How to Make the Perfect Meatballs
Become a meatballs master with our top 10 tips, step-by-step instructions, and favorite tender, juicy meatball recipes
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Article and featured recipe and photographs by Ashley Strickland Freeman
Let’s talk meatballs. To me, they are one of the most delicious, family-friendly main dishes you can make. Better yet, they’re usually pretty inexpensive too. I wish I could say that I have an Italian nonna who taught me her secret recipe for how to make perfect meatballs. But alas, my ancestors hail from England and Scotland (prior to South Georgia) so there isn’t an ounce of Italian in me. However, there is that saying “you are what you eat,” and I have eaten and cooked my fair share of Italian food over the years. So that counts, right?
You can find some form of meatballs in essentially every cuisine around the world. And for good reason — they’re a crowd-pleaser and a canvas for whatever spices and seasonings you’d like. All that said, I’m sure you’ve had a meatball or two that didn’t quite live up to your standards. I know I have. Whether the texture was reminiscent of a bouncing ball or they required a drenching of sauce to hide a bland flavor, meatballs can disappoint.
So what are the secrets to great meatballs? Follow along to learn how to make meatballs step by step, and you’re sure to have tasty, juicy, and flavorful results.
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How to make meatballs step by step
Let’s start our meatball step-by-step guide with the essentials, especially if this is your first time making meatballs from scratch. We'll put the tips to work in my homemade meatball recipe for Italian Baked Meatballs in Marinara Sauce.
1. Use a mix of ground meats
For the best flavor, you want a mix of different ground meats. The choice of meat is also crucial in determining tenderness. Lean ground meats like ground sirloin, chicken, and turkey breast tend to dry out and make meatballs tough. I like to use equal parts ground beef chuck and ground pork. A lot of traditional meatball recipes also include ground veal in addition to the beef and pork, so give that a try if you’d like.
2. Keep everything cold
If you keep all of the ingredients cold, the fat from the meat doesn’t melt prematurely. Fat equals flavor as well as juiciness, so keeping the meat cold before mixing and shaping ensures that the fat is dispersed evenly for ultimate tenderness and taste.
3. Incorporate a panade
Perfect meatballs are nice and tender. A mixture of starch and liquid called a panade is often added to ground meat to bind in moisture and help ensure tenderness. In the Italian meatballs recipe, the panade is 1 1/4 cup breadcrumbs mixed with 1/2 cup milk and 1/2 cup beef broth. It all softens into a paste that works the right magic.
4. Don’t overwork the meat mixture
You know why meatballs sometimes resemble bouncy balls? It’s likely because they’ve been overworked. Using a large bowl, I like to gently combine the meat mixture just until it comes together and then use a cookie scoop to portion it into balls.
5. Brown meatballs before simmering in sauce
Making meatballs always involves browning them before you simmer them in the sauce. This helps develop flavor and it also helps keep the meatballs from falling apart. (See more on browning in our top 10 tips below.) As for simmering, I like to give the browned meatballs at least 5 minutes cook time in the sauce to blend flavors, but you can let them cook longer if you like.
Best meatball recipe
Ready to practice making meatballs? Let’s get to it with my classic Italian spaghetti and meatballs recipe. The homemade marinara pasta sauce includes four cloves garlic and diced onion sauteed in a little olive oil, two kinds of herbs, plus a generous splash of red wine for complexity. This tomato sauce is rich and thick, and is easy to double if you like a lot of sauce. In addition to the panade, the meatball mixture incorporates tangy Pecorino-Romano cheese and a touch of nutmeg. As for the browning, this easy meatball recipe cooks in the oven on a baking sheet. No splatters on the stove!
Q & A: Top 10 tips for making meatballs
Over the years, I’ve heard about a variety of meatball mishaps. Here are some additional cooking tips for meatballs to make meatballs better.
1. My meatballs don’t have much flavor. What am I doing wrong?
Several easy fixes will take your meatballs to the next level.
• Don’t forget the salt. As a rule of thumb, about 1 teaspoon salt per pound of meat is a good place to start. If you’re also adding grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese as in my Italian Baked Meatballs in Marinara Sauce recipe, cut down on the salt a little. Similarly, don't forget the black pepper!
• Never underestimate the power of fresh herbs. A couple of tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs will take the meatballs from so-so to whoa-whoa. Fresh parsley, oregano, rosemary, marjoram, and fresh basil are especially good with classic Italian meatballs.
• Taste and adjust. Before I cook a whole batch of meatballs, I like to pinch off a little bit of the meat mixture and sear it in a pan to taste and see if the seasoning needs to be adjusted.
2. How to make meatballs moist?
For best results, don't use lean ground beef. Ground beef chuck, for example, with 15 to 20 percent fat, creates much juicer meatballs. Add soaked breadcrumbs (the panade discussed above). And be careful how many eggs are in the mixture (see the next question).
3. How to make tender meatballs?
If your meatballs tend toward tough and bouncy or spongy, it could be caused by a couple of things.
