Naples may be known for its pizza, but that’s not why Editorial Director J.M. Hirsch visited recently. Hirsch went to Naples for the meatballs—large, tender orbs that he was told would change the way he thought about this universally loved dish. Convention-defying they turned out to be, and better than any he’d ever tasted. So it was no surprise that the recipe we developed back here at Milk Street based on Hirsch’s meatball tour of Naples became an instant classic.
When a reader wrote in with a question about the recipe, we started troubleshooting immediately. We want everyone to experience these meatballs as they should be: larger than life but still ultra tender.
The trouble was with our recipe’s panko crumb paste, which we use to mimic the surprising amount of bread in Neapolitan meatballs. Bread might make up anywhere between 25 to 40 percent of a meatball’s mixture, Hirsch found in his travels across Naples. Turns out the most basic ingredient was the secret to the moist and tender structure. Back at Milk Street, we streamlined the process of cutting, measuring and soaking the crusts of fresh bread by using moistened panko instead.
Our reader found his panko paste, or panade, too thick, so he added over two times the amount of called-for water. Though the results were still tasty, his meatballs ultimately fell apart. Could the brand of panko be at play here?
We tested five kinds of panko to find out and it turned out that brand made a significant difference. Using a dip and sweep method in dry measuring cups, we measured 2 1/2 cups by volume of each of the brands. Then we weighed each brand. The difference between the coarsest crumbs, 4C panko, and the finest, from Wegmans, was 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons. That’s a lot—and the cause of our reader’s too-thick panade. We developed the recipe with 4C panko (that’s the brand, not the amount!), which weighs 184 grams (6 1/2 ounces). When breading a cutlet, the amount of panko wouldn’t matter much, but when mixing it in as this recipe requires, it makes all the difference. With coarse crumbs like you’ll find in a box of 4C panko, the paste will still be very thick—almost like Play-Doh—but the onion and egg will loosen it.
Another reader asked if she could use milk instead of water to wet the panko. But these meatballs are already so moist and tender that extra fat from milk would cause the soft and delicate meatballs to fall apart. Best to stick with water.
The troubleshooting made us consider the other tips we follow when making meatballs, Neapolitan or otherwise. So we gathered our best advice to keep in mind whether you’re making beef meatballs for pasta or pork meatballs for lettuce wraps. The devil is in the details.
Mistake: Measuring breadcrumbs by volume.
Tip: Always measure breadcrumbs by weight, not by volume, because brands differ considerably. Take it from our reader!
Mistake: Mixing with a spoon.
Tip: Mix your meatball mixture by hand so that you don’t overwork the meat.
Mistake: Using dry hands to roll.
Tip: When using particularly dry meat, such as ground pork or turkey, moisten your hands with water before rolling meatballs so that the mixture doesn’t stick. (We do this with our Vietnamese Meatballs and Watercress Soup and Vietnamese Meatball Lettuce Wraps, both of which contain ground pork.)
Mistake: Cooking meatballs immediately after rolling them.
Tip: Whether you’re baking, broiling, pan-searing or adding meatballs directly to simmering liquid, always chill meatballs before cooking so that they hold their shape better and don’t fall apart. This is especially important when working with pork, turkey and chicken, which are very wet when ground. Refrigerating gives the fat in the meat time to solidify, which helps maintain the shape. Chill your meatballs for anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, depending on their size. You'll know they are ready when they are cold and firm to the touch.
Mistake: Adding meatballs to sauce directly after cooking.
Tip: If you’re browning meatballs in the oven or on the stovetop, let them rest before adding to sauce so that they cool down and firm up. This makes them easier to transfer and less likely to fall apart in the sauce. It’s especially important for our Neapolitan Meatballs, which are exceptionally delicate and tender.
Mistake: Warming meatballs in a bubbling sauce.
Tip: Keep sauce at a gentle simmer; too much agitation will cause delicate meatballs to break apart.
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