Who doesn’t love meatballs? Ever since childhood, when we saw Tramp push that last meatball over to Lady with his nose, we were hooked on these little balls of deliciousness. There are lots of ways to make meatballs but the best way, of course, is to skip the meat and make them with veggies. Just like we can make burgers out of pretty much any vegetables, we have just as many options for meatballs. Check out 10 Vegetables that Can Substitute for Meat and 10 Vegetables You Can Make Burgers With for just a partial list.
Whether you like your meatballs on top of spaghetti, nestled in a sub, or on a plate smothered in sauce, we can help you make the best veggie meatballs ever!
1. What is a Meatball?
You may be asking, “What exactly is a meatball and how is it different than a burger?” Good question! A meatball is more than just a ball of meat (or veggies); there is a general recipe to follow. First, there’s the “meat.” The main ingredient can be tofu, tempeh, seitan, textured vegetable protein (TVP), beans, legumes, vegetables, and even nuts and seeds. Then we need to add flavor. The seasoning can be simple herbs and spices or we can use homemade or store-bought spice blends to add ethnic flavor, like in these Thai Green Curry Chickpea Meatballs or these Harissa Lentil Quinoa Meatballs. We can also add flavors if we want the balls to taste like meat or chicken; it’s all just a matter of seasoning. To learn more about this, read 5 Tips to Make Meatless Food Taste Meaty.
Besides spices, we can add flavor to the meatballs with ingredients such as tamari, tomato paste, vegan Worcestershire sauce, or flavored broths. Finally, we need to be sure that the meatballs will hold together with some type of binder. We can use any combination of grains such as rice or quinoa, breadcrumbs, or flour. We can also add vegan eggs or flax or chia seeds to ensure binding. No matter what ingredients you choose, making sure these components are in the mix will help you make delicious meatballs that hold together.
2. Cooking Methods
There are many ways to cook meatballs. Growing up, I knew only one way — my mother would make the meatballs and drop them into the hot pot of tomato sauce bubbling on the stove. The meatballs would simmer until they were cooked, tender, and they tasted so good. That’s what Mom did and that’s how I always cooked my meatballs until I became vegan. Now, I use several different methods for cooking meatballs. They can be fried, sautéed, baked, braised, broiled, or simmered in broth or sauce like my Tofu Gnudi Balls. It’s simply a matter of preference.
The most common method I now use is a combination of pan-searing and baking. After I roll up my meatballs, I sear them for a few minutes in olive oil in a hot skillet, just until they get a crust. Then, I bake them in the oven for 20-30 minutes until they are fully cooked. That crust is not only yummy, but it also helps hold the meatballs together.
3. Meaty Meatballs
If you like your meatballs “meaty,” there are several options for you such as tofu, tempeh, TVP, and seitan. Tofu can be blended until it’s smooth, it holds up well, and it will take on whatever flavors you cook it with. These Kale Tofu Balls use extra-firm tofu and have tons of flavor and nutrition.
Tempeh can be pulsed in a food processor (or crumbled with your hands) until it resembles small pebbles. Meatballs made with tempeh will be heartier and have a grainier texture. Try my Tempeh Meatballs which are gluten-free and these Tempeh Meatballs. These Buffalo Tempeh Meatballs are moist and flavorful after getting tossed in a hot, spicy Buffalo marinara sauce. Serve them with celery and carrot sticks and a creamy dip.
Texturized vegetable protein, or TVP, is already similar to ground meat, so it gives you a good head start on making meatballs. For a soy-free version, try using seitan. These Seitan Meatballs with Tomato Sauce are made with seitan and macadamia nuts. Just swap out the soy sauce with liquid coconut aminos to make them soy-free.
Lentils are healthy, packed with protein, have a “meaty” taste and texture that holds together perfectly for meatballs. They are also economical because lentils are affordable and so easy to prepare. Brown lentils are the best choice since they get soft, sticky, and taste “meatiest.” My Lentil Meatballs are gluten-free and taste amazing whether served on pasta with marinara sauce or topped with gravy on the side of mashed potatoes.
