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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk; Design: The Kitchn

I Tried 4 Famous Meatball Recipes and the Best One Won by a Long Shot

published Mar 12, 2022
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Few things can beat the comfort of a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on a chilly night. For many of us, it’s a nostalgic dish from our childhoods that we grow to love even more as we get older. And, as anyone who has ever made from-scratch meatballs and marinara sauce knows, it’s well worth it to have a reliably delicious recipe to turn to. The process isn’t exactly quick, and the last thing you want is for it to end in disappointment.

But what makes a good meatball? Some recipes say ground veal is essential, while others rely solely on ground beef. Many recipes have you pan-fry the meatballs, others send them straight to the oven, and still others swear by a combination of the two. How long you should simmer the sauce is also up for debate.

To determine which ingredients and steps really make for the best meatball, I cooked my way through four of the highest-rated meatball recipes on the internet — from Ina Garten, Smitten Kitchen, Rao’s, and Anne Burrell. They all take very different approaches to meatball-making. Read on to see which recipes are worth skipping, and whose recipe you should make immediately. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Chose My Four Meatball Contenders 

I began my search by looking at the top-rated meatball recipes online. For the sake of consistency, I eliminated any turkey meatballs, lamb meatballs, Swedish meatballs, and anything else that didn’t scream red-sauce-restaurant-with-a-checkered-tablecloth. (Though if you’re looking for those recipes, we have them all right here).

Ina Garten’s recipes are consistently highly-rated and regarded, and her meatball recipe is no exception. I was eager to see if her upgrades, including adding red wine and using two types of breadcrumbs, would result in better meatballs.

A long-time champion of Ina’s meatballs, Smitten Kitchen recently shared her own recipe for a weeknight-friendly version of spaghetti and meatballs. Weeknight meatballs epitomize Smitten Kitchen’s approach to recipes — homey, fairly indulgent, and easy to throw together — and I was curious to see how this approach would stack up against Ina’s.

Rao’s, the famous Italian restaurant in New York, has amassed a cult-following for their pre-made sauce (it won Kitchn’s jarred marinara sauce taste test by a landslide). I knew I needed to see if their meatball recipe would match the sauce hype.

And lastly, no meatball showdown would be complete without Anne Burrell’s meatballs, which have hundreds of 5-star reviews. Her recipe is also the most time-consuming of the bunch, and I wanted to see if it was really worth it.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How I Tested the Meatballs

I kept as many elements as consistent as possible while testing. All the meatballs were made on the same day (yes, I was swimming in meatballs), and I tasted them all side-by-side. I actually tried each batch three times: once hot, once at room temperature, and once after being warmed in the microwave. I used the same brand of ingredients across the board. 

Rao’s recipe didn’t include a recipe for sauce, so I used a jar of Rao’s marinara to pair with the meatballs. Rao’s recipe also gave a range for how big to make the meatballs, so I made both sizes to see how each held up. Ina’s recipe didn’t specify how to make homemade breadcrumbs, so I used this recipe. Smitten Kitchen calls for any combination of ground veal, pork, and beef, so I used all three. Here’s how it all played out.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

1. The Most Disappointing Meatballs: Rao’s Meatballs

While this recipe claims it can be made in under 30 minutes, I found myself dealing with a lot of mishaps, which significantly slowed down the process.

The texture of these meatballs was incredibly wet. When I tried the 3-inch size, the meatballs immediately fell apart, stuck to the pan, and burnt (it took at least 30 minutes to get rid of the smell of burnt beef in my kitchen). The 2½-inch meatballs were slightly more successful, but still didn’t hold up in a uniform shape when fried. The recipe doesn’t specify what temperature to fry the meatballs at, but medium-high did the trick. If I were to make these again, I’d scale back the water to 1 cup so the meatballs stay moist while still keeping their shape. 

Unfortunately, the texture of the meatballs wasn’t the only issue. The bigger problem was the flavor. They were shockingly bland, and combined with the wet texture, they tasted more like something you’d get in a cafeteria than something homemade. Pass!

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

The Best Weeknight Meatballs: Smitten Kitchen’s Perfect Meatballs and Spaghetti

Smitten Kitchen’s meatballs felt like everything the blog stands for: simple, approachable, and reliable. While they didn’t have the same depth of flavor as some of the other contenders, they did feel like a good option to throw together on a weeknight. If I were to make them again, I’d add more salt and red pepper flakes.

My favorite part about this recipe was that there was no frying involved, which made cleanup a breeze (and again, ideal for weeknights!). The meatballs did end up losing their classic round shape as they baked, which isn’t a make-or-break issue, but it is something to keep in mind.

The sauce was the only part of the recipe I found truly lackluster, tasting more like canned tomatoes than a full-flavored sauce. I’d recommend using your own sauce recipe, or even going the pre-made route. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

The Best Meatballs for Classic Flavor: Ina Garten’s Real Meatballs and Spaghetti

Ina’s recipes practically never fail, and this one was no different: The meatballs were delicious, and the sauce was full of flavor thanks to red wine and lots of onion and garlic. This recipe beat out Rao’s and Smitten Kitchen in terms of flavor, but it also takes double the time. It’s also worth mentioning that there’s some serious frying involved in this recipe. I didn’t think the 1/4-inch of oil was totally necessary — you could cut down on the oil (and the mess on your stove) by adding a thinner layer of oil for the same result.

Before you get cooking, note that this recipe calls for fresh white breadcrumbs, but doesn’t provide a recipe. We recommend this one

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

The Best Meatballs: Anne Burrell’s Excellent Meatballs

This recipe has now ruined all other meatballs for me — that’s how phenomenal it was. This was the only recipe that calls for cooking the sauce for a few hours, and the payoff is absolutely worth it.

This recipe doesn’t give amounts for the salt, but Anne continuously reminds you to season more than you think you should, and I do think proper seasoning is crucial to the success of this recipe. If you want to save time, make the sauce in advance and whip up the meatballs day of. Between the sauce and the meatballs, the depth of flavor of this recipe was truly unbeatable. If you’ve got the time, this is the recipe I’d recommend making when you really want to impress someone. 

This post originally ran on Kitchn. See it there: We Tested 4 Famous Meatball Recipes and Found a Clear Winner