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Meatballs... What Did I Do Wrong?

I've been making meatballs to go with spaghetti for years, and I've come up with a recipe/technique that differs from most recipes in that I don't pan-fry my meatballs before I put them into the sauce. I form them and then put them right into the sauce to cook. I use all beef -- I've tried pork/beef and pork/veal/beef, but my personal preference is all-beef. For a pound of meat (usually 85% lean) I use 1 egg, about 2 TB Italian breadcrumbs, 2-3 TB freshly grated Parmesan, a clove or 2 of finely chopped garlic, a dash of Kosher salt. And they come out really delicious.

But, being the open-minded person I am, I'm always on the lookout for new/different approaches to old recipes. I've seen many meatball recipes that call for the addition of milk-soaked bread in place of breadcrumbs, and recipes that suggest pan-frying them first. So yesterday I decided to make them this new way. Now I need someone to tell me where I went so terribly wrong.

I took two slices of good quality white bread, removed the crust, tore the bread into small pieces, and let it soak in 1/2 cup of whole milk. I stirred and mashed it every couple of minutes. After about 10 minutes I strained out the excess liquid. To a pound of ground beef I added the soggy bread, 1 egg, some minced garlic, chopped parsley, grated parmesan cheese, and a little salt. I was careful not to overwork the meat. I formed the meat into meatballs, and pan-fried them. What a mess! The oil popped and splattered all over the place, most of the meatballs broke apart when I tried to turn them, and it was impossible to brown them evenly all over. When they were cooked, I placed the meatballs and the little scraps of broken-off meat into my simmering sauce and let them cook for about 30 minutes.

Even though they looked somewhat malformed, they tasted really good. So my question is, what can I do the next time to avoid the oil-splattering and breakage problems?

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  1. Sounds like too much liquid. The bread is not supposed to be sopping wet. The milk is just to break down its structure so it can be mixed into the meat. Once the bread is soft, you should actually squeeze out most of the moisture so that the bread will be able to soak up more grease and meat juices during cooking.

    4 Replies
    1. re: DeppityDawg

      Everyone is different of course but I have never used milk "soaked" bread. If I use any bread at all, it's just some crumbs and I might put a splash of milk in but not very much. Most often I just use cracker crumbs.

      As to the browning method, my big cast iron skillet is the best for them. I get it very hot, put in the oil and then start adding the rolled balls. By the time I get all the balls in it's time to turn the first ones that went in so I just give the pan a good shake. I shake them every couple of minutes and pretty soon they are brown on all sides and pretty round. I think key to keeping them round is having them not be too wet when they go in. When I use beef that's not a problem but if I try turkey or something, they're super soft and don't turn well, I have to turn them with a spoon and they get funny shaped.

      1. re: DeppityDawg

        To me it sounds like too much liquid too. I have a meatloaf recipe that calls for soaked bread. You take crust off put in water for a few seconds (30 at most I think) then take it out and squeeze some of the excess so it isn't sopping.

        1. re: ktmoomau

          Yeah and don't break up the bread before you soak it in milk, break it up when you are mushin.

        2. i appreciate your openmindedness.

          i don't use milk-soaked bread. but i think that's because i have a general aversion to meat combined w/ dairy...instead, to add juiciness, i add about a 1/4 - 1/2 cup of grated onion which then breaks down inside to juicy goodness while i'm pan frying the meatballs. you may also want to make sure your pan is really hot and you have enough oil to get a really good sear before you turn the meatballs.

          good luck! :o)

          1 Reply
          1. re: soypower

            As you applaud open-mindedness, Soypower, try this variation next time you are making meatballs NOT destined for spaghetti sauce. "Fricadellen" are German, and are sauteed patties (4-5 oz) of meatloaf/meatball mix. You can slowly saute your favorite mixture in a non-stick pan - it will take 15-20 min total over medium heat. My mother always added minced cabbage, which she wilted and cooled before adding to the mix along with, of course, plenty of minced onion. The cabbage melds with the meat, as does the onion, and adds a mellow sweetness. Once when I forgot to buy cabbage, I rinsed off some coleslaw and added it - even better. Next time I added the coleslaw as is, reducing the other liquid accordingly. Better yet! It disappears into the meat best if it is wilted, so I either nuke and cool it first, or keep some in the freezer, which also wilts it. I'd suggest adding the same volume of coleslaw as onion. The patties will start out pretty soft, and will scorch if the heat is too high, so you can't rush them. Heat a little oil in the pan first, and don't move the patties until you can see that the bottoms are nicely browned and the meat is half-cooked, at least 10 min. Then turn and continue another 5-10 min. When in doubt, lower heat, longer time. Nobody would know that there's cabbage in them, so it's a good way to get some veggies into your kids. No reason why you couldn't do this with round balls for tomato sauce, but they have plenty of flavor by themselves.

