Tsukune, savory Japanese grilled ground chicken meatballs, can easily be made Whole30-friendly and gluten-free at home. Along the way, I’ve simplified the process even further so you can broil them in the oven any time you’re craving these umami-packed bites!

A platter of healthy Whole30 tsukune, Japanese chicken meatballs.

A paleo and gluten free tsukune recipe!

Many moons ago, I fell in love with tsukune at a casual yakitori restaurant after stuffing my face with a myriad of smoky grilled chicken skewers. Our family sampled the whole menu, but the one dish we kept ordering from the kitchen was tsukune—we couldn’t get enough of the juicy meatballs glazed with a thin layer of tare sauce, a tangy and sweet soy sauce-based dipping sauce (kinda like a thin teriyaki sauce).

After I discovered my gluten intolerance, the joy was sucked out of dining at yakitori joints because none of the grilled chicken skewers could be dunked in the tasty tare sauce. Cue sad trombone.

Easy Whole30 Tare Sauce

But recently, I was able to turn my frown upside down after realizing that my super versatile All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce can be used in place of tare sauce! It hits the same flavor notes as a traditional tare, but it doesn’t contain soy, gluten, sake, mirin, or refined sugar. See, non-believers? I told you All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce can be used to make a bazillion dishes!

A side shot of a platter of paleo tsukune, gluten-free Japanese ground chicken meatballs.

Tips for making fab tsukune at home

  • Use ground chicken thighs, not super lean breast meat. NO ONE WANTS DRY BALLS IN THEIR MOUTH. (I buy ground chicken thighs at Whole Foods or at a Japanese grocery store. Also, a good butcher can help you grind chicken thighs! You can also cube up boneless, skinless chicken thighs and freeze them for 30 minutes before pulsing them in a food processor.)
  • You can store the meatball mixture in the fridge for up to a day in advance before cooking them.
  • Mixing finely grated dried shiitake mushroom (I use this microplane) into the batter is a game-changer! I learned this tip from my chef sister (the co-creator of my Magic Mushroom Powder) and believe me: she knows umami.
  • Fry up a tiny patty of the tsukune mixture to taste for seasoning. This small step will be worth it if you want delicious meatballs.
  • Don’t add raw ginger because it will make the meatballs mushy! Raw ginger contains an enzyme that breaks down protein so don’t add it!
  • Baste the chicken tsukune three times with All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce during the cooking process to ensure the meatballs are well-coated with a sheen of this fantastic sauce.
  • Don’t bother putting the meatballs on skewers—it’s a pain to do so, and you’ll end up taking the meatball off the bamboo skewer to eat them anyway!

Ingredients

  • Ground chicken thigh: Although tsukune is traditionally made with ground chicken, you can definitely substitute ground pork, beef, or turkey.
  • Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • Toasted sesame oil
  • Scallions or green onions
  • Shallot
  • Dried shiitake mushroom
  • Avocado oil or high temperature cooking fat of choice
  • All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce
  • Toasted sesame seeds (optional)

How to make Tsukune

Combine the ground chicken, salt, sesame oil, scallions, and shallot in a large bowl.

Adding the scallions and diced shallots to the Whole30 tsukune chicken meatball mixture.

Use a microplane to grate the dried shiitake onto the meatball mixture.

Grating a dried shiitake mushroom onto the paleo tsukune meatball mixture.

Knead the mixture very thoroughly with your hands. The final texture should be sticky and tacky.

Kneading the paleo tsukune ground chicken mixture until it is sticky and tacky.

Fry up a tiny patty and taste it for seasoning. Adjust with additional salt if needed.

Frying a small patty of Japanese chicken meatball to taste for seasoning.

Cover the bowl and chill the meatball mixture in the fridge for at least an hour and up to a day. Chilling the mixture will make it easier to roll out your meatballs, but if you don’t have time, just make them right away.

Covering the raw tsukune mixture with a silicone lid before placing it in the fridge.

When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, turn on the broiler and arrange the oven rack so that it’s 6 inches from the heating element.

While the oven heats up, brush a rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan with avocado oil. Scoop out 24 meatballs with a #40 disher (~1½ tablespoons)…

Brushing avocado oil onto a rimmed baking sheet before scooping the tsukune meatballs onto it.

…and roll them into uniform size balls with your hands. (If you add avocado oil to your hands, the meatballs won’t stick!)

Rolling the tsukune meatballs by hand.

Arrange the chicken meatballs evenly on the greased baking sheet.

A rimmed baking sheet filled with Whole30 tsukune that is ready to be baked in the oven.

Broil the meatballs for 2 minutes, and then brush them with All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce. Rotate the tray 180 degrees.

A shot of someone pouring gluten-free All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce in a measuring cup to baste on top of tsukune, Japanese chicken meatballs.

