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Meatball Flavor/ Tenderness Issue

I am finding that no matter if I use 50% beef/ 50% turkey or 100% beef or 100% turkey, the meatballs taste very meaty- or iron like. I;ve baked them in the oven, in a sauce pan with tomato sauce, and STILL, the same taste.
What type of meat do I use with trying to be health conscious (leaner and less red meat the better?

The past recipe I used
1 lb ground turkey
3/4 cup fresh whole wheat bread crumbs
1 tbsp parm
3 cloves chopped garlic
1 tsp oregano
1tsp salt
1 egg
and baked at 400 for 25 minutes or so.

They came out quite hard and tasted very meaty. What percentage of lean meat do I use? Any suggestions?


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  1. I would think the egg would provide enough moisture but you can add a little more via milk, cream or even water and I'm sure it will soften them up.

    1. ral217, add some warm water to your meatballs. I believe I use 1/2 cup per pound of meat. It really helps make the meatballs more tender and soft. Mix it in gently, and it will, believe it or not, soak it all up. Also, add some grated parmesan cheese to your mixture.

      1. The Sopranos have a good recipe for meatballs. The trick was to use fresh breadcrumbs and two cups of water so that the result is a light and fluffy meatball. Hopefully others can chime in with the details and recipe.

        1. I use basically the same recipe plus milk. Then pour a can of low-sodium broth over the meatballs prior to baking. After baking, add the cooking liquid to the sauce.

          1. Here is a thread that talks about the "iron" flavor http://www.chowhound.com/topics/34347...
            The tenderness is a seperate problem--I have had success by soaking white fresh bread in milk/water and mushing it into a paste which I mix into the ground meat. It seems to hold on to moisture a little better than other things I've tried. 1/3 cup of milk, a slice of bread should do for one pound of meat.

            1. I use 2 English muffins to a lb of meat, first run water over them and squish, then soak in heavy cream or half and half. A good dash of worchestshire too. I also add a handful of Japanese bread crumbs or regular seasoned crumbs, but I wouldn't use whole wheat for meatballs, that might be toughening it up.
              As far as the meat, maybe you could use half chopped portobello mushroom, I've had vegan meatballs made entirely with them and they're very good.

              3 Replies
              1. re: coll

                I'll second using some chopped Portabellos/crimini in them. It adds flavor and moistness. Also, I saute some chopped onions (about a half an onion for a pound or so of meat) until they are soft and starting to carmelize, adding those to the meat mixture. I never bother with the bread or bread crumbs anymore - the vegies and cooked onion seems to add enough to the mixture to loosen the balls up a little and not make them into mini-Superballs.

                1. re: coll

                  I agree about the whole wheat - I would stick with a homemade type or italian white bread softened in liquid and use panko or Italian dried if the mixture is too loose. Also, I always bake mine at 350 not 400. Meat can get tough at high temps. Remember in Upstairs Downstairs when the cook threw out the beef stew because the helper let it boil and ruined it? Of course you don't but that's how I found out why my beef stew was tough.

                  1. re: ginnyhw

                    My first stew recipe (many many years ago) had a warning: " A stew boiled is a stew spoiled".

                2. I like to use a fattier ground meat (pork and/or beef). Makes for a juicier meatball in my experience.

                  1. I add chopped onion to meatballs, then brown them and simmer for 15 mins. or so in beef broth (a la "Joy of Cooking:). Never turn out hard. Makes great gravy.

                    1. My secret for juicy meatballs, particularly turkey or something lower in fat, is that I use a slice of toasted GOOD, but white bread (ie, french, sourdough, pane bello...something tasty) run through the food processor to make crumbs, and a small zucchini, grated. The zucchini doesn't add anything flavor-wise, but it does make for a moist meatball. I forgot it once, and there was a huge difference.
                      I also use about a quarter cup of milk (to your 1 lb of turkey) and a quarter cup of parm...and sometimes I throw some kale in there too. A good place to hide it. :)

                      1. Add some water or use wet bread instead of bread crumbs.

                        I also put basil and parsley in mine.

                        The hardness issue could well be your rolling technique. Don't pack them too tightly or handle them too much. Just gently form them into a ball and sit them down. The uncooked meatballs should be quite fragile.

                        1. The most common combination of meats - beef/pork/veal (pork and veal being the most important) - this combo is often sold in the supermarket as meatloaf or meatball mix. The other important ingredient is fresh breadcrumbs or dried that have been soaked in milk. I'm not sure I like them this way, but if you just simmer the meatballs directly in the sauce, they will be most tender - personally, I like a little of the crunch on the outside that you get from sauteing them first.

