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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.