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Meatballs 101 - how to get them round?

Hi all, what are your techniques for cooking perfectly round meatballs that are still tender? My thoughts are to use a fine grind, pack them tight, use lots of filler (using pork, mushrooms, and probably milk soaked crumbs.), and make a small meatball. Am I on the right track? My meatballs usually taste fantastic but I often use some kind of thick sauce to mask the surface irregularities : ) I have a broiler, grill pan, and a crock pot. Can steam as well - would that help? Trying to avoid wasting too much meat experimenting but will report back my results.

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  1. I'm thinking that you don't want to pack them too night or use lots of filler because both would take away from the flavour and texture. My Italian roommate swears by Nonna's technique of baking them in the oven on a rack. At high heat you will get some yummy carmelization on the outside. You could also cook them in the sauce, suspending them in the liquid to keep them as perfect orbs.

    Personally I like the crispy outside and therefore can never enjoy the perfect looking meatball, much to the chagrin of my A-Type cooking personality.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Mila

      I have moved away from baking and browning and now suspend them in hot tomato sauce when I cook them. I started doing this years ago when it occurred to me that the browning seemed to add too much cooking oil to the tomato sauce when I transferred the meatballs to the sauce pot.

      The trick is to have the sauce at a high temperature, and to gently drop the meatballs in. You can even layer them if need be, because the high cooking temperature of tomato sauce (higher than boiling water) will sear the meatballs on the outside and help keep them round. The trick is to leave them undisturbed for at least ten to fifteen minutes, and not to try to stir them too soon because undercooked meatballs will break up. If you are worried about scorching, lower the burner under the pot after five minutes.

      No one has even noticed that I don't brown them. BTW, it is best to use a leaner ground meat than a high fat content here, since the fat will render into the sauce when cooking and might add too much "grease" when it renders.

    2. the only way you're going to get them perfectly round is to deep fry them quickly so that the outside gets crusty and hard enough to support the structure of the thing without collapsing into lopsided meatballs

      4 Replies
      1. re: bw2082

        And the converse of bw2082's advice is don't do them in the crockpot, they just get all squishy and mushy and don't hold a shape well.

        ~TDQ

        1. re: bw2082

          Yes - mine are always lopsided with odd looking flat sides to them! As long as they taste good, I've decided to stop worrying about it.

          1. re: MMRuth

            Ha! This has ALWAYS been my problem...they look more like some kind of geometrical food creation than a "ball." But, they almost always taste good, so maybe that counts a little more.

            1. re: Val

              Mine look like rounded triangles of sorts ... I've only ever cooked them on the stove top though - Swedish meatballs and various albondigas.

        2. over the years jfood has made lots of meatballs. And he does not remember once the little jfood saying, "hey dd these meatballs look like dice." but he does remember the little jfood smiling and saying how great the meatballs are.

          jfood uses the Rao's method for meatballs with meatloaf mix and about one cup of water per pound. Then he fries them in olive oil and they do take on the squarish shape. Then into some mrs jfood sauce for a leisurely bath and onto the pasta.

          So if there is a tradeoff between flavor and texture over shape, give jfood flavor/texture any time. So jfood recommends relaxing the shape constraint.

          6 Replies
          1. re: jfood

            i tried jfood's water-added method for burgers yesterday. very tender!

            trick to keep meatballs round and still be tender: don't pack tight. if browning in skillet, keep turning in skillet.

            1. re: alkapal

              glad to help alka but jfood stole the idea from Diane of Bexley.

              if you make the matballs though, you have twice as much water to add because of the breadcrumbs.

              jfood had a good burger to cap off the fourth after two dogs for breakfast. :-))

              1. re: jfood

                I whiz some baby bellas in the FP and add instead of other liquid. I think they're called duxelles? And some crumbs to soak up the moisture.

                1. re: toodie jane

                  Almost:

                  "Duxelles, pronounced dook-SEHL, is a finely chopped (minced) mixture of mushrooms or mushroom stems, onions, shallots and herbs sautéed in butter, and reduced to a paste (sometimes cream is used as well)."

                  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Duxelles

                  Do the mushrooms ever give off too much liquid or shrink too much? That sounds like a really tasty addition...

