The secret to meatballs that don't fall apart

Meatballs braised in tomato sauce.
Meatballs braised in tomato sauce. Photo: William Meppem

How do you make meatballs stay in one piece? E. Connolly

Massage your mince. Not the words one uses in polite company but getting your hands into minced meat to make meat balls, meat loaf, sausages and terrine is essential. Red meat is muscle and the muscle bundles are made up of proteins. When heat is applied to these proteins they harden. In minced meat some of these protein are floating about in the liquid in the meat. Your job is to massage or knead the meat, after you've added your seasonings. This helps release more protein into the mix that will then harden to create a matrix that will hold the meatballs together. How long depends on the quantity but a minute or two should be enough to turn the mix from gooey to sticky – a sign that you've mixed the proteins. Roll them into a ball, allow to rest for a few minutes, then fry in the pan with a little oil. Shake the balls as they fry and do not overcrowd the pan – give them plenty of space.   

​Why always a wooden spoon? D. Hallahan

I recently took my young daughter to get a wooden spoon. She is of that age when she needs one of her own. We went to the kitchen store at the market and she picked them up, one by one and mimed beating and mixing trying to find the one that felt best for her small arms. She then thrust one nicely turned wooden spoon out in front of her like a wizard's wand and shouted, "expelliarmus!". We bought that one. On the way back she said that choosing a spoon was a bit like being in Olivander's from Harry Potter – that you had to try the spoons to find the one that suited your body. "Or that one that chooses you," she added. Wood is strong, non-reactive, insulative, flexible and biodegradable.  Leave a metal spoon in a hot pot and you can burn your hand. Wood doesn't do that. Put a metal spoon into a pot of molten sugar and the shock of a cold spoon in hot sugar can kick start unwanted crystallisation. A metal spoon can remove the patina from a well-seasoned fry pan. A wooden spoon doesn't do that. A plastic spatula will melt, a wooden spoon won't. Cheaper wooden spoons are often made with soft woods with a more open grain that can absorb flavours from aromatic foods. Spoons made from hardwoods have a tighter grain, last longer but are more expensive.

Letters

Recently we talked about peeling grilled and blackened red peppers and we received a lot of mail here at the Brain Food Institute (it's just around the corner from the Ponds Institute). This letter encapsulates a lot of the information in those letters plus a nice little story from Amelia F. "Hello I'm now 91 and, because of my Bulgarian background,  I've been peeling salad peppers since I was a child. Often under duress. After grilling or over hot coals they were wrapped in newspaper and, in later years in paper or plastic bags and left to sweat for about 30 minutes. I first had red capsicums as a salad at a restaurant in St Kilda. I remember leaving the restaurant about 11pm and watching the chef cooking tomorrow's peppers on the coals after all the steaks had been cooked."

Send your vexing culinary conundrums to brainfood@richardcornish.com.au or tweet to @realbrainfood.