The versatility of meatballs
Meatballs are one of those essential items at a pizzeria. Whether you make them in house or get them pre-made, a good meatball adds a lot to your menu. Often, the biggest issue we have with meatballs at my shop is making enough of them.
One of the great aspects of meatballs is their versatility. They can be utilized in many different ways, such as a main course, on top of pasta, as a side dish, on a sandwich, on a pizza or in a soup. They can even be turned into meatball sliders. My family takes the “dough” and makes meatball hamburgers and even meatloaf. It is the one version of meatloaf that I actually enjoy. There are also endless flavor combinations that you can create.
Whether you want a more traditional version or prefer to put a creative spin on them, meatballs are the perfect canvas to convey your vision. Simply by changing up the spices, herbs, meat and even starch can drastically change your signature meatball. While it might seem like a small thing, the size is also an important factor to consider when designing your meatball. The presentation, use and cooking time all vary depending on how big they are. For example, if you are making soup, roll them into miniature shapes for bite size flavor bombs. For creating a main dish, go for a giant meatball. No matter what kind of meatball you decide to make, there are a few essential components to ensure they come out moist, tender and flavorful every time.
Different components of a meatball
• The Meat. Traditionally, meatballs are made out of a combination of beef and pork with a healthy amount of fat. Just because this is the way your grandmother made them doesn’t mean you can’t venture in your own direction. There are plenty of reasons to try out other meats. One big reason that I’ve run into is that a good portion of the population doesn’t eat pork, and the majority of meat pizza toppings are pork-based or fully pork. Think pepperoni, the majority of sausages, prosciutto, most salami, bacon, pancetta, and guanciale to name a few. It’s nice to be able to offer your customers who want a meat option but don’t eat pork a tasty option. Another reason to pick a different type of meat is if you want the other flavors to really come through. Choosing something with a very tame flavor like chicken or turkey gives you a blank canvas for other flavors to assert themselves. On the other hand, gamey meats like lamb or bison lend themselves well if you want that taste in the forefront.
• The Starch. I like to use bread crumbs in my meatballs. That being said you can also use Panko, almond flour (if you’re going for gluten free) or nothing at all. I know people who soak their stale bread in milk to create a more tender meatball. I really think the starch and preparation depends on how you are utilizing your meatballs. We bake ours off in the morning and keep them in a warmer with sauce to be spooned onto a sandwich or as a side dish. For this reason, I don’t want them to fall apart, otherwise it just become a pot of bolognese. If you are baking them to order or topping pasta with them, you probably want a more delicate, melt in your mouth meatball as opposed to one with some chew.
• The Binder. While starch helps to bind the meat, eggs or an egg replacement is also very important.
• The Spice. Once you’ve decided on your flavor profile, you can go about procuring your spices. If you want a more traditional tasting meatball, think along the lines of fennel seeds, garlic and onion powder and oregano. Keep in mind if you are buying bread crumbs as opposed to making your own, they usually have added salt and spices already so make sure you adjust your recipe accordingly.
• The Herbs and Vegetables. I like to add fresh garlic to my meatballs. You can also chop up some fresh parsley or onion. You don’t have to stop there. Depending on the flavor profile you are going for, feel free to add chilies, ginger, scallions and even dried fruits.
• The Cheese. Grated Parmesan or Pecorino is the most common, but feel free to get creative. If you’re going for a dairy-free meatball you can substitute nutritional yeast for the cheese.
A few fun meatballs to try:
- Lamb, cilantro, garlic, paprika, mint.
- Turkey, maple, rosemary, mustard, thyme.
- Pork, ginger, scallion, soy sauce.
- Beef and pork, Calabrese chilies, garlic, honey, cayenne pepper.
Of course, there are a few things that can ruin a great meatball. I am not a fan of reheating day-old meatballs. Once they’ve been cooked and kept in a warmer all day, you don’t want to serve them the next day. At least not as a main, sandwich or side dish. To avoid waste, you can always slice them up and serve them as a pizza topping. Another thing to be conscious of is over cooking. No one wants a burned or dried out meatball. A big part of having a juicy meatball is adding fat. Just like when you make sausage, meatballs need a good amount of fat.
Now that you’ve gotten the flavor and texture that you are looking for in a killer meatball, how do you store and bake them? At my shop, we make a big batch every other day and use an ice cream scoop to portion them out. We put about 60 on a sheet tray with parchment and plastic wrap. This way it is ready to go for the opener to bake off in the morning. How you bake your meatballs really depends on the equipment you have in your shop. Ideally you could bake them off throughout the day to keep them fresh. However, this isn’t always practical. For example, we only have one pizza oven and after we open it is set to 625 F. In my opinion this is way too hot to bake off meatballs. They would come out burned on the outside and undercooked in the middle. Instead, we bake off what we think we need for the day at 400 F for 24 minutes. The meatballs then go into a warmer with marinara sauce. Your cooking time will also depend on the size of the meatballs. If they are super small you will obviously need less baking time and if they are on the larger side, I would recommend a lower temperature for longer so they cook all the way through while staying tender.
Whether you are looking for a standard recipe to serve in multiple ways or a specialty one for a burst of unexpected flavor, meatballs are a great way to add a big helping of comfort to your menu.
Turkey Rosemary Meatballs