Classic Sweet and Tangy Meatballs

Sweet and savory is by far my favorite flavor combination.

It’s always just way too hard for me to choose between the two. So I like to have a bit of both in everything I eat, whenever possible.

Vertical image of a plate and platter with mini meatball appetizers, with text on the top and bottom.

Whenever I think about hosting a party, cocktail meatballs are always the first thing that comes to mind. They disappear in an instant, even though the recipe makes 50 total. And it offers that irresistible combination of sweet and savory flavors.

Everyone’s plate is always full of these bad boys at a party, and it’s not hard to understand why. I mean, they are bite-sized balls of savory beef, onion, and seasonings covered in a sticky, sweet, and tangy sauce.

What’s not to love?

Vertical image of a white platter with neat rows of meatballs with toothpicks covered in a red sauce.

These are sure to be the star of any party, so I like to make a double batch for larger gatherings and let the rest come together around them. All you have to do is set out the drinks, chips, and homemade dip.

Everyone will be begging you for the recipe, because they seriously can’t get enough of them.

One of the best parts about this appetizer is that it’s so stinking easy to make. You really don’t have a lot of steps here to complete. Forming the meatballs is going to be the most complicated item on your list, to be honest.

You can either cook these on the stove, or make them in the Crock-Pot. The difference in the final result is minimal, so go with whatever’s easiest for you. Slow cooking, whether it’s done in your favorite appliance or on the stovetop, creates a delicious sauce that has that perfect combination of sticky, sweet, and tangy.

Vertical image of plates and platters with meatballs in sauce with toothpicks inserted in them, in front of bottles and a can.

There are so many recipes out there that claim to be easy, but then you realize you have about 20 steps to complete before getting the dish in the slow cooker, plus about 80 different ingredients to go buy at the store and prep.

This recipe might require one step before hitting the slow cooker (browning the meatballs), but that’s all you have to do. It’s the quickest prep ever. Not to mention you probably have a lot of the ingredients required in your pantry and refrigerator already. And if you have a slow cooker with a browning function? No extra pots to clean, either.

After all, who needs a complicated dish when you are hosting a party, am I right?

Particularly when that recipe has everyone freaking out over it.

Horizontal image of a hand picking up a saucy appetizer with a toothpick inserted in it.

The delicious sauce only requires two ingredients to make, and the meatballs are peppered with onion and seasonings, so you get that savory boldness that stands up well to the sweetness of the sauce.

Just make sure you get a little extra spoonful of sauce with each meatball when you serve it. I dare you not to lick the plate once all the meatballs are gone.

If you don’t want to serve this recipe for a party, you can easily turn this into a satisfying dinner for your family. My recommendation is to serve them as the main entree over white rice or with roasted potatoes, because the meatballs are so flavorful. With a little salad or a simple vegetable on the side, dinner is served!

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Horizontal image of a white platter with rows of meatballs covered in a red sauce with toothpicks inserted in them.

Sweet and Tangy Meatballs

  • Author: Meghan Yager
  • Total Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
  • Yield: 50 meatballs 1x


Sweet and tangy meatballs are a classic party appetizer that’s perfect for your next big gathering, easy to prep in the oven or slow cooker.


  • 2 lbs ground beef (80-85% lean)
  • 1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 white medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 Tbsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cups ketchup or chili sauce
  • 18 oz natural grape jelly


  1. Combine ground beef, breadcrumbs, eggs, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and chili powder in a large bowl until well-combined.
  2. Form the meat into 50 equally-sized balls, using a rounded teaspoonful for each.
  3. Add oil to a large skillet and heat over medium-high heat, or add to your slow cooker and turn on the SEAR setting. Once hot, lightly brown the meatballs in batches. Transfer to a large plate after they brown.
  4. Add ketchup or chili sauce and jelly to a medium saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Pour about 2/3 cup of the sauce into the bottom of a Dutch oven or Crock-Pot insert, spreading to coat the bottom in an even layer. This can also be done on the SEAR setting in your slow cooker.
  5. Add one-third of the meatballs to the bottom of the pan or insert. Top with another 2/3 cup of sauce. Add another third of the meatballs on top, followed by another 2/3 cup of sauce. Finish with the remaining meatballs and top with remaining sauce.
  6. If you are using a Dutch oven, cover and cook on low heat for 3 hours, until sauce has thickened and meat is cooked through.
  7. If you are using a slow cooker, set to low and cook for 2-3 hours, until sauce is very thick and beef is cooked through.
  8. Serve immediately on a platter with toothpicks.
  • Prep Time: 5 minutes
  • Cook Time: 3 hours, 10 minutes
  • Category: Meatballs
  • Method: Slow Cooker
  • Cuisine: Appetizers

Keywords: meatballs, sweet and sour meatballs, grape jelly, ketchup

Cooking By the Numbers…

Step 1 – Prep and Measure Ingredients

Mince one medium-sized white onion. You should have about 1 cup total minced onion. Mince the garlic, or push it through your garlic press.

Measure out all of the remaining ingredients as listed on the ingredients list.