                          1. These are all different and great suggestions! Thanks so much. I will report back when I make them again. I just bought some yellow squash at the market this morning and will be using them for a veggie pasta sauce. Very excited! Thanks again for all of your help!

                            1 Reply
                            1. re: ral217

                              I find that meatballs have the same effects as short ribs do...cook them, cool them, refridgerate and then bring back to temp for a very tender meatball.

                              3lbs ground beef
                              3 cloves garlic, crushed
                              1 egg
                              a handful of seasoned crumbs
                              2 handfuls of romano
                              salt and pepper

                              mix and drop into hot sauce raw. I crock pot them for 5-8 hours, cool and bring back up for an hour or 2 the next day. It makes 40 or so meatballs and I have NEVER had one left.

                            2. I soak my bread crumbs in milk before working them into the meat. I also find that the addition of ground pork really helps the flavor and juiciness. I'm not sure how that fits with your healthy requirement.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Megiac

                                i agree.

                                rather than bread crumbs, i prefer bread cubes (1-inch or so) soaked in whole milk, squeezed tight and added to the meat mix. my take is you really want to shoot for a meat-to-filler ratio approaching 50-50. milk, unlike water, adds a level of flavor. day-old white bread cubes (italian bread, of course) will absorb the liquid better than bread crumbs. very important.

                                garlic, eggs, pecorino romano, italian parsley, toasted pine nuts, salt and pepper round out the mixture. red pepper flakes are a cool option.

                                brown the meatballs (slightly smaller than a golf ball) in olive oil in a cast iron pan. thoroughly brown the meatballs on all sides until truly brown. a little crust is good. don't worry that these meatballs will dry out. they won't. add a little butter to your olive oil if you walk on the wild side.

                                serve these bad boys with your favorite pasta and sauce. leftovers re-heat well and never dry out. left-overs also contribute to the best meatball subs (grinders, wedges, whatever) on the planet provided you make decent homemade sauce.

                              2. Rao's restaurant in the Bronx offered up Frank's famous recipe for meatballs. the recipe is on numerous websites since published by ABC as one of their shows.

                                As for the flavor, the recipe calls for 50% beef and 25% each of pork and veal. this is sold in jfood's local grocer as meatloaf mix.

                                Jfood thinks these are the best recipe and the addition of 1 cup of water per pound of meat adds a sponginess to the meatballs that make them as tender and soft as any jfood has ever eaten. Although it sounds like a lot of water, when adding use your hands to blend through the meat. many people have said not to play with the meat too much, but in this recipe it works. jfood also adds a little red pepper flakes to the mixture just to give it a little zip.

                                hope this helps. everyone who has tried the recipe has liked it so far, many on CH included.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: jfood

                                  I've been making meatballs for a long time, and happened to be making them last weekend (for the last Sopranos!). Since all the 'hounds were saying add water, I made them the usual way and then added a LITTLE water; but when I fried them, they never crisped up. So unless you like GUSHY meatballs, beware. I add plenty of other liquids though: bread soaked in water, then heavy cream, worcestshire and the like, so maybe more liquid isn't necessary. Luckily not a catastrophe!

                                  1. re: coll

                                    I make mine like jfood, with a cup of water per pound of meat, then fry in olive oil and I have never had this issue. The outsides always get crispy and the insides are soft and moist.

                                    1. re: coll


                                      not sure what else you might have included in the "little water" recipe but give this recipe a try. as others state these little guys come out crispy if you like, or less crispy if you remove from the oil earlier. everyone including jfood was skeptical the first time, but see is believing and eating is better.

                                      1. re: jfood

                                        You're right, I made MY recipe and then added water to it. I've been making mine for over 30 years, evolved from my husband's mother recipe, so I'm not allowed to change it totally! I've got it down pretty good, but I occasionally do try something new.
                                        Mine are perfectly crispy and soft so I'll have to take a pass on any totally new recipes. I guess the point is you have to add some kind of liquid to the balls, and the meatloaf mix is key too. I must put at least a cup of liquid in there: water soaked into the english muffins, then heavy cream poured over and then a decent amount of worcestshire sauce. So we get to the same place by different routes.

