Today we’re preparing a batch of what I consider to be ‘the’ quintessential meatball. What does that mean? That means a decadently moist interior, a crispy exterior, and a flavor profile that’s equal parts ‘meaty’ and savory, while bursting with fennel and basil goodness.
The key here is frying rather than baking the meatballs, which gives them a crisped and flavorful exterior, while preserving the interior’s moisture. Another key is thoroughly soaking artisan bread in milk ‘before’ mixing the bread into the meat. Both of these steps, taken together, are how we achieve a decadently moist and flavorful meatball, but more on that below.
One thing I love about this meatball recipe is just how versatile it is. Topping it over pasta? Delicious, naturally. As the ‘meat’ of a meatball hero? Awesome. On the side, or as part of an appetizer? That works too.
If these meatballs sound like your thing, be sure to pair them with my homemade breadsticks, or – if you’re really feeling adventurous – my homemade pasta. Now, let’s make some meatballs.
Ingredient Checklist and Notes
Here’s the ingredients you’ll be needing for today’s meatballs, along with some notes on each just to make sure you’ve got everything you need.
- Ground Beef. Steer clear of using sirloin for meatballs. Instead, ground chuck is widely considered the ‘best’ ground beef for burgers, meatballs, and meat sauces. This is because it contains somewhere in the realm of 20% fat by volume, and fat is flavor. This may come as a shock, but muscle tissue has ‘almost zero’ in the way of flavor-giving compounds. Thus, the fattier the meat, the more flavorful it will be.
- Garlic. Don’t worry about chopping this too finely, as it cooks down during frying. Just give it a few good chops.
- Fresh Basil. If you don’t have fresh basil, don’t worry, we’ve got substitutions, which I’ll talk about below. If using fresh basil, you’ll want to chop it up, but again there’s no need to go nuts.
- Eggs. Not much to say here, other than these are used to bind the meatballs together.
- Italian Style Bread Crumbs. Extra flavor from the seasonings is always a plus, but if you only have plain on hand, we’ve got some substitutions and suggestions below.
- Grating Cheese. Stick with Parmesan or Romano cheese. Freshly grated is always best, but pre-grated is fine too.
- Bread. The ideal bread here is crusty artisan Italian bread. However, we’ve got some substitutions below.
- Whole Milk. As mentioned above, fat is flavor. Also, we ‘really’ don’t want to be watering down the meatballs by using skim. Full fat, full flavor, full texture. Lactose free substitutes below.
- Salt. I’m using regular table/cooking salt. Save your gourmet salts, such as pink or black Himalayan salt, or higher end sea salts, for ‘gentler’ and light recipes. However, if you want to splurge, feel free to use as the gourmet salt of your choice.
- Black pepper. Pre-ground or cracked pepper is really all you need for today’s recipe, no need to fuss with grinding.
- Dried Oregano. Be sure to crush it thoroughly before adding it in. Just use your fingers or a mortar and pestle.
- Fennel seed. Chop them up first. For best results, chop the fennel seeds before tossing them into the meat mixture. This both helps them to release their flavor, and helps ‘hide’ them in the meat better, otherwise they aren’t terribly pleasant to chew.
- Olive Oil. Extra Virgin, as always, is the way to go here for best results.
- Vegetable Oil. No need to waste olive oil for the frying process, so save yourself a few bucks, and use vegetable oil instead. This has no effect on the flavor, since vegetable oil is largely flavor neutral, and olive oil’s flavors are ‘boiled away’ during frying.
1) Substitutes for Fresh Basil.
- Dried Basil. This is by far the best stand in for fresh basil. Note that one tablespoon of fresh basil equates to one teaspoon of dried.
- Cilantro. Use this at a one-to-one ratio in place of basil. While cilantro is a good stand in, it does affect the flavor profile somewhat. Using cilantro will result in a slightly more ‘savory’ and ‘earthy’ tasting meatball.
- Mint. Use about a quarter to half as much fresh mint. Mint will result in a brighter and ‘mintier’ (shocker there) meatball, but will mask some of the meatball’s savoriness. Be aware that using even a little too much mint ‘will’ result in overpowering the meatballs, however.
2) Substitutes for Italian style bread crumbs.
- Do-it-yourself Italian-style Breadcrumbs. Making Italian-style breadcrumbs at home is incredibly simple. Just take half a cup of plain breadcrumbs, and then add in about a quarter teaspoon of black pepper, half a teaspoon salt, and a pinch each of red pepper flakes and dried oregano. Add in dried basil and dried parsley (about a quarter teaspoon of each), if you happen to have these on hand.
