As a home cook, I've never been happy with my meatballs. I've always made a great tomato sauce, adapted from a recipe in The French Laundry Cookbook, but my meatballs were always bland, dense and rubbery. I'm well aware my biggest problem was that I never used a recipe, opting instead to dump meat, herbs, eggs and breadcrumbs into a bowl and hoping for the best. I thought meatballs were so pedestrian they didn't require care. I was wrong.
To improve my technique I talked to Julian Barsotti, whose spaghetti and meatball dish impressed me when I reviewed his restaurant Carbone's this summer. Instead of asking him for a recipe, I asked him about tips that could be applied to any meatball recipe to make them better. If you have a favorite meatball recipe you've been using for ages, get ready. It's about to get a whole lot better.
Use the best ingredients you can. Like most chefs, Barsotti considers the quality of his ingredients to be among the most important factors. "You are more than half of the way there if you start with great ingredients," he said, recommending you have your butcher freshly grind your meat. I'm taking that one step further and recommending you grind your own. Meat grinders are relatively inexpensive, and if you have a Kitchen Aid mixer you can buy an attachment that takes hand-cranking out of the equation. In addition to making for better meatballs, your burgers and other recipes that make use of ground meat will get a lot better too.
The same goes for your breadcrumbs. If you're using those dry, sandy, flavorless breadcrumbs that come in a cardboard can, stop now. You can easily grind your own up in a blender using stale, day-old bread. If you still want to buy them, opt for panko breadcrumbs, which are lighter and have better texture.
Saute your aromatics. Raw onions taste OK, but onions sauteed in bacon fat taste great. Herbs and other seasonings can be cooked with the onions to lend more flavor to your meatballs. Make sure you cool the mixture completely before you add it to the meat.
Don't over-work your mixture and keep things cold. Just like with burgers, over-mixing the meat will cause a dense and undesirable texture. If you decide to make use of a meat grinder you can grind the meat, salt and aromatics together for seriously smooth and consistent meat balls. Use a fork or gently use your hands when you fold bread, eggs or other binders into the mix.
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Store everything in your refrigerator when you're not working to keep things cool and prevent the fat from breaking down. Cold hands (use an ice bath) and tools will help to keep the mixture from getting too warm.
Use an ice cream scoop to portion your meatballs. An ice cream scoop will assure every meat ball is exactly the same size, and you'll work more quickly and efficiently. Drop the meat mixture onto a sheet pan and then gently roll them into perfectly rounded balls.
Bake your meatballs to brown them. Sauteing meatballs in oil adds flavor but is inefficient and messy. You'll end up with meatballs that are browned unevenly, and your stove will be covered with spattered grease. Put that oil on a piece of parchment paper in a sheet pan and bake your meatballs in the oven at 350 until they are golden brown.
Braise the meatballs for at least an hour. Letting your meatballs simmer in a sauce for an extended period of time will encourage tenderness. It will also lend flavor to your sauce. An hour should be plenty, but cook them until they feel tender with a fork. Be careful not to cook them too long, though. They'll get so tender they fall apart. If that happens just break them up and tell your guests you made meat sauce.