Whether encountered in Italian nonnas’ kitchens or in Swedish furniture store cafeterias, meatballs are always a welcome treat—but they’re certainly not locked into tradition if you don’t want them to be. You can turn pretty much anything into an edible ball, and not just various kinds of meat and grains; full meals can be compressed into one satisfying spherical package.
Meatballs are all kinds of convenient, too: they can be made ahead of time, generally freeze well, are easy to scale up for larger crowds, and make great bite-size party food (but if you want something bigger—glorious globes to go on a meatball sub, for instance—they’ll cook up just as beautifully as mini morsels). And there are multiple methods to achieve meatball perfection, from frying to baking to braising, so you can opt for whatever works best for you. Naturally, you can cook them in a Crock-Pot, Instant Pot, or garden variety slow cooker as well. They’re versatile and easygoing, and that’s always a good thing.
While there are loads of meatball recipes out there, you can also approach meatball making as an improvisational process. As long as you follow a loose basic formula, you can adapt them to whatever you have on hand, or whatever you’re in the mood for. This is especially helpful when it comes to serving certain types of food that can be messier and more time consuming to prepare for parties—if you want to make Reubens for a game day, say, you can prep Reuben meatballs in advance instead of trying to assemble a bunch of hot sandwiches at the last minute, so you don’t miss any of the action. Or if you have a movie night and don’t plan on plating a more formal meal but still want to offer something a touch more elegant or offbeat, you can let guests serve themselves from a pot or platter of kung pao chicken or coconut curry turkey meatballs, at their leisure (and yours).
Here’s a basic template for making meatballs (and meatless balls) of whatever kind you fancy:
Pick Your Protein
Literally any type of meat is fair game for grinding and forming into orbs: beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, bison, lamb, goat, venison, elk, rabbit—you get the idea. Combining more than one kind of meat is a classic move too, and can help cut down on strong or gamy flavors, as well as add more fat to the mix. You can also work in finely diced bacon, sausage, pancetta, prosciutto, salami, etc. for extra flavor and fat. If you have leftover tender cooked meat, you can even mix some of that into your raw ingredients, as outlined here. And don’t forget about the option of adding seafood, as in these shrimp and pork meatballs. Whatever blend you use, aim for about a pound of meat to serve 4 people (though that can stretch farther as part of a larger spread), and simply double or triple your ingredients as needed.
Fattier meat mixtures will result in more tender meatballs, but if your protein is lean, you can add a bit more luscious body via cheese, like ricotta, feta, shredded Cheddar, or shredded mozzarella.
Veggies, Beans, and Grains
For meatless…foodballs (face it, there’s no great alternative name for them), you’ll want some sort of meaty matter like beans, lentils, tofu, seitan, tempeh, mushrooms, or coarsely ground nuts. For better flavor and texture, you can add cooked veggies, like greens, mashed yams or potatoes, cooked squash, or cooked eggplant too, and/or cooked grains like quinoa. You’ll also need a dry ingredient and an egg or egg substitute, which are covered in the next section. For a great visual representation of meatless meatball possibilities, check this chart out.
Bind It Up
Use about ¼ cup of purchased dried breadcrumbs or panko per pound of meat, or make the same amount of fresh crumbs by pulsing bread in your food processor. Rolls, sandwich slices, baguettes, bakery loaves, whatever you’ve got. Gluten-free bread works too, but another great gluten-free option is pulverized rice Chex. You can even use blitzed Saltine crackers, rolled oats, cooked rice, almond or coconut flour, or cornmeal to add body, texture, and sticking power.
Mixing in one raw egg per pound of meat will do you well, but if you don’t eat eggs (or you’re just out of them), you can substitute a variety of things: a flax or chia egg (i.e. 1 tablespoon of flax seeds or 1 tablespoon of chia seeds, whisked with 3 tablespoons boiling water); ¼ cup of ripe mashed avocado; a commercial egg replacement; or 3 tablespoons of aquafaba. Any of these will help hold your other ingredients together when you roll them into balls.
