Mastering the art and science of making meatballs and meatloaf is a trick every busy cook should have up their sleeve. That’s because meatballs and meatloaf are fuss-free and guaranteed to satisfy everyone’s taste buds. Plus they work wonders for finicky eaters who cringe at the sight of traditional cuts of meat.
So prepare to embark on some choose-your-own meatball and meatloaf adventures with an infinite range of possibilities. Experiment with different ground meats or go meatless, add in herbs and spices, and even throw in nuts and cheese for extra sparkle. The sky’s the limit!
Meatloaf vs meatballs
Meatballs and meatloaf are quite similar, being meat mixtures shaped into a ball or torpedo shape for meatballs or a loaf for meatloaves. Both are also usually made with ground meat, egg, and breadcrumbs or another binder. Burgers, on the other hand, are quite different, as they usually don’t have egg or breadcrumbs and instead just focus on the ground meat.
Basic meatball and meatloaf formula
Just like there are standard baking ratios, you can start off any meatball or meatloaf with a ratio of 1 pound of meat, 1 egg, and a one-half cup of breadcrumbs.
You’ve probably made meatballs and meatloaf with ground beef or maybe even a combination of ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal “meatloaf mix”. But there’s no reason why you can’t make chicken meatballs or a ground duck meatloaf if you want healthier options.
If you can’t find what you’re looking for, you can make your own ground meat, even without a meat grinder. A food processor works great, like in these shrimp and pork meatballs. Or use a sharp knife to finely mince the meat.
Veal is meat from a baby calf, and its production has been one of increasing controversy and regulation. If you want to avoid using veal in your meatloaves, Kenji Lopez-Alt, in the Food Lab, recommends using gelatin as a substitute for veal.
For tender meatballs, don’t forget the binders. Fresh or dried breadcrumbs soaked in milk or broth, eggs, and cooked rice are all excellent options to keep your meatballs moist and held together.
But don’t stop there. Gluten-free panko, tortilla chips, crushed Ritz crackers, cornflakes, or oatmeal all work as binding agents.
A panade (or panada) is a paste made of milk and breadcrumbs and is often used at the start of meatball and meatloaf recipes to keep things tender. It’s the same reason why you gently simmer meat in milk in Bolognese sauce or my sausage ragù.
Flavor and texture
Now that we’ve got the basic meatloaf and meatball formula, it’s time to create a little meatloaf and meatball magic. This is where you get to embrace creativity and experiment with vegetables, herbs and spices, and other add-ins. Here are a few tips and suggestions:
- Vegetables that release a lot of water (e.g. onions, mushrooms, or tomatoes) should be lightly cooked before adding them to your mixture.
- Chop finely or mince your add-ins, especially when making meatballs.
- Toast your nuts! Toasting nuts enhances their flavor and will keep them crunchier. I always recommend toasting your nuts, whether it’s for baking like in this coffee and walnut loaf cake or for your basil pesto.
- If you’re stuck for ideas, look no further than your favorite meals. Love tacos? Make a taco meatloaf with cumin, chili pepper, cilantro, and salsa. Can’t get enough Stroganoff? Make ground beef meatballs with mushrooms, paprika, and sour cream.
Meatball and meatloaf topping
Finally, the pièce de résistance! The classic meatloaf topping is a ketchup glaze, but you can top your meatloaf with anything from cranberry relish to Hoisin sauce. Or pull your meatball and meatloaf recipes together with a side of gravy, a pink tomato sauce, or homemade BBQ sauce.
Key meatball and meatloaf tools
My favorite meatball tool is a #40 cookie scoop. This handy tool saves you time and ensures consistent and uniform-sized meatballs. The #40 is 1.75 inches in diameter and scoops a bit more than one and a half tablespoons of meatball mixture. You can always go larger or smaller depending on your preference and what you have at home!
Do you love meatloaf? A meatloaf pan hold your loaf above the base so that fat drips away. You can, of course, also make a free-form loaf or bake your meatloaf as meatloaf muffins.
Finally, a digital meat thermometer is one of those must-haves for me in the kitchen. Achieving the perfect internal temperature is crucial for both meatballs and meatloaf for safety and succulence. The USDA recommends cooking ground poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit and all other ground meats to 160 degrees.
Recipe tips and tricks
Check out the recipes below for specific tips and tricks, but here are a few that are universal when you’re making your meatball and meatloaf creations:
- Start by taking out a large bowl and add your ingredients one by one as you chop and measure. Combine the rest of the mixture first before you add the meat and egg by hand.
- Always have a light hand. Over-mixing your meat mixture can lead to a denser texture and cause your meatballs and meatloaves to break apart. Save the kneading for bread!
- Shaping your meatloaf into a compact shape that promotes even cooking.
- To keep things from sticking, use a non-stick or cast iron pan, a thin layer of oil, or, my favorite, some parchment paper.
- Let your meatloaf sit for five to ten minutes after you take it out of the oven.
Meatball and meatloaf FAQs
Just like any roasted meat, resting meatloaf after it’s cooked is crucial. Resting for a few minutes before cutting allows the moisture to redistribute through the meatloaf, resulting in a more tender and delicious texture and a meatloaf that stays together when cut.
Because ground meat is more likely to be contaminated with bacteria than other cuts, you can store ground meat in the refrigerator for only a couple days. The FDA says not to use meat that has turned brown, especially if it has an off odor or is tacky to touch, because food-borne illnesses are one of the more common hazards in the kitchen!
Both meatballs and meatloaf can be prepared in advance, making them great options for meal planning. Shape the meatballs or meatloaf and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Alternatively, you can freeze uncooked meatballs or meatloaf for longer storage. Just thaw overnight in the refrigerator before cooking frozen meatballs or meatloaf.
Yes. You can either keep cooked meatballs and meatloaf in the refrigerator for three to four days, or freeze them for up to 3 months.
Ground meats are really versatile. Use them in tacos and tamale pie, moussaka and picadillo, stuff them into tomatoes or other veggies, or make them the star in pasta sauces like this sausage ragu.
Certainly! Instead of using regular breadcrumbs, opt for gluten-free alternatives like crushed gluten-free crackers, gluten-free oats, or even almond meal.
Meatball and meatloaf recipes
Check out my favorite Ugly Duckling Bakery meatloaves and meatballs. But these four are where I would start:
Baked and fried meatballs
Baking meatballs allows for even cooking and a mostly hands-off approach. You can also pan-fry your meatballs before baking to create a delightful crust. Just a quick sear in a hot skillet with a drizzle of oil will do the trick.
With a few modifications to the formula, vegetarians can still delight in the joys of meatballs!
How to serve meatballs and meatloaf
To some degree, what you serve with meatballs and meatloaf will depend on what type of meatballs or meatloaf it is. Here are a few general ideas:
- Stick a toothpick in tiny meatballs for cocktail appetizers.
- Make a meatball bowl dinner with greens and grains in a single bowl.
- Have a meatball wrap for lunch.
- Make a meatball sub or a gourmet pizza with your favorite meatballs and tomato sauce.
- Wrap your meatloaf in a cheddar cheese or cream cheese pie crust. You’ll need a double crust recipe. Cook the meatloaf half-way, let it cool completely, then wrap in pie crust and bake.
The possibilities are endless! Now go make some magic!
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