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.
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.
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This post has been updated August 2022. The original recipe was published November 5, 2014.38