Everybody knows meatballs are Italian and were invented for the sole purpose of making spaghetti awesome, right?? Nope…
Meatballs actually date back to sometime around 210 BC and are credited to a cat named Marcus Gavius Apicius who is responsible for a fairly famous (among foodies) ancient Roman cookbook that survived through the millennia…but it is suspected that the meatball rolled into the Roman culture via the Persians… So no one really knows just how old meatballs are… Pretty cool, huh?
Meatballs are versatile. They can be made of a wide variety of ground meats and/or binders. Meatballs may be cooked in a variety of different ways, they can feature fully incorporated ingredients, or be blended or stuffed and they can be breaded, deep fried…they can even be boiled or cooked over an open fire or on a grill. So many possibilities…
Meatballs are strong enough to stand on their own yet make a great ingredient in dishes that they’ve made famous like spaghetti.
Simply put, meatballs rock…and roll.
We’re going to take a little deeper dive into the wide world of meatballs and try to provide an accurate big picture view of the dish, and probably throw in a couple recipes from our infamous wanna-be chef Cousin Steve. We’ll do a bio on him someday…but if you can imagine a real-life Ron Swanson…that likes to cook…that’s our cousin.
Incorporating binders is a technique that is used when one wants or needs to make the ground meat go further and stick together better. Ingredients like breadcrumbs, eggs, water, flour, sugar, whey powder, etc, can be used together or as separate ingredients to extend or accentuate your favorite ground meat. These ingredients all become fully incorporated into the meatball making them indistinguishable from the meat and becoming a homogenous mixture. Salt and sugar both help the mixture hang onto active water and act as a binder of proteins that will give the meatball more body and texture.
The next group of ingredients that can be added to the mixture won’t incorporate fully into the meat solution, but will still mix into the batter. Generally speaking we like to dice these ingredients fine to very fine then blend them into the incorporated mixture (batter) described above. Things like; rice, mushrooms, onions, garlic, peppers of any and all variety, apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, zucchini, radishes, herbs, cheese, and/or pretty much any other non-citrus fruit or vegetable that sounds good or will create the flavor profile that you’re after. Citrus fruits are very acidic, and they don’t work particularly well in mixed meat recipes as their acidic nature causes them to dissolve the protein bond that is created when the meatball batter is mixed up.
The Holy Grail of meatball ingredients is simple “white rice”. The Porcupine Meatball is one of the most fantastic creations to ever grace the planet… While the basic “porcupine meatball” is simple genius, if a person wants to “Church Up” the porcupine meatball, they can simply use a nice wild rice blend with some diced mushrooms…or Rice-A-Roni. Try Rice-A-Roni sometime. Trust us. Just make sure whatever rice element you choose that it is cooked prior to incorporating into the meatballs. That simple!
What can you stuff into a meatball…?? Well, just about anything that sounds good…but cheese is probably the most common thing to find in the center of a meatball. Cheese is a great stuffing as there are tons of varieties of cheese to choose from to accent the other flavors that are built into the meat block or batter. There are other things tho, small mushrooms are a fantastic thing to hide inside a meatball, if you like garlic, cloves of roasted garlic make a great surprise when tucked inside a glorious ball of meat. Avocado cubes are nice as are okra chunks and chunks of baby carrot. One of the most underrated stuffing ingredients is also one of the most common kitchen ingredients and one that’s definitely not a traditional beef condiment… Peanut Butter. Yep. Peanut Butter stuffed meatballs are crazy good. The flavor and texture pair very nicely with lightly seasoned ground beef, especially garlic and onion. It helps to freeze the peanut butter balls prior to stuffing. (Peanut butter is also fantastic when used as a condiment on a plain old cheese burger.) Stuffed meatballs can be a lot like a box of chocolates, you just have to be creative with what you put inside.
Deep fried Meatballs
Deep frying is an often overlooked method of cooking in general. So much information has been pumped out about how unhealthy deep fried foods are has decreased its popularity in the home kitchen, but virtually every restaurant kitchen on the planet is still leaning hard on the deep fryers every single day. So, what sets the deep fried meatball apart from other meatballs? Not much, really. It is important to keep in mind simple physics of cooking a meatball, especially with the deep frier. Spherical items will cook much faster on the outside than they will in the center. It is important to mind the temperature of the oil in which one is frying. I personally believe most tend to deep fry at much too high a temperature. The golden-brown crust that is hallmark of a properly fried food can be achieved and just over 300F. When cooking a dense sphere of meat, dropping it into 425F oil is going to result in a blackened surface and maybe medium rare, if you’re lucky, meatball center. Using a lower oil temperature allows the heat to penetrate the whole meatball without “murdering out” the surface of the ball. Nobody want’s to eat a blackened ball of meat, even if the inside is juicy flavorful… Deep frying also opens up the possibility of breading the meatball. Breaded meat balls add a new dimension to the meatball, and it’s simple to do: Flour. Egg wash. Bread crumbs. Fridge. Fry. We like to season both the flour and the bread crumbs, and we favor “Panko” brand bread crumbs, because they are awesome.
In summation, it’s easy to see why “meatballs” have stood the test of the millennia…they seldom get boring and their versatility is nearly endless. So, the next time you feel like doing something a little different with your ground beef…give meatballs a shot. They will fill you up and they won’t let you down.
Steve’s Meatball basics:
Here is the secret recipe for getting started with the “basic” meatball. Simply maintain the ratios to create larger batches. The recipe below will yield about 8-10 meatballs.
Pre-Heat oven to 325F.
- 1 lb Nebraska Star® Beef ground beef
- 1 egg
- 1/2 cup bread crumbs – dried. (Panko are preferred)
- 1/4 cup onion – minced
- 2 cloves garlic – minced
- 1/8 cup water
- 1/2 tsp salt
- black pepper to taste
Break the ground beef into a crumbly mixture, blend the rest of the ingredients in with the hands and continue to mix until the mixture becomes firm and has enough body to take a shape and hold it.
If you want to take it to the next level or two, this is where you add more ingredients, stuffing items and/or bread the meatballs and deep fry.
Place meatballs on a rack on a cookie sheet so they can drip as needed during cooking. Cook on grill or deep fry.
Regardless of the cooking method, use a thermometer and cook the meatball to an internal temperature of at least 165F.