Meatballs broke apart mid-cooking? Fret not! Learn the secrets to unbreakable meatballs, guaranteed.
For something as simple as ground or minced meat mixed with spices and vegetables, then formed into a ball and cooked, meatballs can be notoriously difficult to get right.
Matters are complicated further by the fact that most cookbook authors do not mention meatballs at all, YouTube chefs entertain rather than inform, and most advice on blogs is written by folks who rarely stand at the stove and do not test their own advice before giving it to others.
One of the biggest disappointments with homemade meatballs is when they break up all over the plate. Or, worse, when they fall apart while simmering in the pot or get mangled in the frying pan. We all make mistakes in the kitchen, that’s how we learn, but they’re called meat·balls for a reason.
For the cook who’s full of curiosity, this can’t help but beg the question: How do you prep and cook meatballs so that they hold their shape?
If you want your meatballs to hold their shape during cooking, use 80/20 beef, add a binder, mince all flavorings finely, size the meatballs accordingly, and, when frying, don’t rush to turn them.
If this type of advice is what you came here for, we have more tips and tricks for you. So read on and take a gander below.
Use the Right Kind of Meat
Hearty meatballs don’t fall apart as much as their lean counterparts. And, as a general rule of thumb, ground meat holds its shape better than minced meat. Still, if you choose meat that’s too fatty, your meatballs will be greasy and heavy.
So where’s the balance? Nine times out of ten, 80/20 ground beef is the best meat to use for meatballs. You can, of course, choose to mix it with pork, lamb, and/or veal; or use chicken, turkey, and/or duck instead.
Add a Binding Agent
Colloquially called “binders,” binding agents are important ingredients: they keep your meatballs whole. Added to ground or minced meat, binders hold the rest of the ingredients together so that the meatballs don’t apart during cooking.
Eggs, soaked bread, and breadcrumbs are the most commonly used binders for meatballs. Among the lesser known (but equally effective) binding agents are shredded potatoes, grated parmesan, cream cheese, ketchup, and mustard.
In his book, How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food, American food journalist and The New York Times columnist Mark Bittman recommends adding 1 thick slice of bread (or 2 thin slices) and ½ a cup of grated parmesan to 1 pound ground beef. The bread is soaked in ½ a cup of whole milk, whose fat also acts as a binder.
Mince the Flavorings
Any good meatball recipe prescribes the addition of flavorings, and for good reason: Meat and bread are delicious on their own, but they only go this far in terms of aroma and flavor when they are mixed together and boiled, baked, or fried.
Flavorings ameliorate the meatballs by making them richer than they were before. They can add savoriness, sweetness, tang, or pungency, improving the end result in both aroma and, as their name implies, flavor.
Apart from salt, pepper, and fresh herbs—the non-negotiables—most cooks will add garlic cloves, spring garlic, white or red onions, shallots, mushrooms, celery, and/or carrots to their meatball mix. How they add them determines whether or not the meatballs are quick to fall apart.
The golden rule is that you dice the flavorings as finely as possible so that they mix evenly with the meat and don’t stick out of the meatballs. The coarser the cuts, the more difficult it is for the meatballs to hold their shape. So be sure to slice thinly and dice finely.
Size the Meatballs Accordingly
I’m not going to tell you to make your meatballs smaller. That would just be generic advice and, by extension, lazy writing. I am, however, suggesting that you choose the size of the meatballs based on the cooking method with which you plan to prepare them.
Make your meatballs as big as a cherry bell radish if you intend on cooking them in a soup or simmering them in tomato sauce. Small meatballs hold their shape best in bubbling water and in pots being stirred.
Make your meatballs ½ to ¾ the size of a golf ball when you intend on frying them up on the stovetop, and about the size of a full-grown golf ball when you plan on baking them in the oven. (The smaller size of the meatballs when pan-fried promotes even cooking.)
Cook Them Properly
Meatballs cook best when they are submerged in cooking water that’s gently simmering, thrown in a frying pan with a dollop or two of cooking oil that’s hot enough, or slid in a preheated 350°F (180°C) oven.
The meat needs to come into quick, sudden contact with the hot oil, the steaming water, or the convection currents in the oven, which firm up the proteins inside and give them a crispy, flavorsome, golden-brown crust on the outside.
When you’re frying up meatballs in a pan, let them cook uninterrupted for 2-3 minutes on one side before trying to turn them. Initially, the meatballs will stick to the cooking surface. As they cook, the bonds will loosen and the meat will release on its own.
Sprinkling the meatballs with flour, cornmeal, or breadcrumbs before placing them in the pan will further protect the meat from sticking.
The coating acts as a barrier between the bottom of the cooking vessel and the proteins in the meat—preventing them from forming bonds in the heat of cooking. This, in turn, makes it harder for you to mangle the meatballs with the fork or spatula.