            2. re: jfood

              In addition to adding water - I make sure the water is iced and I strain it into meatballs, the cold helps keeps fats cold and helps to sepaerate and hold in the water throughout product. I also use ice water on my hands while i roll them as well.

              1. re: coastie

                You can also keep the mixture in a chilled cold-friendly bowl like metal or glass, and you can put that on a bowl of ice if it's a hot day.

            3. The oven-rack method will get you pretty nicely round meatballs. Do not go overboard on the filler or pack them tight, though. Meat, spices, a little milk-soaked bread and egg to hold them together and keep things moist, and just carefully roll perfect balls.

              That said, I prefer them craggy and interesting if you're going to serve them with red sauce.

              If you're making meat or meat-and-veggie balls for soup, that's another matter. Form them carefully and simmer in broth. That's a case where it's nice for them to be round.

              2 Replies
              1. re: tmso

                I scoop the meat with an ice-cream scoop, roll lightly between my hands, then put on a baking rack and put them in the oven. A light touch makes a more tender meatball.

                1. re: lattelover

                  Double-L

                  Do you place them on a baking rack or a baking pan?

              2. Just made some this am to take to a potluck. I use a scoop (large cookie size) and then by hand roll them between by palms lightly. I agree with other posters...too much filler will not help. Then I bake them at 325 degrees for 30 minutes, on a jelly roll pan lined with parchment paper to eliminate sticking. Next I bake them for an hour in the sauce. They turn out round and attractive every time.

                3 Replies
                1. re: Tripper

                  Wait. 325 straight 30 minutes, then bake them in the sauce? How do you do that please?

                  1. re: chef chicklet

                    Line up the meatballs with a little space between them on a parchment lined jelly roll pan. Bake for 30 minutes at 325 degrees. Then assuming you are making a sauce for them, place in casserole dish, pour the sauce over and bake for 30 minutes. You could also do the last step stove top if you prefer.

                    1. re: Tripper

                      Well now, that seems to be like having a little bit of the best of both worlds. A nice browning, and then into the sauce for tender juicy meat balls. Thanks! I'll try this next time.

                2. Well most of the time I fry or bake. But to get them perfectly round, that is difficult.
                  I think if you want a tender meat ball, the less you handle them the better. Baking them will keep them a little more round shape(with one fairly flat side).
                  Of course I always strive to do things better, especially when it comes to cooking, so after reading several posts in the past about making meatballs, I decided to try it another way.
                  After making them round, I decided not to cook the meatballs prior to the sauce. I dropped them raw directly into the hot (but not boiling) sauce and they promptly imploded. I have not a clue what I did, but for me this is a great method for turning meatballs into meat sauce. Its all good.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: chef chicklet

                    Can't believe noone has said this yet- keep your hands WET. The meat won't stick to your palms and you'll be able to get them rounder. The only way to keep them perfectly round is to drop them in your tomato sauce to cook. Drop formed meatballs into a big pot of sauce, one at a time. Sauce should be at a slow simmer. Shake the pot occasionally to let the meatballs drop to the bottom.

                    I always bake mine in the oven first though - gets rid of a ton of fat. They won't be perfectly round though - the bottom will flatten a little.

                  2. My success in getting perfectly round meatballs has been using a dry mix. Make sure all your ingredients are dry and use enough wet works (this includes eggs if you use em) to make sure everything barely holds together. I prefer baking if I use a heavy sauce, sautee if there is light or no sauce, since I like the look of slightly uneven browning marks. Then there is our family favorite Kara Kabobs (which means black kabobs) which are just deep fried until dark brown on the outside.

                    1. I would not worry about the being perfectly round. Perfect is an unattainable goal. Meatballs that are homemade and not machine made should not be perfectly round. Surface irregularities help on to sauce. It's a good thing.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: scubadoo97

                        Whew! I was beginning to feel like a failure until you gave me permission to have imperfect meatballs! I never really thought about it. I pan fry them and keep tossing them in the pan so they don't stick and they usually turn out pretty good. But I am going to try the 'oven baking' method and maybe even the 'dropping into hot sauce to cook' method. I'm sure the Swedish meatballs would be fine cooked in the sauce. And...I have never thought of using an ice cream scoop! That's great.

