In deputy food editor Hana Asbrink’s quest to craft her ideal Italian meatball, she embarked on a 65-meatball ultra-marathon. The result is full of smart tricks, from grated onion for moisture to soy sauce for umami. But no component of this recipe is more important than the panade.

What is a panade?

A panade is a starch and liquid mixture that prevents the protein fibers in meat from constricting and stiffening. Bread and milk make up the iconic duo that is a traditional panade. In fact, the word panade comes from the French for “bread mash.”

You’re likely familiar with panades if you’ve ever made a meatloaf or meatballs before. They are an unfailing staple in countless ground meat recipes that prize plush, moist tenderness. The crucial steps of mixing bread and milk and adding it to your ground meat makes the difference between a pillowy, spoon-tender texture and an unpleasant, rubbery surprise. And it’s all thanks to some kitchen chemistry.

How does a panade work?

Protein fibers in meat respond to heat by criss-crossing and tightening, effectively wringing out moisture. Starches on the other hand—such as breadcrumbs—behave differently. Instead of tightening, they absorb moisture and form a gooey, gluey paste in a process called gelatinization. Think of how proteins like scrambled eggs only get drier and squeakier the longer you cook them, but starches like pasta or oatmeal get mushy and squishy if you leave them on the stove too long.

The starches in a panade get in the way of meat’s protein fibers, preventing them from criss-crossing as tightly, trapping in the moisture and saving your meatballs from becoming tough and dry. “My ideal meatball is one that is fork—no, spoon!—tender,” says Hana.

Without the magic of panade, the proteins would toughen even if they’re introduced to moisture again after cooking—such as being stewed in broth or sauce, for example. In other words? A panade solves a problem before it even arises.

When should I use a panade?

Panades are ideal for dishes where ground meat endures consistent heat for lengthy spans of time. In Hana’s recipe, you first broil the meatballs for speedy convenience, then transfer them to a tomato sauce jacuzzi for a simmer. The panade takes care of the meatballs along the way.

On the other hand, griddling a few quick smash burgers—where the star texture is crispiness and not tenderness—it’s not the time to employ a panade because it’s too hot and fast for gelatinization to occur. You’d be left with a wet, mushy mess. In Hana’s recipe, she uses a panade because of that tenderness that’s so beloved in Italian-style meatballs, but for other ground meat dishes where bounciness and springiness is the goal (like pork dumplings, or Chinese lion’s head meatballs), it’s okay to leave it out.

When it is the moment for panade to shine, there is plenty of room to substitute ingredients, depending on what you have around. If you don’t have store-bought breadcrumbs, you can blitz up stale bread in a food processor. “I opted for good old-fashioned Italian-style seasoned breadcrumbs, which produce a consistent texture and, of course, contribute built-in flavor,” says Hana.

If you’re out of milk, you can swap in a lower or higher fat dairy (like buttermilk, half-and-half, or cream) or even stock. There are countless ways to play around with this overachieving gelatinizing agent. Melt-in-your-mouth meatballs can be yours.

Feeling saucySpaghetti and Verrry Tender MeatballsWith a few time-saving tricks, spoon-tender meatballs can be yours in about an hour.View Recipe

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