- Plain Breadcrumbs. Back-to-basics plain breadcrumbs would also work ‘fine’ in today’s recipe if you don’t have Italian-style, or don’t have the ingredients to prep your own.
3) Substituting the Bread. As mentioned above, the ideal bread here is crusty artisan Italian bread. However, here are a couple of substitutions.
- Any ‘Artisan’ Loaf. Any crusty loaf that you might pick up at a bakery or in the bakery aisle of your local supermarket will work just fine. Simply cut the loaf up into cubes, and soak that in the milk.
- Plain White Bread. Here again, just cube the bread, then let it soak in the milk. Plain white bread won’t hold quite as much moisture as the hardier Italian bread or artisan loaf, but it will indeed get the job done.
- Rolls. Think hardy white rolls, dinner rolls, or the such.
4) The Milk – Lactose Free Substitutes. Any plain, full-fat milk substitute. No sweeteners, no flavors, no reduced fat. I would stick with plain soy or almond milk, as these are the most flavor neutral milk-substitutes. Use them in the same quantity as whole milk.
Step by Step – Making Meatballs
- Cube the Bread. We start off by cubing the bread.
- Soak the Bread Cubes. In a medium sized bowl, pour the milk (or milk substitute of your choice) over the bread, and let the bread absorb the milk.
- Mix Everything Except the Meat. We then mix together garlic, breadcrumbs, eggs, olive oil, seasonings, the basil, and the grating cheese. Mix this until well combined.
- Mix in the Meat. Add in the ground beef and mix lightly. Do ‘not’ overwork the meat. After that, let the meat rest for about thirty minutes.
- Let the Meat Rest. Making sure you read that last bit. Let the meat mixture rest for at least thirty minutes.
- Prep the Fry Pan. While the meat is resting, prep your fry pan with about a half an inch of vegetable oil, and bring that to about 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Form the Meatballs. Don’t overwork or over-roll them. Work the meat ‘just enough’ to form loose balls.
- Fry them. Fry the meatballs until you’ve got a nice crisp exterior, as described in the recipe below.
Prep Tips – A Meatball Primer
- Don’t Overwork The Meat. You want the meat mixture to be uniformly combined, and that’s it. Overworking will have the effect of adding too much air to the meat, and of ‘squeezing’ the meat too much, draining away the juices. This results in ‘rubbery,’ ‘firm,’ and ‘dry’ meatballs.
- Don’t Over Roll Them. You don’t need to pack the meat tight or form ‘perfect’ circular balls. Set them together into rough, loose balls just tight enough to maintain their form, and that’s it.
- Reiterating the Above. I’m telling you to ‘work less’ for ‘better meatballs.’ Are we clear on this? Good. Now, onto the final tip.
- Meatballs Love Being Fried. I used to bake my meatballs, but honestly frying them in a cast iron pan with some oil just makes a world of difference. Not only does it give them a crisp and succulent outside, but it truly makes them moister on the inside.
Basil and Garlic Meatballs
- Prep Time: 10 minutes
- Cook Time: 20 minutes
- Total Time: 30 minutes
- Yield: 4-6 servings 1x
- Category: Main Dish
- Method: Pan fried
- Cuisine: Italian
- 2 1/2 lbs. of ground beef
- 1 head of garlic, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup of fresh basil chopped
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 cup Italian style bread crumbs
- 1/2 cup of Parmesan or Romano cheese, grated
- 2 slices of Artisan Italian bread, cubed (if you don’t have Artisan bread you may use 3 slices of white bread)
- 1/2 cup of milk
- 1 tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. black pepper
- 1 tsp. dried oregano, crushed with your fingers
- 1 tsp. fennel seed, chopped
- 1 tsp. olive oil
- Vegetable oil, for frying the meatballs
- In a medium sized bowl add the cubed bread and pour the ½ cup of milk over the bread to absorb.
- In a large bowl add the chopped garlic, breadcrumbs, eggs, olive oil, seasonings, fresh chopped basil and the fresh grated cheese.
- Add the soaked bread to the large bowl and toss.
- Add the ground beef to the large bowl and mix.
- Let the prepared meat rest for about 30 minutes before forming into meatballs. When you do form into meatballs do not squeeze them tight or overwork the meatballs. They will become hard and dry!
- Heat a large cast iron frying pan with about ½ inch of vegetable oil.
- Add a few meatballs at a time, DO NOT overcrowd your pan.
