Mastering meatballs


Ian Hilton

You can’t celebrate National Meatball Day without them. Sweet, salty and savory meatballs cannot disappoint. Photo by Ian Hilton, 3/4/2021.

Yes! It is the long-awaited recipe you undoubtedly marked on your calendars last March 9 —  a recognized and time-honored holiday: National Meatball Day.

I recently shared with my sister how I prepare meatballs, and she promptly asked if this was my specific recipe or one that I’d Frankensteined. What a philosophical question! Look. We could roll raw ground beef into a ball and cook it. That would technically be a meatball.The answer I gave her is both. Is the way you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich your recipe?

Meatballs are great on pasta, in sandwiches, with polenta or as a snack on the run. Best of all, they can absorb so many different flavors. Red pepper flake and cayenne add robust heat. Combining beef and pork opens up a different dynamic entirely — just pay attention to the internal temperatures necessary for safe consumption when mixing proteins. Cook according to the highest necessary protein temperature.

Beyond the type of protein, we need at least one binder and some flavor (see notes). I experiment continuously, but there are a handful of ingredients that I’ll never neglect to add. To each their own, but the following recipe is what hits me just right.

Halved meatballs on corn and caramelized onion polenta, topped with roasted tomatoes. Ribboned basil garnish not pictured but definitely recommended. Photo by Ian Hilton, 3/4/2021.

Don’t forget to check the notes below; there’s room for branching out in some respects but not others. 

Wishing you and yours a Happy National Meatball Day. Let’s cook.

Cook Time

Prep time: 25 minutes

Cook time: 20 minutes

Total time: 45-50 minutes

Yields: 10-12 meatballs


Kitchen knife

Cutting board

Mixing bowl

Baking sheet

Parchment paper

Mortar and pestle (optional, see notes)


1 pound of hamburger

1 egg, whisked

½ cup of raisins, plumped (see notes)

2 tablespoons of fresh oregano, finely chopped

1 tablespoon of fresh parsley, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon of salt

1 teaspoon of pepper

2 teaspoons of fennel seed, toasted and ground (see notes)

1 teaspoon of cumin

1 teaspoon of onion powder

1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs (optional, see notes)


Preheat the oven to 350 F.

In a large mixing bowl, hand-mix the hamburger and egg.

Add spices, herbs, garlic and raisins to the mixture.

If the mixture is not ideally solid (see notes), add the breadcrumbs and continue mixing.

Hand-roll the meat into spheres. They should be larger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball — about 2 inches in diameter.

Place the meatballs evenly onto a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

Bake for 20 minutes, rotating each meatball at least a quarter turn (do not flip them over) halfway through.

The center meatballs should reach a temperature of at least 155 F.

Remove them from the oven, and as always, let them set for at least 10 minutes before you plate.


Binders: Ground meat, when cooked, naturally wants to fall apart (think tacos). Without something to bind the meat together, our meatball is going to be a mess.

·         I use an egg for one pound of beef, and would add another if I was cooking two pounds.

·         Another binder is cheese. I think meatballs turn out somewhat greasy with cheese as a binder, but if you choose to use dairy go with a harder cheese like Asiago or Parmesan, about half a cup (or combine with spinach!).

·         Another option is spinach. Drop a big handful of spinach leaves in a hot skillet and cook them down. They’ll wither fairly quickly and you should be left with about half a cup. Once cool, thoroughly squeeze the greens of their remaining moisture and use in place of the egg or with the cheese combination described above.

Raisins: Raisins add sweetness to the savory, rounding out the hardiness. They should be plumped. I put boiling water into the measuring cup my raisins are in and cover them for 10 minutes. After draining, make sure they’re dry before adding them into the mixture.

A mortar, a pestle, and fennel: If you’re pressed for time, get some ground fennel seed from a grocery store’s bulk section. I own a mortar and pestle and grind the full seed that I toast myself. Fresh is best for fennel, always. Reference the internet on how to toast fennel seed — it’s easy and undoubtedly more flavorful.

Sticky fingers: Ground meats, especially beef and pork, vary considerably in fat content. When mixing to form, whether into balls or patties, the fat ratio will affect your binder(s). Ideally, when you’ve mixed all ingredients thoroughly in the bowl, you should be able to pick the mixture up with your hand, drop it back into the bowl, and see very little meat residue (specks here and there) on your palm. If there’s more than very little, add more binder. If you’re gluten-free, either add more spinach or whisk another egg and add half of it at a time; just keep mixing until the mixture is of the above-described consistency. Otherwise, consider breadcrumbs: I find they add an additional sweetness and texture. One tablespoon usually does the trick, but add only a little at a time unless you want dry meatballs.

 Until next March 9, folks! 

 Ian Hilton can be reached at [email protected].

Tags: meatball, Meatball Day, #donttakemymeatball