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Turkish Meatballs (Kofte) with Lemon-Tahini Sauce

These tasty Turkish meatballs (known as kofte or kofta) can be enjoyed alone, over rice, and with or without the lemon sauce. Serve them as an appetizer or a main dish, and have some pita or flatbread on hand to sop up the delicious sauce. Don’t forget Turkish cake Revani for dessert!

overhead shot of kofte turkish meatballs in a lemon sauce next to a brightly colored towel

What is Kofte?

What we call meatballs here in the US are known as Kofte in Turkish cuisine. They’re essentially the same thing but with different spices to flavor the meat.

Another difference is that Turkish meatballs are mixed for a good five minutes, even after the ingredients are combined in order to break down the proteins in the meat. This can make for a tougher meatball so a few additional ingredients are added to combat this.

The result is a light, flavorful meatball that melts in your mouth!

What are Kofte Turkish meatballs made of?

Typically kofte is made with ground beef or lamb, or a combination of the two. This recipe calls for all beef but use whatever you prefer. Garlic, onion, breadcrumbs, egg, and spices are also used to both flavor the meat as well as bind it so the meatballs don’t fall apart during the cooking process.

Ingredients in this Turkish meatball recipe

There are two components to this dish: the meatballs and the sauce. The meatballs are delicious both with or without the sauce, but they’re especially good together.

Ingredients for the meatballs:

  • ground beef (ground turkey, lamb, or chicken will also work)
  • red onion
  • garlic
  • breadcrumbs
  • egg
  • fresh parsley
  • fresh mint
  • cumin
  • allspice
  • salt and pepper
  • baking soda
  • fresh lemon juice
  • olive oil (for frying)

Ingredients for the sauce:

  • tahini
  • fresh lemon juice
  • salt
  • (plus a little water to thin it out)
a closeup overhead shot of kofte turkish meatballs in a lemon sauce

How to make Kofte – Turkish Meatballs

Making turkish meatballs is very similar to what you might be used to, with the exception of massaging the meat far longer. Don’t worry though – you’re going to love these!

First you’ll mix together the beef, onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, egg, parsley, mint, cumin, allspice, salt, and pepper in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Then, in a separate small dish, whisk together water, baking soda, and lemon juice. Pour it over the meat mixture – I know it seems crazy, but it will tenderize the meat and promote browning.

Using your hands, gently mix everything together until it’s thoroughly combined, then continue massaging the mixture for another 2-3 minutes. Cover the bowl with some saran wrap and pop it in the refrigerator for at least an hour. Overnight is better since you want to give it time for the flavors to meld, but an hour will do the trick just fine.

While the meatballs are chilling, make the sauce by whisking the ingredients together in a small dish. Add a little water to thin out the sauce, then whisk it again until it’s the consistency you like. Taste it and add more salt if you think it needs it. Cover it and refrigerate alongside the meatballs.

When you’re ready to cook, remove both the meat mixture and the sauce from the refrigerator. Roll the meat mixture into balls about 1-inch thick. Just let the sauce sit at room temperature while you cook the meatballs.

Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and, when it’s shimmering, add the meatballs (do this in batches if necessary). Cook the meatballs until they’re nicely browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes.

Pour the sauce into a shallow serving dish and add the meatballs. Sprinkle with additional chopped parsley and/or mint and pine nuts, if you like, too.

You can serve these as either an appetizer or a main dish. I’ll place toothpicks in the meatballs if I’m serving them as a party appetizer, otherwise I just let everyone dish up on their own.

Can you brown them first on the stove then bake?

Alternatively, you can brown the meatballs over med-high heat then finish cooking them in the oven at 350° for about 10 minutes or so. I like to do this with an oven-safe skillet that can go right to the oven from the stove. Less dishes are always a good thing!

Can you make them in advance?

This is a great make-ahead recipe. In fact, the longer the meat chills in the refrigerator, the better they’ll taste. Mix the meatball mixture up to a day in advance, then chill it until you’re ready. You can also form the meatballs before chilling, just be sure to cover them really tightly. The sauce can also be made well in advance as it will also taste even better the longer that it sits.

Can you freeze Turkish meatballs?

