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Homemade Meatballs: Bake or Fry/Brown in Saucepan. Which do you do?

provreviews Feb 24, 2013 12:11 PM

I decided to scope out on Pinterest and also on allrecipes.com how many different recipes for homemade meatballs I could find. Well let’s just say that I found so many different variations and most often than not the person writing it stated that they were the best meatballs. Now I know everyone thinks that theirs is the best and I’m not going to judge and say that one recipe is better than another, except for mine of course being the best.
But they’re seemed to be a few common themes that differentiated the recipes into a couple of categories. I noticed that people either brown/fry their meatballs in a saucepan before adding to the sauce or those that baked their meatballs before adding to the sauce. Now my grandmother did brown/fry her delicious meatballs before adding to the tomato sauce. So I had been doing it that way for years and always thought that baking was the easy way out. Well the last two times I have made meatballs I have baked them. They have come out amazing. The meat has not dried out and is still juicy and extremely tender. Also when I put the meatballs into the sauce they are basically completely cooked and they don’t fall apart when I put them in the tomato sauce like the ones that I fry first in the pan.
So I think I have converted over to the baking method. What are is your opinion? Do you bake you meatballs? Do you brown/fry them? I want to hear what everyone has to say about this.

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  1. grampart RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 12:27 PM

    When I'm making just a few, I fry/brown them before dropping them in the sauce/gravy. When I make a lot, especially the small ones for baked ziti, I use the oven. For sure, the oven is easier and less messy.

    1 Reply
    1. re: grampart
      provreviews RE: grampart Feb 24, 2013 12:39 PM

      Well that makes sense if you are making a lot to bake the meatballs. How have you noticed taste wise between the two. I personally found that I have been liking the taste of the baked meatballs more lately.

    2. m
      mwhitmore RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 12:36 PM

      Agree that with the oven method, with the meatballs completely cooked, do not add much flavor to the sauce. MBs partially cooked in a pan can add juices and fat to the sauce, maybe better for the sauce. Depends on what you want. Note that you can partially or fully cook by either method.

      3 Replies
      1. re: mwhitmore
        provreviews RE: mwhitmore Feb 24, 2013 12:42 PM

        Oh I understand that you can partially or fully cook by either method, but I usually don't fully cook my fried meatballs as I was always taught not to. While I fully cook my baked meatballs. I know that the meatballs that are partially cooked in a pan can add more fat/juice to the sauce, but have you ever had an issue with the sauce being too greasy? I've had a couple of times that there was a shiny layer of grease on the top of the sauce that I had to remove.

        1. re: provreviews
          mwhitmore RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 12:50 PM

          Yes, but I don't consider it a problem. I like a fatty sauce, if it too much I degrease with a couple paper towels.

          1. re: mwhitmore
            grampart RE: mwhitmore Feb 24, 2013 12:57 PM

            I don't notice much difference in the taste of the finished meatball, but I think the pan fried version makes for a better sauce.

      2. d
        Dirtywextraolives RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 12:38 PM

        I bake them using convection on a rack over a sheet pan at 475 degrees for twenty minutes. No turning, no splatter, they come out beautifully browned, tender and juicy. These are large meatballs, almost the size of tennis balls. They are practically cooked through, but I add them to the sauce while its still simmering to make sure. Some might fall apart in the sauce, bu t they stay together when browning, and those meat bits flavor the sauce nicely. Okay, now I need to make meatballs this week......

        4 Replies
        1. re: Dirtywextraolives
          provreviews RE: Dirtywextraolives Feb 24, 2013 01:23 PM

          Thanks for posting about how you cook them in the oven. I know all this talk is going to have me making meatballs myself in the next couple of days.

          1. re: Dirtywextraolives
            CanadaGirl RE: Dirtywextraolives Feb 26, 2013 05:47 PM

            Me too. I find baking them at high heat on convection results in nicely browned meatballs. I cook them on parchment and then scrape all the bits into the sauce.

