The Best Italian-American Meatballs Recipe (2024)

Why It Works

  • A panade made from buttermilk-soaked fresh bread adds tons of moisture and flavor.
  • Minced pancetta and gelled stock (optional) guarantee extremely juicy meatballs.
  • Plenty of onion, garlic, and other flavors deliver a rich, satisfying meatball.

Everyone has their own idea of the ideal meatball. For me, it's a plump, juicy ball of highly seasoned meat that's so tender a spoon can pass right through it with almost no resistance.

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For several weeks I tinkered away, trying to figure out how to make the best Italian-American style meatballs possible. Halfway though my journey, my then-girlfriend (now wife) Kate tasted a batch, looked at me and said, "Baby, you've nailed it."

"No, I haven't," I said. "These aren't even close."

I was chasing an image I had in my mind of what the perfect meatball would be, and I wasn't going to quit until I got there. What I imagined was a meatball large enough to look hefty, but so light and tender a spoon could slide through it with almost no resistance—a floater, not a sinker, asEdput it one day in the office. In a lot of ways, I was imagining the meatball version of amatzo ball, weightless and weeping juices when you cut through it.

At times, I wondered if I was chasing a chimera.

Then, late one night over the holiday, home alone after a long day of testing, I sat down with a bowl of that day's meatballs in red sauce. I pushed my spoon into one, scooping a piece off with ease. Moisture glazed the exposed surface. I took a bite, and my eyes filled with beef- and pork-fat tears. Here's how I made it.

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What's the Best Meat for Meatballs?

A lot of people make their meatballs with three different kinds of meat: beef, pork, and veal. I decided right off the bat that I was cutting the veal from mine, for no other reason than that it's harder to find and can be expensive.

There's so much going on in these meatballs that I don't think even veal devotees will miss it, but if you're one of those folks who feel vealmustbe included, there's nothing stopping you—just get two-thirds of a pound of each of the three meats (to total two pounds), and then follow the recipe as written with that.

In my testing ofthe best Swedish meatballs, I played with the beef-to-pork ratio quite a bit, since I was aiming for a very particular springy texture, the result of heavily mixed meat. Here, I simplified things with a 1:1 ratio of beef to pork, since I was going for a looser mix: not quite as loose as a good hamburger, but not tight, either.

A Panade is Key for Juicy Meatballs

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I knew I wanted to use apanademade with fresh bread, since I had found with my Swedish meatballs that dried bread crumbs produce a denser, drier meatball. To add even more moisture, and to help the bread break down into the blend, it soaks in a liquid first. A lot of recipes call for water or milk, but I wanted really full-flavored meatballs here, so I experimented with a few different liquids, including milk, red wine, andbuttermilk.

Buttermilk ended up winning in my taste tests, its tartness boosting the flavor of the meatballs and helping to balance some of the richness of the meat and fat. Red wine, if you're curious, is absolutely awful.

It's important that the bread is completely moist throughout; after letting it stand for several minutes, mash it with your fingers or a spoon to make sure.

Adding Maximum Flavor to Meatballs

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I wanted a meatball with tons of flavor, so I went with a more-is-more approach. That said, if you don't want to use one of these ingredients, like fennel seed, you can just leave it out, or add a different seasoning instead. This part is highly customizable.

I started with plenty of minced onion, leaving it raw so that it would retain some texture in the finished meatballs.

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I also added a really generous dose of minced garlic to the stand mixer. (Read our article ondifferent methods of mincing garlicto learn more about how each affects your food.)

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Parsley adds a fresh flavor.

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And dried oregano gives the meatballs that quintessential Italian-American profile.

Then I let the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano rain down.

For the salt, I've found in my tests that four teaspoons of kosher salt provides just the right amount of seasoning for this amount of meatball mixture.

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It's worth pointing out that you need to take into accountthe differences between types of saltwhen measuring by volume. Fine table salt is denser, and therefore more salty, teaspoon for teaspoon, than coarse kosher salt. So, for example, four teaspoons of table or fine sea salt will make these meatballs too salty.

You can avoid this problem by weighing the salt (18 grams, in this case) on a kitchen scale. (If you don't already own a scale, it's past time to fix that! See our review ofthe best kitchen scalesfor recommendations.)

How to Achieve Ultimate Tenderness and Juiciness

Perhaps the most important thing—even more important than flavorings—is that the meatballs are tender and juicy. I took a few different steps to get there.