                      2. I made these meatballs from epicurious on Thursday.
                        http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...
                        I am not sure if they're perfectly round, but I got them rounder than any of the others I've made by rolling the balls quickly and then putting them in the fridge for a couple of hours before baking. It seemed to really help them hold their shape and not go all flat.

                         
                         
                        1. I make Marcella's Hazan's tiny meatballs, and they are always perfectly round. She has you make them the size of raspberries. You can roll two at once pretty easily.

                          I don't think packing them tight is a good idea, though. And I agree with jfood- I don't think the shape is particularly important, in the end. Better to have a good taste! :)

                          1. To bastardize Billy Crystal's Fernando Llamas:

                            "It is better to taste good than to look good"

                            1. Packing them tight will just make them dry and tough. To make round meatballs, handle them as little as possible while forming them, and use wet hands when you do. Most importantly, make sure the mixture stays cool to cold; it only sags when it gets warm. If necessary, take breaks and put everything in the fridge for a while to firm up.

                              Once they're formed, pop 'em in the freezer for 15 minutes or half an hour, then sear them on all sides as quickly as possible. A little crust will go a long way in holding a spherical shape. Hint: an uncrowded nonstick pan makes it easier to move them around gently without chunks breaking off.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: alanbarnes

                                It's simple....throw 1 lb. each of ground sirloin, pork and veal in a large bowl. Add 5 eggs (trust me) 3 tbls. minced garlic (trust me) 1/2 cup grated pecorino romano (trust me) 1 cup dried italian style bread crumbs (continue trusting me from here on out...) healthy dash of dried oregano, basil, sea salt, ground pepper, and 2 oz. tomoato paste. Roll 'em up by hand. Spray a baking sheet with oil spray and lay the in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20-30 miutes, turning 1/2 way. proceed to cook them on low in your favorite robust tomato sauce recipe. If you're like me, that's 5-6 hours on the first day, 3-4 the next...then nirvana...!!! These will be the most tasty and moist mishapen meatballs you'ver ever eaten.

                              2. I never figured they had to be roiund just because they're called "meatballs." Footballs aren't round/

                                2 Replies
                                  1. re: Jennalynn

                                    I thought futbols traditionally were made up of a bunch of panels fastened toether, not really round but multi-faceted. And then there are rugby balls.:) But I've settled on the "Joy of Cooking" Swedish meatballs recipe. Fry, then simmer. Degrease the liquid for great gravy. Delish. If they were round they wouldn't taste any better.

                                1. Alton Brown recommends making the meatballs slightly larger than the top of a mini-muffin tin rolling them lightly, placing them in the top of the tins, and baking. This is supposed to help them keep their shape when they bake, although I expect that there would be a little bit of shrinking so plan for that. I haven't tried this technique seeing as I'm okay with less-than-perfectly round meatballs, but would be curious if someone else has tried this approach.

                                  1. Tried lean and fatty ground pork, each with lots of filler (about 50% of the meat by volume, milk soaked cracker crumbs), a light hand, and meatballs about the diameter of a quarter. Both kinds, broiled, got pretty misshapen but the lean ones held up better. I tried boiling them in broth and they kept their shape the best - kind of a wan looking meatball though. The roommate says to boil first, then brown, but would like to avoid a multi step process.

                                    1. Just chiming in here -
                                      Beef, pork and veal, eggs, freshly grated cheese, breadcrumbs, ice water, salt and pepper. Prep a cookie sheet with parchment. Put a dab of olive oil on hands and roll. Place on sheet. Bake at 475 to get a crust, even if not cooked through. Then, add to a wide, shallow and deep pan of sauce and let simmer on low for about one hour. A little imperfection just makes them look homemade as opposed to buying them frozen.

                                      1. Just don't worry about it. "Round" is easy..."Perfectly Round" is nearly impossible, especially without sacrificing on texture, tenderness or something more important. Like forming a hamburger, handle them as little as possible and pack them only as tight as necessary to keep them from falling apart. Get them into a roughly spherical shape. Don't stress yourself beyond that.

                                        1. Not to hijak the thread, but when not cooking the meatballs in a sauce (e.g. greek meatball appetizers) I saw that some folks bake instead of fry them. I tried that and they cooked up just fine, were relatively round and not too tough, but they didn't have the crispy outside. Used lots of olive oil on the pan, dredged in flour, and cooked the first batch to begin wtih at a high temp. Rewarming them cripsed them up, but anyone have a surefire technique. I have to make a lot of them for an event and my husband hates the smell of food frying.

