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The One Ingredient Your Meatballs Might Be Missing

- Photo: Brie Passano
Photo: Brie Passano

Meatballs are a favorite among busy families for their versatility. In addition to adding protein to a classic dish like spaghetti, meatballs can also be their own main course; some folks like to serve them with gravy over mashed potatoes or even with mustard and roasted vegetables. While many parents don't have time to make a meatball recipe from scratch on a weeknight, the beauty of the classic protein is that it can be made and frozen – so all you need to do is thaw.

Although we traditionally associate spaghetti and meatballs with Italian cuisine, it's not actually a dish commonly found in Italy, according to the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. When Italian immigrants made their way to the United States in the late 1800s, many of them were very poor. Meat became a staple in satisfying their hungry families. With cheap, canned tomatoes available in grocery stores and a reverence for pasta, spaghetti and meatballs was born. Unlike many American versions of meatballs that primarily use ground beef as their base, however, Italian meatballs – known as "polpettes" – are formed with whatever meat is available, including poultry and fish.

The dish has evolved significantly over the years, with different kinds of pastas and sauces, but the structure of meatballs has generally remained the same. You need a few pounds of meat; a binder, like egg; breadcrumbs or Panko for texture and structure; and seasonings for flavor. Some cooks soak their breadcrumbs in milk (for additional moisture) or add Parmesan cheese. All of these ingredients play a role in making your favorite meatball recipe what it is – but have you thought about trying something a little juicier?

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Let's scale back to the staple ingredient in meatballs for a moment: meat. With the rise of the "low-fat" movement in the United States, folks are opting for leaner and leaner meat options. When you think about the chemistry of what holds a meatball together, you have to keep that fat (or lack thereof) in mind. If you choose ground beef that's 95% lean meat and 5% fat, you're going to have a dry meatball. Lean ground turkey (often 93% meat to 7% fat) yields a similar result.

To avoid dry meatballs, we propose a solution: sausage. Substituting sausage-grade ground pork for a portion of the meat called for in your recipe will not only give you a juicier, more tender meatball – it'll also taste better. According to Bon Appetit, sausage contains more fat than regular ground pork because it "usually contains shoulder meat with additional scraps of loin fat ground in." For this reason, sausage is about 25% fat. If you're already using ground pork in your recipe, the flavor swap won't be as pronounced. However, if you're a 2-pounds-of-lean-beef kind of cook – you'll love the juicy difference when you add in sausage.

Now, we're not talking about a 1:1 ratio here. Your meatballs will still need to stick together, and too much fat can be detrimental to their success. Many Italian meatball recipes recommend a ratio of two parts ground beef to one part sausage. And, if you would really like to spice up your meatball game, try using hot Italian sausage. The additional spices – often garlic, paprika, fennel, and red pepper flakes – will be dispersed in the meat mixture enough to not burn your tongue, but will complement the herbs you've already added into your recipe to bring out a little more depth of flavor in the final product.

You may also be interested in our Tex-Mex Meatballs with Red Chile Sauce:

As you're planning to wow your guests with homemade pasta and meatballs for Sunday supper, think outside your one-meat mindset. Adding a little extra fat to the recipe will give you that tender protein that you're after, and it won't cost you much more. Plus, you won't have to do any extra work. Sounds like a win-win, right?

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