Since, as with meatloaf and sausage, you won’t have a chance to fix the seasoning of your meatballs once they’re done, you should really taste a tiny piece of the mixture before you commit to cooking the entire batch. Of course, you’ll want to cook that taste-test morsel too; just break off about a teaspoon’s worth of your meatball blend and pop it in your pan, oven, or pot of sauce, depending on what cooking method you’re using. If it tastes good, get on with the rest, but if it needs something more, add a bit of salt, pepper, acid, spice, or whatever you think it’s lacking.
In addition to plenty of salt, freshly ground pepper, and a little garlic, you can use whatever spices you like, from curry powder, Chinese five spice blend, or za’atar, to jerk spices, berbere, or Tex-Mex chili powder. Feel free to add some sauteed onion and fresh herbs too, like parsley, cilantro, mint, oregano, basil, etc. You can even experiment with adding pesto, harissa, and other sauces and condiments to the meat (or meat-free) mix. Cheese can add great flavor too, and extra moisture if it’s something creamy like blue cheese or ricotta, but drier Parmesan and the like are great for punching up flavor without changing the texture too much.
Even if it seems squicky, mixing your meatballs by hand is best, as it means you can employ a lighter touch—important so as not to make your meatballs too dense or tough—and you can feel when everything comes together. Don’t overwork the mixture, just be sure everything is combined and evenly distributed. You can use a scoop if you’re hell-bent on uniformly sized balls, but be careful not to compress the mixture, and when rolling them between your palms, be sure not to squeeze, or you’ll lose a certain fluffiness and be more likely to end up with dry, leaden meatballs.
While sauce is totally optional, it very often improves even the most already-fantastic meatball, as long as it harmonizes with the flavor profile of the meat mixture, of course. Marinara for Italian meatballs and cream sauce for Swedish meatballs are obvious choices, but use your intuition when it comes to other parings. Think Greek lamb meatballs (or falafel, which technically fits into the veggie balls category) served with tzatziki, or Indian-spiced chicken meatballs (or spinach-chickpea balls), with any good tikka masala or korma sauce. A rich, coconut milk-based sauce is a natural with curried or Thai-flavored meatballs, while a cheese sauce could work beautifully with burger-inspired balls. Barbecue sauce is great with shredded pork, so why not with pork meatballs? If you’re feeling fancy, match duck meatballs with a sauce à l’orange.
Cook Your Balls
Fresh vs Frozen
You can start with fresh or frozen meatballs, which is handy since pretty much any meatball recipe freezes well. If you want to freeze raw, pre-rolled meatballs, you will need space for a sheet pan in your freezer, since tossing them right into a plastic bag means they’ll probably stick together when they freeze (although if you’re going to cook them in a big pot of sauce or slow cooker later, that doesn’t matter so much). You can also pre-cook your meatballs and then freeze them, to simply re-heat later on. Frozen raw meatballs should keep for up to 4 months in the freezer, while frozen pre-cooked meatballs should be good for 2 or 3 months. When it comes time to cook or re-heat, if you’re simmering, slow cooking, pressure cooking, or baking, there’s no need to thaw the meatballs first, but if you’re pan-frying them, then you may want to let them sit in the fridge overnight, or quick-thaw them by placing the bag of meatballs under cold running water.
This is a good way to get a nice crust on your meatballs, but it is more time-consuming if you need to make them for a crowd, since you’ll have to do multiple batches. You can cook meatballs entirely in a hot pan (non-stick or else slicked with some cooking fat so they don’t adhere and get ruined), in which case you’ll want to turn the heat down once they’re browned so they don’t dry out. Or you can just give them a quick sear to brown the outsides before transferring them to the oven, a slow cooker, or a pot of sauce on the stove to finish cooking.
Baking or Roasting
Baking meatballs will still give them a decent amount of browning, and allows you to cook a lot more of them at once. You can lightly oil your baking sheet(s), or line with foil or parchment paper for easier clean up. Just be sure not to over-bake.