If you want to take it a step further, you can freeze the meatballs for an easy weeknight meal. After cooking, allow them to cool completely. Place the cooked meatballs on a sheet pan, cover with saran wrap, and freeze them for 30 minutes. Remove from the pan and pop them into a freezer bag. They’ll keep for up to 3 months.

To reheat, place them on a sheet pan and cover them tightly with foil. Gently heat them in a 300°F oven for 15-20 minutes or until they’re hot all the way through. Serve them with the sauce as directed in the recipe, if using.

overhead shot of kofte turkish meatballs in a lemon sauce next to a brightly colored towel

Tips and Variations

  • Use a fattier ground beef that’s at least 80% lean for moist meatballs. I mentioned that you can make a chicken or turkey meatball, and you can, but know that the meatballs won’t be quite as moist.
  • Feel free to skip the baking soda “slurry” and the extra mixing. It’s worth the extra effort but it will be delicious either way.
  • Skip the lemon-tahini sauce and serve the meatballs with tzatziki yogurt sauce instead. Or make it a hot pasta meal and serve it over cooked pasta and tomato sauce!
  • If you don’t have a grater or don’t want to take the time, the onion can be finely minced instead.
  • A cast iron pan works best in this recipe if you have one. It gives the meatballs a nice brown crust and can go straight into the oven if you prefer to finish cooking them that way.

What do you serve with Turkish meatballs?

I like to serve kofte with pita or flatbread. It’s terrific dipped into the sauce! When I serve it as a main dish for our family, sometimes I’ll keep the sauce a little thicker and we’ll spread it on the bread with the meatballs for sandwiches. It’s also wonderful over rice.

We try to eat low-carb as much as possible so sometimes we’ll do the same as above, replacing the bread with romaine lettuce.

A light cucumber salad is a perfect side dish. This tomato-cucumber salad is delicious and gorgeous. If I’m short on time and/or ingredients, I’ll often just slice some cucumbers and tomatoes, drizzle with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and call it a day.

Grilled eggplant is another delicious choice. Plain (but salted!) roasted eggplant is delicious or try this Grilled Eggplant with Garlic Yogurt Sauce, Walnuts & Pomegranate.

a closeup overhead shot of kofte turkish meatballs in a lemon sauce

Turkish Meatballs in Lemon-Tahini Sauce

Yield: 4 servings
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 12 minutes
Additional Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour 22 minutes

Ingredients

Meatballs

  • 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
  • 1/4 medium-sized red onion, finely grated
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • ½ tsp ground allspice
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ tsp freshly-ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (for frying)

Sauce

  • 2/3 cup tahini
  • 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt (taste and add more salt if necessary)

Topping

  • Chopped fresh parsley and mint, to garnish
  • Pine nuts (optional)

Instructions

  1. Place the beef, onion, garlic, breadcrumbs, egg, parsley, mint, cumin, allspice, salt, and pepper in a medium-sized mixing bowl. In a separate small dish, whisk together the water, baking soda, and lemon juice. Pour it over the meat mixture.
  2. Using your hands, gently mix everything together until it's thoroughly combined, then continue massaging the mixture for another 2-3 minutes. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour or up to overnight to allow the flavors to meld.
  3. Make the sauce by whisking the ingredients together in a small dish. Add a little water to thin out the sauce, then whisk again. Taste and add more salt if necessary. Cover and refrigerate alongside the meatballs.
  4. Remove the meat mixture and the sauce from the refrigerator. Roll the meat mixture into balls about 1-inch thick. Let the sauce sit at room temperature while you cook the meatballs.
  5. Preheat a large skillet over medium heat. Add the oil and, when it's shimmering, add the meatballs (do this in batches if necessary). Cook the meatballs until they're nicely browned and cooked through, about 10-12 minutes.
  6. Pour the sauce into a shallow serving dish and add the meatballs. Sprinkle with additional chopped parsley and/or mint and pine nuts, if desired. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Information:
Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 695Total Fat: 51gSaturated Fat: 12gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 34gCholesterol: 147mgSodium: 771mgCarbohydrates: 21gFiber: 3gSugar: 4gProtein: 41g

This data was provided and calculated by Nutritionix.

Kristy Bernardo
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