Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs

Updated: Jul 13th, 2024 · By Bethany Kramer
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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. This recipe includes 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 share my family recipe for perfect Italian meatballs finally! This recipe is super special, one my family has always served for special occasions.

In my family, two women 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 also share our secret Italian ingredient that makes all the difference in accomplishing tender and juicy Italian meatballs.

The Secret to Italian Meatballs

The secret to delicious Italian meatballs is the type of cheese and meat you use!

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! Fresh parmesan (not pre-shredded) is also incredibly important, as it has much more moisture than pre-shredded parmesan.

The best meat to use for meatballs is ground beef and pork, which add flavor and add another layer of tenderness to the meatballs. We also love to add veal to them, 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.

Key ingredients

Below is 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 essential for flavoring the meatballs!
Herbs: for these meatballs, we love to use a blend of fresh parsley, basil, and oregano. You can opt for dried Italian seasoning if you do not have fresh herbs. 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 – place the meatballs in a pan 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!

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 is to use equal parts beef, pork, and veal! The combination results in the most tender of meatballs. But to simplify this recipe, we opted for just half beef and half pork – but you can always add veal!

Make your breadcrumbs – I always make homemade breadcrumbs for any Italian recipe! They’re so easy to make, add perfect texture and flavor, and you can make it healthier 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 taste like a burger. We like to use finely chopped fresh herbs for the best flavor! Oregano is not typically in meatballs, but I add a small touch for flavor. This herb is optional, but use lots of fresh parsley and basil for authentic flavor!

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. I like to use a zester/fine grater to mince the garlic finely.

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

The best lean 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 use a ratio of 85% lean and 15% fat for reference.

How to Freeze Meatballs

Freezing cooked meatballs: Brown the meatballs baked in the oven or pan-fried 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 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 2-3 months.

How to reheat frozen cooked meatballs: when you’re ready to use them, let them thaw at room temperature for several hours, or in the fridge overnight. Then, add the meatballs to 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 ready to use them, 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 bowl with spaghetti and meatballs in it. The bowl is sitting on a gray napkin with herbs, a cheese rind, and a small wooden bowl placed around 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!

Secret Ingredient Italian Meatballs

5 from 4 votes
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!
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 0 minutes
Total Time 25 minutes
Serves 24 meatballs

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 freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • 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
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh oregano, finely chopped *optional
  • 1/2 teaspoon (each) salt & black pepper
  • 3-4 cups marinara

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 400F.
  • Prepare baking pan: First, prepare a large pan for baking the meatballs. Brush it with some oil and set it aside for later.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Bake: then bake the meatballs for 18-20 minutes.
  • Warm up the marinara: while the meatballs are baking, add your marinara to a saucepan or large pot and place on a gentle simmer.
  • 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!

Video

YouTube video

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!
Course Main Course
Cuisine American, Italian
Keyword Italian meatballs, Ricotta meatballs
Freezer Friendly Yes

Nutrition

Serving: 1meatball without sauce | Calories: 130kcal | Carbohydrates: 4.1g | Protein: 10.9g | Fat: 7.5g | Saturated Fat: 3.4g | Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.6g | Monounsaturated Fat: 2.9g | Trans Fat: 0g | Cholesterol: 48.1mg | Sodium: 153mg | Fiber: 0.6g | Sugar: 0.5g | Vitamin A: 3IU | Vitamin C: 1mg | Calcium: 6mg | Iron: 6mg

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16 Comments

  • Lydia says:

    5 stars
    I’m single therefore, I have lots of leftovers. After the meatballs cool off, can they be frozen?

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Absolutely! Freeze them after you cook them, let them cool down, and then stash them in a freezer bag and pop them into hot sauce to heat up whenever you want to serve them!

  • PAMELA says:

    5 stars
    This is the best meatball recipe I’ve ever used and I’m 72. I’ve tried many different variations but never felt they tasted delicious.. These are delicious! Everyone first had them as spaghetti and meatballs. Now they are boiling up their own pasta or having a meatball sandwich with the leftovers!
    They are surpreme!

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Pamela, that means so much. Thank you for sharing such kind words! Thrilled you enjoyed these meatballs so much:)

  • Bridget says:

    My husband does not like ricotta. Can you tell me if it is noticed texturally in this recipe?

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Hi Bridget, great question! In my personally experience, no, he’ll never know. 🙂 I have a relative that doesn’t like ricotta, they ate these (without knowing they had them in it haha) and they had no clue. The ricotta is only there for moisture, no other reason! You’d never know it’s in there if no one told you. Hope this helps! 🙂 Would love to know what he thinks if you do try them.

  • Keith Andersen says:

    What would you recommend for a dairy free meatball? We love a good Italian meat ball, but we have two young kids that cannot do dairy and have been trying to find a good recipe with no dairy. I’ve tried a few, but haven’t really found one we love.

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Hi Keith, thats a hard one. I’ve not tested this with any non-dairy substitutes. You can always leave the cheese out… but it will definitely lack the tenderness and parmesan flavor. Or you could swap for vegan parmesan and see if that gives it the same flavor! I’m sorry I don’t have a better recommendation, since the cheese is a povital ingredient.

  • Sharon Cimorelli says:

    I’ve always used milk in my meatballs to make them tender. Never thought of using ricotta. Can’t wait to try it!

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Hi Sharon, I’ve never tried milk, but I know that is quite common in Italian meatballs. Would love to hear what you think of this method if you try it! 🙂

  • Melanie Segal says:

    Had made some homemade sauce for a lasagna so decided to make these meatballs to use up the rest of the sauce and they were a hit! I halved the recipe which still made plenty and my whole family loved them. I think the ricotta really put it over the edge. Saving this recipe for sure.

    • Bethany Kramer says:

      Thank you so much, Melanie! So glad a half batched worked out for you. So happy to hear you all enjoyed them!

  • Alexia says:

    5 stars
    This recipe is simply amazing! My family loved them and I will definitely be making again! Thank you for this delicious recipe!

  • Wonderful cook says:

    5 stars
    I made these Italian meatballs yesterday and they were amazing! My whole family loved them and gobbled them up. Thanks for the recipe!