Every month, in Off-Script With Sohla, pro chef and flavor whisperer Sohla El-Waylly will introduce you to a must-know cooking technique — and then teach you how to detour toward new adventures.
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I didn't grow up with the meatballs I saw on TV. You know, the kind that are perfectly round and covered in red sauce on a plate of spaghetti. Instead, I ate charred lamb kofta with saffron rice or pollock balls stewed in a creamy korma. That's why I think outside the beef. With my riffable technique, any minced meat or fish can transform into flavorful, tender, and moist meatballs.
The Meatball Moistmaker
The secret to better, juicier meatballs is a panade, aka a mixture of starch and liquid that gets kneaded into minced meat. No, starch isn't added just to stretch the meat — it sneaks in moisture, too, Trojan horse–style. Make sure to mix your panade until the liquid is totally incorporated, with no dry spots. Then allow it to rest for at least 10 minutes, so the starch is fully hydrated.
Depending on the meat, I like to change it up using various combinations of liquids and starches. Start with torn bread, dried bread crumbs, or stale crackers. Then cover with milk, yogurt, or even juice. In the mood for some sweet-and-savory meatballs with tropical flair? Use Hawaiian-roll crumbs and pineapple juice! Need to add fat to lean ground chicken? Try heavy cream and buttery Ritz cracker crumbs!
What's more: You can adjust the panade quantity to fine-tune the meatballs' texture. If you want ultra-tender, pillowy meatballs, use more. If you like meatier, denser meatballs, use less.
Take Me To Flavortown
Sure, you could mix meat with a panade and salt and call it a day. But the bonus ingredients are where you can really play around and have fun. Do it! Have fun! Bring brightness with tender herbs (like dill or cilantro), minced ginger, ground pecorino, or grated citrus zest. Play up meaty depth with deeply caramelized vegetables, like long-cooked onions, garlic, or carrots. Add dimension with toasted and ground spices — from garam masala to Old Bay Seasoning to furikake. Whatever you pick, keep the mix-ins chopped fine, so they evenly incorporate into the meat. And be sure to cook any aromatics you'd rather not bite into raw.
Knead Like Bread Dough
Meatballs are essentially hand-formed sausages, so you want to mix enthusiastically to ensure the ingredients are emulsified. This means the mixture will hold on to moisture and fat when cooked, staying juicy as can be, without you worrying about going over a precise internal temperature.
To achieve this, knead your meatball mixture like bread dough. You can mix it by hand or using the paddle attachment on a stand mixer. The mixture might start out looking wet and loose, but it will become springy and sticky, easily holding together.
Don't be scared to pick it up and slam it back into your bowl to knock out excess air pockets. Meatballs are the perfect dish to make when surrounded by things that are getting on your nerves.
Give It A Rest
The secret to 99% of my recipes is time. Meatballs are no different. While some people like to mix, then immediately shape and cook meatballs (and many recipes will tell you to do just that), hang on a second. Actually, hang on . . . a day.
Resting the mixture for at least 24 hours (or up to 3 days) will send your dinner to infinity and beyond! The rest allows everything to hydrate and chill out, making the mixture easier to shape and roll. The salt denatures proteins, improving tenderness. The aromatics and seasonings will meld, and the flavors will deepen. No wrong can come from a good rest for both you and your meatballs.
Brown All Around
Once that the meatballs have been panade-ed, seasoned, kneaded, rested, and formed (phew), they're ready to cook. You did it!
The panade allows a great deal of wiggle room, so I don't worry about overcooking them. Focus instead on getting as much deep color as possible. Whether you grill, fry, or broil them, keep cooking and turning until crusty and browned all around. That's the final step to really taking the flavor over the edge.
Now that you've graduated from Meatball University, get creative and come up with your own dream meatballs. Here are a few combinations to get you started, inspired by some of my favorite dishes:
- Shrimp Fra Diavolo: minced shrimp + Italian bread crumbs and shrimp stock panade + tomato paste + chile flakes + cooked onions, carrots, and garlic
- Chicken Kiev: ground chicken + butter crackers and cream panade + minced garlic, parsley, and chives
- Miso Pork: ground pork + rice cracker and dashi panade + minced scallion, ginger, miso, and soy sauce
And don't forget to try my spiced lamb and turmeric cod meatballs, too!