Planet Meatball: Grilled Meatballs from Around the World
I grew up with a rather myopic view of meatballs. We can call it Lady and the Tramp syndrome—remember the scene in the Disney classic where the two dogs share a romantic moment over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs? I didn’t even consider my Danish grandmother’s flattish frikadeller to be real meatballs. Because, well, no tomato sauce.
As it turns out, I seriously underestimated these universally-popular spheres or cylinders of finely minced food. Head to a yakitori parlor in Tokyo and you’ll likely be served tsukune—bite-size balls of hibachi-grilled ground chicken glazed with tare sauce. In the small village of Panzano (south of Florence, Italy), I discovered meatballs called polpetti (nicknamed “Florentine eyeballs”). In the Middle East—Persia is thought to be the birthplace of meatballs—gargantuan meatballs (6 to 7 inches in diameter and called kufte Tabriz) are sold in marketplaces. China has its own large “lion’s head” meatballs. Greece loves its soutzoukakia smyrneika, meatballs whose spicing suggests Turkish origins.
Though typically made from ground beef, pork, lamb, veal, game meats, chicken, or turkey bound with bread, milk, eggs, or cheese and flavored with spices and fresh chopped herbs, “meatballs” can also be made with seafood, grains and pulses (falafel, for example, features chickpeas), vegetables, and more recently, with vegan products such as Soyrizo or Beyond Meat.
It’s easy to take meatballs in nearly any flavor direction you desire—from Korean bulgogi with a gochujang-based barbecue sauce to Philly cheesesteak meatballs to Buffalo chicken bites. Serve them as appetizers or as a main course.
Meatballs can be steamed, baked, boiled, sautéed, fried, or grilled. It’s no secret which method we prefer. We love the way wood smoke permeates these delectable morsels. Below are our tips for making the best meatballs as well as some of our favorite recipes.
13 Tips for Making Grilled Meatballs
- For the best texture (and ease of handling), always work with thoroughly chilled meat. Refrigerate ground meat for several hours before forming into balls. Once the balls are formed, chill once more. We put them on a rimmed baking sheet lined with plastic wrap, then cover them with more plastic.
- To avoid dry or crumbly meatballs, make sure your meatball mixture is well-endowed with finely minced fat. If the protein you are working with is lean, add finely chopped bacon, sausage, suet, or prosciutto. Finely chopped mushrooms are also a nice addition as they exude moisture (and add flavor) as they cook.
- While many meatball recipes call for dry breadcrumbs or panko, the crumbs can deplete the meat of moisture. We prefer to use fresh bread soaked in water or milk, then wrung dry. (This is called a panade.)
- When mixing the ingredients and forming the meatballs, use a light touch. Otherwise, your meatballs can turn out heavy and dense.
- Fry a small bit of the mixture to make sure it’s properly seasoned before you grill a whole batch. You will need about 1 teaspoon of salt per pound of meat.
- Wet your hands with cold water or vegetable oil before shaping the balls.
- Consider stuffing your meatballs with a good melting cheese like mozzarella.
- Aim for uniformly-sized meatballs; a scoop like the Meat Baller. This will make your job easier.
- For smoke flavor, place 2 chunks of smoking hardwood or 1 1/2 cups of soaked, drained wood chips on the coals or in your smoker box.
- You can freeze raw meatballs easily. Simply freeze on a sheet pan until hard, then transfer to a sturdy resealable plastic bag or vacuum-sealed pouch. Thaw before cooking. Pre-cooked meatballs also respond well to freezing. Imagine having a batch of smoke-roasted meatballs at the ready for unexpected company!
- Oil the meatballs well before grilling indirectly over medium-high heat. Finish them over direct heat, turning often, if you prefer them a little crusty. You may want to use a special meatball pan like the Nordic Ware 365.
- For uniformly round meatballs, thread them on skewers (metal or bamboo) and suspend the skewers between two rows of firebrick. This way, the meatballs won’t be misshapen by the grill grate. This method imitates the mangal used in many live-fire cooking cultures.
- Do explore some of the international meatball variations like the ones below.