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TT Culinary Institute: Meatballs

How to make classic Italian meatballs without help from Grandma
Culinary Institute: Meatballs
Video & Photo: Dave Katz & Devon Knight/Tasting Table

When done right, meatballs are moist and tender and pack a ton of flavor. Whether they are served on their own alongside crusty bread or on top of spaghetti, they can transport us to a very happy place. When done wrong, well, they can be dry as a bone.

The secret to great meatballs is plenty of other stuff besides the meat. Yes, choosing the right base is key, but you'll need to load it up with a bunch of other ingredients so that no one will be asking Nonna to get back in the kitchen.

Here's how to get into meatball heaven.

Work Your Fat Off: When we were testing our recipe, many of us were shocked at how much fat was in it. The reality is, fat equals flavor. This is not the time to skimp on fat. Most people will think to buy an expensive cut of meat as the price indicates a higher quality. Truth is, butchers tend to increase the price of lean cuts of meat, which might be beneficial to your diet, but they certainly won't make for tender, melt-in-your-mouth meatballs.

We used ground beef, ground veal and ground pork. The beef adds that meaty flavor and some heft, the veal allows for that luscious mouthfeel and pork brings in—you guessed it—even more fat. In addition, salty pancetta and lard get tossed into the meat mix. We weren't joking when we said there was a lot of fat.

Taste! Taste! Taste! So you combined the meat, added some fat, added more fat and sprinkled in some salt, and your meatballs still came out rather meh. Why? You didn't give the balls any love.

The more stuff you put in, the lighter and fluffier your meatball will be. Bread crumbs and herbs are essential. Cheese is traditional (we like whole-milk ricotta) and will inject flavor through the fat and salt. From there, you can add whatever you like to build more flavor. And remember, before you brown those bad boys, cook a test patty to make sure your meatballs are salted properly. The last thing you want to do is form all the meatballs and find out later that they needed more salt.

Get in the Mixing Groove: Now that you know what to add to your meatballs, you're going to have to get your hands dirty. Save that 70-year-old spoon for the sauce. You'll need your hands to truly mix your meatballs the right way. You don't want pockets of egg or bread crumbs in your meatballs.

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No One Likes Broken Balls: Now's the time to play with balls. Don't mess them up. No one wants to chew on hockey pucks. Each ball should be the size of a golf ball so that they cook evenly. And you have to pack the meat together well so the balls don't fall apart into the sauce.

A Marriage Between Sauce and Balls: For the sauce, you want to use canned tomatoes, because they are picked and canned at their peak of ripeness. We like using crushed San Marzano tomatoes, but you can opt for tomato purée for a smoother sauce.

Cook down the onions until soft and tender before adding red wine to give depth to the sauce before the tomatoes are added. The acidity from the sauce is rounded out by the fattiness from the meatballs. When united, it's the perfect balancing act.

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