Meatballs and Meatloaf Magic: Recipes and Tips

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!

cast iron pan with meatballs and barbecue sauce.
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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.

 

Ingredients

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.

Ground meat

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.

About veal

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.

Binders

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.

Panade

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.

a cranberry pecan and mushroom turkey meatloaf on a plate with cranberry sauce glaze and pecans.

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? The best meatloaf pans 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

Why do you recommend letting a meatloaf rest after it has cooked?

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.

How long can ground meats be stored in the refrigerator?

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!

Can I make meatballs and meatloaf ahead of time?

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.

Can cooked meatballs and meatloaf be frozen?

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.

What are some other ways to use ground meats?

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.

Can I make gluten-free meatballs and meatloaf?

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.

Greek Chicken Meatballs
Packed with Mediterranean flavors, these 30-minute Greek chicken meatballs with feta and olives are a must-try for any meatball lover!
Greek Chicken Meatballs
plate of Greek chicken meatballs with olives and feta along with pita, orzo, lemon, cucumbers and tomatoes.
Lamb Meatballs with Pine Nuts and Raisins
This 30 minute recipe for lamb meatballs with pine nuts and raisins is a quick meal to assemble for a weeknight dinner. And the sweetness from the raisins and cinnamon in the meatballs appealed so strongly to my kiddo that she had thirds. A winner for sure.
Lamb Meatballs with Pine Nuts and Raisins
lamb meatballs with pine nuts and raisins atop fried chickpeas and purple cabbage.
Chicken and Apple Meatballs
Aside from a little chopping, meatballs are extremely easy to make, come together in about 30 minutes, and have infinite variety beyond spaghetti and meatballs. Add apple to these ground chicken meatballs for just a bit of sweetness.
Chicken and Apple Meatballs
chicken and apple meatballs on a plate with quinoa, cooked mushrooms, and chopped parsley.
Shrimp and Pork Meatballs
This recipe for shrimp and pork meatballs creates Asian pork dumpling flavor without all the work. Perfect for a quick and easy weeknight meal.
Shrimp and Pork Meatballs
shrimp and pork meatballs with green onions piled on a small plate.

Braised meatballs

BBQ Chicken Meatballs
This BBQ chicken meatballs recipe calls for braising meatballs in barbecue sauce to get tender and juicy chicken meatballs packed with flavor. Serve the BBQ meatballs with mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, coleslaw, or your other favorite sides.
Braised BBQ Chicken Meatballs
cast iron pan with meatballs and barbecue sauce.
Braised Meatballs in a Hearty Marinara Sauce
A classic recipe for spaghetti and meatballs using Italian meatballs that are braised in a marinara sauce.
Braised Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
A plate of spaghetti with three braised meatballs in tomato sauce.

Veggie balls

With a few modifications to the formula, vegetarians can still delight in the joys of meatballs!

Quinoa Balls with Pine Nuts and Raisins
This recipe for quinoa balls with pine nuts and raisins are vegetarian meatballs adapted from my favorite Mediterreanean-inspired lamb meatballs with pine nuts and raisins. Serve these quinoa balls with a creamy herb lemon tahini sauce, homemade pita, and a pumpkin couscous salad, and you've got a Mediterranean meal.
Quinoa Balls
four quinoa balls on a pita with feta, lemon herb tahini sauce, and parsley on a plate.

Meatloaf recipes

Taco Meatloaf
This taco meatloaf is an easy, Tex-Mex-inspired recipe packed with the unmistakable taco flavors of ground beef, tortilla chips, salsa, and sour cream. Close your eyes, and you might think you're eating a taco.
Taco Meatloaf
a bowl with two slices of meatloaf, cavatappi and cheese, braised carrots, broccoli, and spinach
Cranberry, Pecan, and Mushroom Turkey Meatloaf
This cranberry, pecan, and mushroom turkey meatloaf recipe is meant to remind you of Thanksgiving dinner. Just add your favorite sides!
Thanksgiving Meatloaf
a cranberry pecan and mushroom turkey meatloaf on a plate with cranberry sauce glaze and pecans.
Peking Duck-Inspired Ground Duck Meatloaf
This easy to make, Peking duck-inspired ground duck meatloaf has a crispy crust, Hoisin glaze, and green onion garnish.
Duck Meatloaf
darkly glazed meatloaf cut into slices in a white dish next to small glass bowls of green onions and toasted slivered almonds.

Meatloaf muffins

Parmesan-Crusted Chicken Muffins
These Parmesan-crusted chicken muffins are quick and easy and meant to remind you of chicken Parmigiana. Serve them with a simple marinara sauce and a green salad, and you've got dinner. Or take them for lunch as a high protein snack.
Check out this recipe
parmesan crusted chicken muffins in a muffin tin.

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!

Are you an adventurous home cook looking for inspiration in your weeknight meals and weekend baking? Get inspiration here:

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