Friday, December 16, 2011

Meatball Experiment

I’d been wanting pasta and for some reason, and about 9pm, Bev decided to make up a batch of meatballs  - our minds are obviously in sync.  She didn’t get them finished and left the forming and cooking to me the next day while she was committed to something else.  As is her usual for meatloaf, meatballs, etc, she doesn’t really use a recipe but rather combines the ingredients the way she thinks they should be, nukes a sample, tastes and adjusts and by the third tasting she‘s usually where she wants to be – I told her these were her best ever and maybe, the best I’ve eaten. This is her best guess at a recipe for 28 meatballs:

3# ground chuck
1# breakfast sausage (we were out of Italian)
1 medium onion, finley diced
1 medium green pepper, finely diced
1 medium red pepper, finely diced
1 - 1 1/2 cups fresh breads crumbs (more or less to get the right texture)
2 large eggs, beaten
6 cloves garlic, minced
Small can tomato paste
1/2 tube sundried tomato (paste)
1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce (more or less to taste)
3/4 cup grated Romano cheese
2 tbsp dried Italian Seasoning (add 1 tbsp then add to taste)
2 tbsp fresh diced parsley
1 tsp roasted garlic hot sauce (Guavaberry)
S&P to taste

What she actually did was add all of the fresh ingredients in several small batches to the food processor and run to get the size she wanted.  Then add everything to a large bowl and mix just enough to bring it together.

Sorry this is so long but scientific experiments require lots of words.

My mom always browned hers in a skillet in batches, then dropped them into the pasta sauce, so I have no idea how done they were coming out of the pan.  We’ve done them this way and baked them in the oven until we reached some point, but I don’t know what it was either.  Since I’ve become a more serious meat cook and try to cook everything to temperature, I did a little web research to find this guidance for meatballs:

Cook somewhere between 140* and 170* internal temp - Cook in a 350* oven for somewhere between 25 and 60 minutes - Cook in a 350* oven for 30 minutes or 160* internal.

As you can see, not exactly a real science so I decided to make up my own, realizing that some would go into the freezer and not immediately into sauce so I wanted them fully cooked, in case they only got warmed up later, but not over cooked – wherever that was.  I like the idea of the reverse sear I use on other meats to create an even internal doneness so I decided to try it with these and I thought an internal temp of 150* would have them plenty done while leaving a lot of the fat and moisture in them – like a juicy hamburger.

I first formed one to the size I like and weighed it – 2 ¾ oz, so I weighed them all and formed at 2 ¾ -  2 7/8 oz – this added about 10 seconds per meatball.  Since they had lots of pretty big ingredients and I wasn’t planning to cook them real done, I rolled them tightly - I believe re-cooling the mix overnight made them easier to shape.  I put them on a Pam sprayed rack over a foil lined pan and preheated the oven to 225* (convection bake setting) with an internal probe thermometer in a center one and an outside one, for comparison.  They wouldn’t all fit on the rack so I decided to cook the last 4 in a skillet for another comparison – can you believe the very last one weighed 2 7/8 oz.

They went into the oven at 11:31 and an internal temp of 56*, and I cooked the others in a pan over medium heat turning on 5 sides as they browned then over low heat with a lid on the sixth side, turning one more time to the least cooked side at about 150*.  I’d planned to take them off at 155* but they cooked at different temps and they ended up 155*-160* and I ate one at 160* and thought it was perfect.  Note that I got meat cubes rather than meatballs and they incurred some tool damage.

So my plan was to cook those in the oven to an internal temp of 140*, remove them and crank the oven up to 500*, put the meatballs back in and cook for 10 minutes, watching the internal temp.  However, after tasting the pan fried one I wanted them to end at 160* so I revised my plan and pulled them at 145* - rotating the pan at 100* and the two probes stayed within one degree (hooray for the oven).  They came out a 12:13 pm, nicely browned, still round but without a crust and my bet was they looked the same all the way through and they only went on up to 146*.

I turned the oven up to 500*, but when I noticed the meatballs had dropped to 123*, I decided to put them in at 450 fearing they would burn before the internal temp got up – back in at 12:25 - and set the timer for 10 minutes and the meatball probe alarm for 155* - there will be more carry over cooking from the 450* surface temp of the meat.  Here they are out of the oven and as it turns, out the oven didn’t do as well at high temps and I ended up with 165* meatballs (after carry-over cooking) on one end and 175* on the other (but with more crust) - should have rotated the pan.

