January 23, 2010 | Updated August 27, 2021
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Making perfect Italian-American style meatballs isn’t so much a question of what meat you use as it is how you make them. I’ve made this meatball recipe dozens of times, with meats from pork and veal to venison, duck and bear.
What makes the Perfect Meatball?
It isn’t the meat, although these are duck meatballs, but it might be the fat. Whatever meat you use, grind it with pork fat. What grind? A fine grind, of course. All the best meatballs are finely ground, both for mouthfeel and for cohesiveness; it is not easy to get a coarsely ground meat to bind into a pretty ball.
Use about a three-to-one ratio of meat to fat, in the case of the meatballs in the photos, 3 pounds of duck and goose meat to 1 pound pork fat. Lean meatballs suck. Period.
The next step is also vital: Perfect meatballs are not all meat. Yes, it’s true — and counter-intuitive. Your mind says that an all-meat meatball will be better than one with “fillers” like bread or flour or bread crumbs. Your mind is wrong. To me, a perfect meatball is pillowy yet substantial at the same time. One way you get that is by adding bread to the mixture.
I owe this particular bread technique to Marcella Hazan in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, which is to Italian cooking what Julia Child and Simone Beck’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is for French cuisine. Basically Marcella heats up a little milk and drops stale, crustless bread into it until the bread absorbs the milk, then she mashes everything into a slurry and lets it cool. Brilliant.
The other primary step in making duck meatballs is to not take your aggressions out on the meat mixture. You mix gently, gently, gently, and not completely. It is OK to have some uneven spots. It makes things more interesting. Think cake, not bread. Note my open hands. Do not squeeze.
You follow that up by forming the meatballs with equal finesse. Use your palms, not your fingers. North African meatballs are made with your fingers (as is their couscous, but that is another post.), Italian ones with the palms. You want a nice round ball that just barely holds together.
After that you want to roll your duck meatballs in flour or bread crumbs. I like fine bread crumbs because they add some texture to the meatball. These meatballs will deform as you roll them in the crumbs. No worry, just reshape and place on a cookie sheet that has a piece of wax or parchment paper set on it.
To me it is pretty obvious, but there are actually a lot of meatball recipes out there where you don’t fry the meatballs before finishing them in sauce. This is blasphemy in the part of New Jersey I grew up in. And when I say “fry” I mean fry, not saute.
Meatballs and spaghetti is a dish designed to show off — really — as newly “wealthy” Italian immigrants found they could serve expensive meatballs and “expensive” factory-made pasta all the time. Much of Old Italy was so poor that these were festival ingredients, not weekly commonplaces.
This means you need lots and lots of oil to properly fry your meatballs.
Can you saute them? Yes, but they will massively deform and probably develop burnt spots. Meatballs made with my method require the buoyancy of hot fat. Besides, you can reuse the fat for the rest of the week after straining it.
Again here, perfect meatballs require a bit of technique.
The amount of oil should come up to exactly half the meatball — when they are all in the pan. Y’all remember Archimedes and his bathtub, yes? That means start with about 1/4 inch and get that hot, then add more oil little by little until it is at the halfway point. This keeps the oil hot and prevents the “Saturn’s Ring” of un-fried, or double-fried, sections in the middle of the meatball. It’s an aesthetic thing.
Oh, and flip your duck meatballs only once, after about 5 minutes.
Once they are done, remove to a rack to drain. This is better than simply putting them on a paper towel, although that’s fine, too.
You now have perfect meatballs, which need only to be finished in your favorite sauce.
Italian Venison Meatballs
- 2 1/2 pounds lean venison, or other meats
- 1 pound pork belly or fatty pork shoulder
- 2/3 cup milk
- 3 slices bread, crusts removed
- 2 eggs
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon fennel seeds (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano °
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 4 tablespoons grated cheese, pecorino or parmigiana
- 1 1/2 cups bread crumbs
- olive oil for frying
OPTIONAL HAND GRINDING STEP
- Chill the venison and pork fat until it is almost freezing by sticking it in the freezer for an hour. Cut both the meat and fat into chunks that will fit in your grinder. Grind through your fine die. If you do not have a meat grinder, you can use a food processor, set on pulse. Don’t crowd the processor and chop the meat in pulses until you get something that looks like ground meat — it will not be as good as with a grinder, but it is easier than hand-mincing everything, which is also an option. Put the meat in the fridge.
