Greek Meatballs (Keftedes)

Are you head-over-heels in love with meatballs? No? I was never a big meatball fan either. But then Mama made greek meatballs, and I found myself in an alternate meatball universe. These weren’t meatballs so much as they were fluffy meat clouds with a crispy crust that released a minty oregano-scented steam when pierced. You may think this hyperbole; if so, just try them.

I should probably mention that this is not one of the quick and simple greek recipes. It’s not particularly difficult in the sense of requiring arcane cooking skills, but it does require a bit of time. Don’t come home from work at 6 pm and expect to have these on the table before everybody goes to bed famished and angry. :-P I like to mix up a batch on a Friday because I get home earlier than usual, and then the meat mixture sits in the refrigerator until the next day when I have time to roll out the meatballs and fry them up.

I can’t tell you exactly how long the prepping takes because I take a lot of sitting-down-to-check-my-email breaks while I’m cooking. I can tell you that it takes about 45 minutes to roll out the meatballs and about 45 minutes to fry them. This works out great if you have a helper. Usually I roll and Zoe fries; I get a head start as she waits for the oil to heat up, and then she finishes the last batch of meatballs about 10 minutes after I rolled them.

By the way, Mama is renowned as an amazing meatball maker amongst all her friends and family in Greece. This is not just any old Greek meatball recipe, it is Mama’s exact kefted recipe, coveted by many, known by few.

The Meat Mixture:

1 lb ground beef
2 large onions or 3 medium (about 1 1/4 pounds), chopped as finely as you can stand to chop them
1 bunch parsley, chopped finely
fresh oregano, 40 tips from the garden, minced, or 1 TB crumbled dried oregano (not powdered)
fresh mint, 40 tips from the garden, or about 1/2 to 3/4 oz by weight from the store, either way approximately 1/4 - 1/2 cup minced
6 cloves of garlic, minced
5 slices french bread, (approximately 6 oz) soaked in water or milk and wrung out
1 greek coffee cup ouzo (summer) or red wine or beer (winter) (1 greek coffee cup = 1/4 cup)
2 eggs
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Mix thoroughly with your hands and refrigerate at least half an hour or overnight. When you do this it will seem like there’s not much meat in the mixture as compared to the other stuff. Don’t worry, that’s why these are so good and flavorful.

Form the Meatballs:

Put a generous layer of flour in a shallow pan and drop spoonfuls of the meat mixture into it. Scoop some flour on top of the meat blobs, then pick them up and roll them between your palms into spheres. This meat mixture is pretty wet, so quite a bit of flour will stick to the meatballs. This is what makes the exquisitely crunchy exterior. How big should the meat mixture spoonfuls be? For small meatballs, scoop out about a teaspoonful, for larger meatballs, scoop out about a tablespoonful. For larger meatballs you should flatten them slightly so they cook through quicker. How do you decide on the size? Well, if you want to totally wow people, make them smaller. That way there’s a more crunchy exterior to set off the fluffy interior, plus they just seem fancier. On the other hand, if you’re just trying to feed people, make them bigger so that you can get them on the table faster.

The three sizes of greek meatballs: fancy, normal and my-back-is-hurting-let’s-get-this-over-with.

Three sizes of greek meatballs

Deep fry:

Pour at least 2 inches of oil into a deep skillet and heat until it’s about 375 degrees, or until a bit of meat dropped in sizzles immediately and browns quickly. You may need to do some experimenting here if you don’t have a thermometer and you’re as unused to deep frying as I was when I met Zoe and Mama. Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it within half-a-dozen meatballs. Fry the meatballs until they turn a golden brown, then scoop them out with a slotted spoon. If you’re unsure as to when to take them out, taste as you go along, and don’t worry, you’ll very quickly get the hang of having them turn out perfectly!

If you can’t eat them all, you can refrigerate the leftovers for a few days. They also freeze very well. Either way, to reheat them put them in a 350 degree oven till they’re hot. Don’t cover them because you want them to recrisp a bit.

Update: Manju at Three Tastes has made Mama’s keftedes and has written a lovely post of her impressions. She reports that it works very well to freeze the meat mixture for frying on another day, which I did not know. This is good news for two reasons:

#1 It’s quite a bit of work to make these, so being able to postpone some of the work to another day is very welcome.

#2 Keftedes are at their best straight from the hot oil, as opposed to being warmed up later.

Manju also has nice photos to show what the meatballs look like being rolled in flour and during frying. Yay, now I don’t have to update my post with more photos!

