Barbecue meatballs (BBQ meatballs) are a potluck tradition. They’re just so darn easy to make—and any good recipe yields a hefty number of meatballs. Plus, they’re always a hit. It’s not complicated to make them delicious! This BBQ meatball recipe is my all-time favorite, and whip it together anytime I need an awesome appetizer or a hearty potluck dish. This past year I serve it at a Super Bowl Party and got rave reviews.
The norm is BBQ crockpot meatballs. That’s what you’ll find standard at most parties and luncheons. Heck, that was my standard before I discovered this recipe. And I like crockpot meatballs—they’re easy, and they taste pretty okay. The problem is that “pretty okay” is about as good as they every get. Using a slow cooker for meatballs misses a lot of great opportunities to develop that rich, smoky, meaty flavor we all want in our meatballs.
I bake my meatballs. That’s all I do anymore. It’s almost entirely as easy as using a crockpot, and the meatballs turn out waaaaay more flavorful. Especially with barbecue meatballs, baking is the way to go. The baking process allows the meat to brown into that develop a perfect outer texture. And it gives the barbeque sauce that sticky, almost crunchy feeling that is so delicious.
The other great thing about baking? No frying oil required. Now, I get why people fry meatballs. It can produce some really interesting flavors. But I strongly prefer baking these meatballs. I think they taste better overall, and it cuts down on the mess.
The other reason I don’t like frying meatballs is the added oil. Frying in oil significantly increases the overall unhealthiness of your food—which is obvious, of course. We all know that. But some foods just taste better fried. (French fries and donuts, for example.) Meatballs, however, are better and easier in the oven.
If you’re interested in how to make BBQ meatballs on the stove, and are with me in choosing not to fry your meatballs, check out my tips on making these BBQ meatballs in a skillet in the recipe notes.
Of course, you could make easy BBQ meatballs with frozen meatballs. That’s possible. But there’s really no comparison between frozen meatballs and homemade BBQ meatballs. Before I started using this recipe, I used to make what I called “Sweet Baby Ray’s meatballs”—basically just frozen meatballs and barbecue sauce by that name in a crockpot. But this homemade BBQ meatballs is so much better. It yields tender, juicy meatballs.
The homemade BBQ sauce is quick, and easy. It’s a delicious, sweet sauce that is perfect for meatballs. The final result is absolutely fantastic meatballs—slightly smoky and full of meaty flavor.
Give them a try for yourself!
Keeping Things Cool: The secret to tender, light meatballs is remarkably simple: cold. You must keep the fat from breaking down (i.e. melting) before you cook the meatballs, so keeping everything as cold as possible while you work is crucial. This could mean keeping the onion and beef in the fridge when you’re not working directly with them. But it could also mean using a chilled bowl and chilled mixing utensils. If you choose to cook your onion before adding it, make sure it gets cooled completely before mixing it into the meat.
Egg: Lots of people wonder why meatball recipes include egg. There’s a household myth that the egg adds moisture to the recipe—this is not the case. Egg is included in a recipe like this to help hold the meatballs together. It’s a binding ingredient. Meat doesn’t like to stay in nice little balls without help. That’s what the eggs are there for. If you leave them out, you risk having your meatballs fall apart entirely.
Mixing: The more you mix and handle your meatballs, the tough they are going to be. (And I mean tough in the bad way.) If you spend a ton of time packing your meatballs incredibly tightly and compactly, you will end up with rubbery, tough meatballs. You want to handle the meatballs as little as possible—even consider using a fork to shape the meatballs. If you must use your hands, coat them in oil and form each ball quickly and gently. The more gentle you are, the more tender your meatballs will be. I often use an ice cream scoop to form my meatballs, helping to ensure I don’t over-handle them and also guaranteeing that the meatballs have a consistent size.
The Beef: In homemade meat mixtures (like hamburgers, meatballs or even BBQ meatloaf recipes), I’ve found that using fresh, quality meat is especially important. Instead of buying ground beef in those tubes of plastic, look for/ask for freshly ground beef. I use and 80/20 blend. For me, this ratio has just the right amount of fat to make the meatballs tender and juicy without being overbearing. If you want to reduce the overall fat in the recipe, just use a leaner ground beef.