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The first thing I did was add minced pancetta to the mixture. As the meatballs cook, the tiny bits of pancetta slowly render, releasing their fat into the meatball and boosting the juiciness (not to mention the flavor).

After testing this several times, though, I need to stress that the fattiness of the pancetta is crucial—and that's a quality that can vary a lot from one product to another. In the photo above, the pancetta is at least 50% muscle, which is too lean. It didn't add as much moisture as it would have had the pancetta been mostly fat.


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A couple years ago, I worked on a story abouthow to make soup dumplingswith Chef Joe Ng, an expert in dumplings and dim sum. The general trick for soup dumplings is to fold a ball of meat, along with some gelled broth, into the dumpling skin. That way, when it's cooked, the broth melts and forms a soup in which the ball of meat floats. But in Ng's more refined version, he finely minces the gelled stock and blends it into the meat filling, so that the meatball inside practically dissolves when the dumpling is cooked.

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I wanted to borrow that idea, but with a lot less stock, since I didn't want my meatballs to dissolve once cooked. I add just enough stock to create tiny little pockets of moisture inside each meatball. As they cook, they shed some of those juices, but there's still plenty left inside.

I'll admit that this is the one part of the recipe that might seem like a little too much of a pain in the butt. If this is the only thing standing between you and making these meatballs, know that it's entirely optional. You'll get amazing meatballs either way.

The Temper: A Special Meatball Mixing Technique

Okay, on to mixing it all together. Here's the challenge: The panade (that soaked-bread mixture) is essential for light and moist meatballs, but it's very difficult to mix it in thoroughly without over-beating the meat. For my Swedish meatballs, that wasn't an issue, since I wanted the meat to be heavily mixed, but here I don't—springy, emulsified Italian-American meatballs just aren't what we're going for.

But minimally mixing the meat almost always guarantees that you'll get little bits of unincorporated bread in the meatball. This is one advantage of dry bread crumbs, since their granular size means they disappear into the mixture without too much effort. But, as I mentioned above, I didn't want to use dried bread crumbs, since they make meatballs that are denser than I want.

To solve this problem, I came up with a technique I've been calling "the temper," which is very loosely inspired by thetempering of eggsinto a custard (that is, gradually introducing the eggs into hot cream or milk to prevent scrambling).

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Here, I start by blending the panade with all of the flavoring and moisture ingredients, whipping them until they're completely blended.

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Then I add a portion of the beef and pork—about a third of each—and whip the hell out of that, until the meat is completely blended with the bread and seasonings.

All by itself, this amount of beating would produce meatballs with a tight, sausage-like texture.

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To avoid that, I then work the remainder of the meat into the mixture by hand, being careful to distribute it thoroughly, but not over-mix it. Those little bits of ground meat are going to deliver a meatball that still has the texture of ground meat: not quite as loose as a hamburger, but not as tight as a sausage, either.

Now they're ready to be formed.

I go for big, handball-sized balls.

Cooking the Meatballs

There are a lot of ways to approach cooking the meatballs. For the most tender texture, you could poach them right in the sauce, but you'd lose out on the flavor that browning adds, and in this case, that flavor is important to me.

Browning, though, comes with its own set of options. Pan-frying is one, but with meatballs this large, I find it too easy to deform them in the pan, and too difficult to brown them evenly. Instead, I find that broiling on arimmed baking sheetis the fastest way to get an even sear.

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Simmering the Meatballs in Sauce

Once they're browned, I simmer the meatballs in tomato sauce until they're just cooked through. I've found that the longer they simmer, the more juices they lose.

I suppose that benefits the sauce, but I'd rather have juicy meatballs, so I try not to cook them any longer than is necessary.

As for the sauce itself, we have plenty of options for you here at Serious Eats, includingKenji's awesome slow-cooked oven sauce, myquick and easy red sauce(the one I used for all my tests here), and even mysauce made from fresh tomatoes.

It's like a dream come to life.