Here’s the link: Three Tastes - New Worlds of Flavor Learned from You (It’s the third recipe on the page so scroll down a bit, or better yet, enjoy reading the first two recipes!)

32 Comments »

  1. Comment by Stacey Derbinshire

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    Stacey Derbinshire

  2. Comment by lulu

    Thanks, Stacey!

  3. Comment by manju

    Hi, LuLu,
    I”ve just been jumping all over your site, drooling on my keyboard and turning green with envy at those gorgeous grape leaves! ; P Your passion for Greek cooking is very infectious, and I’m definitely going to try this keftedes recipe — your measuring style for liquids and meatball sizes are great.

    I, too, am a notorious fiddler with recipes, unless I find one from someone as picky as I am about food, and you, Zoe and Mama sound like you are, so I will follow this to a T. : D Thanks for stopping by my site, too.

  4. Comment by Lulu

    Hey manju! It’s super to see you here! I’m thrilled to think I might have infected someone!

  5. Comment by manju

    Yes, you did! I made this recipe on Sunday for my husband who LOVES meatballs (also fishballs) of any kind (me, not so much). But we both loved these! They were, as you said, light as pillows and that first puff of mint and herb when you break through the crunch is revelatory. Who knew a meatball could be like this?! I have to admit that when I saw the ratio of meat to “other stuff” I was tempted to fiddle with the recipe, but I kept “hearing” that dialogue box with Mama and Zoe shouting, “No, it doesn’t need it” so I persevered and was well rewarded! This is so unlike the Italian style meatball that we will call them keftedes (is it kef-TEH-dez?) to distinguish them from the other. I have half the quantity of meat mixture left, which my husband made me freeze and promise to make him when he returns from his trip on the weekend. : ) So yes, 2 new converts! Thanks for the recipe.

  6. Comment by Lulu

    Manju, LOL! That’s so great and I’m definitely telling Mama! Yes, it’s pronounced
    kef-TEH-thes. The d in keftedes is the th sound like in “this.”

  7. Comment by Doug

    Yesterday, I made this recipe. Very nice! Thanks for the recipe.

    I took a few photos:

    Final: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shyzaboy/3376102570/
    Frying: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shyzaboy/3376110994/
    In the flour: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shyzaboy/3375289831/
    The process: http://www.flickr.com/photos/shyzaboy/3376104860/

    Doug’s last blog post..These are MY balls, got it?

  8. Comment by Kathryn

    I just returned from my 10th trip to Athens & Is of Poros, am so glad to have found these recipes written down. Zoe in Athens taught me how but it is nice to have found your site. I’ll have to cook more of these foods especially when am “homesick” for my love of Greece. Efxaristo!!

  9. Comment by slimjim1814

    I’m sure this recipe is great, seems a little more italian than greek for me.
    Where is the cumin, allspice? And only ground beef? Wheres the pork and lamb?
    Add those into your recipe, then you will have the greek meatballs I know and love.

  10. Comment by Jill@Home Paper Shredder

    Thanks for the recipe for meatballs. I will try it and let your know how it tasted. Thanks for the post.

  11. Comment by connie

    great meatballs everyone loved them .just like the ones we had at the greek festival.

  12. Comment by Milt

    This is as close to the way my dad (who came from Greece in 1947) makes them however, I’d like to give you an alternative to this recipe.

    2/3 lb ground beef plus 1/3 lb ground pork (this adds a lot of flavor)
    1 medium onion chopped finely. You do not want to over power the flavor of the meat with too much onion!
    1 bunch parsley, chopped finely (not really necessary, but can’t hurt)
    DO NOT add Oregano! That does not do the recipe any good.
    Use dried mint. For many years my Dad used fresh mint He has since discovered that mint from the jar (about 1 TSP) gives just the right flavor.
    Keep it lighter on the garlic 2 to 3 cloves are plenty.
    The bread is definitely necessary, but maybe just a bit less. Maybe only 4 slices. The trick is to let the bread sit out over night or so. It’s a little stale, so it’s kind of like bread crumbs, but not quite. Cut the crust off and then soak in water and wring it out real well.
    The Ouzo, wine and beer are totally unecessary. Add it if you want to, but I consider it silly.
    The 2 eggs are a must. In case you haven’t gotten it yet, what we’re making is tiny round fried meatloafs!

    Here’s another secret my Dad taught me. Don’t roll the meatballs into spheres. Flatten them out a bit, and then when they’re frying in the oil, they will round into spheres if you’ve gotten everthing just right.

