Grandma’s meatball recipe is the ultimate family comfort food! Spheres of ground beef broil until golden brown, then simmer in a flavorful tomato sauce until tender and juicy. Serve over spaghetti noodles or your favorite pasta.
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Before we got married, my husband, Jason, wanted to make sure I knew how to make all his favorite meals. He comes from an Italian family where a love of food is their bond. After calling up Grandma Rose to ask for her meatball recipe, I learned that she doesn’t use a list of specific measurements and cooks by feel. As a culinary scientist who craves details, I had some homework to do.
After years of testing, that’s how long we dated for; I finally figured it out! The most important elements are the breadcrumb mixture to retain juiciness, broiling to create surface flavors, and simmering to tenderize the beef. This recipe makes plenty of servings to use with pasta or sandwiches, and the leftovers taste even better.
I use ground beef between 80% (ground chuck) to 90% (ground sirloin). The percentage corresponds to the amount of lean meat-to-fat that’s processed together. Fat adds flavor, while the meat provides a contrast in texture.
Grandma did say she uses a mixture of veal and pork on occasion, in addition to the beef. For this recipe, you can easily substitute ground turkey or chicken for a healthier alternative.
Using a panade
If using breadcrumbs, you do not have to soak them in liquid before mixing with the meat like I normally would for a classic panade. That’s because the breadcrumbs’ size is so fine that the moisture from the eggs and fat juices in the ground beef is sufficient.
Once you mix and broil, the liquids will absorb into the crumbs and activate the natural starches. During the simmering process, the starches further bind to the liquid and swell to lock in the juices.
I recommend using plain breadcrumbs then adding in dried Italian seasonings for herbaceous notes. You can use premade Italian-style breadcrumbs for convenience, but I prefer to control the level of seasonings.
Alternatively, if I have leftover bread, I make fresh breadcrumbs in a food processor then bake them until dry for a tastier meatball. This option works well for those that want to make gluten-free breadcrumbs if none are available at the market.
Broiling creates new flavors
Grandma’s Rose adamantly advises broiling the meatballs before simmering them in the sauce. This process is an integral step in keeping the meat together during simmering and enhancing the surface flavor and texture. The meatballs cook under the broiler on one side, then flip to get the bottoms browned as well.
Grandma was a smart woman! Without realizing it, she was telling me to make sure the Maillard reaction is done and executed just right. In culinary school, I learned that Maillard browning is key to creating hundreds of new flavor compounds and aromas in a dish.
The correct ratio of meat-to-breadcrumb and fat for flavor is crucial to nailing the recipe. If there are too few or too many breadcrumbs, the texture is off (tough or spongy). I find the perfect sweet spot is: 1 pound beef, ½ cup breadcrumbs, and 1 large egg.
Make an easy tomato sauce
Foods rich in glutamates like onions, garlic, and tomatoes serve to boost the meatballs’ savory flavors. Minced garlic and onion saute with the tomato paste to add a hint of sweetness and depth to the sauce. High quality crushed canned tomatoes create a thick but pourable consistency. I make the sauce and simmer it briefly for about 30 minutes while preparing the meatballs.
A good sauce takes time
Slowly simmering the meatballs in the sauce for over an hour allows the liquid to coax out the appetizing browned flavors from the meat. The braising process and acids in the tomato help to soften the tougher connective tissue in the beef, so that each bite breaks down with little resistance. The sauce flavor concentrates over the long cooking period.
This recipe is also ideal to be made in a slow cooker, about 3 hours on high or 6 hours on low. Jason reminds me that the sauce needs to be thick so that it can cling to the noodles. It’s easy to adjust the consistency with a little water or beef stock to your liking at the end of cooking.
What to serve this with
How to prevent meatballs from shrinking
Adding breadcrumbs to the ground meat mixture creates a starchy paste that holds the moisture in and prevents shrinkage. Usually, when meat cooks, the muscle fibers’ proteins tighten and contract, which causes large amounts of water to squeeze out. If you do not use a classic panade or breadcrumbs, the meatballs will reduce in size and tend to become dry or tough.
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Grandma’s Italian Meatball Recipe
- 2 pounds ground beef, 80% to 90% lean meat
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian-style
- ½ cup parmesan cheese, freshly grated, plus more for garnish
- ½ cup yellow onion, finely minced
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon Italian seasonings, omit if using Italian-style breadcrumbs
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- ¼ cup sliced basil, for garnish
- In a large pot or dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium-low heat. Once hot, add the onion and garlic, sauté until onions are translucent, about 3 minutes.
- Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Simmer covered, with lid slightly ajar to prevent splattering for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
- Set the oven rack to the lower-middle position and set it to broil. Line a large baking sheet with foil and lightly grease it with olive oil. Set aside.In a large bowl, add the ground beef, eggs, breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, minced onion, salt, black pepper, Italian seasoning, and minced garlic. Use hands to mix thoroughly until combined.
- Measure and roll the ground beef mixture into ⅓ cup (3 ounces) rounds, about the size of an egg. Evenly space the pieces on the baking sheet, there should be about 14 to 15 meatballs.
- Broil the meatballs until the surface is browned, about 10 to 12 minutes. Turn over and cook for an additional 2 to 3 minutes to lightly brown the other side.
- Transfer the meatballs to the tomato sauce. Cover the pot with the lid slightly ajar, simmer on low heat for at least 1 ½ hours, checking and stirring every 20 minutes, or as needed. The meatballs should be fork tender when sliced.
- At the end of cooking, adjust the consistency of the sauce with water if needed, about 1 tablespoon at a time. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
- Serve meatballs with spaghetti topped with sauce, sliced basil, and Parmesan cheese.
- Storing: Cool completely and store in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
- Freezing: Uncooked meatballs can be stored in a large freezer bag for up to 1 month in the freezer. Defrost before broiling. Cooked meatballs and sauce can be frozen for up to 1 month, then defrosting and reheated on the stovetop until hot.
- Make it gluten-free: Use gluten-free breadcrumbs or almond flour.
- Make it in the slow cooker: Use a 6-quart slow cooker. Add the sauce ingredients to the slow cooker and broiled meatballs. Cook on high setting for 3 hours, or 6 hours on the low setting.
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