Mexican-style meatballs are pure comfort food at its best! Rolled balls of ground beef, seasoned with traditional Mexican flavors, simmer in a tomato-based sauce. This dish can be ready and on the table in 35 minutes, making this one of my go-to meals for busy weeks.
How the meatball got to Mexico
Albondigas (meatball in Spanish) aren’t originally from Mexico. While many foods that we know and love as Mexican have pre-hispanic origins (like tamales, beans, tomatoes, corn, and chiles), the meatball is not one of them.
Many foods we think of as Mexican were introduced originally by the Spaniards and then modified using traditional pre-hispanic ingredients from Mexico, like Mexican red rice for example (the rice came with the Spaniards and tomatoes are native to the Americas). The meatball is yet another example of food introduced to Mexico by the Spaniards. The word albondiga comes from the Arabic word al-bunduqa, meaning nut or little ball. Thus, Arabs introduced meatballs to the Spaniards who in turn introduced the meatball to Mexico.
Mexican meatballs are prepared by using ground meat, mixed with breadcrumbs, herbs, and spices, then cooked in a tomato-based broth. The most common preparation is with ground beef in a tomato or tomato and chipotle-based broth. The type of chile and meat can vary, however, depending on the particular cook or the region.
In coastal states like Baja California, Nayarit, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and Sinaloa, meatballs are prepared with finely chopped shrimp or fish. Ground beef mixed with finely ground pork rinds are common in the state of Mexico. The southern parts of Sonora dominated by the yaqui indigenous group have a meatball variation with ground beef and rabbit. In parts of Chihuahua, venison is the typical meat used in this dish. Garbanzo beans are used in place of meat in Zacatecas. Ground beef and pork, however, are the most common in central Mexico.
As varied as the meat options are for meatballs, the sauce preparations are also distinct depending on the region. Chile guajillo is sometimes used in sauce preparations in Nayarit. In Oaxaca, the sauce typically includes chile guajillo and chile pasilla oaxaqueño. A green variety of chile (like serrano) or poblano is used in Sinaloa. Chipotle is the most common variety of pepper used in central Mexico.
So, the term “meatball” in Mexico can really mean a lot of different things, depending on where you are!
Mexican meatballs, many ways
The meatball filling
My Mexican meatballs use ground beef as the base, but besides the meat, the filling changes depending on the type of meatball that I am in the mood for making.
My mother-in-law’s version is the one that I make the most. It is a favorite dish of my husband’s and one that he asked me to make when we were living far from his hometown in the US. She uses uncooked rice as part of the filler and oregano to flavor the meat.
Uncooked rice? Sounds a bit crazy you might say. I thought so too when I first jotted down her recipe when we were living in Arizona. But, she assured me that the rice would cook through in the meatballs as they simmered in the sauce. I trusted and she wasn’t wrong. The rice cooked through perfectly in the meatball and I was happy to use rice instead of breadcrumbs for a gluten-free version!
When we moved to Mexico and had someone to help us in the house, she showed me how to cook meatballs wrapped around hardboiled quails eggs or pieces of hardboiled chicken eggs. I love the contrasting textures in this version. Her version also includes uncooked rice and a surprise herb…Mint!
Mint may be a surprising herb to use here, as it isn’t common in Mexican cooking. However, my sister-in-law and other home cooks I know religiously use mint in their Mexican meatballs. I like the unexpected fresh flavor it provides.
Of course, you could mix up these suggestions and make meatballs with rice, hard-boiled eggs, and oregano. Or you could omit the eggs and just use mint and rice. Or you could omit the rice and use breadcrumbs instead. Maybe mix ground pork and ground beef in equal parts. Really, this dish is customizable depending on your particular preferences!
My mother-in-law’s original version that I make most often uses chipotle peppers to flavor the sauce and provide a bit of spice. Chipotles are also a bit smoky, so the sauce has a deeper, more complex flavor in this version.
BUT…I also have young kids, that reject any food that is spicy. Often, I make enough of the tomato-based sauce for the meat that I am using and set aside part of the sauce in a small saucepan for the kids’ meatballs. I then add chipotles to the rest of the sauce and blend for the adult version.
If you don’t like chipotles or need to make a mild version, you can omit the chipotles entirely and still have a delicious, tomato-y sauce for your meatballs!
So, how do you make your meatballs? We serve ours with black beans, warm corn tortillas, and Mexican red rice for a complete meal!
Recipe adapted from these sources:
- Graciela Martinez in Morelos Mexico
- Lorena Gonzalez in Morelos Mexico
- Patrick Calhoun at Mexican Please
Mexican Meatballs (Albondigas)
For the Sauce:
- 1.5 cups chicken broth
- 9 medium roma tomaotes, cut into large chunks (~2 lbs or ~900g)
- 1 small white onion, cut into large chunks
- 2-3 cloves garlic
- 1/4 cup canned chipotle peppers in adobo optional
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 bay leaf
For the Meatballs:
- 1 lb ground beef I use 90/10 sirloin
- 1/4 white onion, finely chopped
- 1 egg
- 1/4 cup uncooked white rice
- 1 tbsp dried oregano or 1/4 cup fresh mint finely chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 hard boiled egg, cut into 12 small pieces (optional)
- Place all ingredients for sauce except for bay leaf in a blender and blend on high speed for 1-2 minutes or until smooth
- Place sauce in a large pan with the bay leaf and heat over medium
- Combine all ingredients for meatballs in a large bowl (except egg if using)
- Mix ingredients by hand until ingredients are evenly incorporated
- Form into 1.5 inch diameter balls, incorporating one hard boiled egg piece into the center of each ball if using.
- Place meatballs in the sauce, reduce heat and simmer, partially covered about 25 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 160F on a meat thermometer and rice is cooked through.