• Don’t overwork the meat mixture. Combine the meat and seasonings by hand (not a food processor) until the mixture just comes together.
• Don’t go overboard on the eggs. Eggs are meant to be used as a binder, but too many, and the meatballs can end up being spongy; 1 large egg for 1 to 2 pounds of meat is perfect.
4. What's the best way to brown meatballs?
This is personal preference, but I love to bake them. It’s all hands-off after you’ve shaped the meatballs. I don’t recommend deep-frying — it can be messy and yield a dry meatball. If a crisp brown crust is what you’re after, pan-sear them in a large skillet over medium heat to medium-high heat.
5. Can you make meatballs in a slow cooker or Instant Pot? What about an air fryer?
Yes, you can cook meatballs in a Crock Pot and an Instant Pot. If you’re using a slow cooker, my recommendation would be to add meatballs that have already been seared or cooked through along with a sauce. The slow cooker will keep them warm, so it’s a great option for special occasions. The Instant Pot offers a little more flexibility with the option to sear in the pot before cooking to pressure. You can also make meatballs in an air fryer! Here’s a recipe to try.
6. How can you tell when meatballs are done?
The easiest way to tell if a meatball is done through is to insert an instant-read thermometer into the center. If it registers at least 140°F, the meatballs are done.
7. What to do with leftover meatballs?
Leftover meatballs are great — try them in an Italian-style hero sandwich with marinara, or in a grain bowl or salad if you're out of sauce!
8. How long are meatballs good for?
Meatballs will last in the refrigerator for about 3 days. Store meatballs in the refrigerator in an airtight container. You can also freeze cooked meatballs up to 3 months.
9. How to freeze meatballs
I like to freeze meatballs after they’ve cooled, without the sauce. Set them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and freeze until solid. Then transfer meatballs to a zip-top freezer bag or airtight container to store the meatballs in the freezer.
10. What’s the best way to reheat meatballs?
To reheat meatballs, you can either zap them in the microwave in 30-second intervals, or heat them in a frying pan on the stovetop. You can also heat refrigerated or frozen meatballs directly in sauce on the stovetop.
12 more favorite meatball recipes
The great thing about all these tips for making meatballs is that they’re not limited to beef or Italian-style meatballs. You can make meatballs from other meats and for all sorts of cuisines, from Asian to Swedish. (The best recipes are your favorites, after all.) But first, let’s explore a few more variations on the classic Italian treatment.
A lower-cholesterol option to beef, ground turkey thigh can still be nice and juicy, as in this easy recipe made with Parmesan cheese, panko bread crumbs to hold in moisture, and a jar of store-bought marinara.
A decadent version of Italian meatballs, these tasty treats hold a molten mozzarella center. They’re guaranteed to be a hit for the whole family.
If you’re looking for a keto or gluten-free meatball option, check out these Keto Italian Meatballs. They have all the traditional flavors of Italian meatballs but with almond flour instead of breadcrumbs so they're low in carbohydrates.
These paleo-friendly meatballs are seasoned with lots of herbs — dill, parsley, basil, and oregano, in addition to lemon — for a fresh take on a classic. Serve over zucchini noodles for an easy, gluten-free weeknight meal.
I also really love these Vietnamese Meatball Bowls. They’re paleo and gluten-free, but you won't think “special diet” with the amount of flavor packed in. Ground pork is seasoned with fresh lemongrass and spicy sriracha and served over cauliflower rice. If you aren’t following a paleo diet, you can serve them over basmati or jasmine rice instead.
I’m always looking for awesome appetizers, and I really love these Buffalo Chicken Meatballs. Loaded with the seasonings you expect from hot wings, like Buffalo sauce and blue cheese, these babies are a great dish to serve for game day. Total time: only 35 minutes.
This tasty crowd-pleaser appetizer gets its iconic flavor from pineapple juice, ketchup, soy sauce, and brown sugar. If you haven’t tried these before, you really should!
Tuck crusty pork meatballs into toasted baguettes smeared with sriracha mayo, add plenty of pickled daikon and carrots, and open wide for the full Vietnamese banh mi sandwich experience!
When you’ve got a craving for take-out, these Coconut Curry Pork Meatballs are just the ticket. Jarred red curry paste and coconut milk help keep the prep time short and easy enough to enjoy during the week. With red pepper included, it’s a one-bowl meal! Just add jasmine rice.
Transport yourself to the Mediterranean with these Lamb Meatballs. Seasoned with mint, feta, and lemon, they are perfect for tucking into pita bread along with crisp cucumbers and hummus or yogurt.
Jazz up moist homemade turkey thigh meatballs, seasoned with lemon and fresh dill, with store-bought tzatziki sauce, fresh vegetables, and orzo and you’ve got a home-run one-bowl dinner. Even better: The recipe tells you how to customize the bowls for picky and more adventurous eaters.
Last but not least, we can’t forget about classic Swedish meatballs seasoned with a little nutmeg and allspice and served in a rich cream sauce. These are not to be missed and are great ladled over parsley-buttered egg noodles.
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