How to Make Amazing Italian Meatless Meatballs

This recipe for Italian meatless meatballs is a great alternative to the typical meatball. For those looking to create a vegetarian Italian meatball that still has texture and upholds its dignity enough to still be called a meatball without cringing, well… this Italian recipe is for you. 

italian meatless meatballs

Italian Meatless Meatballs with Bulgur

Both my husband and I are Italian and we take our meatballs seriously. But we’re always interested in ways to make Italian recipes healthier without compromising that classic Italian flavor we love.

I created this meatless version using bulgur as the primary meat substitute. It is a much healthier option and still satisfies our cravings for an Italian meatball. 

This recipe was first inspired by my mother-in-law’s recipe for bread-based polpetti. Polpetti means meatball in Italian.

She would talk about how growing up they didn’t have meat available like we do today and sometimes they would use bread as a filler, or just bread alone and make meatless meatballs that way.

However, I decided to take her meatless meatball recipe and modify it by adding in a very healthy grain, bulgur.   

This recipe will show you how to make vegetarian meatballs that actually taste good.  These meatballs can be made from scratch right in your own home and can still be called Italian!

Ingredients used in this Vegetarian Italian Meatballs Recipe

As with all my Italian recipes, I keep them simple and easy. The best Italian recipes don’t have to be complicated to taste amazing.

This Italian meatless meatball recipe uses:

  • Breadcrumbs (I prefer plain, but if you want to use Italian seasoned you can)
  • Cooked and cooled bulgur prepared in advance
  • Grated Romano cheese
  • Chopped Fresh basil (dried is doable if you don’t have it fresh)
  • Garlic cloves
  • Egg
  • Extra Virgin olive oil (must be olive oil – not any other kind)
  • Ground pepper (optional)

Most of these ingredients you probably already have. If you don’t have Romano cheese, you can use Parmesan, but Romano has more flavor. If you have Parmesan, add a dash of salt.

So, ready for the process for making bulgur meatballs? Here goes… mix everything together and form into meatballs size balls.

Yep, it’s that easy. But keep reading my tips (based on personal experience) because I want to make sure you understand how to properly prepare the bulgur so that the meatballs come out as they should.

Using Bulgur in Meatballs

bulgur in meatballs
Bulgur meatballs that were lightly fried before baking.

Well, besides the fact that the word itself isn’t exactly very appetizing, it is by all means an attractive grain and perfect for this recipe!  Bulgar is a wheat berry that is partially boiled (parboiled) cracked wheat. 

Cracked wheat is wheat that is ground into small pieces.  But partially boiled cracked wheat means the kernel is actually first boiled and then cracked using rollers as described by Bob’s Red Mill website. 

After the bulgur is ground, it looks like large panko-like breadcrumbs.

Using bulgur in meatballs is a good choice because the bulgur provides more consistency in texture than a bread-filled polpetti. It also adds density to the meatball as well.

The bulgur is not overpowering and thanks to the garlic, cheese, and Italian herbs it creates a perfect blend of flavors that make the meatballs taste fantastic.

Prepare the Bulgur for the Meatballs

The bulgur must first be fully cooked and cooled before using it in the meatball mix. Do not try to cut corners by thinking it will cook along with the meatball in the oven.

When cooking the bulgur, follow a 1:2 ratio. This means that for every one part bulgur, use two parts of water.  Example:

  • 1 cup of bulgur will require 2 cups of water
  • ½ cup of bulgur will require 1 cup of water
  • And so forth.

For this recipe we are using one cup of bulgur, so we’ll need two cups of water. 

How to boil the bulgur

Add the bulgur to the water in a saucepan. Bring the bulgur to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and cook for 15 -20 minutes. However, I have a grains cookbook that states you can boil the bulgur for only 10 -15 minutes for quicker times.  

When done, the bulgur will have a texture of being slightly soft and chewy. It has a nice texture, but it is not mushy. 

This, in my opinion, is why it is such a good meat replacement for Italian meatless meatballs. 

The Secret to Making Bulgur Wheat Meatballs

The number one secret to making delicious vegetarian Italian meatballs is to let the bulgur completely cool before adding it to the meatball mixture.

I’ll explain.