          2. Did you use day-old Italian/French style bread? The recipes that call for soaking the bread in milk is best with bread that is dried out.

            To cut down the mess, you might want to try baking the meatballs instead of frying. Just put them on a baking pan and bake at 400 for about 20 minutes, turning once half-way through cooking time. Than add to sauce and simmer at least 30 minutes.

            1 Reply
            1. re: Springhaze2

              That's what I do, though I don't even bother turning them! Not only does it keep them beautifully formed, but I also find that it drains a lot more grease than frying does.

            2. Try chilling the meatballs in your refrigerator for about 30 minutes before throwing them in the pan. Also works with crabcakes, which fall apart as well.

              1. I agree that the splatter problem was probably caused by too much surface moisture. But they do tend to make a mess, no matter what.

                I long ago abandoned the pan-fry method for my meatballs. I now place them on a nice big baking sheet and put them in the oven at about 400 degrees until they're done. Much neater; no splattering, and it seems to take less time overall. I often use the convection oven just to make sure they get a nice brown finish on them.

                1. Lots of good suggestions here. Make sure you really wring out the milk soaked bread before mixing with the ground meat.

                  1. I've been working on perfecting my meatballs and tried the Rao's recipe last time...they were the best texture yet.

                    1 cup of water to every pound of meat. I'm going to mess with the ratio next time and only add 3/4 of a cup just to firm them up a little bit.

                    I use beef/pork 2 to 1 and bake them before I throw them in the sauce.

                    These suckers didn't last nearly as long as I thought they would because the man was defrosting and eating them as snacks!

                    14 Replies
                    1. re: tallullah

                      a cup of water added to a pound of meat?! never heard that, and wouldn't imagine it, either.

                      tallullah, you actually tried this "rao's recipe" technique with a full cup of water, and now want to try it with less? please let us know what ratio you find to be best. thanks.

                      1. re: alkapal


                        Jfood has made the Rao's recipe probably 6 or 7 times. He has found that different batches of meat (all beef or beef/pork/veal) absorb different amounts. He starts with 1/2 cup and works it in. Then adds another 1/4 cup and works it in. Then he sees how the meat looks and how it might stay together in the fry pan. sometimes another 1/4 cup goes in sometimes none, sometimes in between. You want the meatballs to stay formed while browning so you sorta get a feel for it after 1-2 tries.

                        1. re: jfood


                          thanks for that. i'll give it a shot! how is the texture? does it need refrigeration to keep shape? do you grind your own meat, or have the butcher do it? (i unfortunately have no "local" butchers that do pork....)

                          btw, do any of you hounds recommend the kitchen aid grinder attachment? if so, does it also grind veggies, like for picallily relish, and the like? what is the best grind for meatballs?

                          1. re: alkapal


                            The texture that you are looking for is somewhere between a dry sponge and a wet sponge. You will definitely know if it is too wet, but after 1/2-3/4 the change is negligible, better to err on the not enough versus too much liquid.

                            Jfood's grocer (with a great butcher in the back) has something he calls Meatloaf Mix. It is 1/2 beef and the other half is pork/veal. This works out great for the meatballs.

                          2. re: jfood

                            I thought I typed a reply to this? jfood's rec is the one I used for Christmas and I am deeply in love with it. Light, fluffy meatballs with the water trick. I didn't pan fry them-baked instead and then put them in the sauce. I sized them like obese golf balls, and they were perfect...
                            If I didn't properly thank jfood before: grazie molto!!

