Long time readers of mezze & tapas will know that I was raised in an Italian American household. My earliest memories of food all involve what is commonly referred to as “red sauce” Italian. That is American Italian food. One staple of that was our meatballs in sauce. It probably wasn’t explicit, but I was led to believe growing up that ‘meatballs’ were an Italian thing. Only Italians made meatballs and only Italians made them right. I’m older now, and know that isn’t true. In fact, some of my favorite meatballs aren’t Italian, but Greek. I love keftedakia, easy and delicious Greek meatballs.
Greek meatballs – keftedakia – share much in common with other Mediterranean meatballs. Consider the albondigas in Spain. In Italy it’s the polpette, and France has the crépinettes. Of course there is the kofta, which is widely eaten throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Meatballs are ubiquitous in Mediterranean cuisine. Each region puts its own spin on this classic, which is why there are so many delicious options. One of my favorites is the keftedakia, which I love for their crunchy outside, soft inside, and deep flavory.
Start with the crispy outsides and pillowy soft insides. That is the first of several reasons that keftedakia are appetizing in their own right. They are delicious hot, cold, or room temperature. For this reason, they make a near perfect addition to a mezze platter. They are also wonderful as an appetizer or hors d’oeuvre. When I do my catering work, Keftedakia are almost always on the menu. They are as popular at wedding showers as they are at office gatherings. People often don’t know that it is actuallykeftedakia they are eating, but they do know that they like them.
Two Tricks to Better Keftedakia
How do you achieve the crispy outside and pillowey inside? Two easy tricks. The first is to add something to the meat to keep it moist when you are cooking it. The most common thing to add is a mixture of starch and liquid. Most typically in keftedakia it is milk soaked bread. I achieve the same thing with breadcrumbs and milk. I have also used cooked rice soaked in lemon juice (but that is a bit of gilding the lily and not really necessary). Chef’s have a fancy name for adding a starch and milk mixture. It is called a panade. I’m going to go out on a limb and say most yiayas and nonnis don’t know that it is called a panade. They just know to add the bread and liquid in the meatballs to keep them from drying out.
The second tip? Lightly coat the outside of the keftedakia with flour and pan fry them. While you are shaping the meatballs, heat enough oil in a skillet to make about a ¾” depth of oil. Once the balls are shaped, give them a quick roll through some all purpose flour, and shake of the excess. When the oil is hot enough, you can cook the floured keftedakia in batches in the pan. Cook for about two minutes on one side, then roll the meatball over. Cook an additional two minutes on the other side. If there are uncooked areas on the edges of the keftedakia, turn them to get that area in the fry oil. Give them a minute or so in the oil before taking the meatball out.
Why frying works
Once the keftedakia are fried on all sides, remove from the pan and place on a paper towel lined plate. This frying step creates the crispy outside to the meatball. And frying also works because these keftedakia are relatively small – about 1” in/2.5 cm diameter. This allows them to fully cook during the frying step. Much of the meatball is submerged in the hot oil while cooking. The multiple turnings of the meatball will be sure that the meatball stays in contact with the heat. This keeps the insides cooking too. Because you are not using the dry heat of an oven, the meatballs are less likely to dry out. This ensures that pillowy inside.
To achieve this full cooking, it is important to keep the oil depth about ¾” in/2 cm. If you need to add more oil between batches to keep the depth, go ahead. Just let it heat up before adding the meatballs.
Baked as an option
It is possible to cook keftedakia by baking them on a baking sheet. It takes about the same overall time, but is a bit less messy. It also requires less attention and hands on action from you. This is an advantage if you need the time for other kitchen tasks. When I do larger scale catering, where I may make hundreds of these meatballs, I generally bake them. For that many it is quicker than pan frying. (I don’t use another favorite trick of the commercial kitchen for large batch cooking. Deep frying. I find that it delivers a greasy and unsatisfying meatball).
Baking will ensure you end up with a great flavor. But you will miss the crunchy outside, soft inside hallmark of the pan fried method. If you would like to bake them, heat your oven to 350F/180C. Place the meatballs on a piece of parchment on a baking sheet. You can put them close together. Unlike cookies, they will not grow, but shrink during cooking. Place the meatballs in the oven and bake for about 15 – 20 minutes. You want a meatball in the middle of the tray records 165F/ 73.8C on a thermometer.
Back in my kitchen growing up, every Sunday we had spaghetti and meatballs. My Mom would make the sauce. At some point, she taught my (very Irish) Dad how to make the meatballs. He would often have my sister or me help him. It is among my earliest memories of ‘cooking’. The process was the same every week. In the bowl went the ‘hamburger’ as we called it. To that he would add salt, pepper, oregano, bread crumbs, some milk, and an egg. He’d mix it by hand. If we were lucky, my sister or I got to mix it (it was messy but FUN!). Next my Dad would start with small handfuls of meat, and roll them in a ball in his hand.
On the table would be a paper plate of ‘Italian” bread crumbs (only Italians did bread crumbs too in my young world). When I was helping, my job would be to take the meatball my Dad just rolled, and complete the next step. I had to roll that meatball in the plate of breadcrumbs to coat the whole surface, and the set it aside on a plate. When the plate was done, it would be handed off to my Mom who had a fry pan ready with hot oil. She would quickly ‘brown’ all the meatballs before putting them in her big pot of sauce to cook for the next two to three hours. It was a real family activity and one of my fond memories of childhood. Perhaps I was inspired young to the cooking world!
It also turns out that there was a lot in common with Greek keftedakia. There are key differences as well, but it is an important reminder that there are a lot of similarities in Mediterranean cooking.
I make my keftedakia with a mix of ground beef and lamb. You can feel free to use all bee, all lamb, or all pork. Or any combination of the three of those you would like. When I am serving keftedakia, I will often serve with some homemade tzatziki, and a greek salad on the side. I find that a horiatiki is also a nice accompaniment, as are some greek pita breads. However you have them. I know you will find keftedakia as delicious and easy as they appear! .
keftedakia- the greek meatball
- ¾ cup bread crumbs
- ½ cup milk
- ½ lb ground beef
- ½ lb ground lamb
- ½ cup onion grated
- 1 clove garlic finely grated
- 1 TBS Red wine vinegar
- 2 tsp dried mint
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 1 TSP fresh parsley finley chopped
- 1 egg
- Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- 1 cup oil for frying approximate
- Add the milk to the breadcrumbs and stir until fully incorporated. Set aside for five minutes
- Combine the beef, lamb, onion, garlic, red wine vinegar, mint, oregano, parsley, egg, and breadcrumb mixture and salt and pepper into a bowl large enough to hold it all
- Mix together thoroughly with you hands until a uniform mixture is developed
- Cover and place in refrigerator for an at least an hour, or over night
- When ready, roll meatballs into about a 1”/2.5cm ball
- Add about ½ tsp of kosher salt, and ¼ tsp fresh ground black pepper to the flour and whisk to combine. Set flour on a plate
- Roll each meatball in flour. Shake off the excess.
- Heat oil in a cast iron pan or skillet over medium heat.
- When the olive oil has heated, carefully place the keftedakia in the hot oil.
- Cover and cook for 3-4 minutes.
- Turn keftedakia over and cook for another 3-4 minutes.
- When the keftedakia are done cooking, place them on a paper towel covered plate to soak up the excess oil.