                                          6 Replies
                                          1. re: jsaimd

                                            Brush them with olive oil and bake in a hot oven. However, when done right, it kind of smells like they're frying (because they kind of are).

                                            1. re: tmso

                                              Do you dredge in flour first?

                                              1. re: tmso

                                                I don't even brush with olive oil (i do the pan tho), but just bake them at a 350. I've been using this recipe from Bon Appetit for quite awhile now and love it. Interestingly, the meatballs are made w/ currants and pine nuts. Now, I am a traditionalist, but let me tell u, these meatballs rock. And better yet, are very easy. The currants and nuts mellow out and meld well with the other ingredients and are not obvious but undoubtedly add to the flavors.

                                                http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/foo...

                                                p.s. Oh, and I always bake and then add to the sauce. For what it's worth.

                                                1. re: lynnlato

                                                  << p.s. Oh, and I always bake and then add to the sauce. For what it's worth. >>

                                                  You don't think that ruins the nice crunchy brown outside? I always serve them as a main dish, sometimes with a little tomato sauce, sometimes with sauteed greens.

                                                  1. re: tmso

                                                    Nope, I don't think it ruins the crunchy outside, but rather brings them back to center, if you will. Many people form their raw meatballs and then add them to the sauce like that to cook. This, to me, produces a texture that I am NOT fond of. It just reminds me of boiled meat - ick. That said, I sometimes do take half of my baked meatballs and freeze them for later (to be added to sauce at a later time).

                                                    I, like you, enjoy meatballs as a main. Just had some last night, as a matter of fact. Except, I bought them at the local pizza joint down the street. I eat them w/ sauce, a little salad and some crusty bread.

                                            2. Perfectly round meatballs? No! Mine are always a bit out of shape because I make them very moist, roll them by hand and bake them off before they get added to the sauce to continue cooking to perfection.
                                              Who needs round! Rustic is my mantra.
                                              It's all about the taste and....texture.
                                              ;-)

                                              4 Replies
                                              1. re: monavano

                                                See? The thing about just dropping the raw meatballs into the sauce makes me think that there is NO place for the fat/grease to go...except into the sauce. I've heard of cooking the meatballs this way but have not tried it...it just sounds gross to me to do this!

                                                1. re: Val

                                                  Is that the reason the old Italian grannies insist on calling it "gravy"? Heck even when I pan-fry them, I still pour the drippings into the sauce when I'm done.

                                                  1. re: Val

                                                    My mother voiced this objection to my cooking technique, but upon further examination, here is what what we concluded:

                                                    - frying in olive oil causes the cooking oil to be introduced into the tomato sauce ("gravy", in her words). Unless they are baked, the cooking oil on the surface of the browned meatballs has to get introduced to the sauce and does end up floating on the surface.

                                                    - I grind own very lean beef, pork and veal, or else keep to four or eight percent fat content for the beef. She uses 25% fat -- mostly because it is less expensive and not because she feels it tastes any better. If this is what you are using, yes -- you will end up with a fat slick on top of your "gravy". It can and should be skimmed off.

                                                    Any excess oil or fat, whether from the meat or the cooking oil used to brown the meatballs, floats to the top and can and should be skimmed off. If you want to precook your meatballs to remove all excess fat, you can bake them until much of the fat drips out into the roasting pan instead of frying them. If you are so adverse to fat in your tomato sauce, as opposed to to just excess fat and oil, don't eat meatballs. There is just too much fat and cholesterol no matter what you do. Stick to meatless sauces, fish sauces and other kinds of tomato sauce. Maybe you can treat yourself to a bracciole, but stay away from meatballs and sausage.

                                                    As for Alton, although I do love his show, I have no idea why a muffin tin would work any better than a grid rack on a shallow pan.

                                                    1. re: RGC1982

                                                      me thinks Alton is looking to show how to multitask a muffin tin

                                                2. I saw on Alton Brown's Good Eats, he formed them and then placed them in a mini muffin tin and baked them and they held their round shape better. Haven't tried it myself as I'm okay with "square" shaped meatballs as long as they taste great!