            1. re: CanadaGirl
              Dirtywextraolives RE: CanadaGirl Feb 26, 2013 06:48 PM

              Those yummy brown bits go into my mouth..... I cannot resist as they smell so unbelievable when cooking....

              1. re: Dirtywextraolives
                CanadaGirl RE: Dirtywextraolives Feb 27, 2013 01:20 PM

                Sometimes they end up in mine too....

          2. foodieX2 RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 01:19 PM

            If I am just throwing together a few quick ones for say a meat ball sub or a solo dinner I just pan fry them in my cast iron pam. Quick, easy and a nice crunch.

            However In the winter I do a ton of batch cooking, often with a friend so those meatballs are alway baked as we can do 3 trays a time. We make hundreds at time. These a partially frozen in a single layer and then transferred to zip locks. I always have them hand for those same quick meals and as additions to baked pasta dishes

            However for my classic spaghetti and meatballs only cooking in the sauce will do. These get a quick pan fry so they are browned all over with a nice crust but not cooked thru. They are then transferred to my pot of sauce to simmer slowly for hours.

            4 Replies
            1. re: foodieX2
              provreviews RE: foodieX2 Feb 24, 2013 01:25 PM

              I have never frozen cooked meatballs. Do they taste okay when you take them out of the freezer and thaw and heat back up? If you froze the meatballs and were going to add them to a tomato sauce would you just add the thawed meatballs and if so how long would you say to cook them?

              1. re: provreviews
                foodieX2 RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 01:40 PM

                Oh, I love having frozen meatballs on hand! Makes some easy quick meals and I don't find the texture suffers at all. The frozen ones are fully cooked so I reheat them a differently depending on the meal.

                For quick meat ball subs I micro them until heated thru. Turn on the broiler and layer sub rolls with marinara, sliced cheese and the meat balls. Broil until bread is toasty and the cheese is melted.

                For baked pasta dishes I leave them on the counter while I cook the pasta and prep the other stuff.

                For quick spaghetti and meat balls I will just add the frozen meat balls to the sauce. By the time dinner is ready the meatballs are heated thru. However if they are on the bigger size they might take longer.

                1. re: foodieX2
                  blaireso RE: foodieX2 Mar 12, 2013 12:39 PM

                  I agree with FoodieX2. When meat goes on sale, I make 50-100 1-1/2 inch sized meatballs at a time, baked. I spritz them with a little EVOO and water in a spray bottle and bake at 425 for about 20-25 minutes. I don't have a convection oven, but halfway I turn the sheet pans. I usually bake them on parchment right on the sheet pans, but if I'm feeling like more cleanup (!) I'll bake them on racks in the sheet pans. Freeze in a single layer, then bag and take out as many as you need. I put them directly into the cold sauce and heat them together for about 20 minutes. this way the MBs thaw and meld a little with the sauce. I don't notice any change in the texture of the meatballs, and this is a great quick dinner.

                2. re: provreviews
                  rtms RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 02:03 PM

                  I bake my meatballs and keep them in the freezer. I love cooking but hate doing dishes so I love having a well stocked freezer.

                  I'll make meatball wraps, sauce the naked balls with sweet chili sauce and ketchup or a little mayo and blue cheese.

              2. w
                wyogal RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 01:23 PM

                I bake them, then put them in the gravy.

                1. Ruthie789 RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 01:29 PM

                  I like to cook in the oven, a lot less trouble and less of a messy cleanup afterwards.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Ruthie789
                    kseiverd RE: Ruthie789 Feb 24, 2013 01:46 PM

                    I prefer LITTLE meatballs... made with small ice cream scooper. Like to fry them in a little olive oil and then nice slow simmer in sauce.

                    Have containers of sauce and meatballs that I have NO idea when they were made. When around a few days... into freezer. Could be 6 months or 6 YEARS!?!

                  2. The Professor RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 01:43 PM

                    I've done it both ways and find essentially _no_ difference in the results either way. I choose the method according to my mood. Either way, they wind up simmering in the gravy for a while.
                    Also, I don't believe one way is more healthy (or less healthy) than the other because done properly, the fried ones don't take on any more grease than the baked ones.

