On our wedding day, I made a very special vow to my husband… “I promise to always nurture, listen, comfort, and feed you, making sure to cook your grandmother’s famous meatballs at least once a month.”
It may seem like a silly promise. However, my husband Jason’s love for his Grandma’s Italian meatball recipe always brings him a sense of comfort and happiness. For me to be able to recreate a dish that he loves is really important to me. When he walks through the door at the end of a long day and smells fresh tomato sauce and meatballs broiling in the oven, his big smile is priceless!
I have an inkling that part of the reason Jason chose to marry me is because cooking is my passion, which means he would be well fed!
When we first moved in together, I asked him one evening what he wanted me to cook for dinner, and he said his grandma’s meatballs. We gave Grandma Rose a call for the recipe. Like most Italian recipes there were no specific measurements just a simple list of ingredients and method for the sauce and meatballs, the rest was intuition!
I’ve made meatballs many times over the years. Some turned out great, some not so much to boast about. I never actually wrote a recipe down, so it was different every time especially going by “feel” of the mixture. I was on a mission to get as close to grandma’s Italian meatball recipe with my own spin, with a tough critic to please, the hubby.
On this attempt, my husband told me these were the best meatballs I’ve ever made, not too shabby for ten years of experimenting!
The texture is the most critical part of nailing a great meatball recipe. The right ratio of meat-to-breadcrumb and fat for flavor is crucial. If there is too little or too much breadcrumbs, the texture is off (tough or spongy).
I found that a ratio of 1 pound beef, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs, and 1 egg is perfect. I prefer using an 80% lean beef to 20% fat for my meat. This ratio gives a nice rich flavor and meaty texture without being too tough, making it easy to cut through and remain fork tender.
The tomato sauce recipe is extremely simple; high quality crushed tomatoes and flavor infused from the meatballs slowly simmered in the sauce. Jason never forgets to remind me that the sauce needs to be thick so that it can cling to the noodles. He also has an uncanny instinct to tell when spaghetti is cooked perfectly! My husband is a meatball and sauce connoisseur, the supreme judge to ensure anything Italian is prepared just right in our kitchen!
TIP #1: To make ground meat like meatballs and meatloaf extra moist and tender, a Panade can be added to the ground meat mixture. A panade is a mixture of starch and liquid; any combination of starch (bread, panko, crackers) and liquids (milk, buttermilk, yogurt, stock, water) can be used. Varying the combination of panade ingredients can add more or less flavor depending on your taste preference.
TIP #2: How can I prevent my meatballs from shrinking? When the muscle fibers of meat proteins are ground into smaller pieces, sticky soluble proteins are released when cut and strongly hold the meat together. After the meat is mixed and then cooked, the proteins tighten and contract, causing large amounts of moisture to be squeezed out. This often results in meatballs reducing in size and becoming dry or tough if breadcrumbs or a panade is not added to the mixture.
- 4 tablespoons olive oil
- ½ cup yellow onions, minced
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 7 cups (56 ounces) crushed tomatoes (I recommend Cento Brand, imported from Italy)
- 6 ounces tomato paste (use less if a thinner consistency is desired)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, add more to taste
- 2 pounds ground beef (I used 80% lean meat to 20% fat)
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon yellow onion, finely minced
- 1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
- 2 teaspoons salt
- ½ cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup breadcrumbs (Grandma recommends Italian style)
- Fresh Basil (for garnish, if desired)
- Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for garnish, if desired)
- Heat olive oil over medium low heat and sauté onion and garlic until onions are translucent, 3 minutes.
- Add tomato paste and stir well. Add tomatoes and simmer 30 minutes.
- Season tomato sauce with salt to taste.
- Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix using your hand.
- Cook a small test piece, taste for the correct seasoning level, correct seasoning if needed.
- Roll meatballs to the size of a large egg, about 3 ounces in weight.
- Line a baking sheet with foil. Evenly space the meatballs on the sheet.
- Set the oven rack to the lower-middle position.
- Broil the meatballs until browned, about 10 minutes, then turn over. Cook for an additional 2-3 minutes.
- Add meatballs to the tomato sauce. Simmer on low heat for at least 1 ½ hours, checking and stirring every 15 minutes, or as needed.
- Remove the meatballs from the sauce into a separate bowl, cover to keep warm. Mix the sauce; adjust consistency with small amounts of water if too thick. Correct seasoning if needed.
- Garnish meatballs with fresh basil and Parmesan cheese.