    I’m sure the original recipe would produce a great tasting “Greek meatball”, but you may want to try my variation and see what you think.

  13. Comment by Milt

    To slimjim1814

    Greeks don’t really use cumin or allspice for their cooking. I am half-Greek, so I know. The meatballs definitely need a little pork, thus my ammended recipe. Try it, you’ll love it!

    – Milt

  14. Comment by Sophia

    i just wanted to know would you be able to make this in the oven also or just deep frying them is the way to go ?

  15. Comment by Milt

    Sophia,

    Unfortunately, these meatballs just can’t be made in the oven. Deep frying is what makes them what they are.

  16. Comment by Tamara

    Too much salt in recipe. I added 2 more lbs and still too salty. mine are better. I should post my recipe.

  17. Comment by Marianthi

    It’s the same recepie my mothers passed on to me in 78 only I use
    one onion and one slice of bread for the carb keepers.

  18. Comment by slimjim1814

    To Milt
    I beg to differ with you. I too am half Greek and I can assure you my Yaya who made these meatballs every year for the local Greek bazaar put cumin and allspice in them. Since my post I was able to get my hands on her recipe and in fact there is cumin and allspice in those meatballs, along with pork(for which you added) and lamb. Her’s is 1.5lb Lamb, 1/2lb beef, 1/4lb pork. I have tried your recipe, it is good; they remind me of the filling for Dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves) w/o the rice and the leaves. Thats where you get the mint I guess. They were just not the ones I remember as a young child after church on a Sunday. Also try Wondra flour, it coats better.
    As for cumin and allspice in Greek cuisine, I suggest Soutzoukakia, Moussaka. It could be just a regional thing from where our families originate.

  19. Comment by Milt

    To slimjim1814
    I think there’s so many variations on all Greek recipies, that who’s to know? I agree that it probably has to do region and individual family recipies. My dad was the one who made these, and gave me the recipie, and so that’s what I grew up eating. I guess that’s how we all define “the perfect recipie”.

    I’m glad you tried ‘my’ recipie, and I’m glad you enjoyed it. It show’s you’re adventurous! I’d like to try your Yaya’s recipie if you’d care to share it. Although, getting ground lamb may prove troublesome, since getting supermarket “butchers” to actually do anything special is very difficult these days.

    Thanks for the tip on using Wondra. I always use that in sauces and gravies, since it blends so much better. Maybe I’ll try that next time I make Keftedes. I’m also thinking about substituting panko bread crumbs for the dried-out bread.

  20. Comment by keisha jones

    i love your recipe woman!!!!
    it lookss tasty and yummy to my tummy!!!!!
    anyway love yo recipe bye…..

  21. Comment by Steve Calvarese

    After spending a study abroad trip to Greece (Athens & Kavala), I fell in love with Greek food, especially Keftedes. I am excitied to see how well these turn out. Needless to say, I will update this post tomorrow on how well I did.

    Thank you much!!!
    Efhahreesto!!!

  22. Pingback by 10 Lesser-Known Greek Delights You Can Make at Home | wrap me in phyllo dough

    [...] has a pleasant crust and a zesty flavor! Recipes to try: the Food Network’s pork keftedes, or this version from Mama’s Taverna Traditional keftedes from a Cretan restaurant in [...]

  23. Comment by Carl

    Fantastic recipe! I did tweek to personal preferance; I use a blend of beef and pork (the ready packed meatloaf our supermarket carries is about 75 percent beef to 25 percent pork), reduced the bread, onion and, egg to about half.. I nearly eliminate the parsely, just my taste, not a big fan of parsley.. about a half inch of oil and cook my 2 inch diameter semi-flattened spheres for 7 minutes per side, flipping only once..
    To the fellows above being half greek and with differant family recipes, I was raised by my 100 percent greek immigrant step father, we frequented Chicagos world renowned greek town monthly.. I’m sure the variety of recipes and tastes is regional, of the several mainstay restaurants that have been in Chicagos Greek Town for decades each of them has a differant recipe for keftedes this is as close a match and maybe better than Roditys recipe, however The Parthenon and Greek Isle are pretty good too, Roditys remains my favorite for keftedes. I was very happy to have found this recipe!.. thanks to all the contributors!

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    [...] and was actually my favorite of the two.  both were perfect on a cool, sunny socal day with some keftedes, pastitsio, and spanakopita.  ??????? [...]

