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Italian Meatballs (Moist, Tender, Bake-or-Fry)

I make and freeze these tender, moist Italian meatballs to have on hand for quick meals of spaghetti, subs or wedding soup. Admittedly, a few disappear before they hit the freezer!

I love having these meatballs in stock in the freezer for a busy weeknight dinner or when I’m feeling lazy or have no time to cook.

Italian meatballs in marinara sauce over spaghetti in bowl.

This Italian meatball recipe is a combination of two recipes from Epicurious and Chef Ann Burrell plus tips from my Italian hair stylist, Nancy, who has been making amazing traditional Italian meatballs forever.

What to expect

Great flavor and texture: We are using fresh ingredients and good techniques that create wonderful flavors and soft, juicy meatballs. We use an extra step – worthwhile I think – of sautéing onions and garlic to add to the meat mixture.

Versatile: There are so many different ways to serve these homemade Italian meatballs beyond your favorite pasta sauce over spaghetti. Check out suggestions on how to serve meatballs below.

Healthier choice: Although there are some very good store-bought brands of meatballs, these homemade meatballs avoid unnecessary additives or preservatives.

Ingredients – tailored to your taste

ground beef and veal, eggs, parmesan, garlic, breadcrumbs, milk, parsley, seasonings.
(plus an onion not shown)

Ground meat: Use any combination of ground beef, ground veal, ground chicken, ground turkey, Italian sausage or ground pork. I recommend buying meat with a fat content of 10-15% for moist and tender meatballs. For example, choose medium or lean ground beef instead of extra lean.

Panade: The best trick I have learned for tender and juicy meatballs is to mix the meat with a panade. A panade is bread or breadcrumbs soaked in milk (or any liquid). I use fresh white sandwich bread torn into tiny bits (or ground in the food processor).

Flavors and seasoning: The flavor builders in this recipe are fried onions and garlic, parmesan cheese, fresh parsley and red pepper flakes (optional).

Variations to consider

  • Feel free to add 1-2 teaspoons Italian seasonings or Worcestershire if you like.
  • You can omit the Parmesan cheese. Just reduce the milk a bit.
  • Add other fresh herbs like fresh basil, thyme or rosemary.
  • You can use plain breadcrumbs instead of fresh bread if you prefer – just use less.

Steps by step instructions

onions and garlic sauteeing in pan.
Sauté onions and fresh garlic
panade filling for meatballs in bowl.
In a large mixing bowl, combine milk, onions, bread, Parmesan, salt and eggs to make a panade.
ground meat mixed with panade filling in blue bowl.
Gently mix the panade with any combination of beef, veal, chicken, pork. Be careful to not overmix the meatball mixture.
meatballs uncooked on lined baking pan.
Form meatballs lightly with wet hands. Don’t overpack the meat!
baked meatballs on lined baking pan.
Place meatballs on a lined sheet pan (or see instructions for pan frying).
baked meatballs on lined baking pan.

Tips for making soft, juicy meatballs

  • Panade– (bread soaked with milk): This is the best way to create tender moist meatballs.
  • Size– You can make large, medium or mini meatballs – any size goes. Just remember to adjust the cooking time. Avoid very large meatballs as they are harder to cook evenly and they can fall apart more easily.
  • Don’t overmix meat mixture– or your meatballs will become dense and hard.
  • Don’t overbake- or meatballs will be dry and crumbly.

Recipe FAQs

How do I know when my meatballs are fully cooked?

Meatballs should be cooked until they reach an internal temperature of 160F/71C. The temperature will rise by 5 degrees f after you take them out of the oven. You can use a meat thermometer to check the temperature or cut one meatball open to see if it’s cooked.

How do I keep my meatballs from falling apart?

Meatballs will fall apart if the texture of the meatballs is too moist or too dry, if they are overcooked or too large. Use a panade as per the recipe, don’t make overly large meatballs and cook the meatballs to 160F/71C to help ensure the meatballs don’t fall apart.

What’s a gluten-free option for breadcrumbs?

You can use gluten-free breadcrumbs if you can find them. Other alternatives are almond flour/meal, crushed cornflakes and rolled oats. Be sure to check all packages to ensure the products are gluten-free.

Bake or Pan-fry?

Both methods make delicious meatballs, but here is why I prefer to bake them:

  • Baking is quicker and hands-off. You can bake the meatballs all at once. Pan frying requires several batches and closer attention.
  • Easier clean-up – I line the baking pan with foil or parchment.
  • No fry smell!
  • The meatballs don’t get quite as browned with baking, but with the high temperature, they do brown at least on one side as you can see in the pictures. You can flip them half way through if you like (I don’t bother).

How to serve meatballs

Shortcuts

These shortcuts should reduce total time to less than 30 minutes.

  • I use a processor to chop the onions, bread and parsley (one at a time).
  • Use onion and garlic powder instead of sautéing fresh onions and garlic ( but fresh is best!)
  • Buy pre-grated fresh Parmesan cheese.
  • Use breadcrumbs instead making fresh breadcrumbs (but use half).

Make Ahead 

Find instructions in the recipe notes for:

  • how to make frozen meatballs (cooked and uncooked)
  • how to reheat and serve frozen or refrigerated meatballs
Italian meatballs in marinara sauce over spaghetti in bowl.

Recipes with meatballs

All these meatball recipes have no eggs if that’s important to you.

If you prefer ground beef in a different form, try our ground beef stir fry (in one pan) or healthy meatloaf with mushroom gravy.