Here’s the inside of each one (more done one on the right) which I tasted, and like any professional, I threw away the un-tasted portion – yeah right.

Here are my conclusions which are recipe dependent, especially the meat ratio.
1.    I couldn't tell much if any different between the samples and both were still moist and creamy, but dryer than the 160* pan fried one.
2.    Pan cooking developed a better crust than the low then high temp oven – maybe should have stayed with 500*.
3.    Due to the use of hamburger and the other fillers, oven reverse sear is likely a waste of time.
4.    They need more high temp time in the oven to develop a great crust.
5.    They are very forgiving and I now understand why such varying opinions from my web search.
6.    Oven cooking makes a prettier, rounder, more evenly cooked product and it’s less time consuming.
7.    For a complete oven cook, next time I’ll put them in a 350* oven and cook to 155* internal believing they will end up in the low 160’s with a good crust and if not I’ll crank it up in 25* increments until I get the crust I want - after I try #9 that is.
8.    As best I can tell, I didn’t prove much of anything except this type of experiment needs to happen such that the sampling occurs at lunch time J.

9.  Since we both prefer the more carmelized crust from the skillet, I think I'll try cooking them in the oven to about 145*, where they should hold their shape, then give them a quick skillet fry for the crust - more of a true reverse sear.  I should end up with round, evenly cooked meatballs with a nice crust.

As for the final product, it was your basic spaghetti and jarred Barilla marinara, with some really great meatballs, and I tossed in a few links of Southside Market beef sausage - the meatballs and sausage both helped the sauce, but I prefer Italian sausuge here and the beef sausage other ways.  I hope Bev can replicate these meatballs next time.

All photos can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Have a great day and thanks for stopping by Almost Heaven South.

Two years ago:  Fish Followed By Seafood



  1. Do you know how lucky you are to be married to Bev? And what were you doing up at nine p.m.? (smile)

    Tasting as you go is always the best part of cooking. Natalee Dupree always called it "cook's treats."

  2. Wow, what a great little experiement Larry. I've grown up on meatballs. My Italian grandmother would make them both ways, in a skillet or in the oven, depending on her mood. My mom always pan fried them. Me.. well I tend to be more like my grandmother, depends on my mood. But I do tend to like a crispier crust on the outside of my meatballs. All I really know is that last pictures makes me want a big old plate of it right now!!! YUM!

  3. I wouldn't be surprised if Christopher Kimball isn't knocking at your door as I type. And man does that final dish look delicious. I like Bev's method of nuking a small piece for a taste test. I'll have to add that to my kitchen proceedures. Great post Larry.

  4. This kind of experimenting doesn't have to prove anything. It just has to provide lots of samples, and fun science-y feelings.

  5. I just love getting all scientific in the kitchen! Big Dude, I think you're onto something with #9! I never do the oven method because I like a nice crust, so I always do them in a skillet. But, as you noted, they get a bit out of round. I look forward to trying your method in #9.

  6. I would certainly be happy to serve as a scientific evaluator any time you want to do more experiments concerning meatballs. I've had breakfast, but you're making me hungry!

  7. From what I've read recently, it sounds like meatballs are the new cupcake. Many restaurants are offering gourmet versions right now. These sound delicious with the sausages in the ingredients.

  8. Great post Larry - I just learned so much! Now I have a craving for meatballs!

  9. Love meatballs and you can do so many things like use them on a sandwhich, my perfered way of eating them. Richard

  10. Most of all, I think you proved it's entertaining to try out various methods of cooking meatballs. Must have been a fun day!

  11. Wait, you didn't try the crock pot, deep fryer, or sous vide (ha ha)

    I always like doing test like this and enjoy other people doing them even more so I can learn on their labor:)

  12. LOL at Chris!

    I love meatballs though I do admit I have never put that much thought into them. They sure look delicious Larry!

  13. I'm very impressed by your scientific approach to meatball cooking. I had to laugh at the pan of meatballs with the thermometer sticking in them. It's the way to do it, but it just struck me as very funny. I love the crust that develops from frying them, but it sure is easier to do it in the oven. Excellent post, Larry.


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