A16 Monday Meatballs: Oven-braised vs. sous vide

The meatball. Virtually every culture has its own iteration… but it is probably most closely associated with Italy. Which is probably accurate; no one knows for sure, but it is believed that the earliest meatball recipe was included in Marcus Gavius Apicius’ De Re Coquinaria (“The Art of Cooking”). The is the oldest known collection of recipes. Apicius sounds like a very interesting character who had a true passion for food, and he experimented with new and exotic ingredients with an eccentric creativity and enthusiasm that must have been unusual for his time. I would have liked to have cooked with him!

In his book, he related the merits of various meats for meatballs:

“The ground meat patties of peacock have first place, if they are fried so that they remain tender. Those of pheasant have second place, those of rabbit third, those of chicken fourth, and those of suckling pig fifth.”

The version I have made here includes none of the above (I used more basic ingredients like pork, beef and pancetta), but I can’t help but believe that a good Roman like Apicius would have approved nonetheless.

I highly recommend checking out the A16 Cookbook – A16: Food + Wine – it features many wonderful (and not overly complicated) recipes from that excellent restaurant, such as this meatball recipe.

Monday Meatballs

Serves 6 (about 30 meatballs)

10 ounces boneless pork shoulder, cut into 1-inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food
10 ounces beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes and ground in a meet grinder or finely chopped in a food processor
6 ounces day-old country bread, torn into chunks and ground in a meat grinder or finely chopped in a food
2 ounces pork fat, cut into 1-inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes and
then finely chopped in a food processor
2 ounces prosciutto, cut into 1-inch cubes and ground in a meat grinder or chilled in the freezer for 15 minutes
and then finely chopped in a food processor
1 cup loosely packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon plus 2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 teaspoon dried chili flakes
2/3 cup fresh ricotta, drained if necessary
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 cup whole milk
1 (28-ounce) can San Marzano tomatoes with juices
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Block of Gran Padano for grating
Extra virgin olive oil for finishing

Preheat the oven to 400 F. Coat two rimmed baking sheets with olive oil.
In a large bowl, combine the pork, beef, bread, pork fat, prosciutto, parsley, one tablespoon of the salt, oregano, fennel seeds, and chili flakes and mix with your hands just until all of the ingredients are evenly distributed. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, whisk together the ricotta, eggs, and milk just enough to break up any large curds of ricotta. Add the ricotta mixture to the ground meat mixture and mix lightly with your hands just until incorporated. The mixture should feel wet and tacky. Pinch off a small piece of the mixture, flatten into a disc and cook it in a small sauté pan. Taste it and adjust the seasoning of the mixture with salt if needed. Form the mixture into 1 ½-inch balls each weighing about 2 ounces, and place on the prepared baking sheets. You should have about 30 meatballs.

Bake, rotating the sheets once form front to back, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the meatballs are browned. Remove from the oven and lower the oven temperature to 300 F.
Sprinkle the tomatoes with the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, and then pass the tomatoes and their juices through a food mill fitted with the medium plates. Alternatively, put the entire can of tomatoes in a large bowl, don an apron, and then squeeze the tomatoes into small pieces with your hands.
Pack the meatballs into one large roasting pan or two smaller roasting pans, pour the tomato sauce over the meatballs. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and braise for 1 to 1 ½ hours, or until the meatballs are tender and have absorbed some of the tomato sauce.

Pull the pan(s) out of the oven and uncover. Distribute the basil leaves throughout the sauce.
For each serving, ladle meatballs with some of the sauce into a warmed bowl. Grate Gran Padano over the top, drizzle with olive oil to finish, and serve immediately.

A16 meatballs, ready to go in the oven for a quick browning

As I was making the meatballs, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to try cooking some of them sous vide rather than braising in the oven, and seeing what the differences might be.

I browned all of the meatballs in the oven (for just ten minutes.) Then, I put some of them in the oven with San Marzano tomato sauce, in a roasting pan tightly covered with foil. Baked them at 300F for 90 minutes.

The remaining meatballs, I vacuum sealed with San Marzano tomato sauce. (I froze the sauce in small custard cups first; otherwise it would have been sucked into the vacuum sealer. (This can be avoided with a fancy pro-grade chamber sealer, but most of us home cooks have the more basic variety!) I then cooked them in the Sous Vide Supreme for four hours at 132F.

Meatballs vacuum sealed with sauce in preparation for sous vide

The Results:

The conventionally braised meatballs were fabulous, with a more reduced, and slightly more concentrated sauce.

Oven-braised meatballs

The sous vide batch was moister and more tender (as with just about all things sous vide), with a more diluted sauce. Using this technique, there was of course no evaporation or reduction of the sauce, and additionally, no evaporation of the juices from the meatballs. It was therefore thinner, and more delicately flavored; there were nuances of the tomatoes and meatballs that were detectable in this sauce yet absent from the oven-braised version.

Meatballs sous vide

The difference between the two is a matter of personal preference. Richer and more concentrated vs. lighter and with more layers. From a convenience standpoint, the sous vide method could provide an advantage in that the meatballs could be cooked for 4-8 hours – as opposed to the 1 to 1.5 hours required by the oven-braised version – depending on what your schedule looks like leading up to dinner.

3 comments to A16 Monday Meatballs: Oven-braised vs. sous vide

  • Hi, SF,
    You are doing just what I planned to do, unaided by cookbooks, cooking sous vide with seasonings. The side by side comparison is really great. I’m wondering why you did not make tomato sauce by using tomatoes, carrots, onion, basil, and oregano, in the oven and sous vide. Another way to achieve nearly diaphanous meat balls in homemade tomato sauce is to use the pressure cooker.

  • SF

    Hi, Susan – Thank you for your note! Typically, I would make a more elaborate tomato sauce, but in this case, I followed the recipe from A16 cookbook (I usually try to make a recipe once as written, if I trust it, and then I make my modifications the next time.) As it happened here, the meatballs have enough flavor that somehow simply adding the San Marzanos worked fabulously well and didn’t leave me wanting for anything in terms of flavor. I think adding more to the sauce would have actually detracted from the elegant simplicity and smooth texture that work so well in this recipe.

    Pressure cooker sounds like an interesting approach, I’ll have to try that! Thanks for writing.

    Eat well,


  • Roberto

    So how did the meatballs hold up? I need to make spaghetti and meatballs for 50 people and was wondering if Sous Vide would work for them. I notice your recipe has eggs, which (from what I understand) don’t really cook at 132, won’t the eggs just ooze out of the cooked meat?

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