It's Fine to Use Just One Meat in Your Meatballs—As Long As It’s This One
Forget the "holy trinity" of meats for a minute; it's fine to use a single meat in meatballs—so long as it's the right meat.
Veal, pork, and beef have gained a sort of cult status as the proper trio of proteins to populate the Italian-American meatball. I've interviewed nonnas who have told me—with steely gazes— that this is the only, true, proper way. You'll see the combo reiterated in recipes across the Internet.
When I've made meatballs using all three meats, they were quite good; veal adds a sort of creamy texture to the finished product. But veal being generally more difficult to find (and ethically problematic for some), I've often only had the options of beef and pork. Combined, those two are also tasty.
Last week, though, my local butcher had no beef—just high-quality pork, ground to order from pork butt. And you know what? I'm not sure I'm going back to the trinity or even the duo from here on out.
Let me explain. Pork tends to my go-to meat much more often than beef; I find it more flavorful and cheaper more often than not. It plays as well with other meatball ingredients—onion, garlic, salt, pepper, parsley, and Parmigiano Reggiano—as beef, if not better.
The kicker? The sauce. I like to fry my meatballs in olive oil, leaving the center pink, then finishing them in a sauce that I've already simmered for a couple of hours. (I typically use this simple recipe from the Frankies Spuntino Kitchen Companion & Cooking Manual.) And as I learned while making the pork braciole from that same cookbook, in which the meat simmer right in the sauce to finish, pork fat adds an undeniable unctuousness that I don't think beef tallow can match. Lots of chefs are with me on this; pork fat—a.k.a. lard—can add a downright buttery note to a dish.
So I took my three-plus pounds of pork and riffed on the Melissa Clark meatball recipe in The New York Times, happily ignoring any non-pork meats. I soaked challah and focaccia in milk, chopped onion and garlic finely, threw in one palmful of parsley and another of Parm, following the recipe in spirit and almost to the letter in terms of proportions. I seared them in a quarter inch of olive oil until dark brown, and let them cool. My sauce had almost come together, so I nestled them in the slowly bubbling sauce to let them finish. The sweetly fruity tomato sauce took on a new, plush mouthfeel as the meatballs cooked. When they were done—but not dry—after a few minutes, I combined them with cooked pasta, shaved Parm, and plated them.
These are the sort of meatballs that make you wonder why you don't cook Italian-American food every night: Their exteriors crackled with caramelized crusts, and the insides were still wholly tender and juicy, the milk-soaked challah added a velvety texture.
And considering that 50 meatballs set me back $10? Pork will be my go-to from here on out.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, Gourmet, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.