Juicy, fork tender Italian turkey meatballs bathed in a quick and easy tomato sauce for an utterly addicting healthy dinner win!
These juicy Italian Turkey Meatballs are layered with Italian spices, seeping with garlic, herb Parmesan goodness, and fork tender thanks to my secret tip (no one else uses)! The meatballs can be made with fresh and/or dried herbs so you can whip up a batch anytime and are popped in the oven while you prep the easy 10-minute-simmer tomato sauce. The sauce boasts rich, bright tomato, basil and garlicky flavors, laced with oregano, thyme and red pepper. Serve up your Italian Turkey Meatballs over a bed of spaghetti, spaghetti squash, zoodles or cauliflower rice with a side of Italian Green Bean Salad for a dinner everyone will love – including your waistline!
HOW TO MAKE Italian Turkey Meatballs VIDEo
INGREDIENTS FOR Italian TURKEY MEATBALLS
These Italian Turkey Meatball are made with easy to find, pantry friendly ingredients. Let’s take a closer look at what you’ll need (ingredient measurements in the recipe card at the bottom of the post):
FOR THE MEATBALLS
- Ground turkey: Use turkey that is that’s 93% lean/7% fat so it has enough fat for flavor but won’t make the meatballs greasy. I like to use Jenni-O brand turkey because it doesn’t seem to be as wet as other brands so it’s easier to work with.
- Beef bouillon: This is my secret ingredient that will change your turkey world! I always use beef bouillon when using turkey like in my turkey tacos and turkey chili. It infuses the turkey meatballs with rich, beefy goodness. Beef bouillon is essentially dehydrated vegetables, meat stock, salt, and seasonings. For this recipe you will want 2 teaspoons granulated bouillon, bouillon cubes or better than bouillon. If using cubes, finely crush and then add to mixture, don’t dissolve in water first. If you don’t eat meat, then eliminate the bouillon and increase the salt to ¾ teaspoon.
- Yellow: Use half a yellow onion and grate it into the meatball bowl or pan to get the onion and juices. You’ll want about ½ cup combined onion/juices, which might not be the whole half of the onion.
- Greek yogurt: Yogurt is used in place of milk for extra juicy meatballs. For the most succulent meatballs, use whole milk yogurt, but light and nonfat will also work.
- Eggs: One egg will do the trick to bind all the ingredients together.
- Panko: This is a Japanese breadcrumb sold in every grocery store (including Walmart) usually next to the other breadcrumbs. Panko breadcrumbs are larger and dryer than normal breadcrumbs so they absorb more flavor while still providing structure. This keeps the meatballs extra moist and tender.
- Garlic: Fresh garlic adds punchy garlicky flavor. Use more or less depending on how garlic forward you would like your meatballs. You may also substitute with ¾ teaspoon garlic powder.
- Basil: The quintessential herb for Italian turkey meatballs. It’s a balance between sweet and savory, with hints of mint, anise, and pepper. You can use two tablespoons chopped fresh basil or one teaspoon dried.
- Parsley: This herb tastes clean and peppery with a touch of earthiness. Use flat leaf parsley for the most flavor. Use two tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or one teaspoon dried.
- Rosemary: This elevates the recipe with its woodsy aromatic notes of evergreen, citrus, lavender, pine, sage, pepper, mint, and sage. You may use 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary or ½ teaspoon dried. I like to lightly crush the dried rosemary so it gets more evenly distributed.
- Oregano: This quintessential Italian herb boasts minty undertones laced with peppery, grassy and earthy notes. I use dried because it is only ½ teaspoon but you are welcome to use 1 ½ teaspoons chopped fresh.
- Parmesan: Freshly grated Parmesan cheese infuses the ground turkey meatballs with its alluring salty, nutty flavor. You don’t want to use the powdered or pre-shredded cheese. Freshly grated Parmesan cheese tastes far superior.
- Salt and pepper: Don’t skip the salt and pepper to enhance and round out all the flavors.
FOR THE TOMATO SAUCE
- San Marzano tomatoes: Please only use San Marzano tomatoes for a sauce that never tastes too acidic. These tomatoes are a variety of plum tomatoes that originated from the rich volcanic soils of Naples, Italy and are highly prized for their sweet, intense tomatoey flavor and lower acidity. They are considered the gold standard AKA the best tomatoes in the world to use in Italian sauces.
