A little unrefined-looking, but these home-made beef balls tasted tons better than store-bought ones.
Chinese meatballs are totally different in texture from, say, Italian meatballs. Italian meatballs are loose and soft textured and a little coarse to the tongue while Chinese meatballs are dense, smooth and springy. Springy is the key characteristic of Chinese meatballs. Whether it is a fish, pork, squid or beef ball, if it doesn't give a springy bite, it is considered a failure.
My helper Vero makes super springy fish balls that sometimes are almost hard and definitely bouncy. I can never do fish balls so I don't bother. But I've always wanted to make beef balls, mainly because nobody seems to make them or know how to make them. Thank goodness for Google Search, from which I found two recipes that were the same except one used alkaline water and one didn't. I'm linking this recipe because it was published earlier than the other recipe, meaning the later one probably copied it without giving credit. And it worked while the copycat's didn't.
On the left, beef ground by machine and on the right, machine-ground beef paste that became smoother and finer by pounding with a granite pestle and mortar. Although the recipe doesn't say to put the ground beef through the pounding process, I saw it on some other sites and it made sense.
On the left, lighter-color, denser and smoother beef ball made using alkaline water and on the right, a darker, looser and coarser beef ball made without addition of alkaline water. So different.
I started with fresh unfrozen sirloin, putting it through a machine and then pounding it into a paste with a pestle in a mortar. I then added the necessary ingredients and swirled the beef paste round and round in a bowl with a pair of chopsticks like clothes in a washing machine to increase the stickiness and springiness of the meat paste. To be doubly sure, I slapped the paste hard against my wooden chopping board too, just as is done in making fish balls. So much hard work--do commercial meat balls makers have to do this?
In one sample, I omited additives such as baking powder and alkaline water (more correctly called lye water, the ingredient in toilet cleaners and drain openers because it is so high in alkalinity and therefore is very corrosive, just like Coca Cola is corrosive too). I boiled one beef ball and it was coarse and loosely packed, just like Italian meatballs. I was disappointed so I left the minced beef in the fridge for two days while I decided whether to add alkaline to it. I've read that alkaline water is used in making of century eggs, noodles, gan sui zhongzi and many cured food such as olives. I didn't want to resort to using alkaline water, but I had to find out The Truth About Meat Balls And Their Bounciness. So I bought a small bottle of alkaline water (lye water) for RM1.00 from the cake ingredients shop, scooped out 3 tablespoon of the beef paste and added 1/16 teaspoon of alkaline water. Magic! The beef ball was super springy and bouncy to the bite. Not only that, after cooking, it looked just like the commercial ones, light grey in color and smoother than the beef ball made without alkaline water. I felt very good. I felt like I've cracked a secret recipe. But I was left with 2 3/4 tablespoon of beef paste with alkaline water and about 250 g pure beef paste that doesn't make springy meat balls. I decided to risk it, since I generally eat quite healthily (I think) and can afford some poison once in a while. I mixed the two pastes together without adding more alkaline water and dropped one ball into the boiling water. After a minute, it rose to the surface, all puffed up. I bit into the beef ball. OMGoodness, it was the best beef ball I have ever tasted--springy, not too dense, full of beefy flavor and sweetness. It reminded me of the steamed beef balls with dried mandarin peel served at dim sums, only the beef flavor was stronger. Awesome! My niece who dropped by for dinner said that the beef balls were superb and utterly different from the coffee shops. Wey, who doesn't eat meat balls of any sort, ate one and liked it. And then--not to my surprise--he said that he tasted a slight bitter after-taste. I had tasted it too but I didn't say anything because I thought it was in my head. It was the same slightly saltish-soapy-bitter taste I find in yellow oily noodles but which nobody else seems to detect.
Now that I can make beef balls, I can make them BIG instead of those pee-wees in the shops. Beef balls have shrunk so much that they just don't feel in the mouth like before. They also lack beef flavor. I suppose I can make pork balls too, and pork dried squid balls. And all that advice the butchers give you about how you must start with meat that is so fresh that it is still warm? And how you have to slap the meat around? I've proven that it's rubbish. All you need is alkaline water and the meat will spring and bounce.
The following recipe is based on the recipe linked above, but slight changes to the ingredients and method were made based on my experimentation. It makes delicious beef balls without the starchy taste of those giant frozen beef balls in many Asian grocers overseas.
I suspect the tiny holes were caused by the extra water I added while fiddling with the sticky meat paste. In the recipe below, I've given the right amount of water.
Springy Beef Balls
300 g totally lean beef (any cut as long as it doesn't have lots of stringy fibers)
5 T ice water + 2/3 t salt, mixed to dissolve
1 t fine sugar
1/4 T veg oil
2 T cornflour
a few dashes of ground white pepper
less than 1/16 alkaline water* (gan sui)
* try using less than this by dropping about 5 drops with a skewer, then cook one ball to test the bounciness and add more if needed.
note: in the original recipe, fish sauce is used to give extra flavor but that may be more suitable for Vietnamese beef balls. You can substitute with a pinch of chicken stock powder instead. Commercially, msg is used and if you use that, just a small dash will do.
1. Cut the beef into small pieces, process it until a fine paste. Pick out any stringy bits. The meat will still be slightly too coarse so pound it into a homogeneous paste using a mortar and pestle or a rolling pin as I've seen in some sites. I'm not sure how the beef balls will turn out if you don't pound it. It may turn out just as good as long as you use alkaline water. You test and tell me.
2. Sprinkle all the other ingredients except the salt water over the meat paste. Add the salt water to the meat paste by the tablespoon, stirring after each addition until the water is absorbed before adding the next tablespoon. Stir the meat forcefully in one circular direction, just like making fish balls paste, for about 1 minute.
3. Chill the meat paste in the fridge for an hour to firm up.
4. Scoop or squeeze the meat paste into balls about the size of a large cherry or even larger and drop into boiling stock. When the balls rise to the surface of the boiling soup, let them boil a minute before serving. They will puff up when the water is boiling but they will deflate when the soup cools.