Hearty, savory, garlicky meatballs just like you grew up eating…but totally meatless! These lentil meatballs are packed with flavor, easy to whip up, totally vegetarian, vegan, and optionally gluten-free!
A couple weeks ago my husband’s employer held a meatball cook-off. Apparently it was just between two people, both who swore their mom’s meatballs were the best on the planet. My husband suggested he could jump in and prove that his wife’s vegan meatballs were actually the best on the planet.
While I love the bid of confidence, I’m just not sure I’m ready for that kind of thing. I did consider sending him in with some type of veggie meatballs for anyone who was interested in trying them, or just to make sure any vegans or vegetarians he worked with didn’t get left out of the fun.
But I realized I didn’t even have super simple meaty Italian meatball, which is what I’m sure the people who entered the meatball battle were going for.
I do have Italian meatballs that taste like eggplant and broccoli rabe. And I also have meaty non-Italian meatballs. In fact, I get comments from you guys all the time telling me you’ve adapted my salisbury steak meatballs or tofu balls for purposes of drenching in tomato sauce and serving with pasta.
So I decided it was time for some meaty Italian vegan meatballs, and I made them out of lentils!
What’s great about this recipe is that it’s made almost entirely from pantry staples. Onions and garlic are the only exceptions, but I’m betting most of you guys have them hanging around the kitchen.
I cooked up some dried lentils for my lentil meatballs, but you can use canned if you prefer.
To start, you’ll be blending up some oats in the food processor. The oats bind the balls together. I usually go with panko breadcrumbs for this purpose, but the nice thing about oats is that they allow you to keep the balls gluten-free if you like.
After blending the oats, add your lentils, along with some sautéed garlic and onions, tomato paste, and seasonings. Just pulse once or twice — the mixture will quickly turn to total mush if you overdo it.
It should be very soft, but still firm enough to roll into balls. Roll them up!
These lentil balls bake up in the oven for about 25 minutes. Just enough time to cook up some pasta and maybe even whip up a batch of sauce.
Tips for Making Awesome Lentil Meatballs
- If you keep oat flour on hand, feel free to sub 1 scant cup of it for the rolled oats. No need to blend it in advance if you do — just throw it in with everything else!
- Use certified gluten-free oats (or oat flour) and tamari if you’d like to keep these beanballs gluten-free.
- Wet your hands before rolling to prevent the lentil mixture from sticking to them.
- You can prep the lentil mixture a day or two in advance and store it in the refrigerator, or up to two months in advance and freeze it. On the day of serving, just thaw if it’s frozen, roll, and bake according to the recipe.
- Be careful not to overcook your lentils or overblend your lentil meatball mixture in the food processor. Doing either could make the mixture too soft to roll! If that does happen, try stirring in a tablespoon or so of flour, or chilling it for a bit to firm it up.
Italian-Style Lentil Meatballs
Hearty, savory, garlicky meatballs just like you grew up eating...but totally meatless! These lentil meatballs are packed with flavor, easy to whip up, totally vegetarian, vegan, and optionally gluten-free!
- 3/4 cup dried brown lentils (or sub 2 cups precooked or canned)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1 medium onion, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, divided and minced
- 1 cup rolled oats (optionally gluten-free)
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce or tamari
- 1 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 1 teaspoon dried basil
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, or to taste
If using dried lentils, place them into a small saucepan and cover them with water. (If your lentils are canned or precooked, skip to step 5.)
Place the pan over high heat and bring the water to a boil.
Allow the lentils to boil, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until the they're tender but not mushy.
Remove the pot from the heat and drain the water. Give the lentils a quick rinse in cold water.
Lightly coat the bottom of a medium skillet with oil and place it over medium heat.
When the oil is hot, add the onion and sauté for about 5 minutes, until soft and translucent.
Add 2 cloves of garlic and sauté for about 1 minute more, until very fragrant. Remove the skillet from the heat.
Preheat the oven to 400° and lightly oil a baking sheet or oven-safe skillet.
Place the oats into the bowl of a food processor fitted with an s-blade and blend to a powder.
Add the cooked lentils, cooked onion and garlic, the remaining raw garlic, tomato paste, soy sauce, red wine vinegar, oregano, thyme, basil, red pepper flakes, liquid smoke, salt and pepper to the food processor bowl.
Pulse just a couple of times — much more and the mixture will quickly turn to mush.
Taste test the mixture and adjust any seasonings to your liking.
Roll the mixture into 1-inch balls (about 24 of them), and arrange them on the baking sheet or in the skillet.
Lightly brush or spray the balls with about 1 tablespoon of olive oil.
Bake for about 24 minutes, until firm and lightly browned, flipping the balls about halfway through.
Serve with your favorite sauce and optionally some pasta.