Even if you cook from a favorite age-old recipe, you can tweak and upgrade your approach. 

By Chris Malloy
September 02, 2020
Javier Zayas Photography

Recipes for high-quality, delicious meatballs vary between cultures, between neighboring towns in single countries, and between just about every cook. There are many paths to tasty meatballs. Most people stick to one common path, or one meatball style, often working through the well-practiced motions of a treasured recipe.

Your meatball can get better, even if it’s already very good. And if you’re afraid to mess with a good thing, know that there are ways to upgrade meatballs without altering your recipe. On the other hand, other upgrades do probably require a change. These pointers fall into both groups, all of them roads to a better meatball. For meatball recipe inspiration, find our collection of delicious ideas here.

The most important shortcut to making great meatballs is to upgrade your meat. In fact, great meatballs probably aren’t attainable without starting from quality meat. No amount of kitchen sorcery can substitute for what a fresher, better package of chuck beef can bring. If you can, use meat freshly ground by a local butcher.

As you know, meat from different animals has different qualities. Pork brings dimensions not totally alike those of beef. Lamb carries a rich mineral tang. Try blending two or three kinds of ground meat when making meatballs. I find a pork-and-beef blend to be better than beef alone, and that a little lamb can create a whole lot of depth. 

If you’re making meatballs with breadcrumbs, use some you’ve made yourself (here’s how). The grocery store crumbs have been sitting on the shelf for a while. They lack the vitality of homemade breadcrumbs, which are easy to make. 

Though the many cultures of the world that make meatballs consider them from various angles, many meatballs are all about intensity and bold flavors. To dial up those flavors, add seasonings liberally. Shower in the cheese. Be generous with the salt and herbs. Most of all, embrace the goodness of garlic. Have you ever had a meatball that was too garlicky? Probably not.

You might stick closely to a time-honored family meatball recipe. That’s great. But if you want to mix things up, the meatball offers room for a range of flavors. Instead of merely Parmesan, consider adding aged gouda or Pecorino. If you have green onions or ramps from the farmers’ market, add them. Try adding lemon zest or sumac, mint or pine nuts, even raisins. 

Once you’ve shaped your raw meatballs, you might want to take a two-step approach to cooking (rather than simply roasting them). By opening with a quick sear in hot oil, roughly two minutes per side, you can build a dark crust rippling with flavor. Here’s how to use the maillard reaction for the best results.

After the sear, many recipes call for a finishing in the oven. But approaching meatballs this way misses one final chance to imbue them with all the flavor you can. If you’re making Italian-style meatballs and simmering a tomato sauce, ladle in your meatballs to slowly finish cooking (after the sear). Submerged and steadily nearing doneness in a simmering pot, meatballs can develop tenderness and absorb, from the sauce, even more comforting goodness.