- Pour the milk into a pot and set it on low heat. Cut the crusts off the stale bread and break it into pieces. Add it to the pot. It will begin to absorb the milk. When it does, turn off the heat and mash everything into a paste. Let it cool to room temperature.
- Put the ground meat into a large bowl, add the salt and spices and herbs, as well as the cheese. Crack the eggs into the bowl, then pour the bread-milk mixture in. With clean hands, gently mix everything together. Do not knead it like bread. Just gently work the mixture — think cake, not bread.
- When it is mostly combined — you need not get everything perfect — grab a palm-full and roll it into a ball with your palms, not your fingers. You want meatballs about 1 1/2 to 2 inches across.
- Gently roll the meatballs in the bread crumbs. You may need to re-shape them before putting them onto a cookie sheet lined with wax or parchment paper.
- When the meatballs are all made, get a large pan ready; I use a big, old cast-iron frying pan. Fill it with about 1/4 inch of oil. I use cheap olive oil. Bring it up to temperature over medium-high heat. You are looking for about 325°F. Set the meatballs in the hot oil, not touching, to fry.
- You want the oil to come up halfway on the meatballs. Add a little oil if need be; don’t worry, you can reuse it later. Fry until nicely browned, then turn them over to brown the other side.
- When cooked, set the meatballs on a paper towel or wire rack to drain. They can be used right away or cooled and then refrigerated for a week, or frozen for several months. How to serve? You could do worse with a marinara sauce, or my Tomato Sauce with Fennel.
Keys to Success
- If you knead the meatball mixture too much, the meatballs will toughen. That said, they are supposed to be a bit fragile, so you can cut off pieces with your fork as you eat the pasta.
- Should your mixture be too wet, you can add more meat, more bread, more grated cheese, or, in a pinch, some more breadcrumbs.
- I often make large batches of these, brown them, and then freeze for later.
- If you hate frying, you can set the meatballs into a mini muffin tin and bake them at 300°F until browned.
Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.
I really enjoyed reading this. Many insightful approaches that add the key elements to a good cuisine. Take a look at my recipes collection on my blog and let me know what you think. Maybe we can exchange some recipes.
What a fabulous meat ball recipe! I’ll whisper my secret meatball ingredient: Replace half the milk with sour cream trust me you will be amazed.
I can’t believe how easy this looks! I’m excited to try it with deer meat.. my husband just got back from hunting and we are loaded up with deer meat. I was looking for some interesting recipes and this definitely fits the mold. YUM!
I wonder if I can connect you to another website http://www.rainbowcooking.co.nz They have a different take on meat balls in Frikadelle (meat balls) in tomato, wine and onion sauce. The site is nothing to do with me, except I am a Brit, married to a Kiwi and have SA friends – so blending traditions is useful!
Matt: A lot of people have mentioned the A16 book. I need to get it, as Chef Nate Appleman is a friend of a friend…
Russell: Sounds like a good use for Canada legs. Confit would be good, too.
Carmelita: I like using ricotto as well. Thought about doing it for this recipe, but I had stale bread in the kitchen and not ricotta, so you know how it goes.
Cork: I’ve only gotten shot in the grinder once. I typically use breast meat for grinding, and once you cube the meat it is pretty easy to see if there is shot inside.
Duke: Reminds me – I need to write down a recipe for a wild game breakfast sausage…
Finally, I have a second option for spoonies. The cheapo spoonie breakfast sausage I make is getting kinda old. Thanks.
Looks like I’ll have to go after some more hard-to-ever-do-right ruddy ducks in the SF Bay next year to try this recipe.
