Meatballs that hold their round shape
Moist, tender, slightly springy texture
Meaty, savory flavor
I can see the appeal of using ground turkey in place of beef or pork in a meatball, since many folks these days want to eat less red meat. But when I swapped ground turkey into my usual meatball recipe (an Italian red-sauce version), I got something that was altogether disappointing. The meat mixture was so wet that it was difficult to shape, and the meatballs slumped during the frying step, leaving them more pyramid-shaped than spherical. Once cooked, they were mushy overall yet grainy inside. And their flavor was entirely uninspiring. I wanted an easy-to-form turkey meatball with the same traits as a knockout beef or pork version: a moist, tender, slightly springy texture and rich, savory flavor.
My standard meatball recipe (like most) goes like this: Combine ground meat and seasonings with egg and a panade—a moistened bread-crumb mixture that helps the meat hold on to liquid as it cooks and keeps its texture open and tender. With beef or pork, you want to handle the mixture as gently as possible, since overworking can cause the meat proteins to tighten up, creating a too-springy, sausage-like consistency. But as I had already discovered, turkey is another beast altogether: Although it contains the same sticky proteins as beef and pork, it also has a higher moisture content (ground turkey contains about 71 percent moisture versus 66 and 61 percent for pork and beef, respectively). This means that even after a good amount of mixing, ground turkey remains wet and hard to work with. Commercially ground turkey also has a finer texture than beef or pork, which is why it cooks up mushy. The fine consistency also means the meat has a harder time holding on to moisture.
There are three options when buying commercially ground turkey: 85 percent lean, 93 percent lean, and 99 percent lean. I tried all three, and I wasn’t surprised when the 99 percent lean type produced ultradry, nearly inedible results. I would go with the fattier options, both of which produced moister meatballs.
My recipe called for panko (Japanese dried bread crumbs, which we like for their consistently dry texture) soaked in milk. Since the turkey was so wet to begin with, I figured that the milk was unnecessary and probably partly why the meatballs were so difficult to roll. Indeed, when I left out the milk and just stirred the meat, egg, and panko together, the mixture was stiffer and easier to work with—but the cooked meatballs were somewhat dense.
A better solution was switching to sandwich bread, which I ground to fine crumbs in a food processor. In terms of moisture content, the crumbs were midway between milk-soaked panko and dry panko—dry enough to soak up some of the water in the turkey yet still moist enough to keep the meatballs from becoming dense.
Which Ingredients Add up to Great Meatballs?
Settling on 85 or 93 percent lean ground turkey was only half the battle. We tried multiple additions to our meatballs until we landed on the perfect recipe.
But the meatballs were still too mushy, and they continued to be grainy. In an attempt to repair the mushiness, I added another egg, hoping it would firm up the meatballs once cooked, but the extra liquid once again made the mixture too hard to work with. Ultimately, I found that a 15-minute postshaping refrigeration period was the key to creating a springy, not mushy, texture in the cooked meatballs. That’s because it gave the myosin, a sticky, soluble protein in meat, time to bind the meat together.
Don’t Skip Chilling
A stint in the fridge ensures the meatballs have a springy texture once they are cooked. The quick chill gives the gelatin time to stiffen, helps solidify the fat, and gives the myosin (a sticky, soluble protein in ground turkey) time to bind the meat together.
Finally, it occurred to me that adding some powdered gelatin might help mitigate the graininess of the meat by trapping some of its moisture, and indeed it did. The slick gelatin also created a juicy mouthfeel.
I’d solved the textural problems; now I needed to work on flavor. Italy isn’t the only country with a vibrant meatball culture, so I knew I’d want to come up with some variations once I’d perfected my Italian version. I considered Parmesan cheese, which is rich in glutamates, compounds that enhance the meaty umami flavor of foods; it added a savory boost but was subtle enough to work with any flavor profile. Glutamate-rich anchovies worked similarly, amplifying meatiness without announcing their presence. The last umami-enhancing ingredient I used was a seemingly unusual one: dried shiitake mushrooms. Shiitakes are naturally high in glutamates, and though they are most commonly used in Asian cooking, their flavor is relatively neutral, so I knew they’d work no matter how I flavored the meatballs. I reconstituted them in hot chicken broth (making sure to add the soaking liquid to the sauce to retain all of the mushrooms’ flavor) and then chopped them fine in the food processor.
Lastly, I tackled the cooking method. For ease, I’d been browning the meatballs in oil in a skillet before removing them, making a quick tomato sauce, and returning them to the skillet to cook through. As they simmered in the sauce, the meatballs picked up that rich flavor.
Move over, pork and beef. I’ll still use you to make meatballs—but maybe not quite as often.