Love big, beefy, old-school Italian meatballs? These hearty and tender herb-infused meatballs are super delicious—and they’re also paleo, Whole30, low carb, nut-free, egg-free, and dairy-free!
My kids adore Italian meatballs, but like me, one of them (Ollie) can’t tolerate gluten. So to appease my little guy (who’s actually taller than me now!), I decided to modify my paleo-friendly Polpette di Vitello recipe from our first cookbook. Instead of using ground veal and making bite-size balls, I substituted ground beef, amped up the umami with some Magic Mushroom Powder, and rolled up some meatballs the size of lacrosse balls. In other words, I made BIG BALLS.
Not only are these meatballs big in size, they’re big in flavor—and you can even make ’em ahead of time so you can quickly cook up a satisfying protein-packed meal anytime you’re craving comfort food!
No breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese, eggs, or nuts!
Traditionally, Italian meatballs are made with a panade, a mixture of breadcrumbs moistened with milk, to help keep them tender. Of course, if you’re a gluten-free and dairy-free cook, you’re in a pickle.
Many turn to almond or coconut flour, but usually the end result is dry, dense, and overcooked lumps of meat. Luckily, I discovered that mashed cauliflower makes a great substitute for panade—the mash binds everything together (even without eggs!) and the meatballs stay nice and light. You’re also sneaking in some undetectable veggies, which is an added bonus!
Don’t overwork the meat!
Because you’re not using panade to keep the meatballs tender, you need to make sure that you don’t overwork the meat. Kneading the meat too much will make your meatballs unpalatably tough. There’s a fine line between ensuring everything is thoroughly mixed and making sure the meatballs don’t fall apart from under-mixing.
Pro tip: use the fresh minced herbs as a guide—as soon as they’re infused throughout the meat mixture, it’s time to roll the meatballs!
How to test the meatballs for seasoning
Nothing makes me sadder than a big batch of under-seasoned meatballs. After all, once they’re cooked, you can’t exactly turn back time and find a way to add more seasoning. That’s why I always cook a little bit of the meatball mixture to check for seasoning and adjust it before cooking off the whole batch.
Simply microwave a small, flattened spoonful of the meat for 30 seconds on a microwave-safe plate or fry it in a small pan until fully cooked. Taste it, adjust the seasoning, and repeat until you’re happy with the level of seasoning. Problem solved!
Broil and simmer!
After you you roll up a dozen hefty meatballs, the most efficient way to cook them is to broil them in a rimmed baking sheet so the tops get browned and then simmer them in marinara sauce until they’re cooked through. It’s fast and easy—especially if you use a high-quality store-bought marinara sauce (my favorite brand is Rao’s).
Make-ahead and storage instructions
These Italian meatballs are great for meal planning! Cook them ahead of time and store the meatballs (in the sauce) in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 days or frozen for up to 3 months. Reheat them on the stovetop in a covered pot until the meatballs are heated through or microwave them in an Anyday dish for about 2 minutes.
- Avocado spray: A little avocado oil is needed to grease the rimmed baking sheet that will be placed under the broiler.
- Ground beef, 20% fat: I like to use ground beef with at least 20% fat in it to keep the meatballs juicy. You can definitely substitute half ground pork or use ground turkey (dark meat, please) if you want to change things up.
- Garlic Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes: Got leftover mash? I hope so, because chilled cauliflower mash is the perfect replacement for panade in these paleo and Whole30 meatballs!
- Small yellow onion: Mince the onion super fine so you don’t have big chunks of crunchy onion in the meatballs. If you don’t have great knife skills, you can grate the onion on a box grater or blitz it in a mini food processor.
- Fresh herbs: Minced fresh parsley (Italian, not the curly stuff) and basil add the right amount of herbaceous kick to these meatballs. Don’t skimp on them!
- Garlic cloves: I use 4 cloves, but use as many cloves as your heart tells you to.
- Magic Mushroom Powder: I love using my Magic Mushroom Powder in this recipe because it adds an extra dimension of umami along with salt. It’s a great way to add flavor without adding parmesan cheese. If you don’t have any MMP, just use the same amount of Diamond Crystal Kosher salt.
- Dried oregano: Although I use fresh basil and Italian parsley in this recipe, I prefer dried oregano over fresh oregano because it gives a distinctive old-school spaghetti-and-meat-sauce vibe to these meatballs.
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Marinara sauce: I use a high quality store-bought marinara sauce (e.g. Rao’s brand) in this recipe. Yes, you can definitely use homemade marinara sauce if you’re fancy like that. (I’m just lazy.)
How to make Italian Meatballs
Arrange the top oven rack 6 inches from the broiler. Turn the broiler on high.
Spray a rimmed baking sheet with avocado oil or brush on a thin layer of avocado oil.
In a large bowl, combine all the meatball ingredients.
Use your hands to gently combine the ingredients until well-combined, but don’t overwork the meat.
Cook a little bit of the meatball meat to taste for seasoning. Add more Magic Mushroom Powder and black pepper if needed.
Use your hands to roll out 12 meatballs.
Arrange the meatballs on the greased rimmed baking sheet.
Broil the meatballs for 8 to 10 minutes or until browned on top.
While the meatballs are broiling, bring the marinara to a boil in a 12-inch large skillet over high heat. Decrease heat to maintain a simmer.
When the meatballs are browned, transfer them to the simmering tomato sauce.
Partially cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the meatballs are fully cooked.
Remove from the heat and sprinkle on the remaining minced Italian parsley.
Serve the homemade Italian meatballs with zoodles, gluten-free pasta, or cauliflower mash.
Love meatballs? Here are some other Whole30 Meatball recipes!
Looking for more recipe ideas? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes on my iPhone and iPad app, and in my cookbooks, Nom Nom Paleo: Food for Humans (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2013), Ready or Not! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2017), and Nom Nom Paleo: Let’s Go! (Andrews McMeel Publishing 2021).
PRINTER-FRIENDLY RECIPE CARD
Italian Meatballs (Paleo, Whole30, Gluten Free)
- Avocado spray
- 2 pounds ground beef 20% fat
- 1 cup Garlic Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes
- 1 small yellow onion finely minced
- ½ cup minced fresh basil
- ¾ cup minced fresh Italian parsley divided
- 4 garlic cloves minced
- 2½ teaspoons Magic Mushroom Powder or Diamond Crystal kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- ¼ teaspoon Freshly ground black pepper
- 5 cups marinara sauce
- Arrange the top oven rack 6 inches from the broiler. Turn the broiler on high.
- Grease a rimmed baking sheet with avocado spray and set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine the beef, mashed cauliflower, onion, basil, ½ cup minced parsley, minced garlic, Magic Mushroom Powder or Diamond Crystal kosher salt, oregano, and black pepper.
- Use your hands to gently combine the ingredients until well-combined, but don’t overwork the meat.
- Microwave a small spoonful of the meat for 30 seconds or fry it in a small frying pan until fully cooked to check for seasoning. Add more Magic Mushroom Powder and black pepper if needed.
- Use your hands to roll out 12 evenly sized meatballs that are about 3-inches in diameter. Arrange the meatballs on the greased rimmed baking sheet, making sure they are evenly spaced.
- Broil the meatballs for 8 to 10 minutes or until browned on top.
- While the meatballs are broiling, bring the marinara to a boil in a 12-inch skillet over high heat. Turn the heat down to maintain a simmer.
- When the meatballs are ready, transfer them to the simmering sauce. Partially cover the pan and simmer for about 10 minutes or until the meatballs are fully cooked.
- Top with reserved ¼ cup minced Italian parsley. Serve with zoodles, gluten-free pasta, or cauliflower mash.