Ah, the humble meatball. It's a staple of cuisines around the world, and can be found in everything from Asian soups to BBQ sauce. Today, I'm sharing all the goods on homemade meatballs, including what makes a great meatball, popular types of meatballs, and the best ways to cook meatballs. Plus, you'll learn how to freeze homemade meatballs, so you can always have them on hand for quick dinners.
What are Meatballs Made Of?
Most meatballs are made of some combination of meat, onions, eggs, and seasonings, with hundreds of variations on those ingredients.
Meatballs can be made with ground beef, turkey, ground chicken, ground pork, chorizo, and/or Italian sausage. I love a combination of beef and pork for moist meatballs with plenty of flavor.
Meatballs can be made without breadcrumbs (as in these Gluten Free Meatballs without Breadcrumbs), but most recipes use either dried breadcrumbs or a panade, which is fresh bread crumbs soaked in milk. A panade is my preferred method for making the most tender and moist meatballs and the best meatloaf.
Cheese and/or ricotta is often used to add flavor and moisture to meatballs.
Most meatballs are seasoned with fresh or dried herbs, spices, salt and pepper. Others, such as my Spicy Meatballs, use chipotles in adobo, sriracha, or other sauces to add heat and flavor.
When mixing meatballs, use a gentle hand to bring the ingredients together. Avoid overmixing as this can cause tough meatballs.
Meatballs can be added to soups, stews, or casseroles, and can be tossed in a variety of sauces or gravies, including BBQ sauce, spaghetti sauce, Alfredo sauce, and more.
Different Kinds of Meatballs
Meatballs– big, small, spicy, herby, or saucy–there are as many variations on this classic dish as there are cultures in the world. Here are a few of the most popular varieties:
- Kofta (or Kafta)- Originating from Persia (and thought to be the original meatball), kofta is made from ground meat (usually ground beef and/or lamb) and seasoned with fresh herbs and warm Middle Eastern spices. You’ll find riffs on kofta throughout the Middle East, Greece, Turkey, and even India and Bangladesh. You can try my version of Lebanese Beef Kafta here.
- Polpette- The original Italian meatball, these are smaller than their American counterparts and usually served as their own course, with or without sauce. They might be served in a variety of cream, wine, or red sauces and may be served with pasta, but rarely with spaghetti.
- Kotbullar or Swedish Meatballs- Made famous by IKEA, Swedish meatballs are usually made with a mix of pork and beef, pan fried, and served with a white gravy made with stock and cream. Try it out with these Crock Pot Swedish Meatballs!
- Italian Meatballs (Americanized)- The American version of the Italian meatball is much larger than the average meatball, often made with ricotta and Parmesan cheese, and served in tomato sauce.. Make this dish at home with my Homemade Tomato Sauce for Spaghetti and Meatballs.
- Bò Viên- If you’ve ever been to a Vietnamese restaurant, you’ve probably had the chance to order bò viên, a bouncy beef meatball seasoned with fish sauce and often served in a brothy pho soup.
- Spanish Meatballs (or Albondigas)- These meatballs are traditionally made with beef and pork, rice, mint and other seasonings. You’ll see these served most often in Albondigas Soup.
- BBQ Meatballs- Because I’m American, I had to include BBQ meatballs, which are a staple of parties, potlucks, and tailgates. Whether it’s my made-from-scratch Crock Pot BBQ Meatballs or the famous 3 Ingredient BBQ Meatballs, these are well known and beloved here in the states.
Best Ways to Cook Meatballs
There are many different ways to cook meatballs. Here, we’ll give you some tips and examples for each!
- Stove Top or Pan Frying- To cook meatballs on the stove top, heat oil in a deep pan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the meatballs and cook, turning every few minutes until the meatballs are browned on all sides. Add sauce, bring to a simmer, and continue to cook until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees.
- Best for: Achieving a lovely browned crust. This method works great for meatballs served with or without sauce.
- Tips: Cover the meatballs in flour before searing to achieve a more pronounced “crust.”
- Oven- Place meatballs on foil or parchment paper, and bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes, or until the meatballs register 165 degrees. If adding sauce, add it at the 15-20 minute mark and continue cooking until bubbly.
- Best for: Cooking meatballs before freezing them or cooking meatballs in sauce when you want to be hands free.
- Air Fryer- Place meatballs in the air fryer, then air fry at 375 degrees for 10-12 minutes, or until browned and cooked through. For more tips, see my Air Fryer Meatball recipe.
- Best for: Cooking small batch or single servings of meatballs in a short amount of time. This method is very hands off and requires minimal clean up.
- Slow Cooker- Place the meatballs in the slow cooker along with whatever sauce you’re using. Cook on low heat for four hours or high heat for two. Keep on the warm setting until ready to use.
- Best for: Cooking meatballs in sauce and preparing meatballs in advance.
- Tips: Pre-cooked meatballs can be placed directly in the slow cooker. Uncooked meatballs should always be placed on a sheet pan and broiled for 10 minutes before putting them in the crock pot. This establishes a crust and keeps them from falling apart in the slow cooker.
Best Way to Scoop Meatballs
Traditionally, meatballs are made by rolling them gently between your hands until they form a small bowl.
I find using a cookie scoop makes the process faster and results in a more consistent size. I usually scoop the meat mixture with the scoop, then use my hands to round out the shape a bit.
If you want to be really precise, you can weigh meatballs. An average sized meatball will be around 1 ounce, or the medium sized cookie scoop in this set.
Larger, American style Italian meatballs could be anywhere from 1.5-3 ounces.
Storing and Freezing Meatballs
Cooked meatballs should be cooled before storing. They’ll keep in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Freezing meatballs is a great way to prepare them ahead of time and have an easy meal ready to go! I always recommend cooking the meatballs completely before freezing. Cooked meatballs should be placed on a baking sheet (they can be close together, but not touching), then placed in the freezer and flash frozen for 2 hours. This keeps them from sticking together.
Move them to a freezer bag, and freeze for up to 6 months.
All of my meatball recipes can be frozen before adding the sauce.
How to Cook Frozen Meatballs
In many cases, frozen meatballs do not need to be thawed before cooking. Frozen meatballs can be baked from frozen, with or without sauce. They can also be simmered on the stove top in sauce or dropped into a soup and cooked until heated through. I love using frozen meatballs in this Slow Cooker Meatball Minestrone.
Frozen meatballs can also be air fried at 375 degrees for 13-15 minutes.
If you’re using the meatballs in a casserole, you’ll want to thaw them in the fridge overnight before adding them to your recipe.