Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs

Learn how to make my family’s secret ingredient Italian meatballs that are incredibly tender and truly the best! You’ll never need another meatball recipe again once you try them. Provided in this recipe are step-by-step instructions and our top tips and tricks for success!

From my family to yours!

A white bowl with red sauce and Italian meatballs over spaghetti in it. The bowl is sitting on a wooden board with a gray napkin, shredded cheese, and fresh herbs arranged around it.

I’m so happy to finally be sharing my family recipe for perfect Italian meatballs! This recipe is super special, and one that my family has always served for special occasions.

In my family, we have two women who are the queens of making meatballs – my mom and my Aunt Stephanie. So when making this recipe, we decided to take inspiration from both of their methods and form it into one. 

The results are perfect and truly melt in your mouth! We’re also sharing our secret Italian ingredient that makes all the difference in accomplishing tender and juicy Italian meatballs.

The Secret to Italian Meatballs

For the cheese, we use two types of cheese – fresh Parmigiano Reggiano and ricotta cheese. The ricotta is creamy in consistency and adds a ton of moisture to the meatballs – making it my family’s biggest kept secret for perfectly tender Italian meatballs! Using fresh parmesan (not pre-shredded) is also incredibly important as it has a lot more moisture than pre-shredded parmesan.

The best meat to use for meatballs – using both ground beef and pork add flavor and another layer of tenderness to the meatballs. We also love to add veal to them too, which is very traditional in Italian meatballs. If you’d like to use veal in this recipe, you can do 50% beef, 25% veal, and 25% pork.

Ingredients

Below you’ll find the full list of ingredients you need to make this recipe!

Pork and beef: The recipe uses 50% beef and 50% pork as the base.
Ricotta cheese: the star of the show! This creamy cheese is used to make the meatballs super tender.
Parmesan: skip the pre-shredded and use fresh Parmigiano Reggiano! It adds flavor and tenderness to the meatballs.
Breadcrumbs: these add structure to the meatballs, we love to use homemade rather than store-bought!
Eggs: to help bind all the ingredients together.
Onion & garlic: these aromatic ingredients are a must to flavor the meatballs!
Herbs: for these meatballs, we love to use a blend of fresh parsley, basil, and oregano. If you do not have fresh herbs available you can opt for dried Italian seasoning. But fresh herbs are best!

Step-by-Step Instructions

Mix and make the meatballs!

Steps 1 & 2 First, in a large bowl add the ground beef, pork, onions & garlic, ricotta, parmesan, breadcrumbs, eggs, herbs, and salt & pepper. Use your hands (with or without gloves) to mix the meat filling together – this is the most authentic and efficient way to bind the ingredients together. A spoon or rubber spatula just won’t work the same!

Step 3 – Use your hands to roll the meatballs into 2-3 inch balls.

A collage of three photos showing how to mix and make meatballs. The first photo is the meatball ingredients unmixed in a white bowl on a wooden background. The second photo is the same bowl with the meatball ingredients mixed together. The third photo is two hands rolling a raw meatball over a bowl of the mixture.

Cook the meatballs!

Steps 4 & 5 – then place the meatballs in a pan that’s been brushed with olive oil, and bake for 18 minutes.

When the meatballs are done baking in the oven add them to a pot of sauce and let them simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Then serve!

Pan-Frying Meatballs versus Baking Meatballs

My family always pan-fried their meatballs. But when testing this recipe for the blog, we tested the meatballs with both a pan-fried and baking method – and the results surprised us!

We found baking them was the superior method, as it yielded a much more tender meatball and didn’t have a hard crust like the pan-fried ones. Plus it took less work, which we aren’t complaining about!

Pan-frying is still a great method, but if you’re not careful, you can overcook them and the crust from the pan can take away from the tenderness of the meatball itself. So we recommend baking the meatballs to achieve a perfectly cooked meatball!

A cast iron pan with red sauce and meatballs in it with some fresh basil over top.

Tips for Success

Best types of meat for Italian meatballs – the best meat for classic Italian meatballs are to use equal parts beef, pork, and veal! The combination results in the most tender of meatballs. But to make this recipe a little simpler, we opted for just half beef and half pork – but you can always add veal!

Make your own breadcrumbs – I always make my own breadcrumbs for any Italian recipe! They’re so easy to make, add perfect texture and flavor, and you can make it healthier by using any bread you like. To learn how to make them, use our homemade breadcrumb recipe!

Make them gluten-free. Use store-bought gluten-free breadcrumbs to make this recipe GF-friendly, or make your own with our homemade breadcrumbs recipe and use your favorite gluten-free bread!

Fresh herbs are a must. Herbs are essential for flavor in any Italian meatball! If they’re not included, your meatball will likely end up tasting like a burger. We like to use finely chopped fresh herbs for the best flavor! If you can’t get fresh parsley or oregano and have to use dried, we recommend at least using fresh basil!

Finely chop aromatics. No one wants big chunks of garlic and onion in their meatball, so we recommend using a food processor to chop the onion and garlic or a cheese grater finely. To finely mince the garlic, I like to use a zester/fine grater.

Don’t like ricotta? You can use mascarpone! This Italian cheese has a similar creamy consistency that ricotta does, and works identically in the recipe.

Best leanness percentage for meatballs – For this recipe, I highly recommend using beef that has 80-90% leanness in the meat. If the meat is too lean – meaning it has less fat (typically above 90%) – it won’t have enough fat to help tenderize the meatballs. I personally use a ratio of 85% lean and 15% fat for reference.

