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Modern Meatballs 101

Find new favorite recipes with leaner ingredients and a world of flavor

Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs are one example of the modern meatball craze.

Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs are one example of the modern meatball craze. — Photo by Philippe Desenrck/Getty Images

Meatballs are one of the ultimate comfort foods. Inexpensive and easy to make, less filling than a burger, meatballs are great in sandwiches, on pasta, in soups and as appetizers.  For those of us who grew up in the 1950s, meatballs most often meant the Italian-style beef, pork and cheese variety, piled high atop a steaming plate of spaghetti with tomato sauce. Every family had a favorite recipe.

See also: Join AARP's Online Community to learn and share more delicious recipes.

Today, meatball mania is sweeping the country with meatball restaurants, food trucks and cookbooks dedicated to this popular and versatile dish. But modern meatball incarnations have forged ahead to embrace a broader global approach to flavor, like fragrant Middle-Eastern Kofta Meatballs or Asian-style Fortune Noodle Meatball Soup.  For those watching saturated fat and calories, lower fat versions made with chicken, turkey, tuna and salmon are popular options.

Ingredients
For the juiciest meatball every time, it’s important to carefully choose the ingredients. A moderate amount of fat content in ground meat and poultry is important to keep meatballs from becoming too dry.

  • Beef — A 20 percent fat content is ideal. Too much more and the meatball will taste greasy and shrink during cooking.
  • Chicken — Use a mix of dark and light meat for better results. Some cooks prefer using thigh meat only for the juiciest meatballs. Avoid breast meat alone.
  • Turkey — Use a standard ground turkey that is 7 percent fat, and 93 percent lean. 
  • Fish and shellfish — Raw is preferable to canned or pre-cooked and easily chopped in a food processor.

Preparation
Thoroughly combine ingredients but do not handle excessively, to prevent rubbery meatballs. Put mixture back in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes before shaping for easier handling. This step will also be useful if a recipe feels too soggy – resist the urge to add more binder such as bread or cracker crumbs, or the meatballs might end up too dry after cooking.

Cooking

  • Pan frying or oven roasting are the methods most often used to cook meatballs. The oven is great for cooking large amounts for entertaining or freezing (without sauce). 
  • Grilling — If you want to infuse a wonderful smoky flavor into your homemade meatballs, try one of the ingenious meatball grilling baskets with perforated wells available at cookware stores.
    Charcoal — medium-hot fire
    Gas grill — medium-high
  • Steaming — a technique used most often for Asian-style meatballs.
  • Braising — a traditional Italian method of putting raw meatballs directly into simmering sauce.

Sauce
Estimate about 1/4 cup of sauce per meatball. Feel free to mix and match meatball types and sauces. For instance, if your preference is chicken or veggie meatballs, but you see an intriguing beef or pork recipe with a tamarind or peanut sauce, by all means substitute your meatball of choice. Mild-flavored meatballs are surprisingly versatile.

Next: The Meatball Shop’s Veggie Balls. »

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