How to build a better meatball

Ask the experts how to build a better meatball, and the answers generally are a pretty underwhelming. “It depends.”

Joey Campanaro from the Little Owl restaurant in New York City used his memories of his grandmother cooking meatballs to create these gravy meatball sliders.

Joey Campanaro from the Little Owl restaurant in New York City used his memories of his grandmother cooking meatballs to create these gravy meatball sliders.

Ask the experts how to build a better meatball, and the answers generally are a pretty underwhelming. “It depends.”

The meat? Anything from turkey to tofu. The binder? Pureed rice, breadcrumbs, cheese, pulpy potatoes, an egg or two, and cream all can do the trick. Cooking? Fry, bake, braise. Maybe a combination.

Still, we were confident there must be ways to improve meatballs, regardless of variety. These are the tips we gathered from the pros.

Ask the butcher for scraps — Meatballs were created as a way of using scraps, so start there, says Daniel Holzman, chef and owner of The Meatball Shop in New York. Diverse cuts of meat add depth of flavour. So get to know the butcher.

Sausage meat — A quick method is to take links of sausage and cut away the casing. Mix the meat with breadcrumbs, spices, etc.

Liquid is important — Add water, says Joey Campanaro of Little Owl restaurant in New York. “That keeps the meatballs moist. It emulsifies the fat as you fry it.”

Save old bread — Toast the moisture out of the bread, then run it through a food processor or crush by hand. When combined with liquid, bread serves as a binder.

Size matters —The larger the meatball, the more work it takes keeping it together, Campanaro says. The outside also can overcook before the inside is done. About the size of a golf ball is good, he says.

Make a tester — “You always have to make a tester meatball,” Holzman says. Cook one and taste it. If it falls apart, add more of a binder. If it’s too dense, add liquid. This is also where you can adjust the seasoning, he says.

Time adds flavour — Letting a braise sit overnight allows the meat to take on more flavour, Shaw says. “Everything that is braised benefits from a day to sit. It sits in the fridge and the next day, it is intensified.”

Joey Campanaro is a third-generation Italian and these Italian-American meatballs are the same ones he remembers his grandmother braising in red sauce.

Using the brown bits left in the pan after frying the meatballs adds flavour to the sauce. A few fresh arugula leaves give the sliders colour and a garnish with a slight crunch.

Gravy Meatball Sliders

Start to finish: 2 hours

500 g (1 lb) ground beef

500 g (1 lb) ground pork

500 g (1 lb) ground veal

250 ml (1 cup) grated pecorino Romano cheese, plus extra for serving

3 large eggs

750 ml (3 cups) water, divided

250 ml (1 cup) panko (Japanese-style) breadcrumbs

1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped

2 ml (1/2 tsp) salt

2 ml (1/2 tsp) ground black pepper

750 ml (3 cups) vegetable oil, for cooking

1 Spanish onion, chopped

50 ml (1/4 cup) chopped garlic

1 bunch fresh basil, chopped

15 ml (1 tbsp) fennel seeds

2 cans (each 796 ml/28 oz) crushed tomatoes

36 small buns

In a large bowl, combine beef, pork, veal, cheese, eggs, 250 ml (1 cup) of the water, breadcrumbs, three-quarters of the parsley, and salt and pepper. Use your hands to mix well. Shape into 5-cm (2-inch) balls.

In a large saute pan over medium-high, heat the until it shimmers. Add meatballs, in batches if necessary, and sear on all sides until well browned. Use a slotted spoon to transfer meatballs to a plate. Cover with foil and set aside.

Discard all but 30 ml (2 tbsp) of the oil from the pan (do not discard any of the browned meat bits on the bottom of the pan). Return pan to heat and add onion, garlic, basil, all but 15 ml (1 tbsp) of the remaining parsley, and fennel seeds. Saute for 5 minutes or until onion is slightly brown.

Add tomatoes and remaining 500 ml (2 cups) water. Cook sauce for 30 minutes. Add meatballs to sauce and cook for an additional 30 minutes. Serve meatballs on buns and top with grated cheese and remaining parsley.

Makes 12 servings.