                          3. re: alkapal

                            I'm looking right at the recipe for "Anna and Frankie's Meatballs" in Rao's Cookbook, and tallullah is right -- it actually calls for 2 cups of lukewarm water to be slowly added to 2 pounds of meat "until the mixture is quite moist."

                            1. re: CindyJ

                              And it works beautifully. The texture of the meatballs is something to behold

                              1. re: jfood

                                How interesting! I wouldn't think "oil and water" would combine so well. Is it the meat that absorbs the water, or is it the bread/breadcrumbs?

                                1. re: jfood

                                  ...and now that I'm thinking about it, I'm wondering whether I can use a leaner beef (maybe 90% lean) instead of the 85% I've been using, if I were to add water to the mixture. I use 85% because I wanted the meatballs to cook up tender, and I thought the additional fat would help in that regard. But if the meatballs are made more tender by incorporating water, maybe I can reduce the amount of fat. What do you think?

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    when jfood used a leaner ground of meat he found that it did not absorb as much water, so be careful by adding slowly. He likes the taste of the meatloaf mix so he went back instead of going 100% beef.

                                  2. re: jfood

                                    It works! It works!
                                    I didn't believe it either, but had to try it out. jfood is right, you have to add the water slowly and really work the meat, but the end result is the best meatball I've ever produced. I usually use a lower fat ground beef and it was perfect.

                                    I will say I had a hard time getting help from my fiance to roll the meatball because it weirded him out so much.

                                    1. re: tallullah


                                      Love it when people try this and smile from ear to ear.

                                      Oh yeah on the meatball rolling, jfood uses those cafeteria gloves and keeps them moist.

                                      1. re: tallullah

                                        This is the best meatball recipe ever. I've been making it for quite a few years now.

                                2. re: tallullah

                                  I agree with Tallullah on the meatballs. At first I thought the water was absurd but, with a small amout of beef and pork I tried them. Don't be frightened by the amount of water. In addition to the recipe I add some finely minced onion and a pinch of oregano or dried basil. Mixing the water at the end makes all the difference. I am Italian and my grandma used to do this but I had forgotten. You can adjust the flavors you like but, the 1 cup of cheese is so important and so is the water at the end. I too bake my meatballs before adding to the sauce. You can roll them in some breadcrumb, drizzle some olive oil on top, bake and then add them to the sauce.

                                3. Okay... I think I'm detecting a trend here. First, it sounds like there was too much liquid in the meatballs. Even though I strained out the excess liquid, the bread was still pretty wet when I mixed it in. Also, the bread I used was fresh; next time I'll use bread that's been around for a couple of days. Finally, it sounds like oven-browning is a good alternative to stove top browning. BTW, Soypower, the milk/meat thing doesn't sit all that well with me, either. But since discovering an incredible recipe for Bolognese sauce that gets its richness from milk, I've become a convert (in a manner of speaking).

                                  2 Replies
                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    i like to think of myself as an openminded person too...care to share the bolognese sauce recipe?

                                    1. re: soypower

                                      I'm not sure if this meets CH posting regulations, but here's the recipe:

                                      Marcella Hazan's Bolognese Sauce
                                      From "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking" by Marcella Hazan
                                      Makes 4 to 6 servings

                                      - 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
                                      - 4 tablespoons butter, divided
                                      - ½ cup chopped onion
                                      - 2/3 cup chopped celery
                                      - 2/3 cup chopped carrot
                                      - ¾ pound ground beef chuck
                                      - Salt
                                      - Fresh ground black pepper
                                      - 1 cup whole milk
                                      - Whole nutmeg
                                      - 1 cup dry white wine
                                      - 1-½ cups canned imported Italian plum tomatoes, torn into pieces, with juice
                                      - 1-¼ to 1-½ pounds pasta (preferably spaghetti), cooked and drained
                                      - Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese at the table

                                      1. Put oil, 3 tablespoons butter and chopped onion in a heavy 3-½-quart pot and turn heat to medium. Cook and stir onion until it has become translucent, then add chopped celery and carrot. Cook for about 2 minutes, stirring vegetables to coat well.

                                      2. Add ground beef, a large pinch of salt and a few grindings of pepper. Crumble meat with a fork, stir well and cook until beef has lost its raw, red color.

