Lion’s Head Meatballs—As Cooks Illustrated writes, “Don’t let their ferocious name intimidate you. They’re as big as tennis balls and boast a seemingly paradoxical combination of spoon-tenderness and sausage-like spring and juiciness.” These giant, savory, tender-yet-springy pork meatballs from eastern China are pure comfort food.
They are emblematic of the cuisine of Jiangnan, which is known for its gentleness, or qing dan—a term meaning “light” to convey the food’s simple, unadulterated quality. Chef/author Annie Petito says “the dish is the Chinese equivalent of matzo ball soup: simple, soothing, and deeply savory.”
There was going to be a trio of us for supper so I planned on three meatballs per person. And since this recipe calls for making eight, I purposely created smaller balls, and then ended up with 10! But let me tell you, two per diner was plenty—and plenty big—plus now we had four leftover for another meal or two.
For a streamlined approach, start with commercial ground pork. Treat the meat with a baking soda solution before cooking, which helps retain juices over the relatively long cooking time. Lightly season the meat with soy sauce, sugar, Shaoxing wine, ginger, scallions, and white pepper for well-rounded savory flavor that still tastes distinctly porky.
According to CI, beating the pork mixture in a stand mixer causes its sticky proteins to link up into a strong network that traps fat and moisture, resulting in a texture that is resilient and unctuous. I was hesitant to drag out my heavy KitchenAid mix master for a 60-second whirl, but knew making the meat mixture by hand would not fully incorporate the ingredients.
Braising the meatballs for 1½ hours in the oven breaks down the pork’s collagen so that the meatballs are tender. Adding the cabbage for the last 30 minutes of cooking allows it to soften and absorb the flavor of the chicken broth (preferably homemade) without turning mushy. If using boxed or canned broth, you may want to toss in a bit of fish sauce for more flavor. Soaking your rice vermicelli in just-boiled water softens the noodles but doesn’t overcook them.
NOTE: Shaoxing is a Chinese rice wine that can be found at Asian markets. If you can’t find it, use dry sherry.
Lion's Head Meatballs
- ¾ tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. table salt
- 2 lbs. ground pork
- 1 large egg, lightly beaten
- 2 scallions, white parts minced; green parts diagonally sliced thin
- 2 Tbsp. soy sauce
- 2 Tbsp. Shaoxing wine or dry sherry
- 4 tsp. sugar
- 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
- ½ tsp. white pepper
- 4 cups chicken broth, preferably homemade
- 1 head napa cabbage, quartered lengthwise, cored, and cut crosswise into 2-inch pieces
- 4 oz. rice vermicelli
- Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325°F.
- Whisk baking soda, salt, and 2 tablespoons water together in bowl of stand mixer. Add pork to baking soda mixture and toss to combine.
- Add egg, scallion whites, soy sauce, wine, sugar, ginger, and white pepper.
- Fit stand mixer with paddle and beat on medium speed until mixture is well combined and has stiffened and started to pull away from sides of bowl and pork has slightly lightened in color, 45 to 60 seconds.
- Using your wet hands, for about ½ cup (4½ ounces) pork mixture into 3-inch round meatball; repeat with remaining mixture to form 8 meatballs.
- Bring broth to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Off heat, carefully arrange meatballs in pot (7 around perimeter and 1 center; meatballs will not be totally submerged). Cover pot, transfer to oven, and cook for 1 hour.
- Transfer meatballs to large plate. Add cabbage to pot in even layer and arrange meatballs over cabbage, paler side up. (The meatballs do swell, so make sure there is room in your pot.)
- Cover, return pot to oven, and continue to cook until meatballs are lightly browned and cabbage is softened, about 30 minutes longer.
- While meatballs and cabbage cook, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large pot. Off heat, add vermicelli and let sit, stirring occasionally, until vermicelli is fully tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
- Drain, rinse with cold water, drain again, and distribute evenly among 4 large soup bowls.
- Ladle meatballs, cabbage, and broth into bowls of noodles. Sprinkle with scallion greens and serve.