- Aromatics: Feel free to use either half a fresh yellow onion and freshly minced garlic or for the ultimate quick, lazy day, easy tomato sauce, use garlic powder and onion powder. Obviously fresh is best and smells incredible, but the powders do a pretty great job as well; my husband (with a discerning palate) can never tell when I’ve use which!
- Herbs and Seasonings: A shortcut sauce doesn’t mean we shortcut any flavor! This easy tomato sauce recipe is seasoned with basil, parsley, oregano, thyme, salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. You can use either fresh herbs or dried, whatever you have on hand. The red pepper flakes won’t make the pasta sauce spicy, just liven it up a bit.
- Sugar: Tomatoes are highly acidic so they need to be balanced by some sugar. The amount of sugar will vary (even between the times you make the recipe), depending on personal taste and the acidity of the tomatoes.
- Chicken Bouillon: My secret ingredient! Bouillon might sound like an odd ingredient, but I have tried making this tomato sauce with and without it, and it is far superior with the bouillon – just think salt with flavor! The bouillon mimics the complex flavor of a sauce that has been reducing all day. You can use granulated chicken bouillon, better than bouillon or bouillon cubes. If you use cubes, you will need 2. Crush them up without dissolving in water before adding to the sauce.
- Protein: Use ground beef, pork, chicken, or a blend of two meats.
- Onion substitute: Substitute the grated onion in the meatballs with ¼ cup dried minced onions. If using dried minced onions, add an extra tablespoon or so of yogurt because you will be missing the juices from the onion.
- Yogurt substitute: Sour cream also works great!
- Panko substitute: Swap the panko with saltine or Ritz cracker crumbs and reduce the salt. You can also swap the panko with homemade bread crumbs.
- Make it gluten free: Use your favorite gluten free panko, crackers or toasted gluten free bread in place of the panko.
- Cheese swap: Add any semi-hard cheese you’d like to the meatballs! Freshly grated Asiago and Romano are also tasty or use a combo. You can omit the cheese completely if needed.
- Play with herbs: Add more or less of any herb to mix up the flavor profile.
- Make them spicy: Add ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes.
- Add mozzarella: Top the Italian Turkey Meatballs and sauce with freshly shredded mozzarella and pop in the oven for a couple minutes to bake.
tomato sauce variations
Feel free to experiment and get creative! Depending on my mood, what I have on hand, and what I’m using the recipe for, I’ll often mix and match the below ingredients. For example, I may use onion powder with fresh basil and some heavy cream. Here are some examples to try:
- Use fresh tomatoes: This increases the prep time quite a bit, but go for it if you’re feeling ambitious. Blanch, peel, seed and crush fresh San Marzano tomatoes in a food processor and proceed with the recipe.
- Use diced tomatoes: Substitute the crushed tomatoes with three 15 oz. cans fire roasted diced tomatoes pureed in your blender. Use fire roasted Muir glen brand if you can.
- Add other Italian style seasonings: Swap the proportions of the herbs listed in the recipe such as adding more thyme and less oregano or add additional herbs altogether such as sage, marjoram or fennel. You could also use Italian seasoning blend if desired.
- Use fresh herbs: Fresh basil, oregano and thyme instantly elevate your tomato sauce! Use all fresh herbs or mix fresh with dried as needed. You will need 3X the amount of fresh herbs to dried.
- Make it garlicky: For the garlic lovers! Add even more garlic if you don’t want to not be kissed tonight.
- Make it spicy: Turn the tomato sauce into arrabbiata by adding additional red pepper flakes, even up to 1 teaspoon!
- Add heavy cream: Heavy cream is often added to traditional Bolognese sauces to make them extra decadent and to tame the acidity. You can stir in just ¼ cup or turn the tomato sauce into a rose sauce but stirring in ½-1 cup heavy cream.
- Add balsamic: I often will add up to 1 teaspoon quality balsamic vinegar. It enhances the sweet tanginess.
- Make it cheesy: Stir ½ cup of freshly-grated Parmesan into the sauce just before serving.
