No matter how you're cooking them, these tips will help you make the best meatballs possible.

By Tiffany Stevens
Updated September 23, 2020
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Although they weren’t featured often on my family’s table growing up, meatballs have become a source of comfort and fascination as an adult. Far from simply a topping to put on top of spaghetti, meatballs should be thought of as versatile bundles of protein that can be used to elevate any meal, especially sauce heavy rice and noodle dishes that could benefit from the occasional, savory bite. Meatballs can, of course, be eaten on top of tomato-topped noodles, but they can also make for a fantastic flatbread topping, or can even be eaten alone (preferably smothered in sauce). The plethora of sauces and mix-ins available to meatball-loving cooks makes them an even better option for easy weeknight meals. Plus, if you’re short on time, you can always freeze your meatballs and thaw them as needed — no need to rely on premade meatballs at the store.

If you’ve never made homemade meatballs before, it might seem like a time-consuming (and somewhat messy) process. Once you mix up ingredients, however, you’ll be surprised at how quickly your meatballs come together. And if you have small hands eager to help in the kitchen, this project can be especially satisfying for young, budding chefs. With our guide, you’ll find it easy to whip up delicious meatballs, whether you’re making your family’s favorite pasta or simply looking for something meaty to chew on.

Step One: Choose Your Meat

Beef meatballs are fairly familiar for many American families, but it’s important to remember that these morsels can be made out of pretty much any meat. For example, you could make tsukune, which is a Japanese chicken-based meatball. Or, you could use pork or lamb for a heartier taste. If you’re vegetarian, don’t feel left out; you can still make delicious meatballs without using meat. Naturally, you could always turn to Beyond Meat or some other commercial meat replacement, but you could also rehydrate some textured vegetable protein and season it for an easy ground beef replacement, or you could use chopped up mushrooms or beans. If it makes for a delicious veggie burger, then it will probably make for a good meatball.

Step Two: Form Your Meatballs

Credit: Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Prop Styling: Audrey Davis; Food Styling: Anna Theoktisto

Once you’ve chosen your meat (or meat replacement), go ahead and gather the other ingredients and spices you’ll use to flavor your meatballs. For most meatballs, you’ll want a mix of absorbent ingredients that can help you bind the meatballs together. Breadcrumbs are a popular choice, as are bits of bread soaked in milk. You can also use egg or ricotta cheese as a binder, or choose a cooked grain, like rice or quinoa, to help you bring your meatballs together.

If you want to make truly fancy meatballs, you could always make stuffed variations. Form a meatball and then use your thumb to make a pocket, then stuff the pocket with cheese. Cover the cheese with a bit more meat, sealing it inside. After they’re cooked, you’ll have meatballs oozing with delicious cheese.

Step Three: Choose Your Sauce

The sauce is truly where meatballs reach their potential; by just switching up the sauce, the same meatballs can be used to achieve a wide range of flavors. If you’ve never been a fan of spaghetti and meatballs, try making barbecue-flavored meatballs, or make your own Swedish meatballs rather than heading over to Ikea. If you love East Asian flavors, hoisin meatballs or sweet and sour meatballs might be up your alley. By playing around with the sauce, you’ll find that meatballs can become a family favorite without ever getting old.

Step Four: Choose Your Presentation Style

Now that you’ve made up your meatballs, it’s time to decide how you want to present them after they’ve been cooked. For example, you could have them star on top of a plate of ragu and polenta, or you could serve them by themselves with a refreshing dill dip. You could even serve them in brussel sprout cups for an aesthetically pleasing appetizer. Or, if you’re a fan of tapas, serve them skewered or keep some toothpicks handy — you’ll want them not only for grabbing a few more, but for dipping in extra sauces along the way.

Additional Meatball Styles

Credit: Photo: Jason Wallis; Styling: Cindy Barr

Once you’ve formed your meatballs, you can always fry them up in a skillet. However, many recipes call for meatballs to either be broiled in the oven, or to be baked for a longer time. To bake your meatballs, form them and place them about an inch apart from one another on a greased pan. If you’d like, you can also take this time to coat your meatballs in breadcrumbs on the outside to create an exterior that will crisp up in the oven.

How to Make Slow Cooker Meatballs

Slow-cooked meatballs can be a great appetizer for potlucks. For this recipe, simply create a sauce and then place frozen meatballs in the crockpot along with the sauce. Once warm, they’ll be ready to serve.

How to Grill Meatballs

If you’d like, you can always cook your meatballs on the grill by skewering them before laying them on the grates. If you’d like to make the process less messy, put down a sheet of aluminum foil; that way, the skewers can rest on it and minimize the amount of juice dripped onto the heat source.

How to Fry Meatballs

Get the Recipes: Scandinavian Meatballs

If you have a deep fryer, an air fryer or simply a deep pot and some oil, you have the ability to make some fried meatballs. For this recipe, make sure to use frozen meatballs for a better texture and flavor; just also make sure to add the meatballs carefully so that the oil doesn’t splash.

How to Freeze Meatballs

As mentioned above, frozen meatballs can significantly speed up your process if you’re willing to put in the initial work. For this recipe, form and cook some meatballs using the method you most prefer. Baking works best, but any cooking method is fine. After the meatballs have cooled completely, arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet and then put them in the freezer. After an hour, they’ll be ready to put in a freezer-safe ziploc. Once you’re ready to use them, just heat a few up in the oven at 350 º for 10 or 15 minutes and they’ll be ready to serve.

How to Make Meatball Soup

Meatballs obviously go great on top of a lot of dishes, but they also are delicious when incorporated into soup. For this recipe, make up your soup base and then place frozen meatballs in last as the soup is simmering. Once the meatballs are heated through, you’ll be ready to slurp up some delicious meaty goodness.