                                    2. re: jfood

                                      I watched Frank Pelligrino make these on some cooking show (Sara Moulton's?) some years back, and he did use 1 cup of water per pound of meat. There is no other liquid in the recipe. It's one pound lean beef, 1/2 pound each veal and pork, 2 large eggs, 1 cup Pecorino Romano, parsley, garlic, salt and pepper, 2 cups homemade bread crumbs, and 2 cups lukewarm water. I usually start with 1 1/2 cups water and then add only enough more to get the consistency I like. They are never mushy, and always fry up perfectly crisp. Yes....this is the best recipe, I agree. I 'm sure "T" got it from Frank!

                                      1. re: jfood

                                        i always thought rao's was in manhattan. 114th st. maybe?

                                        1. re: jfood

                                          I know this is rehashing an old topic, but I've been making Rao's meatballs for a while according to their recipe and they are great.

                                          Last time I did it, instead of frying in olive oil, I placed on a greased baking sheet and baked at 350 for I think about 20 minutes. The meatballs weren't as crispy, of course, but they still did come out really good.

                                          Just a tip for those who prefer to bake the meatballs as opposed to frying them!

                                          1. re: jfood

                                            jfood........ I never thanked you for this post. I will ALWAYS use water in my meatballs now. My Sicilian Mother-in-Law rolled her eyes when I told her my plans, but she couldn't get over how fluffy they were. So thank you- and I also finished them in the sauce and it made for some killer Sunday gravy. MWAH!

                                            1. re: Boccone Dolce

                                              the world is in sync and interesting timing. jfood just purchased 4 pounds of meat from the grocer and the packages are in the fridge. After the walk and elliptical with mrs jfood, those puppies are will be transformed into lotsa meatballs.

                                              jfood also purchased a canning pot last weekend, mrs jfood made a big pot of red gravy (thank you for correcting to gravy) and jfood canned them and are patiently waiting for the meatballs in the downstairs pantry.(8 * 32 oz bottles)

                                              Glad you enjoyed the meatballs, and they freeze exceptionally well. Jfood loves looking at little jfood's face everytime she has one of those days at work and calls and asks for some comfort-balls for dinner. the exhale on her first bite makes it all worthwhile.

                                              1. re: jfood

                                                I made them last week after a rough couple days at work. I know exactly the feeling that little jfood goes through because I believe I made that same exhale.

                                                No kidding jfood, the Rao's recipe is one of the best I've ever had. Water in meatballs...who knew?

                                          2. For what it's worth ... here is my meatball recipe which come out moist and delcious:
                                            1lb. Ground round
                                            1/2 lb Ground pork (turkey)
                                            1/2 lb Ground veal
                                            3 large eggs
                                            1 1/2 Cup Milk
                                            1 1/2 Cups bread rumbs
                                            2/3 cup parmesan
                                            1/4 cup Italian Parsley minced
                                            1/4 cup basil minced (or 1 tbsp. dried)
                                            1 large clove garlic minced
                                            1 tsp salt / 1 tsp pepper
                                            1/8 tsp cayenne

                                            Mix everything together; form into approx. 24 meatballs; let sit to develop a little crust (keeps them together when frying).
                                            Brown Meatballs in about 2-3 tbsp. of oil for about 7 minutes. Transfer to sauce to continue cooking.

                                            1. I find that you really can't use too lean of cuts for meatballs-the fat keeps it moist. Other things I always use-good grated cheese. I love to use pecorino.
                                              Milk fat-half and half to impart fat, and tenderize the meat with lactic acid.
                                              Here's my recipe using meatloaf mix (the recipe is for spaghetti and meatballs)

                                              Meatball Ingredients
                                              2 1/2 lbs- 3 lbs. meatloaf mix (veal, pork and beef)
                                              2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs (use store bought or make bread crumbs yourself using a food processor-you can use plain white bread, baguette or rustic white bread)
                                              1/3 cup grated pecorino romano cheese
                                              2 teaspoons kosher salt
                                              1 teaspoon black pepper
                                              1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
                                              4 tablespoons half and half
                                              1 large egg, lightly beaten
                                              1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
                                              pinch nutmeg
                                              Spaghetti Ingredients
                                              2 jars of your favorite pasta sauce
                                              2 boxes spaghetti, or your favorite shaped pasta, cooked according to package directions

                                              Recipe (in step by step format)

                                              Preheat oven to 350 degrees
                                              Place the ground meat and the rest of the meatball ingredients in a mixing bowl. Mix gently with hands until incorporated. Avoid over working the mixture as the meatballs will become tough.
                                              Roll individual meatballs gently, by hand, into 1 1/2 inch- 2 inch round balls and place them on a parchment lined pan(s), or on top of a non-stick sprayed broiler pan(s) to allow grease to drip down and away from the meatballs.
                                              Place pan in oven on middle rack, and bake for 20 minutes.
                                              While meatballs are baking, heat your choice of pasta sauce in a pot large enough to allow addition of meatballs.
                                              Remove meatballs and drain on paper towels. Blot tops of meatballs to remove excess grease.
                                              Transfer meatballs to pasta sauce and gently simmer together, covered, for 20 minutes. Stir occasionally to heat evenly.
                                              Serve meatballs and sauce family style over your favorite pasta.
                                              At the table, pass additional freshly grated pecorino romano cheese for individual topping.