Hot bulgur and hands don’t mix

First, since you mix the bulgur together in a bowl like you would your meats, you are using your hands. If you cook the bulgur right beforehand it is super-hot. 

Like really hot

I’ve tried doing this even with gloves on, and only frustrated myself as extreme pain shot through my hands feeling like they were burning. I had to run them under cold water and promised I’d never cut that corner again!

Hot bulgur steam effects consistency

Second, I have found in my experience using bulgur when it is even slightly hot creates too much steam and the texture of the meatball is greatly changed. You won’t get a good meatballs texture.

You can avoid this by using any of the following methods:

  1. Either make it beforehand and store in the fridge until needed (like the night before or earlier in the day)
  2. Place the hot bulgur in a freezer and wait 10 minutes. This is my usual method.

I don’t recommend running them under cold water because I think it would make the kernels too mushy instead of cooling on its own.

These are the Best Meatless Meatballs

best meatless meatballs
My meatless meatballs with pasta.

As much as I love my recipe and it truly is the best meatless meatball I’ve ever had, there are a few things you need to be aware of to properly make them from scratch.

There are meatballs, and then there are vegetarian meatballs

It may sound obvious, but an Italian vegetarian meatball will not taste exactly like a regular beef meatball. I’m not going to try and pass these off as a recipe that your guests won’t be able to tell the difference.

So yes, there is a difference, but it’s a very good difference that still completely satisfies your cravings for an Italian meatball!

My vegetarian recipe still uses cheese, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic, olive oil and herbs. So, it’s not vegan. But it does qualify for being ranked #1 as a delicious vegetarian Italian meatball.

Do Bulgur Meatballs Cook Like Regular Meatballs?

bulgur meatballs
My bulgur meatballs served on the side.

If you’re cooking them in the oven, and not in with the sauce, then yes.

You bake them at 350F for 30-35 minutes in the oven in a baking pan or on a baking sheet.  You can also fry them beforehand in olive oil on the stove as we often do with regular meatballs. This gives them a harder outer shell which I really like. Helps keep them from breaking apart.

But really, either way is fine.

If you don’t want to fry them, you can rub olive oil on them and bake them straight away. I’ve done this numerous times and it saves time. Just rub them liberally with the olive oil before putting them in the oven and skip the frying.

Do not cook these Italian meatless meatballs in the tomato sauce

But… do not and I repeat again and again… do not ever attempt to cook them in with a pot of pasta sauce like you would regular meatballs. 

Done it. Tried it. Failed it. 

The reason is because the kernels will no longer stick together and begin falling apart into the sauce as the meatball absorbs the sauce.  The more sauce it absorbs the more it crumbles. 

I ended up with a pot of sauce with chucks of bulgur kernels throughout… wasn’t great.

Here’s how to serve bulgur meatballs

vegetarian italian meatballs recipe
These are my bulgur meatballs with some sauce absorbed.

However, all you need to do after cooking them in the oven is to serve them in a bowl on the side. When served, just add the meatless marinara sauce on top as you normally would with your pasta. 

You want to keep the bulgur meatballs from soaking in the sauce. That’s all. 

How to Store and Freeze Italian Meatless Meatballs

These vegetarian Italian meatballs can easily be stored for future meals. I tend to make a large batch for this exact purpose.

You can store your veggie meatballs in the refrigerator by placing them in an air tight container without sauce. You can keep them in the fridge for 4-5 days. 

If you prefer to freeze them for longer-term storage, then I recommend wrapping them in plastic wrap (3 or 4 in a group) and then place the wrapped meatballs in an airtight container.

The reason for the plastic wrap is to add a layer of protection to prevent air from reaching them. It also makes it easy to remove just a few at a time. However, I’ve also just placed them in a yogurt container and kept them in the freezer.

Mark the containers with the contents and date. I use a peel-able envelope label to do this.

How to Reheat Your Vegetarian Italian Meatballs

To reheat, let the cooked meatballs thaw in the fridge, ideally overnight or for a few hours at room temperature. You can microwave them for a few minutes until heated or heat them in the oven at 350F until heated through, approximately 20 minutes.

Do not reheat in pasta sauce otherwise they may absorb too much liquid and begin to crumble.

You can use your reheated bulgur meatballs as a quick and healthy snack with some spaghetti sauce or serve them with a pasta dish.