If you like this recipe, please leave a 5 star rating 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟in the recipe card below. And if you REALLY like it, consider a review in the comments. Thanks very much!

Italian meatballs in marinara sauce over spaghetti in bowl.
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Italian Meatballs (Moist, Tender, Bake-or-Fry)

I make and freeze these tender, moist Italian meatballs to have on hand for quick meals of spaghetti, subs or wedding soup. Admittedly, a few disappear before they hit the freezer. Delish.
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time20 minutes
Total Time35 minutes
Course: Main Course, make ahead
Cuisine: Italian
Servings: 60 meatballs

Ingredients

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 medium sweet onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 teaspoons minced garlic (4 cloves)
  • 3 pounds ground beef, veal, chicken and/or pork (any combination), Note 1

Seasoning and Binding Mixture (Panade)

  • 3 slices white bread, Note 2 (to make 2 cups coarsely torn bread)
  • 1 1/4 cup milk (or water)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped fresh Italian (flat) parsley
  • 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, Note 3
  • 2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • Optional variations: Note 4.

Instructions

  • PREHEAT OVEN to 450F/232C. Line 2 pans (with 1 inch sides) with tin foil and spray with oil. I use one large and one smaller pan to fit side by side in my oven, but use whatever you have.
  • PREPARE INGREDIENTS: Onion and parsley can be chopped with knife. Bread can be torn into small pieces by hand. Alternatively, use processor to first finely dice onion, then coarsely process bread, then finely mince parsley.
  • SAUTE ONIONS AND GARLIC: Heat oil on medium high heat. Add onions and sauté for 4-6 minutes until soft and translucent (not brown). Add garlic and saute another minute. Allow to cool while you continue.
  • MAKE MEAT MIXTURE: In large bowl, add seasonings/bindings for meat (bread, milk, parsley, eggs, salt and Parmesan). Mix to combine well. Mixture will be mushy. Add ground meats, onion and garlic. Using clean hands, mix all ingredients together GENTLY. Don't overwork the meat. (I spread fingers on one hand, form a claw and use a twisting motion to mix). Wet hands (to avoid sticking) and lightly form balls about 1 1/2-2 inches (3.8-5 cm) diameter -or any size you like. I make about 60 balls. Lay on prepared pans 1/2 inch (1.3 cm) apart.
  • BAKE MEATBALLS: Bake meatballs for 10-12 minutes, depending on size. If pans don't fit side by side, bake in upper and lower thirds of oven, rotating pans halfway through. Meatballs will be light on top and nicely browned on the bottom. If desired, turn meatballs over halfway through to brown more evenly. I don't bother. To pan fry meatballs, Note 5. This will take longer due to multiple batches. Serving suggestions: Note 6.

Recipe Notes

  1. Ground meat: Use any combination of ground beef, veal, chicken or pork. I recommend buying ground meat with a fat content of 10-15% for moist and tender meatballs. For example, choose lean ground beef instead of extra lean. 
  2. Bread substitute: Instead of fresh bread crumbs, use half the amount of dried breadcrumbs (1 cup/110 grams). For a gluten-free option, use gluten-free breadcrumbs if you can find them. Or replace with oats, almond flour or crushed cornflakes (check boxes to ensure gluten-free). 
  3. If omitting the Parmesan cheese, add a little less milk. 
  4. Variations to try
    • Feel free to add 1-2 teaspoons Italian seasonings or Worcestershire if you like.
    • You can omit the Parmesan cheese. Just reduce the milk a bit.
    • Add other fresh herbs like fresh basil, thyme or rosemary.
    • You can use plain breadcrumbs instead of fresh bread if you prefer – just use less.
  5. To pan fry meatballs: If they are large, brown them on all sides in vegetable oil on medium-high heat in a large skillet (you will have to do more than one batch). Then slip them into a preheated 350F/177C oven on a baking sheet to finish cooking for about 10-15 minutes. You can skip the baking portion if the meatballs are smaller or if you plan to simmer them in a sauce. 
  6. Serving suggestions: Add to marinara sauce and serve over spaghetti. Or use in another meatball recipe (see post), subs or wedding soup.  
  7. Shortcuts:
    • I use a food processor to chop the onions, bread and parsley (one at a time).
    • Use onion and garlic powder instead of sautéing fresh onions and garlic (but fresh is better!)
    • Buy pre-grated fresh Parmesan cheese.
    • Use breadcrumbs instead making fresh breadcrumbs (but use half).
  8. Make Ahead:
    • How to make frozen meatballs:
        • Freeze cooked meatballs for 30-40 minutes in a single layer on a pan, then transfer them to a ziploc bag or other airtight container. They can be frozen for months.
        • You can also freeze the uncooked meatballs the same way, then bake them when needed at 450F/232C for 12-15 minutes from frozen.
        • Leftover meatballs will also keep in the fridge for several days
        • To reheat and serve frozen meatballs:
            • thaw them in the refrigerator overnight. Reheat them the next day in spaghetti sauce or in the oven for about 8-10 minutes at 350°F/177C.
            • If you are in a time crunch, you can also microwave them on high for about 2-3 minutes or until they are fully heated through
 
Nutritional information is estimated. 

Nutrition

Calories: 77kcal | Carbohydrates: 3g | Protein: 6g | Fat: 5g | Saturated Fat: 2g | Cholesterol: 26mg | Sodium: 164mg | Potassium: 96mg | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g | Vitamin A: 77IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 36mg | Iron: 1mg
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