As we’re grinding meats that potentially can tear up a blade with shot: what’s your best technique for making sure you birds are shot free?
Oh and PS, I have the original – I believe – Italian spaghetti (alla chitarra) with meatballs recipe up on Pasta Channel here
With you on the fine grind for good mouth feel and cohesiveness.
Of the other “texture softeners” used in Italy for meatballs (butter, mashed potato, dampened bread) my favourite is ricotta.
And another trick I have, taught me by a cooking class student from Singapore, is to pick up and throw down the meatball mixture over and over – lightens the texture he said, and I believe it does, or even if it doesn’t, it’s a lot of fun!
I need to stop reading food blogs before lunch. Now I want spaghetti and meatballs, and I can’t hoof it to Boston’s North End and back to campus in time for my afternoon class.
I could, however, go to my butcher in the North End when class is over, and make meatballs for dinner… Hmm.
Made these tonight with some Canada goose legs we had in the freezer and trimmings from a pork roast we had. They were great. I baked them in tomato sauce instead of frying and they turned out fine. Great recipe! Thanks.
LOVE the attention to detail here. that is really what sets your blog and cooking apart from the rest out there.
Totally agree about lean meatballs sucking, and those “100% meat” ones too. I agree there needs to be some bread in there.
I am rather addicted to the meatballs from the A16 cookbook of late – course no duck in there though
Heather: I’ve made meatballs with the coarse grind and while they will stick together, the texture is not as nice, at least to me. As for baking, it is lower in fat and easier to clean up but if you use Alton Brown’s mini muffin method I often get the bottom of the meatball cooking in a pool of rendered fat. I do agree, though, the ice cream scooper does work well.
Jennifer: Polpettine as such are indeed Italian, but Italian meatballs are generally smaller and are not typically served with pasta. They are their own thing. Pasta and red sauce is Italian, meatballs are Italian, but jamming the two on a plate is Italian American. There is actually all kinds of scholarship on how Italian immigrants to the US changed their food — and then influenced the food back home.
Deanna: Pork fat cures a multitude of sins…
Tovar: You can use venison for this recipe no problem.
Russell: It is a lot easier to use duck or goose breasts in this recipe, but you can definitely use leg meat, too.
This sounds good. I have some goose legs I need to use. This’ll be a great use for them. Unless we are really planning on roasting a whole goose, we breast them and save the legs for pot pie and such.
Part-Italian though I am (and full-Italian though my wife is), I’m really looking forward to trying that Greek Venison Meatball recipe, too. There are pounds and pounds of venison in the freezer, just waiting for such fine treatment.
Great food! We like Marcella’s sausage with cabbage and her chicken with cabbage – delicious.
Belated compliments on the new site design. It’s bold & clear, befitting the subject! And I really like the access to the recipes.
It is wonderful that even for the muddy duck there is a purpose on the platter… good for you. Using pork fat is a great idea if the bird’s fat isn’t sufficient or ill-flavored.
Informative post. Waste not , want not and get great meatbballs!!!
Bless your heart for going the stale bread route. I’ve always done it with water and not milk (Gramma Crucitti was Old-World on that, where milk was a little too precious). I’ve never coated with breadcrumbs before frying, however.
Also, my grandmother brought over her meatball recipe from Calabria, so can you point me to where you learned that was an American creation?
Heather, in the Hunter Angler Gardener Cook household, we consider aerosolized grease a home decor accent. And as long as I don’t get fat or develop high cholesterol, I’ll embrace it – because it means the food is SO GOOD!
Call me crazy, but I always use the coarse grind, and my meatballs stay together just fine. I deviate again by baking my meatballs because I hate cleaning aerisolized grease from every nook and cranny of my kitchen (spatter screens never work). Also, a 1/4 cup-sized ice cream scoop works pretty great for forming the balls. A little neater, a little less worked, and perfectly consistent. That’s my $0.02.
I hanker for some duck meatballs. Those, I can’t just go to the store for. I guess I could pick up some cheap duck from the Chinese market. Hmmm.