Cranberry Meatballs

Nothing says “winter” quite like cranberry sauce. I have such great memories of my mother concocting awesome dishes from regular old cranberry sauce when I was younger. Now that I have a kitchen of my own, making up holiday cranberry sauce dishes is a great joy. I feel like cranberry sauce is sort of like if “warm and cozy” became a food. This winter, I want to share a great way I’ve found to serve cranberry sauce: cranberry meatballs.

This is the best cocktail meatball recipe I have found. These cranberry meatballs are always a huge hit when I serve them—even with folks who typically don’t like cranberry sauce! I serve them as appetizers, and always include them in our holiday parties and large family gatherings. In fact, I think folks would actively complain to me if I chose not to serve these meatballs during a holiday event.

The reason that these meatballs are so popular is simply, really: they’re darn good. The meat has a fantastic seasoning combination, and the meatballs come out tender and flavorful. Then they’re smothered in a delicious cranberry orange sauce that’s making my stomach rumble just thinking about it!

If you really like sweet and sour meatballs—which are pretty commonly served as appetizers are parties—then you’ll like this recipe, too. The recipes are pretty similar, and in fact I often describe this recipe as “sweet and sour meatballs with cranberry sauce.”

Looking at other recipes for cranberry meatballs, Paula Deen has one that’s pretty good. I prefer this one, because I think the meatballs come out more flavorful and better seasoned. Plus, Paula Deen’s recipe calls for the sauce to be a dipping sauce, whereas I prefer to smother my meatballs in the delicious sauce!

As I looked for other recipes for cranberry meatballs, Southern Living has a whole bunch. But none of them really stack up to this one. Give it a try and see what you think!

Cranberry Meatballs

Recipe Notes:

Meat: When I buy ground beef, I like to know what I want going in. That helps me to avoid staring at the meat section for an hour trying to decide which package of ground beef to go with. In this recipe, I almost always use ground chuck. That’s my personal favorite. The fat content (15-20% in most ground chuck) helps to keep these meatballs deliciously tender and warm. You can also use an 80/20 ground beef.

Bread Crumbs: I like making homemade breadcrumbs. There’s lots of reasons why I think this is better than using store-bought crumbs. The best reason is this: if I make the breadcrumbs myself, I can control what goes into them. I know exactly what seasoning I’m using, exactly what kind of bread, and exactly in what amounts. If I need or want to change anything, it’s easy to do.

With this recipe, I like using French bread or a good sourdough loaf to make the breadcrumbs. I use a food processor, and process the breads pretty fine—I don’t want any big chunks left at all. You’ll rarely hear me say this, but I do not use any seasoning in these breadcrumbs. The meatballs in this recipe are so well-seasoned on their own that adding anything to the breadcrumbs will only take away from the final flavor of the meatballs.

Cranberry Sauce: Which cranberry sauce do you buy? Lots of people have strong opinions about this—and to find the “best one,” it really depends on who you ask. Check out this taste test that was done by Serious Eats if you’re really curious what experts think. For this recipe, quality matters. So, for example, if you have Ocean Spray cranberry sauce, meatballs might not be the best thing to make with it.

Chili Sauce: I call for American style chili sauce in this recipe. That’s really important, because chili sauce can be really different depending on how it’s made. Chili sauce recipes from Latin American countries can be much hotter than what we want to use here. American chili sauce is a regular condiment, like ketchup. You can buy it at most grocery stores. The bulk of the sauce is just tomatoes and chilies.

Most commercially available chili sauces are very mild, and actually tend to be pretty sweet. Again, it’s sort of like ketchup in that way.

Cranberry Meatballs

Condiments: I think lots of people have someone in their life that eats ketchup with everything. You know the kind of person I’m talking about—the person appearing in my head right now likes to dip perfectly cooked steak into ketchup. These cranberry meatballs are awesome on their own. They do not need added condiments. In fact, I think the regular recipe is way better than meatballs with cranberry sauce and ketchup or meatballs with cranberry sauce and BBQ sauce.

Make Ahead: I swear, nothing cuts down on the complexity of a recipe more than being able to make it ahead. Making the dish on your own time is a wonderful, wonderful thing. And these cranberry meatballs are freezer friendly… YES! That is so stinking convenient during the busy holiday season. You can freeze these meatballs for up to one month.

To freeze them, place the cooked and cooled (it’s very important that they are completely cooled) meatballs in a Ziploc freezer bag and remove as much air as possible.

Thaw the meatballs in the refrigerator, rather than on your counter or in the microwave. Make up the sauce once the meatballs are thawed, and simmer both the sauce and the thawed meatballs gently until heated through.

Cranberry Sauerkraut Meatballs

I think it can be difficult to find a dish that has enough flavor balance out the taste of sauerkraut. I don’t use sauerkraut much, because I find it so overpowering. But if you’re a sauerkraut fan, you can consider adding them in to these meatballs. The cranberry orange sauce has a really powerful flavor, as do the meatballs themselves. That makes them a good match for the equally strong taste of sauerkraut.