Now and again I like to mix it up. I’ve got my favorite recipes that I like to do, but it’s always fun to try something new. I don't hail from Italian stock so I don’t have a lovely little grandma from the homeland that shared her secret meatball recipe with me. So what am I left to do? Well, a little research and a little experimenting and bravissimo! I have a flavorful, succulent Italian meatball recipe that can be made on your smoker.
I’ll start by walking you through my recipe and I’ll interject the little tricks that only a skilled chefs and grandmas may know. Feel free to take some liberties with the recipe. In fact, I’ll even help explain a few things you can play with and still come up with a tender, moist homemade meatball.
Meatballs are best when made with several meats. This adds a depth to the flavor and keeps it from tasting like a hamburger. One restaurant I know uses ground prosciutto in with their meatballs. It adds a great flavor and this is what I’ve tried to capture with my meatball recipe. If necessary, check the about the ingredients section below for substitution suggestions.
About the Ingredients
keep it cheap - use cheaper cuts like chuck roasts, shoulder, leg or even trimmings. This isn't the place to buy expensive steaks. The real depth of flavor comes from using different meats: lamb, beef, veal, pork and chicken. Only one of the meats is typically the predominant flavor – in this case beef. Meats like veal and lamb will add tenderness. However, the less fatty the meat, the more binder you may need. The fat range should optimally be between 20-40%, but it doesn’t have to be all from the meat (it includes meat, milk, butter, cheese, etc).
I ground all of my meat with a KitchenAid meat grinder. You could also use a food processor with similar results – just be careful to not overdo it! For this recipe I used beef chuck, a leg of lamb, 3 oz package of pancetta and about half a package of bacon. I ran all of these through my food grinder separately and then weighed them on a kitchen scale (you can go off of package weight if you don't have one). The trick here is to keep the grinder cold (I actually put mine in the freezer) and do the same with the meat. You can put it in the freezer for 30 minutes before grinding/chopping to help it chop better. Also, work in small batches (i.e., don’t get all the meat out at the same time).
I used store-bought Italian-style bread crumbs and eggs. These have the flavor I’m looking for and it doesn’t take any prep. Other possibilities are using day-old bread. Some chefs that I’ve spoken with will soak the bread crumbs in milk or cream to rehydrate it to add a rich flavor (requires squeezing out excess). You can also use pureed rice, ricotta cheese, cream or crumbled saltines in about the same quantities as a substitute. The purpose here is to help the ingredients stick and it also helps smooth out the texture. Avoid using the crusts if making your own breadcrumbs (hard, dense).
I added a little bit of cold water. This helps act as an emulsifier to the fat. Think oil and water here – they won’t mix but one can be suspended in the other. That’s an example of an emulsification. Here we don’t want a hard, dense meatball so the water helps to suspend and separate. Stella Culinary has a series that will explain more than you’d ever want to know about emulsification.
I also know in Cooks Illustrated they used a trick in their meatloaf that may work here too. The secret is to boil 1 tsp of unflavored gelatin in 1/2 cup of beef stock. Then use that to moisten the bread crumbs. The gelatin acts as a replacement for some of the fat, so you could actually use a leaner meat when doing this.
Meatballs aren’t just Italian. You’ll find them in every corner of the globe. So here are a few other spices that you may want to substitute or add in to obtain the meatballs like your Italian or Russian or Swedish grandmother used to make: parsley, black pepper, cumin, dry mustard, paprika, sweet basil, ketchup, ground pepper flakes, marjoram, nutmeg, allspice, etc, etc.
How to Make Meatballs
1) Mix all of the ground meats together in a large bowl.
2) Mix all of the dry spices and garlic together in a small bowl. Then combine with the meat and mix in.
3) Add the eggs and water to the meat and continue to lightly mix in.
4) When it is all mixed together start forming meatballs about the size of a golf ball (1 1/2 inch in diameter). If you have a small digital kitchen scale you can weigh the meatballs – they should be around 1.5 – 1.75 oz.
You can even add a small cube of mozzarella cheese in the center to make a stuffed meatball.
Don’t handle the meat too much or press the meat together to compact it. This will make the meatballs hard and dense. Just grab a small amount and lightly roll it between your hands. The meat will stay together so you don’t need to compress it. These can be cooked immediately or covered and stored in your fridge overnight.
5) Cook indirectly on your grill or smoker at around 275°F using a light barbecue wood. I used a few chucks of olive wood, but any fruit wood or a small amount of hickory would work. Place the meatballs directly on the grates. Brushing a little olive oil on the grates may help keep them from sticking.
6) Cook for approximately 30 minutes and then start checking the temperature every 10 minutes. They are done at 165-170°F internal temperature. Be sure to check several meatballs when checking the temperature. Mine usually take about 40-45 minutes to cook.
7) Allow to cool a few minutes and serve these meatballs on top of your favorite spaghetti or stuffed pasta. In the picture I used the All'Amatriciana red sauce which has an amazing flavor, but the meatballs have enough flavor that it seemed almost a shame to compete. A good traditional marinara sauce or even a bottle of store-bought sauce would scream with these flavorful Italian meatballs. Enjoy! Oh, and if there are any leftover, these are great for freezing and reheating at a moments notice.