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Neapolitan Meatballs with Ragù
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In Naples, meatballs are generously sized, and their texture is ultra-tender from a high ratio of bread to meat. For our version, we opted to use Japanese panko breadcrumbs. Panko, which has a neutral flavor and a light and fluffy but coarse texture, greatly streamlines the meatball-making process, eliminating the need to remove the crusts from fresh bread, cut and measure, soak in water, then squeeze out excess moisture. Panko only needs to be moistened with water and it’s ready to use. Neapolitans serve their meatballs with a basic tomato sauce they refer to as “ragù.” We use pecorino liberally in this recipe: a chunk simmered in the sauce, as well as grated both in and over the meatballs. Though not traditional, pasta is a fine accompaniment. Or offer warm, crusty bread alongside.
Don't be shy about mixing the panko-meat mixture with your hands. It takes a few minutes to work the mixture together until homogeneous. Your hands are the best tools for this. Don't bake the meatballs without first allowing them to chill for 15 to 20 minutes; this helps them hold their shape. And after baking, make sure to let the meatballs rest for about 10 minutes before adding them to the sauce; if the timing is off and the sauce is ready before the meatballs have rested, simply remove the pot from the heat and let it wait.
tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more to serve
large yellow onion, finely chopped
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
medium garlic cloves, finely grated
teaspoons red pepper flakes, divided
ounces (2½ cups) panko breadcrumbs
ounces pecorino Romano cheese, 2 ounces finely grated (1 cup), 1 ounce as a chunk, plus more grated, to serve
large egg, plus 1 large egg yolk, beaten together
pounds 90 percent lean ground beef
28-ounce cans whole peeled tomatoes
large basil leaves
01Heat the oven to 475°F with a rack in the middle position. Line a rimmed baking sheet with kitchen parchment and mist with cooking spray. In a large Dutch oven over medium-high, heat 2 tablespoons oil until shimmering. Add the onion and ¼ teaspoon salt, then cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 teaspoon pepper flakes; cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove the pot from the heat, then transfer half of the onion mixture to a large bowl.
02In a medium bowl, combine the panko and 1¼ cups water; press the panko into the water and let stand until fully softened, about 5 minutes. Mash with your hands to a smooth paste, then add to the bowl with the onion mixture. Using a fork, mix until well combined and smooth. Stir in the grated cheese, beaten eggs, the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, ¾ teaspoons salt and 2 teaspoons black pepper. Add the meat and mix with your hands until completely homogenous.
03Using a ½-cup dry measuring cup, divide the mixture into 8 portions. Using your hands, shape each into a compact ball and place on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them evenly apart. Refrigerate uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes. Re-shape the meatballs if they have flattened slightly, then bake until lightly browned, about 20 minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet set on a wire rack for about 10 minutes.
04While the meatballs cook, in a food processor or blender, puree the tomatoes one can at a time with their juices until smooth, about 30 seconds, transferring the puree to a large bowl. Return the Dutch oven to medium and heat the remaining onion mixture, stirring, until warmed through, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, remaining ½ teaspoon pepper flakes, the basil and the chunk of cheese. Bring to a simmer over medium-high and cook, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste and season with salt and pepper.
05Using a large spoon, carefully transfer the meatballs to the sauce, then, using 2 spoons, turn each to coat. Bring to a gentle simmer, then reduce to medium-low, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand, covered, for about 5 minutes to allow the meatballs to firm up slightly. Remove and discard the pecorino chunk. Serve with additional grated cheese.
What is the consistency after mashing the Panko. It says paste but I would call mine more like dough. Used Progressive plain Panko. I added more water but still not fluid at all. Didn’t want to use that much more than recipe called for
I made these tonight for New Years Dinner. They where fantastic! They were moist, flavorful and best of all really easy. Unlike the all-day Sunday sauce I'm used to making this was simple and ready in an hour. Delish! I will be adding this to my recipe box for sure. Thanks so much for a get recipe. Keep it up Milk Street.
Great recipe, followed as written except doubled the meatball quantity. Will have half tonight and freeze the remainder (just roasted, no sauce). Curious to see how the frozen balls thaw and cook in a new batch of sauce for a quick mid week meal.