How to Freeze Meatballs

Freezing cooked meatballs: Brown the meatballs either baked in the oven or pan-fry but don’t add them to the sauce. Let them cool completely before placing them into a freezer-friendly bag or airtight container, and freeze for up to 2-3 months.

Freezing uncooked meatballs: to freeze the meatballs uncooked, mix the ingredients and form the balls. Place them into a freezer-friendly bag or airtight container and freeze for up to 2-3 months.

How to reheat frozen cooked meatballs: when you’re ready to use the frozen meatballs, let them thaw at room temperature for several hours, or in the fridge overnight. Then add the meatballs into a pot of sauce and simmer on the stove for 30 minutes, or until the meatballs are warm and tender.

How to cook uncooked frozen meatballs: When you’re ready to use the uncooked frozen meatballs, remove them from the freezer and let them thaw in the refrigerator overnight. Then bake according to the recipe instructions, and simmer in the sauce for 30 minutes before serving.

A white dish with red sauce and meatballs over spaghetti pasta. The bowl is arranged on a wooden board with a gray napkin and fresh herbs next to it.

What to Serve Them With

Marinara: Of course, as we’ve already mentioned, Italian meatballs go hand-in-hand served with a quality marinara! Use our homemade San Marzano sauce, or to spice things up try our Arrabbiata sauce. If you want to skip making the sauce yourself, we recommend using Rao’s!

Pasta: we love to serve these with spaghetti (of course!), penne, rigatoni, farfalle, or bucatini. Use whole grain or whole wheat pasta for a healthier version, or use your favorite gluten-free pasta noodle! My current favorite pasta to use is Lisolina!

In a sandwich: a meatball sandwich is a signature for Italian Americans. These meatballs can be served with marinara and melted provolone on a crusty Italian loaf!

Salad: on the side, we love to serve these meatballs with a fresh Italian salad like our Tuscan artichoke salad or this cannellini bean salad!

If you tried this Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs recipe or any other recipe, don’t forget to rate the recipe and let me know what you think. I love hearing from you! You can also follow me on PINTEREST, INSTAGRAM, and FACEBOOK for more crave-worthy content.

A white bowl with red sauce and Italian meatballs over spaghetti in it. The bowl is sitting on a wooden board with a gray napkin, shredded cheese, and fresh herbs arranged around it.

Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs

5 from 1 vote

Learn how to make my family's secret ingredient Italian meatballs that are incredibly tender and truly the best! You'll never need another meatball recipe again once you try them. Provided in this recipe are step-by-step instructions and our top tips and tricks for success!

From my family to yours!

Servings 24 meatballs
Prep Time: 25 mins

Course: Main Course
Cuisine: American, Italian
Tags: Italian meatballs, Ricotta meatballs
Freezer Friendly: Yes
Calories: 130 kcal

Ingredients

  • 1 lb ground beef 85% lean is best
  • 1 lb ground pork or split 1/2 lb pork + 1/2 lb veal
  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup ricotta cheese
  • 1 cup fresh parmesan
  • 1 small onion or half of a large or medium onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 2 teaspoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 teaspoons fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 teaspoon fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon (each) salt & black pepper
  • 3-4 cups marinara

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400F.

  2. Prepare baking pan: First, prepare a large pan for baking the meatballs. Brush it with some oil and set it aside for later.

  3. Chop aromatics: use a fine grater or zester to mince the garlic cloves. For the onion, use a cheese grater to grate it into smaller pieces, or use a food processor to chop. However you cut them, you want them to be cut very small so they are evenly distributed throughout the meatballs.

  4. Mix the ingredients: in a very large mixing bowl, add the ground beef, pork, breadcrumbs, parmesan, ricotta, chopped onion and garlic, eggs, herbs, salt & black pepper. Use your hands to mix the ingredients completely together.

  5. Form the balls: Then use your hands to divide the meatballs and roll them into about 2-inch balls. Repeat until all the meat is used, and place the meatballs on your prepared baking dish as you go.

  6. Bake: then bake the meatballs for 18-20 minutes.

  7. Warm up the marinara: while the meatballs are baking, add your marinara to a saucepan or large pot and place on a gentle simmer.

  8. Simmer in the sauce: once the meatballs are done in the oven, add them to the pot of marinara and let them simmer in the sauce for 30 minutes before serving!

Notes

Make your own breadcrumbs – I always make my own breadcrumbs for any Italian recipe! They’re so easy to make, add perfect texture and flavor, and you can make it healthier by using any bread you like. To learn how to make them, use our homemade breadcrumb recipe!

Make them gluten-free. Use store-bought gluten-free breadcrumbs to make this recipe GF-friendly, or make your own with our homemade breadcrumbs recipe and use your favorite gluten-free bread!

Nutrition Facts
Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs
Amount Per Serving (1 meatball without sauce)
Calories 130 Calories from Fat 68
% Daily Value*
Fat 7.5g12%
Saturated Fat 3.4g17%
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 0.6g
Monounsaturated Fat 2.9g
Cholesterol 48.1mg16%
Sodium 153mg6%
Carbohydrates 4.1g1%
Fiber 0.6g2%
Sugar 0.5g1%
Protein 10.9g22%
Vitamin A 3IU0%
Vitamin C 1mg1%
Calcium 6mg1%
Iron 6mg33%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.
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Bethany Kramer

Bethany Kramer is the cook and photographer behind A Simple Palate. She found a deep love for food and nutrition after learning to cook from her mom at eight years old. Since then she’s been developing and sharing recipes from her own kitchen that are bold in flavor and nourishing to the body!

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