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Burgers vs. Meatballs (The Differences)

Satisfy your cravings for culinary knowledge with the best comparison between burgers and meatballs on the Internet.

Although both hamburgers and meatballs are made from ground meat, the similarities between them end there.

At first glance, the differences may not seem that great. The deeper you delve, the more you realize that they are two completely different dishes.

One is served in a bun, the other in sauce, soup, or with pasta/noodles. One is a main dish, the other an appetizer. One is better grilled or broiled, the other pan-fried or boiled.

Join us as we explore the differences between burgers and meatballs, providing you with knowledge and technique along the way.

The Course

Meatballs are typically an appetizer, served with sauce, pasta, or in soup before the main course of a meal. While burgers can also be an appetizer—think of the quintessential American slider—they are typically eaten in an oblong bun with French fries as the main course.

There are many, many varieties of meatballs out there, from Italian polpettes and Swedish köttbullar to Welsh faggots and Middle Eastern kofta. Meatballs have even made their way to South Asia with Chinese shi zi tou, Vietnamese bò viên and Japanese tsukune.

Although the burger is primarily an American food, there are many more different types of burgers than most of us think, from the classic New York–style pub burger, to from the fried onion burger of Oklahoma, all the way to Hawaii’s Loco Moco.

In The Great American Burger Book, culinary author George Motz goes through great length to showcase each and every US regional style of burger. His book is the best gift for anyone who considers him or herself a burger lover.

The History

To say it’s hard to determine the exact origin of the meatball would be a major understatement.

When you consider that meatballs are basically the minced meat of any animal mixed with seasonal ingredients, shaped into a ball, and then prepared in one of numerous ways, you suddenly start to understand why.

Some say we owe the meatball to none other than the ancient Romans—a people who undoubtedly knew how to eat and what to drink. They attribute this to the fact that Apicius, a Roman cookbook from the 1st century AD, contains numerous recipes for meatball-like dishes.

Others attribute it to the Tabriz köfte, a recipe that originated in ancient Persia. This meatball with ground beef, rice, split peas, leeks, mint, parsley and onion, which occupies a whopping ⅓ of the plate, is served as a separate dish with grated lavash bread before the main course.

Like many other dishes we take for granted today, meatballs probably originated in more than one place and more or less at the same time. Then the recipe traveled around the world and, with the peculiarities of each region, evolved into the great variety of dishes that we know today.

The burger is a recent invention:

When, in the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of Germans immigrated from the port city of Hamburg to New York and Chicago, many brought their family recipes with them and decided to make a living by opening their own food carts.

The Hamburg steak—a pan-fried patty of ground beef, egg, breadcrumbs, onion, and milk—quickly became the most popular dish on their menus. It was as delicious as any modern-day burger, but factory workers found it tricky to eat while standing.

The story goes that a resourceful cook came up with the idea of placing the steak between two slices of bread. And so, the first hamburger came to be.

The Ingredients

Burgers are usually made from ground beef. The best ground beef for a juicy and flavorful burger is 80/20 ground chuck, meaning 80% lean meat and 20% fat content.

Most chefs unanimously agree that salt, dried spices, fresh herbs, and minced or diced alliums have no place in a burger. The burger mix should be kept clean, and the burger patty should be salted immediately before grilling, broiling, baking, or pan-frying.

Meatballs can be made from a variety of ground meats and ingredients. Depending on the cuisine and the recipe, they can be made from ground beef; 40/60 ground beef and pork; 30/60/10 ground beef, pork, and lamb; or ground chicken and/or turkey.

The meatballs may also include soaked bread, shredded potatoes, or cooked rice as a filling; eggs, cheese, whole milk, or heavy cream as a binder; as well as various fresh herbs, such as parsley and cilantro; dried spices, such as black pepper, white pepper, and cumin; and alliums, such as diced onion or minced garlic.

The Size

The typical size for a burger patty is 4 to 4½ inches in diameter and ½ to ¾ inch in height. When in doubt, make your burger 20% to 25% wider than the bun to compensate for the shrinkage of the patty during cooking.

If you aren’t making smash burgers, you want your patties to be tall so that they come out nice and juicy. Still, shape them no higher than 1 inch. For obvious reasons, it’s hard for eaters with small mouths to bite into a burger that’s too tall.

The typical size for a meatball is 1 to 1½ inches in diameter and about the same height. When in doubt, make your meatballs the size of a golf ball or ping pong ball.

It’s a well-kept secret of the Swedes that smaller meatballs are easier to prepare. The larger the meatballs, the harder it is to cook them all the way through—especially if you pan-fry them instead of simmering them in a sauce.

The Preparation

The best way to cook burgers is over smoldering hardwood in a kettle grill. The smoke from the wood imparts the patties with a woody aroma and a smoky flavor that’s just not there when you are grilling over charcoal or gas.

If the weather doesn’t permit you to fire up the grill, you can cook thinner burgers under the intense heat of the broiler or in a skillet over medium-high heat, and thicker burgers in the oven at 400°F (205°C) or in a skillet over medium heat.

Thinner burger patties cook quickly, so they tolerate high heat. On the flip side, thicker patties take time to cook through the center, which is why they demand moderate heat.

(Use too high of a heat for burgers that are too thick, and they will come out burnt on the surface and undercooked in the middle.)

There’s more than one way to prepare meatballs, and yet almost all involve sautéing the balls in a hot pan with oil over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes before finishing them with another cooking method.

The sauté gives the meatballs a golden-brown crust with a rich smell and a meaty flavor. That crust elevates the end result to new heights, regardless of the subsequent cooking method.

Once sautéed, you can continue cooking the meatballs in one of three ways until they are fully done: in simmering water, broth, or tomato sauce for 10-12 minutes; in a generous glug of hot oil over medium heat for 8-9 minutes; in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 7-8 minutes.

Let’s say you decide to use the second method, and fry the meatballs in a stainless steel skillet. The brown residue left on the bottom and sides of the pan can easily be turned into a delicious sauce.

To make pan sauce, simply add beer or broth, salt and honey, and some aromatics (black pepper, a sprig of thyme, a few cloves of crushed garlic), and simmer the sauce over medium heat until it thickens.

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.