The iconoclastic meatball, loved, preferred and devoured by all. No matter which part of the world or which culture you hail from, chances are that you have eaten one. Seriously. Who doesn’t love a meatball? Every cuisine showcases a different individualistic take to give these pervasive round jewels their claim to fame, with flavor profiles indigenous only to that part of the globe. And if you are not partial to meat, there are countless recipes for veggie balls, so you are not excluded.
Preparing balls is just as adventurous as planning a meatloaf, both are white canvasses providing a promise for limitless potential. They can be piled on just about anything, eaten alone, cold or hot, with or without sauce.
No matter what name they go by, they’re a universal treat. In Spain, there are many versions of Albondigas, depending on the province, each with a very unique flavor profile. Then we have the Polpette in Italy; and yes, they look pretty damn sexy piled on top Spaghetti, but there’s a myriad of other preparations other than just on the ubiquitous pasta!
In China, they have a curious name – Chi Zi Tao, which means Lion’s Head. The well-loved Koftas in Middle Eastern countries and India are an almost diurnal dish and of course, the French cannot be left out as with their elegant and classic take of delicate and divine Boulletes de Viande. In Japan, the chicken balls, Tsukune are served on skewers. And there are many that favor the ever-popular Kottbullar, the saucy and creamy Swedish meatballs.
Meatballs date back to the Roman Times. In the ancient text from Apicius, a Roman gourmand of his times in the 1st Century AD, he included many recipes created with chopped peacock or pheasant meat.
The best preparation is grinding your own cuts of meat. If you are unable because you lack the correct kitchen equipment, get to know your local butcher and he will surely grind them for you. Should you go the pre-ground route, choose grass-fed or organic.
Balls are almost impossible to screw up but here are some basics to ensure that they remain juicy, which can be their biggest downfall. There is nothing more unappealing than a dried, compact ball, that tastes like a hockey puck.
- A Better Ball Has More Than One Meat? – Balls that utilize a variety of ground meats typically provides more flavor. A typical mix of beef, pork and veal renders a delicious balls. If you are using fowl (chicken or turkey), don’t buy pre-ground at a the store. Grind the meat yourself in the food processor, as it will be less watery. Additionally, use thigh meat as it has more fat content and usually makes for a moister ball. You can add some bacon fat or a little pork belly when you grind the meat to incorporate a little more flavor – but that is optional.
- Breadcrumbs or no Breadcrumbs? – There is always the exception, but Panko is a bit flakier than normal breadcrumbs, hence they can absorb some of the fat and give the ball some texture. You are better off making your own breadcrumbs, as store-bought have additives and flavorings and it’s best to control the amount of spices and salt. Some recipes will call for regular breadcrumbs and not Panko, so stick to regular.
- Soaking Bread or Breadcrumbs in Liquid – Soaking some bread slices in milk adds extra moisture and creaminess to the balls. Different recipes will call for soaking the bread in wine, milk, or just water. A panade (which are breadcrumbs soaked in liquid) can also substitute the milk-soaked bread, as it provides basically the same result.
- Eggs – They make a superb binding agent and create a juicier and velvetier meatball. Be sure to beat them well and season before adding to the ground meats.
- Rolling method – Wet your hands in some water so that the meat doesn’t stick to your hands.
- Don’t cook them right away – The flavor will be enhanced if you rest the balls about 45 minutes to an hour prior to cooking – they can also be prepared the day ahead and refrigerated up to 24 hours, which is even better.
- Size Matters – The size of a ping-ping or golf ball – 1” in diameter – is ideal. Use a medium sized ice cream scooper to achieve consistency and ensure they will cook more uniformly. Rule of thumb: smaller ball – less cooking time; larger ball – longer cooking time.
- Cooking Method – Depending on what the recipe calls for, each method is noteworthy. Baking them in the oven prior to plonking them in a sauce makes them more palatable. Flash frying to give the exterior a bit of browning is excellent too, not only it imparts great flavor but if you are finishing them in a sauce or braising them, it will ensure they don’t fall apart in the liquid as they cook.
- Added Flavor – Each recipe will call for different flavorings, spices and herbs depending on the cuisine you are selecting. Adding, prosciutto, chopped pancetta, chorizo, and even bacon will add a burst of additional flavor to the balls. If you haven’t tried that, the results are exceptional.
- Don’t Overmix – When incorporating all the raw ingredients. As that is when you will get the hockey puck effect.
Featured recipe – Spanish meatballs with cborizo