This juicy Italian meatball recipe from Nonna’s kitchen is the ultimate comfort food. Nonna is Italian for grandmother and this recipe will have you praising her name. These glorious orbs of ground beef are broiled to golden brown perfection; then, they are simmered in a delicious tomato sauce, bursting with flavor until they are juicy and tender. Serve over your favorite pasta, such as spaghetti. Grandma’s Italian meatball recipe is a classic dish that is perfect for a hearty meal.
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My grandmother and mom make some of the best meatballs on the planet. For years as a kid, I was spoiled by their fantastic cooking, so much so that I never realized that many folks don’t make their meatballs from scratch until I had the dish at other households.
Often you’ll find people using premade frozen meatballs, usually turkey or pork meatballs. However, I’ve always believed that authentic Italian meatballs are made with beef. Learning the best meatball recipe was tricky; like many great culinary artists, Granny usually cooked based on feelings rather than specific measurements.
But as someone who cooks, using specific details that don’t work for me. This meant I had to learn primarily through trial and error to find the perfect measurements for ingredients.
After a couple of years of testing, I finally found the ideal formula for making the most outrageously delicious, tender, and juicy homemade Italian meatballs to grace a pasta bowl.
For example, the breadcrumb mixture is a super-important element that helps your homemade meatballs retain their juiciness. Broiling creates those savory surface flavors while simmering tenderizes your beef to perfection.
This easy meatball recipe can make many of your favorite pasta dishes or a delicious juicy meatball sub. These meatballs taste even better as leftovers as all the seasoning marinates deeper into the meat.
Selecting the Meat
I recommend using ground beef with a mixture of 90 percent (ground sirloin) and 80 percent (ground chuck). This ground meat percentage is in line with how much lean meat-to-fat that’s mixed. The fat adds a delicious flavor, while the meat delivers a contrasting texture.
Now, in addition to beef, Granny did say that she occasionally enjoys a ground meat mixture of ground pork and veal. You can also substitute ground chicken or turkey for creating healthy chicken meatball and turkey meatball dishes.
When using breadcrumbs, it’s unnecessary to soak them before mixing them into your meat as you might typically do to create a classic panade. The reason is that the size of the breadcrumbs is fine enough for the moisture from the fat juices in your beef and humidity from your eggs to serve this purpose.
After you create your mix and boil, the fluids will absorb into your breadcrumbs, activating natural starches. As your classic meatballs simmer, these starches bind to the liquid while swelling to lock in those delicious juices.
Picking Your Breadcrumbs
I recommend just using plain unseasoned breadcrumbs, then mixing in your favorite dried Italian seasons to provide savory, herbaceous notes. You may also consider using store-bought Italian breadcrumbs if you don’t like making them from scratch. However, I want to be in control of how much seasoning is in my breadcrumbs.
Also, I like making fresh bread crumbs using my food processor before baking them dry if I have leftover bread. This makes for a much more delicious homemade meatball than using premade breadcrumbs. And this option also works well for anyone who wishes to make gluten-free bread crumbs, especially if you can’t find any in your grocery store.
You can also make it with different types of bread, such as pumpernickel or sourdough.
For a healthier option, you can opt for whole-wheat breadcrumbs. These breadcrumbs are denser and absorb more liquid, so you’ll need to use more fat in your mix. The result is a slightly thicker, more flavorful meatball.
Broiling Unlocks New Delicious Flavors
Granny is firm in broiling meatballs before adding them to the sauce to simmer. This process is a vital step that helps the meat stick together while steaming, but it also enhances the texture and surface flavor of your meatballs. It would be best if you cooked your meatballs in the boiler, flipping them to ensure both sides are well-browned.
Granny didn’t know that she was using the Maillard reaction to perfection. In culinary school, they teach that Maillard browning is vital for introducing hundreds of new flavor aromas and compounds into a dish.
The Maillard reaction is a type of non-enzymatic browning that occurs when the amino acids in food react with the reducing sugars in the presence of heat. This reaction is essential in the food industry as it contributes to cooked food’s flavor, aroma, and color.
It is also responsible for forming several beneficial compounds, such as melanoidins, which can act as antioxidants and reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.
The Maillard reaction is a complex series of reactions that involve the breakdown of proteins into amino acids, followed by the response of those amino acids with reducing sugars. This reaction produces a wide range of compounds responsible for cooked food’s distinct flavor and aroma.