January 2015

Recipe Details

The Best Italian-American Meatballs

Prep50 mins

Cook25 mins

Active60 mins

Chilling Time30 mins

Total105 mins

Serves4to 6 servings


  • 1 packet unflavored gelatin (optional, see notes)

  • 1/2 cup (120ml)homemade chicken stockor low-sodium broth (optional, see notes)

  • 3 ounces (85g) crustless fresh white bread, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 2 unpacked cups)

  • 1/3 cup (80ml) buttermilk, plus more as needed

  • 1 medium (8-ounce; 225g) yellow onion, minced

  • 3 ounces (85g) fatty pancetta, finely minced (see notes)

  • 2 ounces (55g) Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, plus more for serving

  • 8 medium cloves garlic (about 1 3/4 ounces; 50g),finely minced

  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley leaves (1 ounce; 30g), minced

  • 4 large egg yolks

  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

  • 1 teaspoon ground fennel seed

  • 1 tablespoon Diamond crystal kosher salt (12g); for table salt use half as much by volume or the same weight

  • Freshly ground black pepper

  • 1 pound (455g) ground beef (at least 25% fat; see notes)

  • 1 pound (455g) ground pork (at least 25% fat; see notes)

  • 5 cups (1.2L) tomato sauce, such as Quick and Easy Italian American Red Sauce, The Best Slow Cooked Tomato Sauce, or The Best Fresh Tomato Sauce


  1. In a heatproof measuring cup, sprinkle gelatin all over surface of stock and let stand for 5 minutes. (If not using stock and gelatin, proceed to Step 2.) Microwave stock, stirring once or twice, until gelatin completely dissolves, about 2 minutes. Pour stock into a wide heatproof bowl and refrigerate until fully set, about 30 minutes.

  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine bread with buttermilk, tossing to coat. Let stand, tossing occasionally, until bread is completely moist, about 10 minutes. Squeeze bread between your fingers or mash with a spoon to make sure there are no dry spots; if there are dry spots that refuse to moisten, add more buttermilk, 1 tablespoon at a time, until bread is moist throughout.

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  3. Add onion, pancetta, Parmigiano-Reggiano, garlic, parsley, egg yolks, oregano, fennel, salt, and pepper to bread/buttermilk mixture. Finely mince gelled stock, if using, and add.

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  4. Set mixer bowl in stand mixer and attach paddle. Starting at low speed and gradually increasing to medium-high speed, beat bread mixture until thoroughly blended, stopping to scrape down sides as necessary. Add 1/3 each of the beef and pork and beat at medium-high speed until thoroughly blended with bread mixture.

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  5. Remove bowl from stand mixer and add remaining beef and pork. Using a clean hand, gently mix meatball mixture, teasing apart ground meat with your fingers, just until ground beef and pork are thoroughly mixed in and no pockets of unincorporated meat remain; avoid mixing any more than is necessary for even distribution.

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  6. Preheat broiler and set oven rack in upper position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil. Form meatball mixture into handball-sized balls and arrange on prepared baking sheet; you should be able to make about 10. Broil meatballs until browned on top, about 7 minutes. (Browning times can vary dramatically, depending on oven broiler strength.)

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  7. Heat tomato sauce in a medium pot until simmering and add meatballs. Simmer until meatballs are just cooked through and register about 145°F (63°C) on an instant-read thermometer, about 10 minutes.

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  8. Serve meatballs, spooning sauce all over and grating more cheese on top.

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Special Equipment

Stand mixer, rimmed baking sheet, instant-read thermometer


This recipe makes about 10 handball-sized meatballs; you can make them smaller or larger, as you prefer, but cooking times will change.

The chicken stock and gelatin help make meatballs that are insanely juicy and tender, but these meatballs will still be incredibly moist even without them.

The pancetta in this recipe adds juiciness and moisture, so the fattier the better; if you use pancetta that is too lean (more than 50% muscle), you won't get the same benefit. Pancetta is easiest to mince when nearly frozen.

It can be difficult to guarantee the fat percentage of pre-ground meat, but a higher-fat mix of about 25% is one of the keys to juicy and tender meatballs, so do your best to track down ground beef and pork from a meat counter or butcher that can get you the meat ground to your specifications. Similarly, the meat should be a fine or medium grind, not coarse, so make sure to confirm a proper grind when buying. Of course you can control all of this by grinding the meat yourself using cuts like beef chuck and pork shoulder, which both will get you in the ballpark of the fat percentage you need; if you do grind the meat yourself, you can save time by running the pancetta through the grinder too (just make sure it's nice and cold before grinding).

The Best Italian-American Meatballs Recipe (2024)


What is the secret to making tender meatballs? ›

Egg and breadcrumbs are common mix-ins to add moisture and tenderness. Another binder option that people swear by is a panade, which is fresh or dry breadcrumbs that have been soaked in milk. “The soaked breadcrumbs help keep the proteins in the meat from shrinking,” as food writer Tara Holland explained in the Kitchn.

