On a recent night, cooking was beyond my energy level, so I settled on an easy plate of veggies and reheated pre-cooked meatballs. All required of me was to pop a few of these tasty meaty morsels into a microwave-safe dish and nuke ’em. Gourmet? Admittedly, no. But some nights gourmet just doesn’t happen. Thanks be to companies – large and small – that sell meat products for a range of culinary ambitions.
What is it about meatballs that makes them so appealing and makes them an ingredient in many iconic dishes? Spaghetti and meatballs, Swedish meatballs, BBQ meatballs, meatball marinara subs, those meatballs on toothpicks with the little frill on top and bathed in a sticky-sweet-spicy sauce served at every Super Bowl party. Perhaps humans have always had a love affair with food in shapes. After all, there’s a cookie cutter for every occasion, we like our sandwiches cut into triangles, and we demand cakes that don’t look like cakes but instead something completely different, such as a wombat or fire hydrant.
Meatballs are so precious to us, in fact, that regulations are in place to protect the meatball’s good name and ensure “meat” is the primary ingredient of “meatballs.” If you’ve ever made meatballs at home, you have probably added a few ingredients to your ground pork, beef, lamb, turkey, or other favored meat such as eggs, breadcrumbs, wild rice, chopped veggies, etc. Here is a sampling of some meatball recipes from a few cookbooks found in my kitchen:
From Then and Now Cooking Creatively From 1948 – 1994, among entries entitled “Different Hamburger Hot Dish,” “Good Hotdish,” and a few offerings from my relations is the recipe for “German Meatballs” made of ground beef, pepper, cracker or bread crumbs, parsley, salt, poultry seasoning, milk and one egg (Janke, 1994).
From Recipes of Benevolent Patriotic Order of Does, found in a thrift shop in Marshall, MN, is Mrs. Georgina Bay’s recipe for “Sherry Nutmeg Meat Balls” consisting of ground beef, milk, cracker crumbs, eggs, Worcestershire [sauce], onion, salt, pepper, nutmeg, sugar, and Tabasco (Benevolent Order, 1975).
From the slightly more contemporary The Pioneer Woman Cooks Dinnertime, the Ready-to-Go Freezer Meatballs recipe calls for ground beef, plain breadcrumbs, kosher salt, black pepper, eggs, mustard, whole milk, heavy cream, parsley, and red pepper flakes (Drummond, 2015).
As you can see, a lot of non-meat ingredients can go into meatballs, so how can grocery shoppers be reassured that the package of meatballs in the frozen foods department is truly a meatball and not a trace-of-meatball? The Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book dictates that a raw or cooked “meatball” must contain at least 65% meat and have the binder and extender content limited to 12% of the product, or 6.8% in the case of isolated soy protein (United States Department of Agriculture [USDA], 2005). A meatball’s binders and extenders can include starchy products such as cracker meal, cereals, and breadcrumbs as well as soy-derived flours and proteins (USDA, 2005). Binders and extenders have several purposes, among which is to improve product stability, retain a desired level of moisture, and maintain desired textures and flavors (Aberle, Forrest, Gerrard & Mills, 2001). Without the help of proteins and starches found in binders and extenders, a ball of ground meat will be a dry, crumbly mess. Of course, without a legal limit on binders and extenders added to meatballs, many of us might bite into a store-bought “meat” ball and ask, like in the age-old commercial, “Where’s the beef?”
So, when you make meatballs at home, follow the wisdom of the ladies from Ponsford, MN, the Benevolent Order of Does of North Platte, Nebraska, the one and only Pioneer Woman Ree Drummond, or whoever else wrote a recipe for meatballs with a proper balance of ingredients: mostly meat with just enough extra ingredients to provide flavor, moisture, and a stable structure. If you skimp on the breadcrumbs, you’ll end up with meatballs that will just make you say, “Oh…crumbs.”
Bacon’s favorite kind of ball is the fuzzy, bouncy sort. Although he wouldn’t turn down a meatball if offered.
Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mills, E.W.(2001). Principles of Meat Science (4th ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Benevolent Order of Does (1975). Recipes of Benevolent Patriotic Order of Does. Iowa Falls, IA: General Publishing and Binding.
Drummond, R. (2015). The Pioneer Woman Cooks Dinnertime. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
Janke, K. (Ed.) (1994). Then and Now Cooking Creatively From 1948 – 1994. Ponsford, MN: Ponsford Prairie Partners.
United States Department of Agriculture (2005). Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/7c48be3e-e516-4ccf-a2d5-b95a128f04ae/Labeling-Policy-Book.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.