Different types, similar spices…
Meatballs are usually associated with Italian cooking, though there are variants in other countries. American meatballs are somewhat different from the traditional Italian version. For starters, Italian meatballs are not served in a marinara sauce or with spaghetti except to cater to American tourists. Secondly, Italian meatballs can be made with many different types of meat instead of the mostly beef version familiar to most Americans. American meatballs are the invention of Italian immigrants who had limited access to traditional ingredients from the old country. They used what they had to create a dish that is now beloved by people from many backgrounds.
Despite the differences between American and Italian meatballs, the herbs and spices that are used in each version are usually the same ones that you see all throughout Italian cooking. The best of these ingredients are:
Arguably the core seasoning of Italian food, garlic is also one of the most popular seasonings in the world. It can be used to flavor vegetables and starches, but is especially popular because of what it brings to meat. Along with its intense earthiness as well as its sulfuric flavor and aroma, garlic brings an umami quality to meatballs. The garlic flavor is part of what makes meatballs contrast perfectly with the sweetness and acidity of a marinara sauce. Note that it is used in both the meatballs and in the marinara sauce itself when making traditional American-style meatballs.
Onion is another umami herb that you will find in a meatball recipe. The onion can be added in its fresh form (minced or grated), but adjustments may be needed to ensure that the meatball is not too moist. It is easier to simply add onion powder, which will not add any extra moisture. Onion powder is also less likely to result in pieces of onion falling into the oil and burning.
When it comes to strong herb flavors in Italian food, you will not get a more ubiquitous example than oregano. It brings an intense, woodsy pine note to meatballs. Oregano’s flavor helps to enhance the savory qualities of meatballs and like garlic, you should use it in both the meatballs and the sauce. You can use dried or fresh oregano, but dried is probably your best option given the fact that fresh oregano is relatively rare and is extremely pungent.
Basil could be considered Italian cuisine’s second herb. It serves as a sweeter counterpoint to oregano’s savory nature. Basil is aromatic, with a bright herbal flavor that includes undertones of mint and licorice. You can use chopped fresh basil or dried basil in your meatballs.
Rosemary is a Mediterranean herb that shows up in both Greek and Italian cuisine. Rosemary’s flavor evokes sage, pine, and thyme but without the more aggressive savory edge of oregano. Like basil, you have the option of using the fresh or dried version in meatballs. If using the fresh, chop the leaves finely to ensure that they are evenly distributed through the ground meat.
Italian parsley is an ingredient used in traditional Italian meatballs and which brings a fresh herbaceous flavor backed by a mild bitterness that can perk up the other flavors in a meatball recipe. In addition, it can enhance the appearance of a meatball by providing little flecks of green.
Red pepper flakes
As with any savory dish, a little heat can only make the dish better. The heat from red pepper flakes helps to enhance the herbs and spices in meatballs as well as the sweetness and acidity of a marinara sauce.