Since the mid-20th century, meatballs have been a cocktail party staple. They're flavorful, satisfying, easy to eat-what's not to like? A big perk of the meatball is the fact that it can take on any number of flavors, depending on your seasoning choices. Italian-inspired meatballs, IKEA-style "Swedish" meatballs, and Tex-Mex meatballs all count among the many possibilities, but one type of meatball has a particularly-strong level of nostalgic appeal and crowd pleasing potential: BBQ meatballs. Here, we describe the best types of ground protein for these treats, the best ways to infuse them with classic barbecue flavors, and a step-by-step guide for making your very own batch.
Types of Ground Meat
The simplest answer to this question is "any type you like." Meatballs can be made of chicken, turkey, lamb, salmon, or even plant-based "meat" like Impossible Meat or Beyond Meat. That said, head chef Yankel Polak of ButcherBox recommends a specific blend of ground meat for BBQ meatball purposes: "I always mix equal parts beef and pork for a combination of sweet flavor from the pork, rich beefy flavor from the ground beef and fats that give the meatball great texture. I always recommend using 100% grass-fed beef."
Maximizing BBQ Flavor
To bring the smoky, sweet, savory flavors associated with barbecue into meatballs, you can choose between a couple of different methods. Perhaps the most popular strategy involves glazing the meatballs with (homemade or store-bought) BBQ sauce. "A great BBQ sauce works well," acknowledges Polak.
If you'd prefer to use dry spices to season the ground meat, UK-trained and Colombia-based private chef Michael Johnson recommends a mixture of smoked paprika, salt, and pepper. When combined with minced chiles and garlic, fresh herbs, and a touch of mustard, these spices will provide classic barbecue flavors without the stickiness of BBQ sauce.
How Should BBQ Meatballs be Cooked?
BBQ meatballs are iconic in part because they can be made in several different ways, depending on your preferences and your kitchen setup. Polak tells us his favorite way to make BBQ meatballs: "Throw the meatballs into a cast iron pan and put it on the grill for a few minutes. [The meatballs] absorb all that smoky flavor." If you don't have access to a cooktop or to a grill, you can also cook BBQ meatballs in the oven or in a slow cooker.
What's the Deal with BBQ Meatballs and Grape Jelly?
A mid-century cocktail snack recipe so beloved that Welch's Grape Jelly even includes it on their website, BBQ meatballs with grape jelly might seem like a quirky blend of ingredients, but fans of this finger food fully vouch for its "weird, but it works" appeal. "They work great together! The jelly adds just the right amount of sweetness, and the grapes add a little tartness as well. The sweet-tart combo, along with a smoky spicy BBQ sauce, makes the perfect meatball glaze," says Polak.
- 18 oz ground meat/meat substitute Johnson recommends “good-quality pork with good fat content”
- 1 hot red chile pepper seeded and finely chopped
- 3 scallions finely sliced
- 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
- 2 cloves garlic finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped chives
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- pinch of kosher salt or sea salt
- pinch of ground black pepper
- pinch of smoked paprika
- Add all ingredients to a large mixing bowl and use a spoon or your hands to mix thoroughly.
- Roll the mixture into 18 equally-sized balls.
- Lightly coat the balls with olive oil and add to a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Cook for approximately 4 minutes on each side, or until the insides are cooked through and the outsides are crispy.*
- Serve on a platter with toothpicks, or serve on a piece of crusty baguette with a smear of mustard and chopped pickles.