venison meatballs in red sauce

Tender Venison Meatballs with Red Sauce

Fork tender and packed with flavor, this is the venison meatball recipe you’ve been waiting for.


Getting the meat mixture right:

A good fat ratio is THE KEY ingredient for tender and juicy meatballs. In this case, venison is not the ideal protein because it’s so naturally lean. So, you have two options to get your meat mix right and ensure optimal results.

Option 1: grind your own fat in to the venison.

If you’re like me and you process your own venison, this is a great option. You can do it after the fact, but I actually do it at the time of processing and just label my packages as “lean” or “80/20”. Most of the deer I harvest are too lean to add in enough additional fat from the same carcass, so I often use pork fat instead. You can ask your local butcher to save you some of the fat trimmings (trust me, they have plenty). Then just weigh out the meat to the fat in an 80% to 20% ratio, and grind them together at the same time. This fatty mix is also perfect for burgers and any other dish where you are worried that lean ground venison may dry out. BTW – the real secret here is to have the fat SUPER cold when you grind it, and to use a grinder that moves quickly (I use this LEM Big Bite model). This also helps the quality of the meat itself.

Option 2: use a half/half ratio.

Maybe you’ve already got all your venison processed. Or maybe you don’t want to mess with grinding. No worries! Just use a mixture of half venison and half pork or beef. For this recipe, that would be one pound of venison, and one pound of alternate meat. As long as you make sure you’re not using lean ground for the add-in meat, you’re good. Look for at least an 80/20 mix. Pork is definitely more traditional, but some prefer the flavor of beef paired with venison. Either way, it’s going to be SUPER tasty.

Spending time on the sauce is worth it.

Yes, this sauce takes about 5 hours to cook down and transform into something really special. But it’s totally worth it. It’s not complicated to make, it just takes a while to develop flavor. And it’s a depth of flavor that you just can’t fake any other way. The acidity of the tomatoes cooks away and the whole sauce becomes super rich and complex. Bonus points it you can use San Marzano tomatoes. They are considered to be the ultimate red sauce ingredient. Having said all that… there are times where you just don’t have a spare 5 hours to babysit a pot full of red sauce. I get it. No one is judging if you want to substitute with store-bought pasta sauce.

The trick to tender meatballs:

A fancy chef term for this trick would be a “panade”. For the rest of us, let’s just call it “bread and milk”. To keep the meatballs extra moist and tender, I add in milk-soaked breadcrumbs. The softened and swollen crumbs are bursting with extra moisture, and have a super soft texture. Another great trick is to use SUPER finely chopped mushrooms – their taste and texture  is nearly indiscernible in the final mix, but they add a ton of extra moisture and tenderness, too.

The OTHER trick to tender meatballs:

Really letting them simmer. I know, it seems so simple, right? I’ve made this mistake in the past, guided by recipes that set me up for failure. “Cook until 160f internal”, they said. Sure, that’s the minimum safe temperature, but if you reach that temp really quickly, all you end up with is safe TOUGH meat. Through trial and error, I discovered that if I really left my meatballs to simmer gently for 60-90 minutes, they were extra tender. The meat proteins (even small ground ones) will seize up when initially exposed to heat, and it takes them a while to break down, chill out and tenderize. In my experience, letting your meatballs cook longer at a gentle pace makes a huge difference to the final texture.

Why you should simmer your meatballs, not roast them:

Some recipes call for roasting the meatballs or browning them in a pan. Usually, this is if they are being served without being dunked and simmered in a sauce. In this case since we ARE getting saucy, I find it best to treat the meatballs more like a dumpling, and drop them into the warm sauce to gently cook. For this recipe, a browning step is not necessary and can sometimes even create a tough exterior.

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venison meatballs in red sauce

Tender Venison Meatballs with Red Sauce

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  • Author: Jess Pryles
  • Yield: Makes 16 x 2" meatballs 1x



For the sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil

one chopped onion

4 cloves chopped garlic

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 x 28 oz cans of peeled tomatoes

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup chicken or veggie stock

1 parmesan rind (optional)

For the meatballs:

2 lb ground venison with 20% added fat (OR see note 3 below)

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

1 cup milk

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon dried oregano

2 teaspoons garlic powder

2 teaspoons onion powder

1/3 cup grated parmesan cheese


  1. Start by making the sauce: heat the olive oil in a large heavy based pot over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, cook until they start to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Add the tomato paste and oregano, and cook down an additional 3-5 minutes.
  2. Add in the peeled tomatoes, crushing with a spoon to break them up a little. Add the salt and the stock. Use an immersion blender to blend the sauce until a smooth consistency is achieved. (alternatively you can smooth out the sauce at the end of cooking in a blender).
  3. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Add in the parmesan rind (if using). Cover, and simmer for 4-5 hours until the sauce has reduced and deepened in color. You can remove and discard the parmesan rind after 1-2 hours. Add additional salt to taste.
  4. In a small bowl or container, combine the breadcrumbs and the milk. Stir and mix well, then allow to sit 5-7 minutes until all the milk is absorbed.
  5. *If using pre-made sauce, start heating it an a large saucepan or high sided skillet over medium heat.
  6. In a large bowl, combine venison, breadcrumb mixture, salt, oregano, garlic, onion and parmesan. Work quickly to combine the mixture well, but do not overwork the meat.
  7. Form the meat into 2″ balls, then drop them into the warm red sauce. Cover the pot/pan, and lower the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook for 60-90 minutes until the meatballs are tender.
  8. If the sauce is getting too thick during cooking, add some extra stock or water, 1/4 cup at a time.


  • Note 1 : the sauce takes about 5 hours to cook down. You can make it in advance if you prefer.
  • Note 2: if you are using pre-made or store-bought sauce, you’ll need about 4-6 cups (32-45 oz). If not making sauce from scratch – start at step 4.
  • Note 3: if you aren’t using venison with added fat, use 1 lb ground venison AND 1 lb ground non-lean pork or 80/20 beef.
  • Category: venison, main course
  • Cuisine: Italian

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