Repeat the above step twice more so that the meatballs are cooked for a grand total of 8 minutes (not including basting time) and the meatballs are basted with the sauce three times.

Rotating a tray of Whole30 tsukune, Japanese ground chicken meatballs.

The meatballs are finished cooking when the tops are browned and cooked through. Make sure they don’t burn or get overcooked.

Baked Whole30 Tsukune that are nicely browned on top.

Top with toasted sesame seeds if desired. Serve immediately!

A platter piled high with Whole30-friendly tsukune, Japanese chicken meatballs.

What do you serve as a side dish?

I sound like a broken record, but you can serve any vegetable side dish with tsukune. Need recommendations? You can make Instant Pot Vegetable Soup, Asian Cauliflower Fried Rice, or Smashed Cucumber and Carrot Salad. Or just toss a salad, people.

How do you store leftovers?

I store the leftovers in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 4 days or in the freezer for up to 6 months. I always freeze cooked meatballs and thaw them before I reheat them in the oven or air fryer.


Looking for more recipe ideas? Head on over to my Recipe Index. You’ll also find exclusive recipes 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 2022).


PRINTER-FRIENDLY RECIPE CARD

Tsukune (Whole30 Japanese Chicken Meatballs)

4.82 from 27 votes
Prep Time15 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Chilling time1 hour
Total Time45 minutes
Servings 4 people
These Whole30-friendly Tsukune, a savory Japanese grilled ground chicken meatball, can easily be baked at home in the oven!

Ingredients 
 

  • pounds ground chicken thighs
  • teaspoons Diamond Crystal kosher salt  use only ¾ teaspoon salt if using a fine grain salt
  • ½ teaspoon toasted sesame oil
  • 2 scallions minced
  • 1 medium shallot minced
  • 1 dried shiitake mushroom
  • 1 tablespoon avocado oil or high temperature cooking fat of choice
  • cup All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds optional

Instructions 

  • Combine the ground chicken, salt, sesame oil, scallions, and shallot in a large bowl. Use a microplane to grate the dried shiitake onto the meatball mixture.
  • Knead the mixture very thoroughly with your hands. The final texture should be sticky and tacky.
  • Fry up a tiny patty and taste it for seasoning. Adjust with additional salt if needed.
  • Cover the bowl and chill the meatball mixture in the fridge for at least an hour and up to a day. Chilling the mixture will make it easier to roll out your meatballs, but if you don’t have time, just make them right away.
  • When you’re ready to cook the meatballs, turn on the broiler and arrange the oven rack so that it’s 6 inches from the heating element. While the oven heats up, brush a rimmed baking sheet or broiler pan with avocado oil.
  • Scoop out 24 meatballs with a #40 disher (~1½ tablespoons) and roll them into uniform size balls with your hands. (If you add avocado oil to your hands, the meatballs won’t stick!) Arrange the chicken meatballs evenly on the greased baking sheet.
  • Broil the meatballs for 2 minutes, and then brush them with All-Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce. Rotate the tray 180 degrees.
  • Repeat the above step twice more so that the meatballs are cooked for a grand total of 8 minutes (not including basting time) and the meatballs are basted with the sauce three times.
  • The meatballs are finished cooking when the tops are browned and cooked through. Make sure they don’t burn or get overcooked. (The final internal temperature should be 165°F.)
  • Top with toasted sesame seeds if desired. Serve immediately!

Video

Notes

  • Depending on how hot your broiler is, the meatballs may take longer or shorter to cook. Just keep an eye on them and stab them with a meat thermometer to double check that they are done.
  • You can cook the meatballs in an air fryer at 400°F following the directions in step 7 onward.

Nutrition

Calories: 309kcal | Carbohydrates: 3g | Protein: 31g | Fat: 20g | Fiber: 1g | Sugar: 1g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Like this? Leave a comment below!

About Michelle Tam

Hello! My name is Michelle Tam, and I love to eat. I think about food all the time. It borders on obsession. I’ve always loved the sights and smells of the kitchen. My mother was (and is) an excellent cook, and as a kid, I was her little shadow as she prepared supper each night. From her, I gained a deep, abiding love for magically transforming pantry items into mouth-watering family meals.

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Recipe Rating




33 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    Made these last night and while mine were not as pretty, they were YUMMY! I new favorite for sure and something that will be in our meal planning rotation. My husband is allergic to mushrooms so I left out the shiitake and they were still fantastic. I served them over a big salad that had cucumbers, butter lettuce, red cabbage, carrots and pepitas with a honey lime vinaigrette. So good. Thank you for a great recipe!

  2. What is the best way to make ahead? Should I roll the raw balls and then freeze? or bake all the way through and then freeze and then reheat in the oven?

  3. 5 stars
    These are delicious and so easy to make. I subbed your Sesame Ginger Dressing for the All Purpose Stir-Fry Sauce, and that worked really well, too.