The biggest challenge with meatballs is achieving the perfect amount of brownness on the outside while ensuring that they're cooked all the way through. And of course, browning them adds a lot of wonderful complex flavor to the meatballs, so you definitely don't want to skip this step.
Fortunately, browning meatballs is just the sort of thing a cast iron skillet is perfect for, since you can get it nice and hot to do the browning, and then transfer it directly to the oven to finish cooking.
If you're making spaghetti and meatballs, you can be simmering your sauce while the meatballs are in the oven, then add the meatballs to the sauce to let the flavors of the meat suffuse the sauce.
One thing I don't recommend is simmering the sauce directly in the cast iron pan. That's because tomato sauce is acidic, and it can react with the iron and give the sauce a metallic flavor. Here's more about cooking with cast iron.
Another issue with browning meatballs is that if you make them perfectly round, they'll be harder to brown, because perfect spheres have relatively little surface area to come in contact with the pan. If you shape your meatballs slightly oblong, and just barely flatten them a little, they'll brown more completely. You'll still have to roll them around a bit with a pair of tongs, but not as much.
And when I say "flatten," I do not mean to squash them or pack them tightly. You should shape the meatballs very gently. If you pack them at all tightly, you'll end up with meat rocks instead of meatballs.
I like to use half a pound of ground beef (ground chuck is my favorite) and a quarter pound each of ground pork and ground veal. But you can use equal parts (1/3 pound of each) if that's easier. Or you could skip the veal and just use half beef, half pork.
- ½ lb. ground beef
- ¼ lb. ground pork
- ¼ lb. ground veal
- 1 large slice of sourdough bread (crusts removed, or two slices regular white bread)
- ½ cup buttermilk (or whole milk)
- ½ medium onion (finely chopped)
- 1 clove garlic (chopped)
- 1 egg (beaten)
- ¼ cup parmesan cheese (grated)
- 2 Tbsp. parsley leaves (finely chopped)
- Kosher salt to taste (around 1 tsp.)
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Cut the bread into cubes and combine it with the milk in a bowl. Mash it up until it forms a thick paste.
- In a heavy dutch oven, sauté the onions and garlic in a little bit of oil until the onions are translucent. Remove from heat and set aside so that they have a chance to cool.
- In a large bowl, combine the ground meat with the egg, cheese and parsley.
- Add the bread mixture and the onion-garlic mixture and combine until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. I find my bare hands are best for this.
- Gently form the mixture into meatballs about 1½ inches in diameter. Don't pack them too tightly. If you make them slightly more oval-shaped rather than perfectly round, browning them will be a bit easier.
- Heat about ½ cup of vegetable oil in your dutch oven. You'll want about ¼ inch of oil in the pan.
- When the oil is hot, add the meatballs and brown them for about 10 minutes, rolling them around with a pair of tongs so that they brown evenly all around.
- Remove the meatballs, drain excess oil onto paper towels, and then transfer them to an oven-safe dish.
- Bake the meatballs in the oven for another 10 minutes or until they are cooked through.