                                              Serves 8


                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: monavano

                                                I just finished a batch of meatballs that was one part ground beef, one part ground pork and one part hot Italian sausage filling. Added parmesan cheese, milk-soaked bread, pepper, oregano and basil. The mixture will be loose, which will keep the end product moist. You can bake them or fry them.

                                              2. Watching "Molto Mario" one day, I heard Mario Batali say that the mistake most American cooks make is not using enough bread, and that this results in a heavy, hard meatball. I just looked up one of his meatball recipes, and the ratio is 3 cups cubed bread to 1.25 pounds ground beef.

                                                1. I use Giada's recipe (tweaked) for turkey meatballs; they always turn out super tender. I think it might be the eggs - her recipe calls for 2 eggs per pound of meat. Once or twice I've skimped on the eggs; the difference was noticable. Same with the cheese - they just aren't the same if you skimp on the cheese. I will admit to having used the stuff in the green can more than once for this recipe (it's a lot of cheese when you're making several lbs of balls) - they still turned out perfect.

                                                  My tweaks are pretty simple: I add sauteed onion and garlic, use parm instead of romano and use 1% milk instead of whole. I also cook them in the sauce for much longer than her recipe calls for, but that's because I'm not starting off with an already cooked sauce. I brown them off, remove them from the pan, pour off most of the drippings, then use the same pan to build my sauce. I like the rich flavor the meatballs impart to the sauce.

                                                  One more note: I've done them with all kinds of meat: straight beef, beef/pork and straight turkey and I've *also* made them both small and large every time, they're tender and light.


                                                  1. i used to have a problem with dry meatballs until i started adding grated onion into the mix...the grated onion ends up sort of melting while the meatballs cook, making them seriously succulent.

                                                    1. Lots of great ideas here.

                                                      I make my meatballs using a fattier ground beef (i used to use the ML mix sold in the grocery but I think all the flavor has been bred out the veal and pork), pecorino and/or parmagiano, eggs, bread crumbs, parsely, onion and garlic.

                                                      My keys for moistness is sauteing the onion and garlic in olive oil on medium to lower heat before adding to the mixture. I also bake my meatballs then finish them in a pot of tomato sauce. IMO a fattier meat makes the meatballs more moist as well.

                                                      1 Reply
                                                      1. re: Den

                                                        I second the bake-then-finish in sauce recommendation. Nice crust and very moist.

                                                      2. In January, I made Paula Wolfert's Maghrebi veal meatballs, served in a broth with spinach and chickpeas. This recipe initiated me into the world of meatball-making and WOW were these delicious and tender. I was nervous but I was very gentle, didn't over-handle the meatballs, and honestly they were just divine.

                                                        For 3/4 pound lean veal, I soaked 1 1/2 slices diced white bread in 1/4 cup soda water. Added some spices and paprika, 1 1/2 Tbsp crushed garlic, some fresh parsley, an egg yolk. Then fried the meatballs in a few Tbsp olive oil in small batches, and cooked in a delicious tomato-chickpea broth, a gentle simmer for about 45 mins more. These were phenomenal, and also made a dynamite sandwich the next day.

                                                        1. I've found that the Cooks Illustrated recipe works very well. It calls for soaking torn white bread in buttermilk (or yogurt thinned with some milk). As the bread soaks, you mash it from time to time with a fork and it becomes a smooth paste. This gives the meatballs a fine texture and the lactic tang of the buttermilk, along with grated cheese, adds great flavor.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: btnfood

                                                            Sorry, I didn't realize you basically said the same thing. Guess it must be true!!

                                                          2. If you are using turkey for meatballs, or meat loaf, there is a tendency for the meat to become very dry, since there isn't as much fat as beef, pork or veal. I soak white bread in milk and mix that into the mix. A huge improvement. I'm making a turkey meatloaf today!

