Tender, meaty, and long braised in tomato sauce, these Italian meatballs are welcome at my table any time!
Eat them with pasta, as appetizers, simmering in a slow cooker on a buffet, in sandwiches/subs – they are always delicious. The only problem will be keeping your family from eating them out of the pot before you even put them on the table!
As an Italian-American, I think it’s almost required of me to share my personal recipe for Italian Meatballs. I’m pretty certain those are the rules and clearly I need to follow them. Right? 🙂
Luckily this recipe is the product of multiple generations and decades of practice on my part to make it absolutely perfect. In fact, even though I just made them a couple of weeks ago for the photos, my daughter saw me working on the post and asked me to make them again. Soon.
What ingredients do you need?
- Tomato Sauce
- Tomatoes – I like equal amounts of crushed and whole tomatoes in the sauce. This gives the sauce body without making it too thick.
- Garlic – Just garlic, no onion!
- Herbs/Seasoning – Oregano, bay, and salt are what you need.
- Ground Meat – Either all beef or a mix of beef and pork. Try not to get meat that is too lean though! The flavor is better with some fat.
- Bread Crumbs/Milk – Or at least some torn up pieces of bread since you are going to be mashing them with milk for the panade.
- Egg – Just one with an optional extra yolk! Two whites makes for an overly firm mix.
- Parmesan – So much flavor here! Don’t skip.
- Herbs/Seasoning – I echo the sauce and use a similar flavor profile.
How do you make them?
To make Italian meatballs mix together ground meat with a panade, eggs, herbs, and spices. Form into balls, then fry until browned on all sides. Finally, braise for 2 hours in a low oven.
A few points about the recipe as I make it.
First, I go back and forth between all beef and a beef/pork mixture for the meat. (I’ve removed the veal from my mix entirely, since it makes things simpler.) I do enjoy the pork for its addition of flavor to the mix, but it’s harder to find organic, ground pork, and I highly prefer to purchase organic meats as much as possible. I feel they are darn tasty either way so, for me at least, it all depends on what I can find at the store for meat.
Second, too many eggs make a hard meatball. Just say no! I like one egg per pound of meat for structure and then sometimes I add an extra egg yolk if I want more flavor. You won’t ruin the batch if you add a second whole egg, but you’ll be happier with the results if you don’t.
Third, don’t be shy about the garlic and add plenty of grated parmesan and parsley to the mix. Along with the dried oregano, these are the flavors which make for a superior mix.
And, finally fourth, the bread. Fresh is the way to go and definitely mix it with some milk for flavor and tenderness. Yes, I have used dried bread crumbs in the past. Sometimes that’s all you have in the house. And, hey, it works. Though, let’s admit it, not the best and that is what we are going for here!
But, you say, I don’t have any fresh bread to use when I’m ready to cook. Well, I have the answer to that. Start grinding up extra rolls and the ends of breads that were all going to go moldy anyway since no one was eating them, and put those fresh bread crumbs into the freezer. They won’t last forever, but they will last about a month or so and that is plenty of time to get to the store and buy some ground beef and plan a meatball dinner.
Can these be made gluten-free?
(Full disclosure: I have not done this myself, but Cook’s Illustrated says it works and I trust them.) So, yes you can! Use ~1/2 cup of potato flakes in place of the bread crumbs, mix with the milk, and continue with the recipe.
How about dairy free?
This is also possible! Switch to a nondairy parmesan substitute and use either a nondairy milk or stock/broth for the panade.
How to Make Ahead
Uncooked: The formed meatballs can be refrigerated for up to one day or frozen for up to 2 months. Thaw in the refrigerator overnight and then use in recipe.
Cooked: The finished recipe can be cooled and then refrigerated for up to 2 days. Or you can pack it into freezer containers and keep for up to 2 months. Thaw overnight and then gently reheat.
If you try my recipe for the BEST Italian Meatballs, I would love to hear from you in the comments with your experience and rating! And I’m happy to answer any questions you might have.
– Happy Eating, Annemarie
The Best Italian Meatballs - Authentic and Homemade
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- kosher salt
- 1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1 28 oz can whole tomatoes, pureed in the blender
- 1 tsp dried oregano
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lb ground beef, or half ground beef and half ground pork
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 oz parmesan cheese, shredded
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1 cup fresh bread crumbs, plus another 1/2 cup if needed
- 1/4 cup milk
- 1 egg
- 1 egg yolk, optional
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Before you start the meatballs, get the sauce done and simmering.
- Heat the olive oil in a large oven-safe pot over medium-low heat and add garlic and a sprinkle of salt. Saute for 1 minute and then add tomatoes, oregano, and bay leaves.
- Increase heat to medium-high and bring sauce to a boil, reduce to low and let simmer while you make the meatballs.
- Move oven rack to lower middle position. Heat oven to 300F.
- Combine all the meatball ingredients in a large bowl and mix well, but gently. If you think it needs some more breadcrumbs or the egg yolk, add them now and mix in the additions.
- To portion out the meat, I like to use a cookie scoop. It goes very fast and they all end up the same size. However you portion them, take each portion and roll it between your hands until it is well shaped and then lay it out on a cookie sheet or a plate.
- Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, add the meatballs in batches and brown them all over, about 5-6 minutes per batch. (One pound of meat takes me two batches.)
- As you finish browning, add to the sauce. Once all have been browned and added to the sauce, cover the pot and put it in the oven. Braise the meatballs for at least 2 hours, but they can sit in the oven at that temperature for 4-6 hours.
- When you are ready to eat, serve with pasta, on rolls, or by themselves as an appetizer or on a buffet.
- Doubling: Recipe doubles or triples easily for larger crowds or future meals.
- Make Ahead (Uncooked): Meatballs can be formed ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator for up to 1 day (in a sealed container) or frozen for up to 2 months.
- Make Ahead (Cooked): The entire recipe can be made and kept in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Simply warm through in the oven. Or the meatballs and sauce can frozen for up to 2 months. Let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight, then heat and enjoy.
- Slow Cooker: Once you have made the sauce and fried the meatballs, add everything (while still hot) to a slow cooker and cook on low for 6-8 hours. The slow cooker is also an EXCELLENT way to keep them hot at a party.
- Size: I use about 1 1/2 tablespoons of mix per meatball. I use a #40 cookie scoop to make them all even. This is a great size for dinner and for meatball sandwiches. If you are making them for a party, smaller meatballs (about 2 tsp for each - using a #100 scoop) work great.
- Oven Temperature: Don't be tempted to increase it! A low oven is very important in allowing everything to braise without browning or burning the sauce or meat.
First published November 2015. Rewritten, expanded, and rephotographed.