Simmering or Braising
If you’re making a warm sauce, you can cook your meatballs directly in it; easy, and they’ll add their own rich flavor to the sauce as they cook. You can brown them in a pan first if you want, but if you’d rather not dirty another dish, just slide the raw meatballs (frozen, fresh, or thawed) into the pan once the sauce is simmering, and let them cook entirely in there. However, if your meat mixture is particularly fatty, you might end up with too much grease floating in your sauce, so use your judgment and fry them first if they need some fat rendered out.
You get all the benefits of simmering or braising, but you don’t have to watch a pot! Browning first is optional, and you can cook the meatballs from fresh or frozen in your sauce in the slow cooker. The same caveat about especially fatty mixtures applies, though.
If you want to make meatballs in your Instant Pot or other pressure cooker, you can either use fresh, raw meatballs as outlined in this teriyaki turkey meatball recipe, or cook frozen meatballs (whether those are store-bought or previously homemade and saved for later), as outlined here or here. If your appliance’s manual doesn’t include instructions for meatballs, you can find plenty of recipes online, which you can always simply use as a guideline for cooking time and technique if you’re not into the specific ingredients.
Nestled on sandwich bread or slider buns, served over rice, mashed potatoes, noodles, or pasta, added to soup or spring rolls, or just impaled on toothpicks for fast-disappearing party snacks, meatballs are marvelous in all their forms.
Here are some meatball recipes inspired by other meals to whet your appetite and illustrate the world of possibilities when it comes to savory spheres.
Ground corned beef (use pastrami if you prefer) is added to these meatballs, which are topped with sauerkraut, cheese, and dressing once they’re cooked. You could experiment with adding rye bread crumbs to the meatballs themselves, or simply offer rye toasts alongside. These would be easy to scale up and make on sheet pans or in a slow cooker too. Get the recipe.
All the glorious flavors of chicken Parm in a slightly tidier package, and with way fewer carbs (although if that’s not a concern, these would be fantastic piled on a crusty hoagie roll). Get the recipe.
Turns out Betty Crocker still has some nifty tricks up her sleeve, like stuffing these beauties with cheddar cheese for a Jucy Lucy-esque take on meatballs. If you don’t want to stuff the individual balls, you can also simply put some cheese on top of each one, but either way, be sure to provide plenty of pickles and sauce. These are pretty perfect party bites. Get the recipe.
Speaking of perfect party food, check out these buffalo chicken balls. They’re a far healthier (and arguably more convenient) alternative to wings with all the same delicious flavors. Serve with blue cheese, ranch, and celery on the side and watch these vanish in record time. Get the recipe.
If you’re cutting carbs or just don’t want to fuss with crust, try these on for size. For an easier take, you can make this low-carb pizza meatball casserole, but there’s something really delightful about gooey cheese stuffed inside each sphere. The pepperoni is chopped up in the tomato sauce, but you could try adding some to the meat instead (or in addition to). Put these on a pizza for a meta meal, spoon over pasta, or just serve them with toothpicks as a game day appetizer. Get the recipe.
Attempting to eat healthier? Or just wary of soggy chips? These low carb keto meatballs pack bold nacho flavor into each bite. If you want a bit more goo, you could opt for a nacho cheese sauce on your Mexican-spiced meatballs, but these do have cheddar on top and mixed into the meatball itself. Get the recipe.
Peanut butter, chile paste, and soy sauce lend amazing flavor (and moisture) to these chicken meatballs, which are topped off with a quick kung pao sauce and plenty of peanuts, scallions, and dried chiles. Serve over rice for a full meal, or as a novel and delicious appetizer or cocktail party nibble. Get the recipe.
In case it’s been long enough since Thanksgiving that you’re actually starting to crave those flavors again, these meatballs combine stuffing and ground turkey for a much easier take on the classic holiday tastes. Serve with cranberry sauce, or make a cranberry glaze to coat the meatballs. And it only makes sense to serve them with mashed potatoes and gravy. Get the recipe.