  25. Comment by joanne Demopoulos

    Great recipe -really great very close to mother’s recipe
    But I didn’t squeeze enough water out and they were a little soggy
    BUT DELICIOUS
    Tonite will be the second time and I’ll email again!!
    THANKS

  26. Comment by Panayote C. Kouris

    I am 100% Greek and have just returned (last month) from Greece for my fifth time, with my son. His first time. I had to show him our roots. We of course ate and drank greatly while there. I did find and do know, that Greek people from different areas of the country cook differerently. And the reason is because some areas of Greece were over run by gangs and hoodlems of the times including Romans, Turks, and Moors! One area of Greece which had not been over run through-out it’s history, (because of it’s infinite inacceability because of the steep mountain passes (5500 ft - 7500ft),and terrain,) all of those invaders didn’t bother with them way up there. And they are towns like Kalavryta, (my Mothers birthplace)and Kertize, (my fathers birthplace) on Peleponisous. These towns people say they are “Pure-Greeks!” Because no invaders except for the Germans in WW II got up there. Others didn’t bother and couldn’t. Even the Germans with all of their equipment had a hell of a time getting up there!
    My Mother was a ‘Greek cooking-teacher” here in America. One day, as a small child, I asked her why she taught these Greeks to cook Greek foods? They were from Greece? She explained, that from where she is from it is “pur-Greek cooking”, uneffected by the invaders and that is why she taught! Real Greek cooking recipes! Well I have these as well as all of my family because she was one hell of a cook, (and we kept records,)the stuff came out differently than other cooks that cooked Greek foods. And on this latest trip we found lots of different stuff because of the history of Greece. So don’t argue about weather or not someone used or didn’t use Allspice. I think I would like to be here with you all, because it looks like a fun bunch of Greeks! My son lives in Rockford so we always go to the Greek Festival in the summer time. I vote for Rodity’s also for Keftedes! And Dolmathes too! Their sauce is exceptional!
    Well on this trip, I complained to a waiter about something, and he said gruffly to me, “Why? Where are you from?” I said Kalavryta! He said, “No compettion! They have a fertile valley and clear running mountain waters!”
    So all of Greece knows of Kalavryta and it’s good cooks of “Pure-Greek Cooking!”

  27. Comment by John Yannacci

    I was stationed in Crete for two years while in the navy but, I my heritage is Italian. But, as they say in Crete, “una faccia, una razza”. Anyway, I don’t claim to be an expert on Greek cooking although we did pick up some great recipes in Crete. I do know a lot about Italian cooking though. No where will you find two Italian grandmothers make anything the same way. Not only are there regional differences, there are differences in the same family. My Aunt Mary taught my cousins Marie and Claire how to make Sunday gravy. I’ve had both of their’s and they don’t taste the same but they both taste great. So, the thing to do is enjoy the kefthedes one person makes and then enjoy the kefthedes that someone else makes. It’s all good.

  28. Comment by Theo

    Mostly ate these when I went to greek gathering’s, I used to eat them by the handful. I like the fact you can make the keftedes,freeze them and cook at a later time. It helps when you lead a busy lifestyle.

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  30. Comment by Roussos

    I loved these keftedes. I miss my mums cooking and was really impressed with this recipe. I think mum was over my shoulder guiding me. I used a combination of the two recipes and I am sure someone was leaning over my shoulder nudging more of this and less of that. Regardless, for an aussie (Australian) born Greek, these were very nice. Many thanks indeed for making the effort to post this recipe.

  31. Comment by Emily

    Hello! I just wanted to say that I loved this recipe.

    We are trying to eat more naturally, so I omitted the bread and flour and refrigerated the meat mixture to sit overnight, then drained the “juice” (there was a lot!) and rolled into balls. I put them in the oven at 350 for about 20 minutes, then flipped them and cooked for about 15 minutes more. They were delicious — the onions caramelized and the fat from the meat kept them from sticking. Everyone raved about them. I also used lamb instead of beef.

    Someday I’d love to try the deep-fried version, but this was very quick, healthy and still deliciously Greek. Kali orexi!

  32. Comment by elias

    guys have to tell you but i am from cyprus and been cooking meat balls since i was 12…yes there is many variations but in my experience you should use potatoes instead of bread and never use cumin or all spice …just mint .parsley ..salt pepper and a bit of cinnamon…must use pork and lamb mince along with beef…and no garlic but yes large onion and at least 1 egg depends on how much you make…grate the potatoes and the onion …good luck

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