These super tender and hearty porcupine meatballs made with ground beef and rice are slowly simmered in a rich homemade tomato sauce and will satisfy a craving you didn't even know you had.
Porcupine meatballs are meatballs made with uncooked rice as a star ingredient. The addition of rice makes the meatballs extra tender. Plus, porcupine meatballs are really meal-prep friendly.
I grew up eating Romanian meatball soup which is traditionally made with porcupine meatballs. The ground meat and rice mixture is also really similar to the mixture used for stuffing vegetables like stuffed peppers.
But somehow it wasn't until recently that I learned that rice meatballs can be used for more than just soup. Slow cooked in a rich sauce might be an even better way to eat them since it brings out all their best qualities.
Best part - they're meal prep and freezer friendly. Make a big batch and freeze some for easy meals.
The addition of rice in the ground meat mixture brings a lot of moisture and tenderness compared to even the most tender traditional meatballs.
It's sort of the same concept as using breadcrumbs or a slice of bread soaked in milk in the ingredients for traditional meatballs to make them soft and moist.
But since rice has more structure than bread and can soak up and retain more moisture, you end up with a meatball that is never-fail super moist but also has a creamy and firm bite that's really indescribable until you try it.
The ingredients for the porcupine meatballs.
The ingredients for the tomato sauce
Ingredients for the porcupine meatballs
- ground beef
- short grain rice like arborio or carnaroli
- fresh parsley
- seasoning (salt, black pepper, garlic powder, smoked paprika, white pepper and thyme)
Ingredients for the homemade tomato sauce
- crushed tomatoes or diced tomatoes (tetrapack or can)
- olive oil
- fresh mint and parsley
- seasoning (salt, sugar, black pepper, cumin, thyme, dill, and the tiniest dash of cinnamon)
Please see recipe card for quantities.
Instructions for the tomato sauce
The tomato sauce is simple to make.
In order to get the most flavor out of the ingredients, I recommend that rather than putting everything in the pot at once, the onion and garlic should first be sautéed in oil until they reduce in volume and begin to brown.
Then everything else can go in, add the water and bring to a simmer while you make the meatballs.
Sauté the onion and garlic together in oil over medium heat until they are reduced in water and starting to brown.
Add the tomatoes and all the other ingredients for the sauce all at once.
Add water and continue cooking until it comes to a simmer.
Instructions for the meatballs
The rice meatballs are also simple to make.
Combine all the ingredients for the meatballs into a large bowl and mix thoroughly.
The mixture should be homogenous.
Shape the mixture into either small or large balls.
Carefully place the meatballs into the simmering tomato sauce.
Here are just a few substitutions you can make:
- Ground meat - you can substitute any ground meat like pork, chicken, lamb, or even Beyond Beef.
- Make it plant-based - substitute the meat for Beyond Beef and the egg for flax egg.
- Rice - short grain rice is best since it has higher starch content which makes it bind better and produces a creamier meatball but in a pinch you can substitute any rice. The recipe will still work.
- Fresh tomatoes - you can substitute 4 large fresh tomatoes for the canned or tetrapack crushed tomatoes. Just very finely dice them or blend in a blender or food processor.
- Seasonings - the seasonings chosen are balanced and mild but feel free to go wild - use a spice blend to give the meatballs a different flavor.
There are a few different variations you can try for the porcupine meatball mix.
- Soup - add porcupine meatballs to soups like Traditional Romanian Meatball Soup (Ciorbă de Perișoare) or Cabbage Roll Soup with Rice Meatballs
- Stuffed vegetables - like cabbage rolls, grape leaf rolls, stuffed peppers or stuffed squash.
An oven safe pot with a lid
This dish is best made in a heavy-bottomed pot (like cast iron) that has a lid and can go from stovetop to oven. I used my 3.3 litre / 3.5 quart Le Creuset braiser to make this dish.
A tool to shape the meatballs
This is optional but can be helpful for making the meatballs more consistent...and getting them shaped a bit faster.
You can use something you already have like I did - a tablespoon-sized measuring spoon to make smaller-sized meatballs (around 5 grams or 0.15oz) and an ice cream scoop to make larger meatballs (around 10 grams or 0.35oz).
You don't need any special meatball shaper. I purchased one a couple years ago (like this one - apparently called a 'meat baller'). When I got it home and out of the package, I was so disappointed to realize it could only make giant tangerine-sized meatballs. A travesty.
Meal prep & storage
The meatballs in tomato sauce will keep for up to 4 days in the fridge.
The porcupine meatball mix is freezer friendly. Since most of the work is in shaping, you can put all the work in up front by doubling the recipe and freezing half the meatballs for later.
If you have the space, freeze them first on a flat surface like a plate and move them to a freezer bag later. In the past I've also just thrown them directly into a freezer bag and they still held up fairly well.
The meatballs will keep in the freezer for up to 6 weeks.
Looking for other recipes like this? Try these:
Try these meatballs with:
- mashed potatoes
- buttery noodles
Porcupine Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
- heavy bottomed pot with lid
for the meatballs
- 650 grams ground beef
- ½ cup short grain white rice
- 2 yellow onions 2 small or 1 large, very finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic mashed
- 1 egg
- ½ cup water
- 3 tablespoons fresh parsley finely diced
- 1.5 teaspoons dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 0.5 teaspoon white pepper
for the tomato sauce
- 400 grams crushed tomatoes in can or tetra pack
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 500 ml water
- 1 yellow onion finely diced
- 6 tablespoons fresh parsley finely diced, divided
- 3 tablespoons fresh mint finely diced
- 3 cloves garlic mashed
- 1.5 teaspoons salt or more to taste
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 taespoon dried dill
- 0.5 teaspoon sugar
- 0.5 teaspoon black pepper
- pinch ground cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 175 C / 350 F
- Wash and dice the onions, garlic and fresh herbs.
prepare the tomato sauce
- Sauté the onion and garlic together in the oil over medium heat until they reduce in volume and begin to brown.
- Add all the other tomato sauce ingredients, reserving half of the fresh parsley for garnish. Stir everything well so it's homogenous.
- Continue heating the sauce over medium-low heat so it comes to a simmer while you make the meatballs.*
prepare the meatballs
- Combine all the meatball ingredients together in a bowl until homogenous.
- Shape the meatballs.**
cook the meatballs
- Make sure the sauce is simmering and use a spoon to gently place the meatballs into the hot liquid. If the liquid isn't hot enough, they can lose their shape.
- Wait a few minutes and then flip the meatballs.
- Cover and put the pot in the oven for 1 hour. If the sauce is too thin, reduce on the stovetop over high heat until it thickens to your liking.
- Garnish with fresh parsley and enjoy.
- * The sauce shouldn't reduce too much. This will depend on how long it takes you to shape the meatballs. If the sauce is reducing too quickly then turn off the heat and bring back to simmer when the meatballs are ready.
- ** You can use a tablespoon to make about 50 smaller meatballs or use an ice cream scoop to make about 25 bigger meatballs.