Bread Crumbs: This recipe calls for “soft, fresh bread crumbs.” I’ve found that homemade bread crumbs are best. I usually use just day old stale bread that I have. This allows me to control if any extra butter, fat, salt, etc. gets into the bread crumbs mix. If you absolutely must use store-bought bread crumbs, go for Panko or generic Italian-style breadcrumbs. They tend to be lighter and make for better meatballs.
Liquid Smoke: I love using liquid smoke. It is a handy, handy tool to have when working with meat. It’s designed to recreate the taste of smoke from a grill or smoker. It can provide a wonderful kick of flavor to your recipes and I highly recommend you give it a try. It’s especially perfect for BBQ sauce because it’s so easy to use, and because it allows you to avoid any carcinogens found in actual smoke. It’s a very safe product, and most brands that you’ll find are functionally all-natural. Serious Eats and Cook’s Illustrated both have written extensively on the ingredient, and confirmed that’s it’s safe and useful. Most liquid smoke brands use just smoke and water to make their product.
When using the liquid smoke, remember not to overdo it. Add a little, then taste. It’s easier to add more liquid smoke to your sauce than it is to remake a bunch more sauce to balance out too much smoky flavor.
Jelly: Lots of people like BBQ meatballs with grape jelly. The simple recipe is just to mix grape jelly in with BBQ sauce before you coat the meatballs. That recipe really works better in a crockpot, but you can still make it happen in the oven. Just make sure that each meatballs gets a good helping of the jelly/sauce mixture to soak in while they bake.
Appetizer vs. Main Dish: When I think about BBQ meatballs, “appetizer” is what I typically come up with. And these meatballs work really well in that capacity. However, these delicious meatballs are also awesome as a main dish! You might ask what to serve with BBQ meatballs, and you’re right in being a little confused. It’s an unusual dish to try and pair. I love serving them over plain rice, buttered noodles or, best of all, buttery mashed potatoes.
Seasoning: Whatever else you’ve heard, believe this: it is an absolute and total myth that meatballs don’t some quality seasoning. You can’t just skip the salt and expect flavorful meatballs. The seasoning mix in these meatballs is fantastic. It ensures that each individual meatball is bursting with flavor.
Grilling: Occasionally I’ll decide to grill these BBQ meatballs instead of baking them. (That tends to happen especially in the heat of the summer, when I don’t want a hot oven in my house.) There’s a couple extra considerations when grilling:
- You need to refrigerate the meatballs before putting them on the grill. If you put them on at room temperature, the beef might sink into the slits on the grill and deform your meatballs. Just making sure they’re firm and chilled helps solve this.
- It’s not as simple as putting the meatballs over hot charcoal. I try to use a 2-step process to grill. First, I brown the meatballs directly over the coals. Then I cook them the rest of the way in an aluminum pan over indirect heat. If I’m feeling adventurous, I’ll stick a little log in the grill to get that smoky flavor.
Using a Skillet: To make these meatballs in a skillet, there’s a few tips that will help you to find success:
- Use a preheated skillet. Heat up your skillet to medium heat even before adding your olive oil.
- Don’t cook too many at one time. The meatballs need room to move around on the skillet, so cook in two or even three batches when necessary.
- Don’t assume they’re done when browned. Cooking something as thick as a meatball in a skillet requires some real attention to temperature and done-ness. You’ll want to brown the sides of the meatball—but don’t assume that means that the middle is cooked!
- 2 Cups Soft Fresh Bread Crumbs
- 1 Cup Milk
- 2 Pounds Ground Beef
- 1 Large Egg, Lightly Beaten
- 1 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
- 3/4 Teaspoon Black Pepper
- 1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
- 1 1/2 Teaspoon Chili Powder
- 1/2 Cup Yellow Onion, Finely Chopped
- 1 Cup Ketchup
- 1 Cup Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
- 1/4 Cup Yellow Onion, Finely Chopped
- 2 Teaspoons White Vinegar
- 2 Teaspoons Liquid Smoke
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 9 X 13 inch baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.
- In a medium mixing bowl, add bread crumbs and milk. Allow bread crumbs to sit and absorb the milk, about 8 minutes. Add beef, egg, salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder and onion. Mix until ingredients ar evenly incorporated. Form into 1 1/2 balls and arrange in a single layer in prepared baking dish.
- In a small mixing bowl, combine ketchup, brown sugar, onion, vinegar and liquid smoke. Pour evenly over top of the meatballs.
- Bake uncovered in preheated heated oven, for about 1 hour, or until internal temperature of meatball reaches 160 degrees.