“My mom only has three ingredients in her meatballs: meat, salt and pepper. And we call them ‘meat lumps,’” says Leigh, production chef at Rebecca Jean Catering. Don’t let a dry, dense meatball become a family heirloom: Make your meatballs moist with panade.
Panade (pronounced: “puh-nod”) is a thick paste of starch and liquid that helps to bind ingredients and trap flavors. It serves both a practical and a textural purpose when incorporated into a meatball. “[Meatballs] were made back in the day to stretch meat,” Leigh says. “In Italy for example, there wasn’t a lot of meat – so you flavor that bread with a little cheese and make the meat go farther. When you go to a restaurant and [a meatball is] really soft and you can cut through it with a fork, that’s because it has a lot of bread and egg in it.”
We make our meatball-bound panade with bread soaked in cream and eggs. This process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours, but don’t be tempted to use shortcuts. Meatball-filler substitutes like the all-too-common breadcrumbs will cause serious textural issues. “Ditch the can of breadcrumbs,” says Leigh. “Breadcrumbs are dry, so they absorb all the fat and juice and leave the meatball dry and hard.”
We’re making pork meatballs with panade for our clients this week. Follow along! To make enough meatballs for 4 people (with leftovers!), you’ll need:
2 lbs ground pork
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups cubed bread, baguette or nice white sandwich loaf works well (steer clear of wheat, seeds, and strongly-flavored breads like sourdough or olive bread)
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup of cream
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
Spices: 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon chili flakes (more or less to taste), 1 teaspoon dried oregano
1) Sprinkle salt over ground pork and set aside in fridge to rest.
2) Mix eggs and cream in a bowl. Add baguette pieces and set aside in fridge to rest until bread has completely absorbed the liquid and the bread is falling apart and mushy, between 20-30 minutes. For an extra-creamy panade, soak bread for 1-2 hours.
3) Preheat a medium saute pan over medium-low heat. Add olive oil. Add onions with a pinch of salt and saute until transluscent, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and cook 1-2 minutes, until aromatic. Set the mixture aside to cool.
4) Once bread has absorbed an adequate amount of liquid, transfer panade into a food processer or get dirty and smush it real good with clean hands until the bread breaks down into paste.
5) Combine ground pork, panade and onion mixture into a bowl and mix until it is incorporated.
6) Make a tester meatball: Take a tablespoon-sized wad of meat and squash it into a little burger (yes, burger shape is best for the tester!) Cook in a saute pan over medium heat until cooked through, then taste. Add more salt or spices to taste…these minor adjustments are the crucial difference between a good meatball and a great one.
7) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. To form meatballs, gently roll a golfball-sized ball with lightly moistened hands (or use a scoop). Place meatballs at least an inch apart on a sheet pan. Cook for 10-15 minutes (depending on size), until meatballs are browned and cooked through.
8) Enjoy as-is, or finish in a nice sauce
An extra tip from chef and owner, Rebecca Jean: “A meatball is the ultimate vessel for flavor. You don’t need a fancy cut of meat to make a great meatball.” Exciting combos from our kitchen include a lemongrass pork meatball with fish sauce and black pepper and an Indian chicken meatball with fenugreek leaves, cumin, ginger and serrano chilies.