Ground poultry gets a bad rap. Lean meats like turkey and chicken lack fat (fat = juicy and flavorful meat), and once processed through a meat grinder, the texture becomes mushy…bordering on pasty. Ground poultry is also notorious for drying out while cooking, turning your lean meatballs into pale, golf ball–sized rocks. If you’re looking to lighten up your diet without eliminating meats altogether, ground chicken and turkey aren’t the most exciting alternatives.
But with a few tricks, cooking with ground poultry doesn’t have to be such a bummer. Since these meats lack fat, your first priority should be to imbue them with extra moisture. Depending on the recipe, incorporating bread crumbs soaked in milk, sautéed mirepoix or tapenades/pestos into the meat mixture will add extra moisture as well as a richer flavor. Moisture is vital to proper texture as well — it keeps your mixtures fluffy and happy instead of dense and sad.
Don’t be afraid to add umami intensifiers like tomato paste, harissa and miso to your mirepoix, and cook it until caramelized. Those almost-burnt, deeply colored bits will lend depth and savoriness to the meat in place of animal protein’s natural fat. Dark meat has more fat, and therefore more flavor than white meat, so using ground dark meat will inherently improve the flavor of the dish. However, dark chicken meat, for example, contains nearly twice the overall fat content of white and is also higher in saturated fat. If you’re accustomed to using pork and red meat, then dark meat chicken is a comparatively much healthier alternative, but using ground white meat is the heart-healthiest option.
Lastly, avoid direct, high-heat cooking methods like pan searing. Braising in savory sauces or simmering in broths will help preserve the meats’ juiciness.
My new year’s resolution this year is to lighten up some of my favorite weeknight dinners, including meatballs. (I advocate Meatball Mondays instead of Meatless Mondays.) Below is my template for chicken meatballs. This particular recipe leans Italian, but simply switch out the cheese and parsley for minced ginger and scallions, toss in a little soy sauce, gochujang and fresh cilantro for Asian meatballs instead.
There is plenty of room for improvisation, so follow your gut: If calories aren’t a huge concern, then use dark meat and aged Parmesan; for a leaner meatball, trade the bread crumbs and cheese for roasted celery root and white meat and a modest sprinkling of pine nuts.
Lightened Up Chicken Meatballs (That Don’t Suck)
- 1 1/2 pounds lean ground chicken
- 1 egg plus 1 egg white, loosely beaten
- 3/4 cup gluten-free bread crumbs
- ½ – ¾ cup milk
- 1 medium red onion, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 teaspoon tomato powder (optional)
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 handful parsley leaves, chopped
- 1 handful basil leaves, chopped
- ¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
- Chili flake, to taste
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- Olive oil
- 4 cups prepared basic tomato sauce or marinara
- Preheat oven to 350 F. In a covered saucepan, simmer tomato sauce on low on the stovetop.
- In a separate pan on medium heat, sauté onions and garlic in olive oil until soft, roughly 6 minutes; add tomato paste and powder, if using, generous salt and pepper, and minced oregano; continue to sauté until deeply caramelized but not burnt (roughly 4-6 additional minutes).
- Remove from heat, and let mixture cool.
- In a medium-size bowl, combine onion and garlic mixture with ground chicken, chopped fresh herbs, chili flake, bread crumbs, milk, and cheese. Make a claw with your hand and delicately combine the ingredients until just incorporated. Do not overmix. (Overworking the mixture leads to tough meatballs.) The mixture should be quite wet and loose. If it resembles paste or has an overly tacky consistency, add more milk.
- Let chill for 30 minutes. With wet hands, form meatballs roughly the size of golf balls and place on a cooling rack on top of a baking sheet. Cook the meatballs for about 5 minutes until just set and holding their shape, but not fully cooked.
- Remove from oven and, working carefully, spoon meatballs into pot of simmering basic tomato/marinara sauce to continue cooking, roughly 8-10 minutes. The meatballs can simmer in the sauce for up to an hour without drying out.