Leave it to Italy to know the secret for how to make gluten-free meatballs even better than the original. Swap in one simple ingredient (can you guess?), and you’ll wonder why you ever thought you needed breadcrumbs at all.
After a recent trip to Italy, my sister-in-law brought back a simple meatball tweak. Rather than using breadcrumbs in the mixture, she said, try swapping in the everyday ingredient that’s got all the health benefits of vegetables and none of the gluten people struggle to digest. What’s that ingredient? Take a page from your basic mirepoix: use celery.
Why Do Traditional Meatballs Contain Breadcrumbs?
When most people think of meatballs, they think of a few standard ingredients: meat, eggs, maybe cheese and, of course, breadcrumbs. According to one poster in a Stack Exchange forum, using breadcrumbs comes from a desire to improve meatball texture. When you add bread, “[the feel of the meatballs] is smoother and spongier. The breadcrumbs also soak up liquid, so the product doesn’t lose as much and stays moister.” Using leftover bread in a meatball mixture also accomplishes one more goal: stretches your meat. According to another comment: “[The idea] started back in the depression when they wanted meat to stretch out, [so] they would add the crumbs.”
Common Alternatives to Using Breadcrumbs
Regardless of whether a recipe uses breadcrumbs for taste or for frugality, this ingredient is not irreplaceable. Maybe that’s already obvious? Search online, and you’ll find all kinds of breadcrumb subs. People use uncooked rice, for example; you can also try crushed crackers, flour or oats. Additionally, there are articles and forums citing vegetables, finely chopped or pureed into the mix. In Italy, my sister-in-law heard to use celery. In one online recipe, someone tried mushrooms and onions.
Why Swap in Celery
Here’s why using celery makes sense, even beyond the Italian endorsement. Containing 30 milligrams of sodium in each stalk, it adds a natural saltiness, perfect for enhancing a meatball’s flavor. Diced small, it lends just the faintest extra chew to your final product, making it a little more interesting and unique. Celery is a subtle flavor, not at all overpowering, contributing a kiss of grassiness and bulking up the meatballs, to boot.
How to Make Gluten-Free Meatballs with Celery
To test this idea, I took our favorite recipe for meatballs, which is based off a version in this vintage cookbook, and subbed finely diced celery one to one for breadcrumbs. Here are a few observations from the project:
- Celery only increases the aromatic appeal of ingredients like parsley, garlic and Pecorino. Mixing the meatballs was as enjoyable as ever.
- You want to dice the celery as finely as you can. Some recipes will ask you to blend it in a food processor. Why? Nobody wants a giant chunk of celery interfering with a meatball bite.
- The meatballs formed just as easily.
- They cooked just as beautifully.
- You don’t miss the breadcrumbs.
Want to Give Gluten-Free Meatballs a Try? Here’s What to Do
If you’re interested in trying this idea, you can swap celery for breadcrumbs in whatever meatball recipe you like. Below is the one I used, doubled from its cookbook original and modified slightly.
How to Make Gluten-Free Meatballs
Recipe adapted from The New Antoinette Pope School Cookbook
1 pound grass-fed ground beef
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1/2 cup chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, grated or minced
1/2 cup grated Pecorino cheese
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Preheat oven to 375F. Lightly oil a rimmed baking sheet.
In a large bowl, use your clean hands to combine all the ingredients. Form them into two-inch balls, and place them on the baking sheet. Slide this baking sheet into the oven, and cook for 40 to 45 minutes. It’s not necessary to flip them halfway through; the bottoms will sear nicely. If you want both the tops and bottoms to sear, however, you can choose to flip them at some point in the baking process.
After they’re done, let them cool slightly before adding to your favorite sauce.
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