These healthy Italian meatballs without breadcrumbs are pillowy soft and juicy, low-carb and gluten-free!
They are keto & gluten-free freezer-friendly meatballs that are super quick to make in the air fryer, in the oven or simply pan-fried!
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Why you’ll love this meatball recipe
- These meatballs are soft and juicy and have an authentic Italian flavor!
- Without breadcrumbs, these healthy meatballs are suitable for keto, low-carb and gluten-free diets.
- I’ll give you easy to follow instructions for making them in the air fryer, baked in the oven or pan-fried.
- They are perfect to make in a big batch, easy to portion out and meal prep.
- These keto meatballs freeze wonderfully and you can have a quick keto snack or dinner ready any day of the week!
Are meatballs keto
No, your usual store bought or restaurant meatball is not keto. Traditional meatballs contain varying amounts of breadcrumbs or stale bread mixed with milk (called panade).
You’d think that meatballs are a fairly safe keto or low-carb option when eating out. Or that frozen meatballs are a convenient way to make a quick keto dinner. But the breadcrumbs in a large portion of meatballs can add enough carbs to kick you out of ketosis.
That’s why as a fan of meatballs I created this keto recipe, without breadcrumbs! But I had to find a good replacement. You can’t just make meatballs without breadcrumbs…
Why do meatballs need breadcrumbs
Some people think that breadcrumbs are added to make the meat hold together in a meatball shape. That’s incorrect: it’s the egg that holds the meat together in a meatball recipe. The breadcrumbs are added for moisture.
You see, while not ideal for a low-carb diet, breadcrumbs or panade will do wonders for the juicy texture of meatballs and meatloaves.
Trying to evade the carbs and gluten, I tried making meat-only meatballs. After all, if burgers don’t need bread in them meatballs shouldn’t either. Right? Well, no. Breadless meatballs are a bad idea. Unless you’ll want to use them to play catch.
But why do meatballs need breadcrumbs if burgers don’t?
It’s because burgers are cooked faster, to medium or medium well max (hopefully). Meatballs (and meatloaf) are cooked all the way through until there’s no pink left inside. And herein lies the problem.
The longer ground meat is cooked, the firmer it gets. The proteins in the meat tighten and create a dry, and even rubbery, texture. Which is no good. Meatballs aren’t supposed to be tough, they should be easy to bite into, tender and juicy.
The solution: add something in between the meat fibers that will prevent them from fusing together. The keto solution: Other than bread 😉
Keto breadcrumbs substitute
Only meat meatballs, although perfect in its macros and simplicity, don’t cut the mustard. So, what is a keto or low-carb cook to do for pillowy soft, mouth-watering breadcrumb free meatballs?
In case you are wondering about pork panko, it might look like an easy and keto friendly way to replace breadcrumbs (and they are!) BUT, not in meatballs. They are great for breading, but not for holding in moisture.
Instead, I mix collagen-rich gelatin with grains of almond flour, expanding the juiciness of the meatballs tenfold! I prefer grass-fed beef gelatin but you can also use regular unflavored gelatin powder. Dissolve the gelatin in beef or chicken stock to add a punch of flavor!
Ingredients you’ll need
- Ground beef, or ground beef and ground pork mix – the Italian style.
- Italian herbs: oregano, basil and thyme, or just use Italian seasoning.
- Black pepper, and red pepper flakes (only if you like them, of course!)
- Chopped onion and garlic, with a little extra virgin olive oil to fry.
- Almond flour, gelatin (either grass-fed beef gelatin or Knox) and beef or chicken stock – to make the best keto breadcrumbs substitute!
How to make keto Italian meatballs
1. Almond flour breadcrumbs
First, prepare the almond flour breadcrumbs with gelatin that will make your keto Italian meatballs super juicy and moist.
In a wide bowl or deep dish, evenly sprinkle the powdered unflavored gelatin into beef or chicken broth. This is for the best flavor, you could use plain water if you prefer. Let the gelatin soften.
If the softened gelatin is lumpy, heat it in the microwave just until it’s melted. Be careful and only gently heat, as boiled gelatin will lose its gelling properties.
Add the almond flour to the stock and gelatin and put the mix in the fridge to harden. It will take about 2 hours. You can do this the day before.
You can now process it into a gelatinous almond flour: slice up the gelatin all over with a knife, then crush it with a fork into small even pieces, into a soft sort of breadcrumb. Now, for the no-bread Italian meatballs!
2. Mix the meatballs
First, choose your ground meat. I made my Italian meatballs with ground beef only, and used a lean mince for more protein and less fat, as I like in my macros. You may prefer the Italian classic, a delicious combo of ground pork and ground beef (in equal amounts).
Chop an onion, as small as you can (optionally, grate it), and crush some garlic cloves.