- Add a Parmesan cheese rind: Save/freeze your Parmesan cheese rind for recipes like this! Add the rind to the tomato sauce to simmer for extra umami rich flavor. The rind will soften but won’t melt so it’s easy to scoop out.
- Add vegetables: Add any veggies you like! Make a sofrito with carrots and celery or add larger carrots, bell peppers, zucchini, mushrooms, etc. for a veggie tomato sauce.
- Adjust consistency: For a thicker tomato sauce, simmer for longer; for a thinner tomato sauce, thin with chicken broth or water. For a smoother sauce, use a hand-held immersion blender or process the sauce in the blender in batches (taking care to leave a corner open, covered with a paper towel so steam can escape).
HOW TO MAKE italian TURKEY MEATBALLS
These baked Italian Turkey Meatballs are easy to make at home, you will simply mix, roll and cook while the sauce simmers. Let’s take a closer look at how with step-by-step photos or you can watch the video in the recipe card (full measurements in the recipe card at the bottom of the page):
STEP 1: COMBINE MEATBALL INGREDIENTS
- Grate the onion on the large holes of your box grater straight into a large bowl. Sometimes it’s helpful to use a 9×9 baking dish instead so the bottom of the grater can sit flat inside.
- Whisk in the egg, yogurt, panko herbs and seasonings.
- Add the turkey and gently combine with your hands.
STEP 2: ROLL THE MEATBALLS
- Line a baking sheet with foil for easy cleanup and top with a baking rack. Lightly spray the rack with cooking spray.
- Scoop the meat mixture using a 1 1/2-tablespoon capacity cookie scoop to form the meatballs and then roll them in between the palm of wet hands to form balls. Place meatballs onto prepared surface without touching.
STEP 3: COOK THE MEATBALLS
You can bake the ground turkey meatballs in the oven or cook them on the stove. They both take about the same amount of time but the oven requires zero babysitting and cooks more evenly whereas the skillet produces a crispier exterior. They both will be juicy and tender as long as you don’t overcook them! So, the best method for you is whichever method you will not overcook.
Step 4: MAKE TOMATO SAUCE
- You will love that our homemade tomato sauce recipe is exponentially more delicious than the minimal effort required. It only takes 10 minutes of hand’s-on prep if using fresh garlic and herbs or practically zero prep if using dried herbs/powders – just dump and simmer.
- If using fresh aromatics, sauté the onions in some olive oil until softened, then add the garlic and sauté one additional minute. Skip this step if using powders.
- Add the tomatoes (pre-crushed or whole) chicken bouillon and seasonings and simmer for about 15 minutes.
Step 5: combine
- Add the meatballs to the tomato sauce and turn to coat an simmer for a minute or to to finish cooking the meatballs. Dig in!
Tools Used in This Recipe
Italian Turkey Meatballs
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- 1/2 small yellow onion, peeled
- 1 egg
- 2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt or sour cream (light or whole)
- 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 3 cloves garlic, minced (may sub ¾ tsp garlic powder)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil (or 1 tsp dried)
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (or 1 tsp dried)
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary (or ½ tsp dried, lightly crushed)
- 2 teaspoons granulated beef bouillon, better than bouillon or 2 cubes, crushed (optional, see notes)
- 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp EACH salt, pepper
- 1 pound ground turkey 93% lean
- olive oil for brushing or cooking spray
- 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil
- ½ yellow onion, chopped (or ½ teaspoon onion powder)
- 4-6 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 tsp garlic powder)
- 1 28 oz. can San Marzano whole tomatoes with juices*
- 1 15 oz. can San Marzano crushed tomatoes in puree (fire roasted if possible)
- 2 teaspoons chicken bouillon, or better than bouillon, see notes
- 3 tablespoons minced fresh basil (or 2 teaspoons dried)
- 1 tsp EACH dried parsley, dried oregano
- 1/2 tsp EACH dried thyme, salt, pepper
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- chicken broth as needed (optional)
- sugar to taste
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
- Line a baking sheet with foil for easy cleanup and top with a baking rack; spray the rack with cooking spray.