What's the difference between Italian style meatballs and regular meatballs? ›

Italian-style meatballs often include additional ingredients such as milk, olive oil, ground pork, fresh parsley, red pepper flakes, Italian herb seasoning, and sometimes a combination of ground beef, veal, and pork [2].

Is it better to fry or bake Italian meatballs? ›

Baking will result in meatballs with a crunchy exterior, though the caramelisation achieved from frying will be superior. Baked meatballs take the least amount of effort, as you'll only need to turn them once or twice throughout the cook and you can make a larger batch at once.

How to make meatballs that don t fall apart in sauce? ›

You can do a few things while preparing the meatballs to ensure they don't fall apart once they go into the tomato sauce.
  1. Don't add too much moisture: ...
  2. Keep the meat as cold as possible: ...
  3. Don't overwork the meat: ...
  4. Add meatballs to a simmering sauce, and don't over-stir:
Mar 15, 2019

What does adding milk to meatballs do? ›

When it comes to adding liquid to meatball mixtures, milk is often used for its versatility, depth of flavor, and richness. Without the use of milk, you may be faced with a plate of dry meatballs. Milk adds a certain level of moisture that helps produce perfectly tender meatballs.

What is the best binder for meatballs? ›

An egg is usually a good start, as that can help with the tenderness and texture, but the king of meatball binders is breadcrumbs soaked in milk (also known as a panade). Soaking the breadcrumbs first makes them pliable and soggy, which allows them to easily and evenly mix into the ground meat.

Why are my Italian meatballs hard? ›

Usually if meatballs are dense or heavy then it is because the meatball mixture has been handled too much and the minced (ground) meat has become compacted. It may help to use beef with a slightly higher fat content, as the extra fat will provide a little extra moisture.

Is it better to bake meatballs at 350 or 400? ›

In an oven preheated to 350 degrees F, these meatballs should be fully cooked through and evenly browned in about 30 minutes. An instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle of the meatball should read at least 165 degrees F.

Should meatballs be covered when baking? ›

Covering them with foil can help when reheating, but you will still want to remove it during the last few minutes of cook time in the oven. How do you keep meatballs moist when baking? The key is in the preparation! Make sure to handle the meat as little as possible and mix the ingredients just until combined.

What are the ingredients in cooked perfect Italian style meatballs? ›

Ingredients. Beef And Pork, Water, Textured Soy Flour, Bread Crumbs (Wheat Flour, Salt), Soy Protein Concentrate, Less Than 2% Of: Parmesan Cheese (Part Skim Cow's Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Oregano, Basil, Black Pepper, Natural Flavors, Salt, Dextrose, Sodium Phosphate.

Is it better to cook meatballs before adding to sauce? ›

Adding raw meatballs to the sauce and gently simmering till cooked yields ultra-tender results, and infuses the sauce with meaty flavor—a slow cooker gives great results.

Should you flour meatballs before frying? ›

Bastianich recommends giving the meatballs a little dusting of flour before adding them to the oil in the skillet. The ones I dredged in flour did hold up better than those I did not.

Why do my meatballs fall apart when I fry them? ›

Because meat shrinks when cooked, mince proteins are likely to separate and crumble unless bound together. Whether it's breadcrumbs or egg (or both), or simply salt, binding the mince is a crucial step in maintaining the softness of your meatballs while preventing them from falling apart.

What makes meatballs more tender? ›

Milk: Adds moisture and tenderizes the meat, making our meatballs juicy and tender once cooked. Egg: Adds more moisture and helps the mixture firm up once cooked. Parmesan: My secret ingredient for the best meatballs! Parmigiano-Reggiano adds flavor and salt to our mixture.

How do you keep meatballs from getting tough? ›

Some kind of moisture, like eggs or a binder made from bread crumbs and milk, is essential when making meatballs. Without it, the protein content forces the meatballs to shrink as they cook, and produces a final dish with a tough texture.

Do meatballs get more tender the longer they cook? ›

Tenderizing the Meat:

As the collagen in the meat dissolves over time, it transforms into gelatin, which not only adds a silky texture to the sauce but also contributes to the overall richness and depth of flavor. The longer the simmer, the more tender and succulent the meatballs become.

Why are my meatballs not tender? ›

More Reasons Your Meatballs are Hard

Too much time spent forming the balls can also make them tough, and you're more likely to overwork them if you can't get them off your hands. To avoid this sticky situation, keep a dish of cold water next to you as you work, and dip your fingers in as you make the balls.

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