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: Felixnot

                                                              Okay, I made my turkey meat loaf last night, (basically the same recipe I use for turkey meatballs - or any meatballs). In addition to the milk soaked bread, I add about a half cup of stock to the recipe as well. Comes out soft but to prevent it from falling apart, I pack it to get the air out of the mixture after mixed.

                                                            2. Rachel Ray's (I know, I know, tomatoes being tossed) recipe for meatball subs has a good meatball made from ground sirloin. I use whole wheat bread crumbs (does not make them heavy or hard) & double or triple the amount of bread crumbs--have had raves on my version of these meatballs.


                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: Babette

                                                                One really strange thing you might try is to not pack them too tightly when you are rolling them into shape.

                                                              2. My mother always added onion to the typical meat, egg, breadcrumbs and spices. I changed it ever-so-slightly.

                                                                I sautee minced onion, fennel and garlic until the onions are translucent. Then I season the sautee mixture (salt, pepper and whatever else I'm in the mood for). After that mixture cools, I add it to the meat, breadcrumbs and eggs. I have also wanted to try using stale bread soaked in milk, but I haven't. I just don't eat a lot of bread, so I don't often have it in the house.

                                                                Apparently cooking the onions before is a secret to moist meatloaf (Tyler Florence "Ultimate") so I've applied teh principle to meatballs. And I also LOVE fennel, thus I add it.

                                                                1. While this is an old post I just found it because I too was seeking the answer to "soft" meatballs. I am a fairly good cook, but have never been able to make "soft" meatballs. I took all the information I could find and started making balls.

                                                                  One thing I need to mention is while I am a garlic lover it does not belong in this recipe.

                                                                  I found what DOES work and will DEFINITELY produce SOFT meatballs.


                                                                  Amount Measure Ingredient -- Preparation Method
                                                                  -------- ------------ --------------------------------

                                                                  2 lb MEATLOAF MIX (beef/veal/pork)
                                                                  2 large eggs (do not mix or scramble before adding to the meat)
                                                                  1 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
                                                                  1 1/2 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
                                                                  2 cups bread crumbs (one whole Italian bread left out to dry - slice into big pieces)
                                                                  2 cups lukewarm water
                                                                  Kosher Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
                                                                  1 cup fine-quality olive oil

                                                                  Place meat in stainless mixing bowl.

                                                                  Add eggs, cheese, parsley and salt and pepper to taste.
                                                                  Using your hands, blend ingredients together.
                                                                  DO NOT OVERWORK MEAT (you want to fold the meat over and over to mix without compacting it).

                                                                  Take the Italian bread and grate it along side a hand held box grater to make 2 cups of crumbs.
                                                                  Blend bread crumbs into meat mixture.
                                                                  DO NOT OVERWORK MEAT

                                                                  Slowly add water, 1 cup at a time, until the mixture is quite moist but not so much so that the meatballs fall apart (I used almost the full two cups).

                                                                  Shape meat mixture into balls (we usually make large, 2 ½- to 3-inch balls). Form the balls by handing the meat back and forth between your hands. Do not roll the meat into balls.
                                                                  DO NOT OVERWORK MEAT.

                                                                  Heat oil in a large sauté pan. When oil is very hot but not smoking, fry meatballs in batches. When bottom half of meatball is very brown and slightly crisp turn and cook top half.

                                                                  Remove from heat and drain on paper towels.

                                                                  Lower cooked meatballs into simmering Marinara Sauce and cook for 30 minutes. Serve over pasta or on their own.

                                                                  To brown the meatballs by oven:

                                                                  Preheat oven to 425°F. Place meatballs on a jelly- roll-type pan (looks like a baking/cookie sheet with sides) and bake 15 minutes. Then continue cooking in sauce for 30 minutes.

                                                                  - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
                                                                  I was afraid that pan browning the balls was again going to make them hard (as you are adding a crisp outside to the balls), so I baked most of them and pan fried what was left. BOTH methods produce the softest, best meatballs ever!

                                                                  1 Reply
                                                                  1. re: CHtongueEEK

                                                                    That's the Rao's recipe that jfood turned me on to and it works!

                                                                    I've altered it to exclude breadcrumbs for my low carb hubby and it still produces a very light meatball. He eats them by the bucket! I make them with 8lbs of meat and freeze on baking sheet and then pop into ziplock bags. .

                                                                    I also bake them at 450 on a cooling rack set into a baking sheet to cut some of the fat.

                                                                    I haven't gotten to canning my sauce, yet....

                                                                    Oh, I also work the hell out of the mixture and don't see a noticable difference.