The recipe certainly yields an especially light and tender meatball. If that's your main goal, mission accomplished! My husband and I, though, thought they were more like bread balls with meat flavor--not bad, but not what we expected. Next time I may try the same recipe with a smaller helping of breadcrumbs or amp up the meaty flavors in other ways.
I am not sure why it would be so much trouble to use real bread instead of Panko. My mother always used stale bread rolls when making meatloaf and Frikadellen (in Germany). Is it because American bread rolls are just not right for it or because most people don't have them on hand? I would think some stale french bread would be ok, of course you would have to plan ahead. If I were to use stale french bread, how much would you suggest?
We explain why we used panko breadcrumbs instead of bread. Here's the excerpt, "Back at Milk Street, this was an easy adaptation. We stuck close to Rosa’s recipe, including her simple ragu. The one glitch? We struggled to get consistent results when soaking and squeezing the bread. We suspect Rosa’s years of practice make it easy for her. For us the easy part was getting it wrong—with bread too moist or squeezed too dry. We also found that bread variety mattered greatly in how it retained water.
Our simple solution—panko breadcrumbs. The coarse white crumbs held moisture consistently and evenly, and required no squeezing. And we noticed no difference between the meatballs made with them and those with bread. The only thing we couldn’t replicate? Enza’s generous helping of “Ave Maria.” Hope this helps!
The Milk Street Team
I used Aleia’s gluten free panko. I made the mistake of measuring by volume instead of weight (just saw 6 mistakes to avoid when making meatballs article). Made 12 half cup meatballs instead of 8. It was still phenomenal but I think had more panko than required. Good news is GF panko made a wonderfully tender and tasty meatball. Best meatballs I’ve ever had.
I'm 100% Sicilian American and was excited to try this recipe. After making it, I would suggest considering the following: with just 1.5 lb of meat, I would decrease the panko to no more than 1.5 cups to improve the texture and tone down the "bready" flavor of these meatballs. Also, I would use a combination of beef, veal and pork (I use 1 lb beef and 1/4 lb each veal and pork) for flavor that is simply amazing. Otherwise, this is a great recipe. I always bake my meatballs and I liked the tip that mentioned chilling them before baking.
Made these meatballs last night for dinner and they were the most tender meatballs I’ve ever made! Almost too tender....almost. They are melt in your mouth delicious. Ragù was tasty too. Next time I make them I’ll cut back the amount of red pepper flakes just a smidge. Definitely give them a try!
I have made this multiple times, following the recipe precisely, and it is always a hit. I disagree with the commenter who found it too spicy. It does have some zing, though, so if you are sensitive to spice I’d suggest cutting the red pepper by half.
The recipe suggests serving with pasta or bread, but i have found it is equally delicious with polenta, whether soft and fresh or, if you have some leftover polenta, crispy and fried.
I want to make a triple batch and freeze them. At what point should they go in the freezer - (1) raw meatballs, (2) after baking, or (3) in the tomato sauce?
Hi Andrew -
We haven't tested make ahead for these meatballs, but for other meatballs we've had the best results freezing after baking. Let cool then, if you've got the space, freeze on a sheet tray until firm then transfer to a zipper-lock bag. Before you want to use them, allow them to defrost in the fridge overnight and then add to the heated sauce to simmer as instructed. We would not recommend adding these delicate meatballs to the sauce still frozen. It's likely they will fall apart before they are defrosted in the center. Good luck!
The Milk Street Team
These meatballs and ragú were fan-freaking-tastic! Everyone loved that they were so light yet had so much flavor. My only issue with the recipe was 475º for 30 min in the oven. It seemed too high of a temp for too long but I always fry my meatballs so I stuck to the recipe. However, in this case, I was right. The meatballs burned on the bottom and slightly on top. I should have been watching them more closely which is my fault. I will definitely be making these again but will adjust the oven temp and baking time, accordingly. The meatballs were still delicious and the ragú was an excellent compliment!
