When they're properly made, meatballs are moist, tender and juicy. Unfortunately, even the best of cooks occasionally produce a batch that fall well short of that ideal. If you're in the unfortunate position of making up a batch of meatballs only to find them hard and dry, take heart. There are ways to salvage both cooked and uncooked meatballs.
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What Goes Wrong
There are several factors that can cause meatballs to be less than satisfactory. One of the most common is using a very lean grind of beef. While this is desirable from the health perspective, it means the recipe needs to be adjusted to compensate for the reduced amount of fat. Various ingredients can be substituted to give a moist result. Overcooking is another common cause of dry meatballs. Like a sausage, meatballs are best cooked gently.
Salvaging Cooked Meatballs
There are several ways to salvage dry meatballs. If you have the time, pierce them all over with a toothpick or fork and drop them into broth or a sauce. They'll absorb moisture from a broth or thin sauce in as little as 30 minutes. If you can postpone the meatballs to another meal, let them simmer in sauce for two or three hours until the proteins have broken down and softened. In a pinch, you can sacrifice esthetics for pragmatism and cut the meatballs in half. This helps them absorb liquids more quickly.
Correcting the Uncooked Portion
If you've made up a large batch of meatballs, you might still have half the batch sitting in your refrigerator waiting its turn. You can improve the texture of the meatballs by adding either a moistening ingredient or a moisture-retaining ingredient. Appropriate moistening ingredients include ice water, milk, tomato juice, broth and shredded vegetables or vegetable purees. Moisture-retaining ingredients are starchy binding agents such as breadcrumbs, bread soaked in milk, cooked rice or even a small amount of leftover white sauce. Work one or more of these ingredients into the leftover meatball mixture, then carefully cook samples to test the new texture.
Tweaking Your Recipe
Unless you're using a time-tested recipe that until now has never failed, you should look carefully at your recipe. Compare it to other meatball recipes, especially those from reliable sources. Recipes with notably more or less binding ingredients than others can be problematic. One of the best techniques for moist, tender meatballs is to work ice water into the meat before adding the other ingredients. A pound of lean beef can absorb more than a half-cup of water, added a tablespoon at a time. This keeps the finished meatballs moist and delicate, while adding no fat or calories.