Tender savory beef meatballs with sauce and cheese doesn’t exactly conjure up phrases like “health food,” but these healthier Oven Baked Meatballs with Parmesan are closer to healthy than you might think. It’s less than 300 calories per serving, it’s made with lean grass-fed beef, bound with whole grain bulgur, and the meatballs are baked not pan fried so they aren’t greasy. And yet it’s is so satisfyingly comforting, that you’ll never feel deprived when you have it for dinner. I mean, look at these meatballs, folks! Can you say “Yum!”
Why Buying Cryovaced Beef Isn’t the Best
I was so psyched to see that one of the local stores where I shop regularly has now changed the way they’re selling organic, grass-fed and locally raised ground beef. They are now grinding the beef in house, and I am doing jumping jacks I am so excited. Here’s why: up until now, it’s been hard to find freshly ground meat that’s also sustainably raised. I always choose grass-fed local beef when possible. Which up until now meant buying it in a plastic cryovac bag.
In meat lab class in culinary school, we used a cryovac machine, and they are decidedly awesome. You just put the meat into a special heavy duty bag, lay it into the machine, close the lid, and all of the air is sucked out of the bag. Then it heat seals the bag close. That means no air can get it, no moisture can get out. In other words, Cryovac technology is awesome because it helps food stay fresher longer. But it also means that it pulls the air space out of ground beef, which really condenses it and changes the texture. It becomes very dense.
That’s why I much prefer beef that hasn’t been cryovaced. Especially when it comes to making oven baked meatballs like these for healthier Parmesan meatballs, or when making meatloaf — you know, recipes where you have to get in with your hands to knead the meat together with the other ingredients.
Those kinds of recipes can be very difficult to manage with the dense meat that’s been cryovaced. It’s hard to keep the meat mixture from becoming overworked but evenly mixed with the onions and garlic and binders. Even browning meat and crumbling it with a spoon like in chop suey or in healthy skillet shepherd’s pie can be a challenge.
So, anyway to make a short story long, now I have a source for beef that is loosely packed, and can easily be blended into meatballs- without fear of overworking it. Hence that’s why you will be seeing me in the meat department doing enthusiastic jumping jacks.
Now let’s talk about these meatballs, because that’s why you’re here right?
How to Bake Meatballs with Parmesan
To hold these oven baked meatballs together, I used bulgar wheat nstead of breadcrumbs, which is a tricky move for two reasons. One, it is a whole unrefined grain. Meaning, it’s just wheat that’s been cracked and par-cooked. So it retains all of its fiber and nutritional benefits. Secondly its texture mimics that of the beef, so it acts not only as a binder, but also as a bulking agent.
I wish I could take credit for this awesome innovation, but have to give credit that I learned this trick from working in the EatingWell test kitchen. You can see an example here and one here. Soften the Bulgar with hot water while you prep the rest of the ingredients.
Next, sauté the veggies. This step is so important, and though I really knew it all along, it really hit home when I went through the whole revelation of the difference between meatloaf the kids would and would not eat. This only takes about 5 minutes, and it mellows out the flavor of the garlic and onion and softens the texture so that they just melt into the beef.
To season the meat, I added in grated Parm and a touch of sweet spice (either allspice or cinnamon). Since this is grass-fed beef, seasoning with a bit of a heavier than usual hand is really helpful to balance the gaminess of the meat.
Once the bulgur is prepared, the meat has been seasoned, and the veggies are softened, you can form the meatballs. I was able to get about 21 meatballs from this recipe, and I recommend keeping yours on the smaller side (this cuts down on the baking time).
Finally, you’re ready to bake the meatballs. Bake them on a rack, if possible. This is a step that really helps to keep the grease at bay. As the meatballs bake, the fat renders out and drips below the rack onto the foil-lined baking tray, and keeps the meatballs from getting all greasy. Bonus: the foil helps to make the clean-up easy!
After the meatballs are baked, transfer them to a large skillet. Then top with jarred marinara sauce. Kudos to you if you want to make some from scratch! Top the oven baked meatballs with 5 ounces of shredded cheese. I used Cabot Alpine since it is Parm plus Cheddar all wrapped up in one delicious cheese. You can also use mozzarella or Asiago. If you use mozzarella, I’d like to encourage you to hand grate it since the stuff in the bag that’s pre-shredded is coated in starch, so it doesn’t melt as well. Also note: if you’re using Asiago you need less cheese, which will save on calories.
Do you have a local source for beef that is both sustainable and ground in-house?
Have you ever heard of using bulgar in meatballs before?
Which kind of cheese will you use to make this.
More Healthy Beef Recipes:
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Healthier Baked Meatball Parmesan with less than 300 calories per serving, it’s bound with whole grain bulgur, and the meatballs are baked not pan fried. And yet it’s is so satisfyingly comforting, that you’ll never feel deprived when you have it for dinner.
- ¼ cup bulgur wheat
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, diced
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 egg white
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- Pinch cayenne, optional
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon allspice or cinnamon
- 1 pound 90% lean beef, preferably grass-fed
- 1 cup marinara sauce
- 5 ounces shredded Cheddar cheese (such as Cabot Alpine), mozzarella or ½ cup shredded Asiago cheese
- Place bulgur in a medium bowl. Pour boiling water over it and let sit until the water is lukewarm and the bulgur is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain through a fine mesh sieve.
- Meanwhile heat oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and cook, stirring often until the onion is translucent but not brown, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Combine the bulgur and the onion in a large bowl. Let cool 10 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Set a rack (as for cooling cookies) on the sheet pan. Lightly coat the rack with cooking spray or brush with oil.
- Add egg white, Parmesan, crushed red pepper flakes, salt and allspice or cinnamon to the onion and bulgur mixture and stir to combine. Add beef and knead to combine to a smooth consistency.
- Form into 21 meatballs. Set the meatballs on the baking sheet. Bake until browned and cooked through, 15 to 18 minutes.
- Transfer the meatballs to a large skillet. Top with sauce and shredded cheese. Bake until the sauce is hot and the cheese on top is melted, 8 to 10 minutes.
- Serving Size: 3 meatballs, topped with sauce and cheese
- Calories: 288
- Fat: 17 g
- Carbohydrates: 10
- Fiber: 1
- Protein: 23
Keywords: oven baked meatballs, how to bake meatballs, parmesan meatballs