I was very pleased with these big, tender meatballs! I was a hair shy on panko (had 6 oz), so I decreased the water proportionately. Made a booboo on the red pepper flakes - put the entire 1 and 1/2 teapoons in the meat mixture! I still added the 1/2 tsp to the ragu, though. I used fresh tomatoes because I had so many I needed to use. Otherwise, followed the recipe. It took a while to thicken the ragu. All in all - very good, tender meatballs, a dish that has eluded me in the past. I will definitely follow this recipe again, but I might add some additional herbs to the sauce in the future, though.
We are planning multi-course Italian dinner for friends and would like to prep some things the day before. Could the meatballs be made the night before to the point where they go in the frig and baked the next day or even baked the day before, refrigerated and heated in the ragù before serving? Suggestions would be appreciated.
We have made these before and love them just not sure about doing ahead of time.
Hi Bill -
We would not recommend baking them ahead since they run the risk of falling apart in the sauce in the amount of time it would take to get them heated through. As you know, they are quite delicate. Instead, we would form and refrigerate them overnight and go ahead and simmer the sauce the day before as well. Then bake the meatballs and combine with the (reheated) sauce the next day.
The Milk Street Team
I just watched this show and want to make these tonight! It seems like "how to make the best meatballs?" is the most common question on all cooking sites. Here are my questions: 1. Why water instead of milk? Many people recommend making the panade with milk. 2. Since panko are crispy and we want to get the crispiness out, why do you recommend panko instead of plain bread crumbs? What about homemade bread crumbs made from stale Italian bread? 3. Since the food processor is used for the tomatoes, why not use it to blend the panade? 4. How about some chopped fresh parsley in the mixture? 5. Why did you choose all beef instead of beef and pork?
After watching on TV I was excited to make these and followed the recipe exactly (even though I had questions) ... except, based on others' comments, I cut down the amount of panko. Still, after refrigerating, baking, and simmering in the sauce, the texture was like mush for infants instead of tender meatballs. Ended up refrigerating overnight, removing the meatballs from the sauce and baking them at 400 for another half hour. Still, way too soft and bread-y. Sorry, Milk Street. I want to trust your recipes, like I trust Marcella Hazan's, for coming out perfectly every time. This was a big disappointment.
Hi Ellen -
First, to answer your questions:
1. We used water for these breadier meatballs since we got similar results with water and we didn't want to have to add an extra ingredient (milk) if we didn't need to.
2. Panko breadcrumbs are more uniform in size than fresh breadcrumbs (though they can still vary). Since we are developing recipes for people with a variety of brands of bread crumbs at their supermarkets, we found we got the most consistent results from Panko. To use fresh breadcrumbs from a loaf of stale bread would require, first, finding a specific brand of bread and then requiring time for it to stale in order to begin the recipe. As recipe developers our goal is to find the most consistent and efficient method and this would defeat that purpose. Also, the drier the breadcrumbs (like Panko), the more of the water/milk the crumbs will absorb. This creates a better panade.
3. We don't want to blend the panade and develop gluten. It should simply be mixed together gently with your hands. The food processor would be too aggressive a mixing method.
4. and 5. We went without an herb in the meatballs and just beef since that's how we had them in Naples.
Second, in terms of the texture of the meatballs, we admit these are probably different than what you are used to. As described in the story that accompanies the recipe these are "ultra-tender" often with a ratio of bread to meat as high as 40% bread. One recommendation - do not reduce the amount of panko. The ratio of panko to water in the recipe was determined to ensure the proper meatball texture. Reducing the amount of panko will throw off the ratio of panko to water and is likely why your meatballs were mushy. For the absolute best results we recommend weighing the panko to ensure accuracy.
The Milk Street Team
My wife and I are huge fans of meatballs and have been seeking the perfect meatball recipe/procedure. This is it! Made exactly as the recipe is written, these meatballs are incredibly moist and delicious. To date, our favorite meatball has been the appetizer at Rao’s in Vegas. This rivals, if not beats, the consistency and taste of Rao’s! They also freeze wonderfully as does the sauce.
These meatballs are amazing!! I used Parmesan cheese as I had a huge Costco size chunk in my fridge but otherwise followed the recipe. I feel like an Italian nana taught me to make them.