                    I do agree that when doing a big batch of these little marvels, the baking pan definitely wins the day.

                    1. gmm RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 02:35 PM

                      I bake them on a rack in 500° oven, just until the outside browns. They're still pretty raw in the middle when I pull them out. Then I toss the meatballs and any rendered fat and juice into my sauce. I don't like the flat sides they get when fried in a pan.

                      1. lafouchow RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 03:34 PM

                        The old-school handed down from Nana version is browned in a cast iron frying pan, then dropped in the sauce. The are delicious hot from the pan without the sauce and the smell is awesome.

                        1. C. Hamster RE: provreviews Feb 24, 2013 03:41 PM

                          if I'm making a lot of them they get browned in the oven; if only a handful they go I the cast iron skillet.

                          Just as long as they are properly browned before they goi to the sauce. I hate it when meatballs are dropped raw into the sauce.

                          1. l
                            lsmutko RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 09:28 AM

                            Does no one else essentially poach their meatballs in sauce? It's what my grandmother did, and what I do. They come out tender and the sauce is infused with flavor. You want to have it on a low, low simmer so that you don't have to stir for the time it takes for them to cook through, and you do have to be gentle.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: lsmutko
                              GretchenS RE: lsmutko Feb 26, 2013 09:57 AM

                              That is exactly what I do, I love how tender they are that way.

                              1. re: lsmutko
                                grampart RE: lsmutko Feb 26, 2013 10:10 AM

                                Lidia Bastianich writes that poached meatballs are healthier, but have less flavor than fried. I tend to agree with her.

                                1. re: grampart
                                  roxlet RE: grampart Feb 26, 2013 11:40 AM

                                  I'm not sure why that would be. When I fry meatballs, I use no fat in my cast iron skillet, and always wind up with more fat in the bottom than I started with from the fat being released from the meat. When you cook them in the sauce, all that fat that goes into the sauce, and unless you are making this ahead, chilling and defatting, the sauce is bound to have more fat than it would if you fry the meatballs. Plus, there is the maillard reaction, which gives a lot of flavor to the meatballs and the sauce.

                                  1. re: roxlet
                                    grampart RE: roxlet Feb 26, 2013 12:45 PM

                                    It might have something to do with the temp. When frying, it's over 300 and when poaching in the sauce, it's much lower.

                                  2. re: grampart
                                    blaireso RE: grampart Mar 12, 2013 12:41 PM

                                    On a recent show, she also recommended par-baking the MBs for about 20 minutes before putting into the sauce as it helps keep them from breaking apart while simmering.

                                  3. re: lsmutko
                                    C. Hamster RE: lsmutko Feb 26, 2013 12:49 PM

                                    No. I dont like how they make the sauce greasy and browning meat is where the meaty flavor is.

                                    So I brown in no oil and then add to the sauce.

                                    1. re: lsmutko
                                      chowser RE: lsmutko Feb 26, 2013 03:59 PM

                                      It's much easier so I used this method for years.It works really well in a slow cooker, no worry about them getting too brown from being close to the bottom. But, I've gone back to baking because I like them with more texture.

                                    2. eLizard RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 11:25 AM

                                      i just put them right in the sauce. no frying or baking

                                      1. r
                                        rasputina RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 11:45 AM

                                        It all depends on how many I'm making, for bulk batches baking is faster and easier.

                                        1. k
                                          Kontxesi RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 11:46 AM

                                          I'm a meatball n00b, but I have taken to baking them. It lets me get on with other things, and I end up with a more uniform doneness on them.

                                          Plus, I'm obviously doing something wrong with my breadcrumb and egg ratios, but when I pan-fry them, they fall apart a lot faster than when I bake them.

                                          1. r
                                            Roland Parker RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 12:56 PM

                                            My to-go meatball recipe is from Ina Garten and it's fried. Afterwards I pour out most of the remaining cooking fat but leave a little bit with all the little crunchy bits from the meatballs and use that for the base of the tomato sauce.

