Real Meatballs and Spaghetti make a hearty dish for dinner. (Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press/TNS)
Photo: Jessica J. Trevino
Photo: Jessica J. Trevino

How do I keep my meatballs from falling apart in the sauce?

Q: Often my meatballs don’t hold together and fall apart in the sauce. What am I doing wrong? — Sylvia Martin, Commerce Township, Mich.

A: Usually when meatballs fall apart, it’s the binder that is the problem.

Most meatball recipes call for using bread crumbs and eggs. But too much bread crumbs make them too loose, and not enough bread crumbs won’t help them hold together either. Similar issues can be caused by eggs: Too many eggs, and the meatballs will be too soggy.

With the bread crumbs, many recipes call for fresh or dry bread crumbs. Some recipes also call for taking slices of bread, cutting the crusts off and soaking them in milk for several minutes. Once the bread is soaked, you squeeze out as much of the milk as you can. What soaking the bread does is add moisture to the meatball as well as bread for a binder. In today’s recipe, I used a mixture of fresh bread crumbs and soaked bread. The combination of both turned out to be a winner.

Another general rule when forming meatballs is to work quickly and handle them as little as possible. Also, it’s best to work with a well-chilled mixture. You can mix together all the ingredients and chill it at least 30 minutes and up to an hour before shaping the mixture into balls. And when you do shape the meatballs, have a bowl of cold water on hand to wet your hand before rolling each one.

The way you cook the meatballs also can play a role in how well they hold together. Once I rolled the meatballs for today’s recipe, I gave them another chill in the freezer for about 15 minutes.

When ready to cook them, I took a cue from Lidia Bastianich, Italian cookbook author and PBS celebrity chef. Bastianich recommends giving the meatballs a little dusting of flour before adding them to the oil in the skillet. The ones I dredged in flour did hold up better than those I did not. But the ones I did not flour didn’t completely fall apart either, the outside was just not as crispy.

One last technique worth noting is frying the meatballs in a shallow skillet. This makes it easier to roll them around in the oil and get a nice even, crusty sear. If you sear them in a large deep pot, you run the risk of steaming them, which can make them soggy. If you are not a fan of frying, bake the meatballs on an oiled baking sheet in a 375-degree oven.

Today, I’ve provided two recipes: one for meatballs in a red pasta sauce and my favorite Asian-style meatballs.

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REAL MEATBALLS AND SPAGHETTI

Makes: About 24 / Preparation time: 40 minutes / Total time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

MEATBALLS

4 slices white bread, crust removed

1/2 cup milk

1/2 pound ground veal

1/2 pound ground pork

1 pound ground beef sirloin

1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs

2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 extra-large egg, beaten

Vegetable oil

Olive oil

SAUCE

1 tablespoon good olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

1/2 cup good red wine, such as Chianti

1 can (28-ounces) crushed tomatoes, or plum tomatoes in puree, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

FOR SERVING

1 pounds spaghetti, cooked according to package directions

Freshly grated Parmesan

Place the bread slices in a bowl and pour the milk over, submerging the bread in the milk. Set aside for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, place the ground meats, fresh bread crumbs, parsley, Parmesan, salt, pepper, nutmeg and egg. Squeeze the bread slices, getting as much milk out as possible. Add the bread to meat mixture. Combine all very lightly with a fork. Using your hands, lightly form the mixture into about 2-inch meatballs. You will have about 24 meatballs. Chill in the refrigerator or freezer for 30 minutes before cooking.

Pour equal amounts of vegetable oil and olive oil into a large, shallow sided skillet to a depth of 1/4-inch. Working in batches, add the meatballs to the skillet and brown them well on all sides over medium heat, turning carefully with a spatula or a fork. Don’t crowd the meatballs. Remove the meatballs to a plate covered with paper towels. Discard the oil but don’t clean the pan.

For the sauce, heat the olive oil in the same pan. Add the onion and saute over medium heat until translucent, 5 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute. Add the wine and cook on high heat, scraping up all the brown bits in the pan, until almost all the liquid evaporates, about 3 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Return the meatballs to the sauce, cover, and simmer on the lowest heat for 25 to 30 minutes, until the meatballs are cooked through. Serve hot on cooked spaghetti and pass the grated Parmesan.

Adapted from www.foodnetwork.com

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

MEATBALLS IN HOT & SPICY SAUCE

Makes: About 40 / Preparation time: 15 minutes / Total time: 1 hour, 20 minutes (not all active time)

MEATBALLS

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

1 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1/2 tablespoon reduced sodium soy sauce

1 tablespoon dry white wine

1 tablespoon oyster-flavored sauce

1 tablespoon cold water

1 small onion, peeled, ends removed, minced

1 pound very lean ground sirloin

SAUCE

1/2 tablespoon cornstarch

1 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 cup cold water

2 tablespoons Szechuan or Hunan chili paste

2 tablespoons oyster-flavored sauce

2 tablespoons ketchup

In a large bowl, blend cornstarch, sugar, baking soda, black pepper, soy sauce, white wine, oyster sauce, cold water and onion until smooth. Add the ground sirloin and mix well. Let stand for 30 minutes. Knead the mixture for 1 minute. Roll the meat into 1-inch balls. Wet your hands from time to time to make smoother meatballs. You should have 35 to 40 meatballs.

In a small bowl, mix all the sauce ingredients. Heat a wok on high for 30 seconds. Add the sauce and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and add the meatballs. Cover and cook for 3 to 4 minutes.

Uncover and roll the meatballs gently with a spatula and cook an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the meatballs and sauce to a dish and serve.

From “A Wok A Week — 52 Lite and Easy Meals” by Elizabeth Chiu King and Donna H. Dean (China Books & Periodicals Inc., $17.95).

Tested by Susan Selasky for the Free Press Test Kitchen.

Analysis per 1 meatball.

30 calories (45 percent from fat), 2 g fat (1 g saturated fat), 1 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 66 mg sodium, 9 mg cholesterol, 0 g fiber.

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