Generally, the Maillard reaction occurs at temperatures of around 150 to 300°C and involves the formation of a variety of compounds, such as hydroxymethylfurfural, furfural, and other small molecules that can give food a distinct flavor and aroma.
The Ideal Bread-to-Meat Ratio
The ideal ratio of breadcrumb-to-meat plus fat is critical to perfecting this recipe. The texture gets thrown off if you have too many or a few bread crumbs, as the meatballs can become too spongy or tough. The sweet spot will be ½ cup of breadcrumbs, 1 pound of beef, plus one large egg.
Your Tomato Sauce
Foods with a wealth of glutamates, such as garlic, onions, and tomatoes, boost your meatballs’ savory flavors. Minced onion and garlic sauteed in a rich tomato paste add a touch of depth and sweetness to your marinara sauce. Using high-quality canned crushed tomatoes can produce a thicker but still pourable consistency. I mix my sauce and then simmer it for about 30 minutes while fixing my meatballs.
It Takes Time and Patience to Make a Good Sauce
Slowly simmering your meatballs in the tomato sauce for over an hour will allow the fluid to bring out the savory browned flavors of your meat. This braising process and the tomato’s acids help tenderize the tough connective tissue within the beef. This way, each bite melts in your mouth. Plus, the sauce’s flavor will concentrate more the longer you cook.
This recipe is also perfect in a slow cooker, set at about three hours on high or six hours on low. You will need to make sure the spaghetti sauce is nice and thick. That way, it will better coat your noodles. You can constantly adjust the consistency using a bit of beef stock or water once everything finishes cooking.
What to Serve Nonna’s Amazing Italian Meatballs With
- Your favorite pasta or spaghetti
- Caprese salad
- Focaccia Bread
- Italian Bread
- Mashed potatoes
Preventing Your Juicy Meatballs from Shrinking
Adding breadcrumbs to your round meat mix creates a starch-filled paste that will hold moisture while preventing shrinkage. Typically as meat cooks, the proteins in the muscle fibers contract and tighten, causing a lot of water to be squeezed out. If you don’t use breadcrumbs or a classic panade, your meatballs will shrink and may become tough or dry.
Nonna's Amazing Italian Meatballs
- Cheese grater
- 2 to 3-quart saucepan
- ½ cup minced yellow onions
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 6 oz tomato paste
- 2 tsp minced garlic
- 7 cups canned crushed tomatoes
- ½ tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp kosher salt set aside more for seasoning
- Two large eggs
- 2 Lbs 80-90 percent lean ground beef
- 1 cup plain or Italian-style breadcrumbs
- ▢½ cup finely minced yellow onion
- ▢½ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese set aside more for garnish
- 1 tsp black pepper
- 2 tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1 tsp dried Italian seasoning leave out if already using Italian-seasoned breadcrumbs
- ¼ cup sliced basil garnish
- In a Dutch oven or large pot, warm the olive oil on the stove over medium-low heat. After the oil is hot, add garlic and onion, stirring for about 3 minutes until the onions become soft and translucent.
- Mix in the tomato paste and simmer for 1 minute. Add salt, pepper, and crushed tomatoes. Let the mixture cook for 30 minutes, with a slightly open lid to prevent splattering, stirring from time to time. Lastly, adjust the flavors by adding salt and pepper to desired taste.
- Put the oven rack in the lower-middle section and turn it to the broil setting. Cover a large baking sheet with foil and apply a thin layer of olive oil. Set aside. Combine ground beef, chopped onion, breadcrumbs, eggs, parmesan cheese, black pepper, salt, minced garlic, and Italian spices in a large bowl. Mix everything with your hands until it is thoroughly blended.
- Gently shape the meatball mixture into egg-sized balls weighing approximately 3 ounces. Place them on a baking sheet with space between them; you should end up with 14-15 meatballs.
- Cook meatballs in the broiler until golden brown, approximately 10-12 minutes. Flip them over and heat for 2-3 more minutes to achieve a nice, even color.
- Move the meatballs to the pot with tomato sauce. Put the lid on the bank, leaving it slightly open. Cook the dish on low heat for less than 90 minutes, stirring and checking it every 20 minutes or more, as needed. The meatballs should be tender when cut with a fork.
- After cooking, make preferred adjustments to the consistency of the sauce by adding small amounts of water or beef broth, about a tablespoon at a time. Use salt and pepper to season to taste.
- Savor the delicious combination of spaghetti, meatballs, and a flavorful sauce sprinkled with fresh basil and a hint of Parmesan cheese.