Some food, some drink.
Spaghetti Night Without the Mess: Oven-roasted Mini Beef Meatballs
Spaghetti and meatballs is an American institution. And while pasta and sauce may be a turn-key event, many folks seem to shy away from making meatballs and just dump the ground beef into the sauce. I think that somewhere along the way, we all got duped into thinking that homemade meatballs were difficult and messy to make. Those in the know will tell you that this couldn't be further from the truth. If you've got a cookie scoop and a couple of other kitchen essentials, making meatballs from scratch is as easy as making meatloaf; and just like meatloaf, the best place to cook a mess of perfectly portioned orblets of beef is your oven.
I've tried quite a few techniques to make meatballs in my day. My initial attempts began with chasing balls around a skillet pooled in butter while straddling the smoke point of meat and dairy alike. Short of deep-frying the little buggers, it was always difficult to evenly brown my meatballs given the limited contact of a sphere on a flat surface (This surface area problem just happens to also be the cause of friggin' huge Greenland on all those schoolroom maps). Cartographic considerations aside, we are working in 3D, and that's why I always go to the oven for my meatball method. These meatballs actually started as a riff off my wife's favorite meatloaf recipe, but has since taken on a life of its own. They're easy to make and their rather diminutive size makes for a higher surface to mass ratio where the Maillard reaction is concerned. Anyhow, enough with the geometry lessons; here's the recipe -
Recipe: Jump to the detailed recipe. (or, keep reading for the gist of it) -
Whisk together egg, buttermilk, salt, and fish sauce. In a separate (and much larger) bowl, mix together the panko, Italian Seasoning and cheeses. Stir the egg and buttermilk mixture into the panko mixture and allow the crumb to hydrate for 15 minutes.
After 15 has elapsed, break up the ground beef into the hydrated breadcrumb mixture and work it in with your mitts until the mix is homogenized. Work the mix gently, and don't squeeze your meat (seriously). Once integrated, shape the balls into 1 oz portions (about ping pong ball sized; a cookie scoop is great for this). Put the shaped balls on a wire rack lubed w/ cooking spray underneath a foil-lined sheet pan. Light the oven and dial it in to 425F (convection @ 400F). Put the balls in immediately (no preheat). Cook for 25 minutes or until you think they're done (over 30 minutes would be too much).
- Have you ever wondered why the hell you even bothered to buy a convection oven? Well, wonder no more! As we're essentially "air-frying" here, it makes the most sense to keep that air moving. As a general rule, convection acts as if it's cooking around 25F hotter than a standard hotbox, so adjust accordingly. Also, note that we're starting from a cold oven. I do the same thing for oven bacon and it's just great. Most modern ovens preheat in around 8-10 minutes; but mileage may vary, so keep an extra close eye on your balls the first time out.
- I really like a 1 oz portion for these meatballs, and a standard cookie scoop measures exactly that. Consistency is important if you want 'em all done at the same time (poking a meat thermometer into every ball is not my idea of fun).
- Fish sauce? Really? You bet. It works for my pork butt injection and it works here too. Oh sure, we're getting glutamates from the Parm and Romano, but I've done this recipe sans-sauce, and I gotta say that it's exactly that something that's missing. Just don't go crazy; much like a long putt, it's better here to err on the side of caution and hit it short.
- There are those that would argue that you can't have a proper meatball without multiple meats. My wife prefers "beef balls" (but not these beef balls). If pork and/or lamb is your thang, feel free to mix it up.
- Yeah I know there's fat in the meatball, but if you don't grease the cooking rack with a little spray, you run the risk of stickage. And while you could make this recipe in a foil-lined sheet pan, elevating the meatballs above the pan by way of a sheet pan rack promotes even more browning, and prevents the meatballs from a-swimin' in their own greases.
If I was gonna make a comparison to something familiar, I'd say that these meatballs best resemble those frozen meatballs that y'all buy in bulk at your local wholesale store for purposes of slathering in bottled bbq sauce and shoving a frilly cellophane-topped toothpick into. However, you'd be selling yourself short to dismiss these little protein orbs on looks alone. Sure they look the part of a quintessential meatball, but they're not at all tough or rubbery. What's more, there's no mystery to the meat mix in this situation. By reinforcing flavors with judicious use of umami-packed ingredients, we've brought a rich and beefy flavor front and center. I've not tried to freeze these yet, but I imagine that they'd likely make the thermal journey in-tact and reheat pretty well steeping in Marinara.
We all know that even bad food tastes great when you're hammered, but all the same you can serve these meatballs when entertaining without any of the shame that comes along with warming up a pan of the wholesale club's excuse for meatballs. And even if entertaining ain't your bag, these meatballs come together quick and clean up is easy; making spaghetti and meatballs on a Tuesday night a definite possibility.