TO MAKE MEATBALLS
- Grate the onion on the largest holes of the grater straight into a large bowl (we want all the juices!) until there is about ½ cup combined juices/onion (make sure to grate across the onion so you get small pieces).
- Stir in the remaining meatball ingredients up to the turkey and mix well. Add the turkey and mix with your hands just to combine (don’t over-mix or your meatballs will be tough).
- Wet or lightly spray your hands with cooking spray to prevent the mixture from sticking. Scoop the meat mixture using a 1 ½ tablespoon cookie scoop (or a heaping 1 tablespoon), then gently roll in between the palms of your hands to form balls; don't compact too much or the meatballs will be dense. Place the meatballs onto the prepared rack without touching.
TO BAKE THE MEATBALLS
- Lightly brush the meatballs with olive oil or spray with cooking oil.
- Transfer the baking sheet to the oven and bake at 400 degrees F for 16-20 minutes, or until the meatballs are almost cooked through (reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees F on an instant read thermometer). They will finish cooking in the sauce.
TO MAKE THE SAUCE
- Combine the rest of the sauce ingredients in the pan. Bring to a vigorous simmer then reduce to a gentle simmer for 15 minutes, stirring often. If adding the tomatoes whole, use a potato masher to crush them occassionally until they reach desired consistency. Add chicken broth as needed to thin to desired consistency.
- Taste and season to taste with sugar for sweeter, balsamic for tangier, red pepper flakes for spicier and/or salt and pepper.
- Optional for a smooth sauce: Use an immersion blender or transfer sauce to the blender in batches and puree, taking care to leave a corner of the lid open and covered with a paper towel so the steam can escape or else it will explode.
- Add the meatballs to the pan and coat in the sauce. Simmer for 1- 2 minutes, until cooked through. Serve with pasta, zoodles, spaghetti squash, etc. garnished with fresh basil and Parmesan if desired.
Expert Tips and Tricks
- *San Marzano tomatoes: Are a must for non-acidic tomato sauce prized for their sweet, intense tomatoey flavor and lower acidity. I recommend the brands San Marzano and Muir Glen. San Marzano tomatoes are usually sold whole so you can either pour them into a bowl and crush them first, use a food processor if you like your sauce finer or crush them with a potato masher as they simmer.
- Tomato warning: If you see other brands claiming to be San Marzano tomatoes, take an extra step and check to see if they are DOP-certified – usually visible on the front or the back of the can. This is a protective seal that guarantees authenticity.
- Acidic sauce: If your sauce tastes too acidic after simmering, double check your tomatoes – you should never have this problem with authentic, whole San Marzano tomatoes.
- Beef bouillon: It infuses the turkey meatballs with rich, beefy goodness. If using cubes, finely crush and then add to mixture, don’t dissolve in water first. If you don’t eat meat, then simply skip.
- Chicken Bouillon: The bouillon mimics the complex flavor of a sauce that has been reducing all day. You can use granulated chicken bouillon, better than bouillon or bouillon cubes. If you use cubes, you will need 2. Crush them up without dissolving in water before adding to the sauce.
- Gluten free: Use your favorite gluten free panko, crackers or toasted gluten free bread in place of the panko.
- Don’t skip grating the onion: I have tried this recipe with grated onion, dried minced onions and onion powder and the recipe with grated onion was by far the juiciest. If you do skip grating, then increase the yogurt but 1 tablespoon or so.
- Use cold ingredients: Start with cold eggs, yogurt and add cold turkey straight from the fridge to make the mixture easier to work with.
- Don’t overcook: Overcooked meatballs are dry meatballs. I recommend using an instant read thermometer for the juiciest meatballs.
- Prep ahead: Roll the meatballs up to 24 hours ahead of time, cover with plastic wrap, refrigerate, then bake when ready. Let the meatballs sit on the counter for 30 minutes to help come to room temperature before cooking.
- Recipe variations: See post for tasty recipe variations and ingredient substitutions.
To store and reheat
- Storage: Cover or transfer to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. The meatballs and sauce can also be frozen for up to 3 months. See post for freezing meatballs only.
- To reheat in the microwave: Microwave for 60 seconds then at 15 second intervals until warmed through.
- To reheat on the stove: Cover an oven safe skillet with foil and bake at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes or until warmed through.
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