Cook them up with a little extra virgin olive oil starting up on medium heat until translucent, then turn down the heat and cook them until they reach a deep golden brown color. Toss them around occasionally to avoid burning.
Turn off the heat and let the onions and garlic cool down completely. Then, add them to the ground meat, together with the salt, spices, the egg, and the almond flour and gelatin keto breadcrumbs.
Put your hands in there (or use a big spoon, but it will take longer) and mix everything together into a glorious keto meatball batter.
Shape your meatballs with love and care, no need to squeeze them. I rolled them up to about the size of a ping pong ball and got 24 out of this recipe. They are ready to cook, ideally in the air fryer or pan-fried.
3 ways to cook – Instructions
Air fryer cooking instructions
Making these keto meatballs in the air fryer is the best, easiest and fastest way to get them crispy and super juicy!
Air frying is a very efficient way to cook, so the meatballs barely lose any moisture. They get to keep their perfect round shape, and will barely change in size. The meatball you roll is the meatball you get!
The only downside to air frying meatballs is that you have to do it in batches, as most air fryers are fairly small and you absolutely cannot pile on the meatballs. My air fryer is on its last legs, and I can’t wait to get myself the hugest air fryer possible and make all meatballs at once!
How to pan-fry meatballs
Pan-fried meatballs are great, as they cook fast, but they are a bit more labor intensive than air-fried meatballs. But, if you don’t have an air fryer, pan-fried meatballs are your best bet for delicious, juicy meatballs!
Pan-frying meatballs can get messy with all the oil splattering, so I suggest using a splatter shield to let the steam out while keeping hot fat droplets in.
Another downside of pan-frying meatballs is that the meat can stick to the pan and they might cook unevenly, but you just need to toss and turn them now and then to avoid this disaster.
If there is one great advantage of pan-frying meatballs, it’s how much more flavorful they get. To make these meatballs really pop, use an extra flavorful fat, like a nice extra virgin olive oil, lard or tallow. Duck or goose fat are also a terrific option, they’re not only for (keto) potatoes!
Oven baked meatballs
If there is one great thing about cooking meatballs in the oven, is that it’s totally hands-free and, if you line your baking pan, mess-free cooking method.
If you line the pan with aluminum foil, after removing the meatballs, just roll it over and throw it away! No washing up to do! So, it can be said that oven-baked meatballs are really the best, depending on the cook’s priorities.
Unfortunately, meatballs made in the oven tend to shrink some and might get a little dry, as they lose a lot of water with the longer cooking time. But, if you don’t have an air fryer and can’t stand the pan frying mess (which I’m also rarely in the mood for), it’s okay to use the oven. The meatballs will still be delicious!
How to serve keto meatballs
The Italian way
In Italy spaghetti and meatballs are not really “a thing”. If you manage to find a restaurant that serves it, you’ve probably fallen into a tourist trap.
Italians generally serve their meatballs (called polpetta) in a keto friendlier way: sauce-less and on their own as a meal course or as a snack. Sure, they put bread in their meatballs mix, but at least no extra pasta carbs are served along.
Perhaps then, instead of going through the trouble of getting keto spaghetti and meatballs, you can enjoy the meatballs just by themselves:
Meatballs snacks or appetizers
You can plate the plain meatballs just garnished with chopped parsley or basil. You can add a marinara dipping sauce on the side. For your special guests that prefer clean fingers over fun, offer some toothpicks!
A possible even better way of eating your meatballs is à la Joey: his favorite, the classic meatball sub! Made with an easy pan-fried keto bun, this is my favorite too!
Cooked in sauce
To serve meatballs in sauce, you still need to cook them (a bit) first. Throwing the raw meatballs into the sauce will make them lose their shape, and they might even crumble apart.
You don’t need to fully cook them before adding to the sauce, but make sure to sear the outside in a hot pan with some oil until they are lightly browned first. Then, you can add the seared meatballs into your favorite sauce and simmer them all together until they finish cooking.
Storage and freezing
If you have meatball leftovers, you can keep them refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days. You can reheat them in the microwave, air fryer or in the oven. Warm them up just until the get hot, so they don’t overcook.
These keto almond flour meatballs are perfect to make ahead and freeze until whenever you need meatballs without having to drive to Ikea!
To freeze the meatballs, line up a sheet pan with parchment paper and place the meatballs on it without letting them touch one another. This way, you can freeze the meatballs without them getting stuck together.
Take the meatballs to the freezer until fully frozen. Then, remove the meatballs from the sheet pan and put them inside a sealable plastic bag, or into any freezer friendly container with an airtight lid, and back into the freezer where they can stay for as long as you need!
This method works for either cooked or uncooked meatballs. But if possible, I recommend freezing them uncooked as they won’t be as soft when cooked for the second time.
You can easily cook the meatballs frozen, without thawing. Just add about 5 more minutes to the cooking time!
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