                                            It's very, very good.

                                            5 Replies
                                            1. re: Roland Parker
                                              grampart RE: Roland Parker Feb 26, 2013 01:10 PM

                                              I use the meatball and Sunday gravy from Rao's. After frying, I pour off the excess fat and deglaze with red wine and throw that in the sauce/gravy.

                                              1. re: Roland Parker
                                                kws123 RE: Roland Parker Feb 26, 2013 01:56 PM

                                                This is similar to what I do. I fry them up, remove the MBs and drain out some fat from the pan, then make my sauce in there. The leftovers from cooking the meatballs, to me, adds a nice richness to the sauce. This is how my grandmother did it. She also said, and I completely agree, the key to a good meatball is torn pieces of bread soaked in milk.

                                                1. re: kws123
                                                  grampart RE: kws123 Feb 26, 2013 02:15 PM

                                                  "the key to a good meatball is torn pieces of bread soaked in milk."

                                                  I agree and believe great bread makes a difference.

                                                  1. re: grampart
                                                    Nunzio RE: grampart Mar 10, 2013 07:22 PM

                                                    I use American bread without the crust in milk just like my grandmother did.

                                                    1. re: Nunzio
                                                      grampart RE: Nunzio Mar 11, 2013 04:32 AM

                                                      I totally understand wanting to make your meatballs just like your nonna did but, if quality ingredients mean a better product, there is no way pieces of Wonderbread will work as well as your nonna's home-made bread.

                                              2. mcf RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 01:23 PM

                                                I bake briefly at high heat to brown, then finish in the sauce.

                                                1. breadchick RE: provreviews Feb 26, 2013 05:15 PM

                                                  Have to pan fry. I love the crispy bits, much like the bits from a well cooked meatloaf. Let the insides be soft, but I pan fry to make that fond, which works well with my sauce.

                                                  I need to make some meatballs. What is it about meatballs that even talking about them makes me want to eat them. Now. Anyone got some meatballs?

                                                  1 Reply
                                                  1. re: breadchick
                                                    The Professor RE: breadchick Feb 26, 2013 05:20 PM

                                                    This thread did the same thing to me...I made a batch today!

                                                  2. h
                                                    HubFlyer RE: provreviews Mar 6, 2013 06:14 PM

                                                    I have always cooked them in the pot and add the sauce when they are browned. Gets a little difficult with a large quantity as they need to be piled up on one side of the pot while the others are browning but I'd hate to lose the fat and juice that is produced while they are browning.

                                                    Having said that i will try the oven method next time.

                                                    1. w
                                                      wincountrygirl RE: provreviews Mar 12, 2013 12:41 PM

                                                      I brown and finish in the oven for a few minutes, then into the sauce.

                                                      1. aching RE: provreviews Mar 12, 2013 01:04 PM

                                                        I baked a batch in the oven two days ago. I had forgotten to preheat the oven and was in a hurry, so I put them in when the oven was still cool (maybe 150 degrees) and let them bake as the oven heated to 400 degrees. To my surprise, they came out with a wonderful, almost crunchy, brown finish - is it possible it was because of my "technique"?

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: aching
                                                          blaireso RE: aching Mar 13, 2013 02:14 PM

                                                          hmm. lots of folks recommend starting their bacon in a cold oven, maybe there's someone out there who can offer an explanation? I'm going to try this! Only thing is, I've still got another 50 or so to bake after the first two trays are finished, maybe I'll need to label them "cold" and "hot" LOL.

                                                        2. Jay F RE: provreviews Mar 12, 2013 01:44 PM

                                                          Baked. It's neater than frying and I like eating meatballs without sauce. The delicate nutmeg-panade-Parmigiano-Reggiano flavor becomes overwhelmed when I add sauce.

                                                          If I want to eat them in a saucy manner, with pasta or in a sub roll, then I'll add sauce.

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