Other lentil meatball recipes you should try include this Lentil Meatball Marinara Sandwich, Beanball Sub Sandwich With Marinara and Greens, Meatless Meatball Sub, BBQ Lentil Meatball Sandwich With Sweet Miso Coleslaw, and this Kale Salad With Lentil Meatballs.
Beans are an excellent choice for meatballs. They are inexpensive, easy to cook, and a great source of protein and fiber. Beans can be mashed or processed to be either smooth or chunky. They are sticky, so they bind well which is especially important when you are not using eggs. Another benefit of beans is the variety of choices, each with a distinct taste and texture. Meatballs can be made from black beans, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, and cannellini beans, just to name a few.
These Spicy Bean Balls With Kale are made with cannellini beans as are these Pumpkin Seed Cannellini Meatballs With Zucchini Spaghetti, Pesto, Mushroom, and White Bean Meatballs, White Bean Meatballs, and this Kale and Orzo Soup With White Bean Balls. If you prefer black beans, try these Manchurian Black Bean Balls in a Savory Gravy Sauce and BBQ Black Bean Ball Sliders on Homemade Rolls. These Cheezy Beanballs are made with everyone’s favorite: chickpeas.
6. Vegetables and Grains
Of course, you can make veggie meatballs from vegetables. Any vegetables you can use to make burgers can be used to make meatballs, for instance, eggplant, potatoes, beets, and mushrooms. When eggplant is cooked and smashed, it is rich and decadent. It makes amazing burgers like my Eggplant Crunchburger and that means it can also make incredible meatballs. I like to stuff my eggplant meatballs with vegan mozzarella for a cheesy surprise when you bite into them. Try my Mozzarella-Stuffed Eggplant Meatballs for yourself. You can also have eggplant meatballs without the cooking. Try these Raw Breaded Eggplant Meatballs With Marinara Sauce. Portobello mushrooms are incredibly savory and meaty, so you know these Zoodles With Tomato Basil Sauce and Portobello Mushrooms are going to be delicious.
Grains can do double-duty in meatballs. They are hearty and also act as a binder. These Baked Quinoa Meatballs are made with quinoa, almonds, flaxseed, and cranberries while this Quinoa Meatball Tagine uses quinoa, chickpeas, and pumpkin seeds.
7. Traditional Italian
Now that you know the basics of making delicious veggie meatballs, let’s get creative. Of course, meatballs bring up the connotation of Italian food. Using herbs and spices such as oregano, parsley, basil, fennel, and red pepper flakes will give your meatballs that Italian flavor. Add nutritional yeast or vegan grated parmesan to the mix, if you want. Serve them in a sub, like this Lentil Meatball Marinara Sub and Beanball Sub Sandwich With Marinara or Greens or over pasta, like in this Zucchini Noodles With Spicy Lentil Meatballs.
8. Go Global
Italian meatballs may be traditional, but we can add flavors to our creations that will take us all over the world while never actually leaving our kitchen! In Greece, meatballs that are fried are called keftedes. They may contain meat, onions, and mint and are served as a comfort food. These Green Keftedes are made with pinto beans while the keftedes in this Giouvarlakia or Greek “Meatball” Soup are made with lentils and cooked in the broth.
Koftas are meatballs that are usually made from meat in India, though they may also be made with vegetables, potatoes, and cheese. These Malai Kofta are made with potatoes, carrots, peas, and cashews, floating in an incredible creamy spiced tomato sauce, while this Potato Kofta in Butter Sauce is a spicy and satisfying dish.
Finally, you no longer have to go furniture shopping at IKEA to enjoy Swedish meatballs, even their vegan ones. Swedish meatballs are usually made with ground meat, milk-soaked bread crumbs, onions, cream, and seasonings. These beautiful Swedish Meatballs With Rose Pepper and Thyme are made with beets and tofu, while these Swedish Meatballs With Lentils and Rice stick to legumes and grains.
Meatballs are fun and delicious. Make them small and stick toothpicks in them for appetizers and party food or make them large and hearty. No matter how you roll, you’ll find that veggie meatballs are rockin’!
Lead image source: Beanball Sub Sandwich with Marinara or Greens