Do They have to be 100% Meatless?

No, they don’t. Although this post is for a vegetarian Italian meatball recipe, my original attempt was to substitute about 1/3 of the meat with bulgur. Since it turned out well, I figured why not go all in and give it a try and get even healthier.

So next time it was completely meatless, and after a few trials in the kitchen, I’ve ended up with this 100% vegetarian meatball recipe. 

I will say that there is no hard and fast rule with how much to use between any of the ingredients I have listed. What I have is a guideline to follow that I found gives a good balance of flavors. You may prefer more garlic, or perhaps adding in some parsley with the basil. Be flexible and experiment as I have.

Other Meatless Recipes You May Enjoy

If you enjoyed this recipe, you’ll also enjoy these similar recipes that are meatless and full of healthy ingredients!

italian chickpea salad

Italian Chickpea Salad – this salad is full of protein-rich chickpeas also known as garbanzo beans.

cannellini bean soup

Cannellini Bean Soup Recipe – this Italian soup is full of flavor with cannellini beans. Swap the broth for veggie broth or water and enjoy this 100% vegetarian dish!

I really hope you enjoy my vegetarian Italian meatballs recipe. It was a delight to create and a recipe we still use today.  Please let me know what you think!

italian meatless meatballs

Meatless Bulgur Meatballs

Enjoy this healthy and delicious Italian meatless meatballs recipe where bulgur replaces the meat. This recipe is easy and full of Italian flavor!
5 from 2 votes
Print Rate
Course: Dinner, Side Dish
Cuisine: Italian
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 30 minutes
Precooking the bulgar: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Servings: 4 people

Ingredients

  • 1 cup breadcrumbs plain preferred, but Italian seasoned is fine if that's what you have.
  • 1 cup cooked cooled bulgur you can prepare this at least an hour in advance.
  • 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese Romano has the strongest flavor.
  • handful chopped fresh basil use 2 Tablespoons dried if you don't have fresh.
  • 1-2 Chopped garlic cloves Garlic goes a long way in this recipe.
  • 1 egg
  • extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Precook the Bulgur

  • In a saucepan combine 1 cup of bulgur and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil.
  • Lower heat to low and cook for 15-20 minutes until bulgur is tender and chewy. It will not be mushy.
  • Cool the bulgur by keeping in the fridge until needed, or for a quick cooling, place in the freezer for 10 minutes until cooled.

Create the Meatless Meatballs

  • In large bowl, mix all the ingredients including the cooled bulgur until moist.
  • Form into meatball size balls.
  • Heat 2 or 3 swirls (about 2-3 Tablespoons) oil in frying pan over medium heat (see note below if you do not want to fry the meatballs)
  • When hot, add meatballs and gently move around with a spoon for about 3 minutes so no burning occurs. You want it to form a crust.
  • Remove the meatballs from pan and place the meatless meatballs in lightly oiled baking dish.
  • Bake at 350F for 30-40 minutes.
  • Serve warm in separate bowl and top with sauce when placed on plate.

Notes

  1. It is very important to let the bulgur cool before adding to the mixture. Not only is it very hot, but you do not want it to have excess moisture due to the steam. This will impact the texture of the meatballs negatively.
  2. Do not cook in or add these to your tomato sauce because the breadcrumbs will absorb all the sauce and then the meatballs will fall apart. Serve separately and top with sauce when you serve the meatballs with the pasta.
  3. If you want to avoid frying in the frying pan, then liberally rub the meatballs with oil and then bake in oven. 
  4. These freeze well for long term storage. Best to freeze without sauce.

If you Enjoyed this recipe:

You may also enjoy the following vegetarian recipes:

Recipe updated January 23rd, 2023.

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How to Make Amazing Italian Meatless MeatballsHow to Make Amazing Italian Meatless Meatballs

4 Comments

  1. 5 stars
    I made these today and they are delicious. I baked them after rolling them in olive oil and they held together and got crispy. Thank you for this recipe. I’ve been a vegetarian for over 45 years and this
    “meatball” has been one of the best I’ve tried.

  2. Can’t wait to try but so many bulgurs out there. Fine, extra fine, medium coarse coarse. Which is the best? Thank you

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