If you grew up in the Midwest, ham balls might have been on the menu for Easter or Sunday dinner. And if you didn’t, this iconic regional food could become your new favorite meatball recipe! This recipe is as delicious as it is unique. It features a ground ham-and-beef mixture bound together with graham crackers. These crisp, honeyed crackers might seem like an odd addition to a savory recipe, but bear with us. Graham crackers give ham balls their characteristic sweetness, and they pair perfectly with salty ham to create a delightful twist on a classic meatball.
The ham balls (also known as “Iowa ham balls”) bake in a sweet-tangy tomato sauce that’s somewhat reminiscent of a meat loaf glaze. The sauce’s light acidity adds depth to the meatballs. Meanwhile, the molasses-rich brown sugar complements the graham cracker flavor to tie the whole dish together. You’ll want to spoon up every last bite of this sticky-sweet sauce.
How to Make Ham Balls
Like other meatball recipes, ham balls are easy to make. However, depending on where you live, it may be difficult to find ground ham. Some butchers will grind boneless ham for you, but there are several ways to grind meat a home. Many stand mixers offer grinding attachments, and you can use a food processor to grind meat without a grinder.
You can make ground ham with leftover ham, ham steak or a store-bought boneless ham roast. For bone-in ham, remove the meat from the bone, then cut the meat into 1-inch cubes. Chill it in the freezer for about 30 minutes. (Chilled meats grind more easily, and they have a better texture once ground.) Finally, pulse the cubes in a food processor until they reach the consistency of ground beef.
Ingredients for Ham Balls
- Ground ham: Ground ham is an essential ingredient in this ham ball recipe. It gives the meatball mixture its rich, salty and savory flavor.
- Ground beef: Ground beef adds flavor and texture to the ham balls. You can use any type of ground beef. Our advice for the best ground beef for burgers also applies here: Lean ground beef works just fine, but an 80/20 blend will be juicier and more flavorful.
- Eggs and milk: You’ll find this combination in most meatball and meat loaf recipes. Eggs and milk are binding ingredients that hold the other ingredients together.
- Graham cracker crumbs: Graham cracker crumbs are another binding ingredient. They absorb moisture from the eggs and milk to help the meatballs hold their shape. They also add a lovely sweetness that’s unique to Iowa ham balls.
- Tangy tomato sauce: These ham balls bake in a sauce made with undiluted tomato soup, vinegar, brown sugar and prepared mustard. It glazes the ham balls with a sweet-tangy flavor and gives them a gorgeous hue.
Step 1: Shape the ham balls
Preheat the oven to 325°F. In a large bowl, mix together the ground ham, ground beef, eggs, milk and graham cracker crumbs.
Scoop the mixture using a 1/3 cup measure, and shape into 2-inch balls. Place the balls in two large shallow roasting pans.
Step 2: Prepare the tangy tomato sauce
In a large bowl, whisk together the tomato soup, vinegar, brown sugar and mustard.
Pour the sauce over the ham balls.
Step 3: Bake the ham balls
Bake for one hour, basting frequently with sauce.
Editor’s Tip: Cook ham balls until they reach a food-safe cooking temperature of 160°F.
- Change up the crackers: If sweet meatballs aren’t your thing, swap in Ritz crackers or saltine crackers for the graham crackers.
- Make pineapple-glazed ham balls: Skip the tangy tomato sauce, and make the sauce with crushed pineapple or pineapple juice instead. You can use the glaze from our pineapple-glazed ham as inspiration.
- Use ground pork instead of beef: Substitute ground pork for some (or all) of the ground beef. Just don’t skip the ground ham, because this recipe simply isn’t the same without it.
How to Store Ham Balls
Store ham balls in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to three days. Reheat ham balls in the microwave, or gently simmer them in the sauce on the stovetop, until they reach an internal temperature of 165°.
Ham Balls Tips
Is ground ham the same as ground pork?
There is a big difference between ground ham and ground pork. Ground pork is made by grinding raw cuts of pork, usually from the pork shoulder. Ground ham, on the other hand, is made from a fully cooked, brined type of ham known as city ham. The meat is not raw, and it has a salty, seasoned flavor from the curing process.
What to serve with ham balls?
As a main course, this ham ball recipe can be served with your favorite vintage side dishes, such as loaded red potato casserole, Parmesan roasted broccoli or cauliflower au gratin. You can also serve ham balls as an appetizer. Simply place them on a platter with toothpicks, or keep them warm for a party in a slow cooker.