                                      3. Add milk and let simmer gently, stirring frequently, until it has bubbled away completely. Add a tiny grating, about 1/8 teaspoon, fresh nutmeg and stir.

                                      4. Add wine and let it simmer until it has evaporated. Add tomatoes and stir thoroughly to coat all ingredients well. When tomatoes begin to bubble, turn heat down so that sauce cooks at the laziest of simmers, with just an intermittent bubble breaking through the surface.

                                      5. Cook, uncovered, for 3 hours or more, stirring from time to time. While sauce is cooking, you are likely to find that it will begin to dry out and the fat will separate from the meat. To keep it from sticking, add ½ cup water as necessary. At the end of cooking, however, the water should be completely evaporated and the fat should separate from the sauce. Taste and correct for salt.

                                      6. Add remaining tablespoon butter to the hot pasta and toss with the sauce. Serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side.

                                  2. CindyJ, my mom makes them the way you usually do, by just putting them directly into the sauce. That's my favorite and I say you stick with it! Less mess and fuss.

                                    1. Jfood for the contrarian position.

                                      He does NOT believe there was too much liquid at all. As Tallullah mentioned Rao's that uses 1C of water per pound and they do not splatter when placed in the pan. The OP had less than 1/2 cup.

                                      Jfood thinks the key words are "I was careful not to overwork the meat". For the meat to absorb the liquid, it has to be worked into the meat. Then the meat is formed and fried. Placing into the fridge is also a good idea, but probably not needed with the small amount of liquid added to the meat.

                                      Jfood suggests workingthe meat a little more and the meatballs should not splatter or fall apart.

                                      1. CindyJ,

                                        We have the exact same meatball rec except that I add a hit of dry parsley and a little more garlic. Straight into hot sauce. I let mine go about 8 hours or so. I am even happier when I have the time to make it the day before (like I did yesterday!) and let them sit in the sauce overnight.

                                        Moist, tender, delicious. Ate more than should be legal with rigatoni, homemade bread with hot peppers and creamy butter and a crisp caesar salad about an hour ago.

                                        As the old addage goes...if it aint broke, dont fix it. Milk? Bread? Carrots? Celery? Peppers? Veal? BLECH. MMMMEEEAAATTTTball! :)

                                        5 Replies
                                        1. re: chelleyd01

                                          When you are putting the ingredients together you might want add an egg to
                                          hold everything together. and like some others have said, I always bake mine
                                          on a cookie sheet, I have no problems.

                                          1. re: bigjimbray

                                            I think the frying meatballs smell is one of the best food smells. I can't imagine putting them in the oven and missing that! :) Plus there's something fun and interactive about cooking them on the stove top, to me.

                                            I think it would be interesting to see what everyone puts in their meatballs and how different they are. I put garlic, onion, italian seasoning, salt and pepper, egg and cracker crumbs. Anyone else?

                                            1. re: rockandroller1

                                              I feel the same way about the aroma of onions and garlic sweating in olive oil.

                                              1. re: CindyJ

                                                agree, it makes you know that life is good! (garlic and onions -- two of the very best food creations from the good Lord).

                                              2. re: rockandroller1

                                                I came up with a recipe on the spur of the moment that I really like: I take 1/2 lb ground chicken, 1/2 lb ground pork, 1 egg, a bunch of bread crumbs, salt, pepper, and one cube of the basil/oil mix that I pureed and froze last fall (I guess it would be a couple of tablespoons of fresh basil) and mix it all up. I fry the meatballs in a pan (without added fat) until they're pretty brown, then remove them and deglaze the pan with white wine. Then I add a 24 oz can of tomatoes, broken up, with their liquid, bring to a simmer, add the meatballs back in, and let them simmer while I cook the spaghetti to go with them.

                                                I can understand the advantages of not precooking the meatballs or of doing them in the oven, but to me those methods have the disadvantage of not getting all the nice crusty bits in the pan that add a lot of flavor to the sauce.

                                          2. I. too, put mine directly into the sauce without precooking as I feel they absorb the sauce ingredients as they cook. And, impart their flavor into the sauce. I am of the mikl method, but adding it to the mixture directly not through the use of bread soaked. I will have to try the water and determine the better