crumbs are also a way to make a small amount of meat go further, because you’ll add bulk to your meatballs for very little cost.

Extra oil: If your meat is already fatty, you probably don’t need to add oil. If your meat is very lean, but you aren’t actually that concerned about the calories, adding some oil will improve the texture and make the meatballs more tasty. Olive oil is probably best. You don’t really need much oil, perhaps 1 or 2 tbsp.

Cooking: There isn’t really much challenge to the actual cooking of meatballs. You just put them in any pan. If your meat is fatty or you added extra oil, you can probably just put them in the pan directly, but for leaner meatballs you might want to add a bit of olive oil or whatever to keep them from sticking. You can dredge the meatballs in flour before you cook them (roll them around in some flour), which will give them a bit of a “shell” of crispiness, which might be good if you are serving them stand-alone.

As I said, you can also form the meat into patties and make burgers. If you haven’t grilled burgers with a lot of stuff mixed into the meat before, you should be careful to make sure it gets done in the way you expect. If the meat has a lot of extra liquid in, either via vegetables or via bread crumbs + liquid ingredients, the burgers might take longer to cook than you are used to.

If your meat is well seasoned, it should be able to stand alone as a dish. In the Mediterranean or Spanish style, you might have a light sauce on the side for dipping, like marinara sauce or tzatziki.

Here are the posts I’ve made about things I’ve cooked along these lines:
Pasta and Meatballs 22 Oct 2014
Greek Meatballs 29 Oct 2014

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