A few years back, I was sitting at lunch with some colleagues. We were all brown-bagging it and chatting over our meals. I happened to have brought a couple meatballs with sauce, leftover from the previous night's dinner.
One of my colleagues remarked at how good they looked. I offered her a sample. She tried it, and her eyes opened wide. "My goodness, these are so good! I make meatballs all the time and they're never this good."
I asked her how she made them.
"Well," she replied, "I use extra lean ground beef."
"Strike one," I said.
"Then I add bread crumbs," she added.
"Oh dear, what should I do differently?"
The trick to making great meatballs is that you must use fatty meat (ground chuck, typically about 80% lean is perfect), and you need to add some sort of moistened filler, which helps tenderize the meatballs. So many recipes call for dry bread crumbs, which is a mistake, I think. Our family's method (shared by many, many old-style Italian home cooks) is to add moistened bread: fresh or slightly stale white bread that has been moistened with either milk or even water.
This recipe makes a lot of meatballs, probably more than would be consumed in one family meal. Feel free to make the whole recipe, cook the meatballs, then pop the unused ones into a freezer bag for your next pot of sauce.
3 lb ground chuck (80% lean)
1 1/2 Tbp salt
1/2 Tbp pepper
1 c pecorino romano cheese
1 cup finely chopped parsley
4-6 cloves garlic, crushed
8-9 slices of white bread, processed into soft bread crumbs (about 5 cups loose crumbs; about 12 oz by weight; I prefer Pepperidge Farm or Arnold's white sandwich breads)
1 1/2 cups milk
Pulse the bread in a food processor into crumbs. They should be soft crumbs. 8 or 9 slices of bread will be about 12 oz or about 5 cups of crumbs. Add milk to the crumbs, and mix gently to moisten the crumbs. Let sit 10 minutes. This will look like a LOT of bread. Don't worry -- it makes a great meatball.
Moistened fresh bread crumbs
Break up ground beef into a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Add eggs, cheese, parsley, garlic, and moistened bread crumbs. With your immaculately clean hands, mix the ingredients well, as you would for a meatloaf.
Beef, eggs, parsley, cheese, salt & pepper.
Adding crushed garlic.
Mixing the ingredients by hand.
Spray a foil-lined baking sheet with release spray. Use a two-ounce ice-cream scoop to scoop up some of the mixture and roll into a ball. Line the sheet with the meatballs. This recipe will make about 72 meatballs.
A 2-oz scoop works best.
Six dozen meatballs from this recipe.
40 minutes in a 350°F convection oven.
One meatball may have been removed for quality-control purposes.
Bake the meatballs in a 350°F oven for 40 minutes until browned. Alternately (and more traditionally) you can fry the meatballs in oil or shortening. The result will be a crisper, more browned exterior. [N.B. I always fried my meatballs, typically in vegetable oil. More recently, I got a new convection oven, and have found that it produces a beautifully brown meatball that would make you forget about frying meatballs ever again.]
[Recipe revision: I've found that baking the meatballs at 400°F for about 18-20 mins gives a browner result, and if you turn them halfway through baking, they'll brown evenly all over. I recommend using non-stick aluminum foil, too. ]
If you're using these as part of a tomato sauce, put the cooked meatballs into the sauce about 15 minutes before you're ready to serve, so that they heat through, but don't cook much more.