- Allow a nice crust to form on one side then gently turn the meatballs, to form a nice crust on all sides. This should take about 2 – 3 minutes per side. Do Not overcook your meatballs!
- Place in your favorite tomato sauce and serve with fresh grated Romano cheese or Parmesan and a nice crusty bread for dipping.
Keywords: meatballs, basil, garlic, beef, main dish, meat, family style
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This post has been updated August 2022. The original recipe was published November 5, 2014.36
Dottie Sauchelli Balin says
Dear Catherine, A yummy post! These Basil and Garlic Meatballs look very good….I love it when they are fried. Seems that they taste so much better than baking them. My dad loves them plain, without any sauce right from the frying pan, before my mom puts them in the sauce. He usually tries to steal one or two before dinner. He is so funny. But I like your version. Thanks so much for sharing another fabulous recipe dear friend. Have a blessed rest of the week! Dottie 🙂
[email protected]'s Recipes says
These meatballs look fantastic, Catherine.
Now that’s what I call some appetizing meatballs, Catherine. I’m sure everyone was more than delighted with this choice. I know for sure I would be:) Which reminds me, I better take a jar of roasted tomatoes out of the freezer. Marion has requested pasta for dinner. I may just surprise her with lots of meatballs! (leftover meatballs are always better the second night:)
Thanks for sharing, Catherine…
Zelle Brown says
These look oh so delicious, Catherine!
xo Southern Style
Absolutely scrumptious! I am a big fan of meatballs.
Ginny Hartzler says
They look wonderful! And there’s not much more comforting than meatballs! Long ago, I used to make a recipe almost identical to this one!
Comedy Plus says
This would be my choice too. Yummy.
Have a blessed day my friend. ♥♥♥
I love these Catherine cause I love basil and garlic.I will try this:)
two of my favorite flavors…garlic and basil. add onions and black peppercorns and you’ve got it made!
This looks scrumptious and seems pretty easy, too! I appreciate your sharing this!
they look great love meatballs great addition of the cheese
Choc Chip Uru says
Your meatballs look so flavoursome 😀
Choc Chip Uru
Vicki Bensinger says
We just had meatballs and pasta on Tuesday and I love them. Your recipe sounds delicious and easy. I’ll try your next time, I’m sure we will all enjoy them.
Big Daddy Dave says
Catherine, I must have missed these meatballs the first time around. They look and sound great. I’d like them on a hoagie bun with a little spicy red sauce. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave
Jerry E. Beuterbaugh says
Yummy! By the way, one has to be really careful with where they place their cursor on this site if they want to avoid one of those GourmetAds intruding upon your content. I hope they are paying you well.
I am a huge meatball fan and I wish I had thought to have some ground beef defrosted for dinner tonight. It looks like a perfect, flavorful recipe! Have a terrific weekend! xo
Tanya Walton says
Meatballs are one of my favourite dishes…so easy to prepare and so versatile!
Looks delicious love it thanks for sharing with Hearth and soul blog hop. pinning.
Thanks so much for being an awesome part of TYSH! See you next Tuesday. HUGS!
Miz Helen says
Your Basil and garlic Meatballs will be delicious! Hope you are staying warm and cozy on this cold day and thanks so much for sharing with Full Plate Thursday.
Come Back Soon!
Ashlyn @ Belle of the Kitchen says
Basil and garlic are two of my favorite ingredients. I use them all the time and am always buying more! These meatballs sound amazing! Definitely want to make them.
allie @ Through Her Looking Glass says
Oh yum!!! And I would love the leftovers in a meatball sub with provolone. Divine! Have a great week friend!
Jessica - The Novice Chef says
I absolutely agree! Pure comfort food!!
These meatballs look so delicious. I love all of the flavor!
Ramona W says
Wow, that looks amazing!! I am totally meatball obsessed and I could eat that entire platter happily!!
Just followed this easy recipe and it tastes delicious and oh so easy to follow. I am a huge fan of “comfort food” and this is always a favorite in the colder weather. Thanks for posting this. I’m a new fan.
So good!! Made these meatballs together with my boyfriend— we added a little more garlic and basil then the recipe called for they came out AMAZING!! Super flavorful thank you!!
DAVID J MYERS says
Catherine, I think that frying the meatballs is key to bringing out all the flavor and it delivers a nice crisp exterior…mushy being a problem for many folks including my better half. I could eat about 8 of these at one sitting…over pasta or on a hoagie/sub. Take Care, Big Daddy Dave