How to Make Amazing Italian Meatless Meatballs

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

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This meatless version uses bulgur (wait keep reading seriously!) which is a much healthier option and still satisfies our cravings for an Italian flavored meatball.   And in case you’re wondering, both my husband and I are Italian and take our meatballs seriously. 

So you can trust me on this one.

I created this recipe inspired by my mother-in-laws 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.

So, I took the concept and ran with it by adding in a very healthy grain that is a great meat substitute… bulgur.   

First, What the Heck is Bulgur?

Well, besides the fact that the word itself isn’t exactly very attractive, it by all means is an attractive grain!  Bulgar is a wheat berry that is partially boiled cracked wheat. 

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

The end result is like large panko breadcrumbs in appearance.  

Cook and Prepare the Bulgur First

You have to cook the bulgur before doing anything else.  Don’t add it raw, it must be fully cooked… and cooled.

It is a one to two ratio between the bulgur and the water.   So for this recipe one cup of bulgur to two cups water.   

Bring to a boil and then cook on low 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 has a texture of being slightly soft and chewy.  This in my opinion is why it is such a good meat replacement for my meatless meatball recipe.   It has a nice texture, but not mushy. 

In fact, if you’ve ever had a tabbouleh salad you’ve probably had bulgur without realizing what it was.  

You can go here to Amazon and purchase online if you’d like.


Helpful Cooking Tips for Bulgar Meatballs

There are however a few things you need to be aware of in order to make this recipe really rock and roll. 

The is not a real meatball

It may sound obvious, but the taste will be different than a real meatball.   I’m not going to try and pass these off as something that people won’t ever know the difference.   

The difference is there, but it’s a good difference that still completely satisfies!

My recipe still uses cheese, breadcrumbs, egg, garlic, olive oil and herbs.   So, it’s not vegan.  But it does qualify for the vegetarian category.  

You may be wondering if you could just add some beef stock or flavoring and I would advise against it for a few reasons. 

The first reason is 1) unless it’s organic they’ll have MSG (bad) as an ingredient.  Stay away from MSG.   

And 2) beef stocks and flavorings are usually very high in sodium.  It’s healthier to just add in actual organic beef.  

Is this Complicated to Make?

The funny thing is, bulgur is easy to make and you treat it literally no different than using ground beef!   

But…. here’s the one secret you must follow… Let it cool before using!

I’ll explain.

First, since you mix it 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 and only frustrated myself as utter 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!

Second, I have found in my experience using the bulgur when it is still even partially hot creates too much steam and the texture is severely changed.   You want these beautiful kernels to be cool, not hot and mushy. 

So, you can avoid this by using any of the following methods:

  1. Either make it before hand and store in the fridge until needed (like the night before or earlier in the day)
  2. Place it in a freezer and wait 10 minutes (usually my method) 

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

Do these bulgur meatballs cook the same as regular meatballs?

Yes!  You bake them at 350 for 30-35 minutes in the oven.  You can also fry them before hand in olive oil too.  Either way is fine.  I have found that I can rub olive oil on them and bake them and they are just as good.

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 it 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.

However, all you need to do after cooking them is serve them in a bowl on the side.   When served just add the sauce on top as you normally would with your pasta.   You just want to avoid the bulgur meatballs from soaking in the sauce. That’s all. 

Storing these Meatless Meatballs is Easy

You can store these bulgur meatless meatballs by placing them in a container (without sauce) and keep them in the fridge for 4-5 days.  You can freeze them as well which is a GREAT way to keep them available for a quick healthy snack or to add to your cooked pasta.

Do They have to be 100% Meatless?

No, they don’t.  I’ve made them different ways. 

My first experience using these was substituting 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.

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

I will say that there is no hard and fast rule with how much to use between any of the ingredients.   What I have is a guideline to follow that I found gives a good balance of flavors.   

Let me know what you think!

5 from 1 vote

Meatless Bulgur Meatballs

Enjoy this healthy and delicious meatless meatballs! My recipe uses bulgur to replace the meat and it is a great substitute! You can still enjoy the Italian flavor and satisfaction 100%!

Course Side Dish
Cuisine Italian
Keyword Meatless Meatballs
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 30 minutes
Precooking the bulgar 30 minutes
Total Time 1 hour 30 minutes
Servings 4 people


  • 1 cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup cooled cooked bulgur you can prepare this the previous day
  • 1/4 cup grated romano cheese
  • handful chopped fresh basil
  • 1-2 cloves garlic
  • 1 egg
  • extra virgin olive oil


  1. In large bowl, mix all ingredients until moist.
  2. Form into meatball size balls.
  3. Heat 2 or 3 swirls (about 2-3 Tablespoons) oil in frying pan over medium heat
  4. When hot, add meatballs and gently move around for about 3 minutes so no burning occurs.
  5. Remove from pan and place in lightly oiled baking dish.
  6. Bake at 360F for 30 minutes.
  7. Serve warm with sauce on the side.

Recipe Notes

TIP #1: Do not cook these in sauce because the breadcrumbs will absorb all the sauce and then fall apart.

Tip #2: You do not have to use bulgur, but it is a great way to get the family to eat more healthy fiber!

Tip 3#:  Rub the balls in oil and bake if you want to skip the frying.

Recipe updated Feb 13th, 2020

Kitchenware, Gadgets, and Tools Recommended for Use in this Recipe:



How to Make Amazing Italian Meatless Meatballs


  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.

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