Horizontal image of ground beef, eggs, jam, ketchup, and other ingredients in various bowls on a wooden surface.

For the beef, I used organic grass-fed ground chuck for more flavor. Chuck is usually 80% to 85% lean (15% to 20% fat).

If you want to make your own breadcrumbs, you can use your favorite bread and toast it in a toaster, toaster oven, or in the oven. I used about 2-3 slices to get enough for the recipe. Once the slices are toasted, grind them up in your food processor until they reach breadcrumb consistency.

If you don’t love grape jelly, you can also use red currant or apple jelly as substitutes. I like to use a version that’s made without corn syrup.

Step 2 – Make Beef Mixture

Add the ground beef, breadcrumbs, eggs, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, and chili powder to a large bowl.

Horizontal image of eggs, onions, breadcrumbs, and other seasonings on top of raw ground beef in a metal bowl.

Use your hands to bring the mixture together until it’s well-combined. You can also use a spatula if you prefer not to get your hands dirty.

Horizontal image of a raw ground beef mixture in a metal bowl.

Form the mixture into about 50 equally-sized balls.

Horizontal image of raw ground beef formed in balls on a cutting board.

The easiest way to do this is with your hands, using about a rounded teaspoonful for each.

Step 3 – Brown the Meat

Add the oil to a large skillet and place it over medium-high heat, swirling the pan to coat it with the oil. Once the oil is hot, brown the meatballs in batches, and transfer them to a plate topped with a paper towel after they brown.

Horizontal image of a pan with browning meatballs.

This will take about 5 minutes per batch. The meatballs just need to be browned, not cooked through.

If you have a slow cooker with a SEAR setting, you can also do this right in your slow cooker insert.

Step 4 – Make Sauce

In a medium saucepan, add the ketchup or chili sauce and jelly, and stir to combine. Bring to a boil, stir, and  remove from the heat.

Horizontal image of a thick, red liquid mixture in a pot.

If you like, you can also do this in your slow cooker on the SEAR setting.

Step 5 – Layer Ingredients

Pour 2/3 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a Dutch oven or your slow cooker insert. Spread it in an even layer to evenly coat the bottom.

Horizontal image of browned beef portions in a thick red sauce in a pot.

Layer about one-third of the meatballs on the bottom of the pan. Top with another 2/3 cup of sauce.

Horizontal top-down image of meatballs in a red liquid mixture in a pot.

Layer with another third of the meatballs, followed by another 2/3 cup of sauce.

Top with the remaining meatballs and pour the remaining sauce over the top.

Step 6 – Cook

If you are using a Dutch oven, cover and cook the meatballs on the stove over low heat for 3 hours. The sauce should be thick and the meat should be cooked through.

Horizontal image of meat portions mixed with a thick red liquid mixture in a pot.

If you are using a slow cooker, cover and set to LOW. Cook for about 2-3 hours, until the sauce is thickened and meatballs are cooked all the way through.

Arrange the meatballs with their sauce on a platter and place a toothpick in each, or set a cup of toothpicks on the side for serving. Enjoy immediately.

Can I Prepare This Appetizer Ahead of Time?

Using a slow cooker is the easiest way to make these meatballs ahead of time. I cook them through so they are ready right when the party begins. Since they take a few hours to come together, this recipe is perfect to set and forget.

You can serve them up on a platter, or simply leave them in the slow cooker on the warm setting. Just make sure you have a serving spoon or toothpicks ready for your guests to retrieve the tasty morsels.

Horizontal image of a white platter with rows of meatballs covered in a red sauce with toothpicks inserted in them.

Craving the classic Italian flavors like Grandma would make? Swap this sweet and tangy recipe with our savory Italian meatballs, and form them into mini balls. Serve them with the red sauce!

Want to try a variation with more complex flavors? Say goodbye to Italy, and hello to Morocco! With help from your spice rack, make Moroccan meatballs with a beautiful range of warming spices.

If you have a party coming up, check out some of these amazing appetizer recipes for inspiration:

When will you serve this classic appetizer? Tell us in the comments below, and be sure to come back to rate the recipe after you’ve tried it, to let other readers know how much you enjoyed it.

Photos by Meghan Yager, © Ask the Experts, LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. See our TOS for more details. Originally published by Shanna Mallon on December 22, 2010. Last updated: October 7, 2020 at 15:10 pm.

Nutritional information derived from a database of known generic and branded foods and ingredients and was not compiled by a registered dietitian or submitted for lab testing. It should be viewed as an approximation.

About Meghan Yager

Meghan Yager is a food addict turned food and travel writer with a love for creating uncomplicated, gourmet recipes and devouring anything the world serves up. As the author of the food and travel blog Cake 'n Knife, Meghan focuses on unique foodie experiences from around the world to right at home in your own kitchen.

17 thoughts on “Classic Sweet and Tangy Meatballs”

  1. i bet that chili pepper adds a nice kick to it. I make sweet and sour meatballs with ketchup and jelly too. Great appetizer to serve at a party

  2. Mmmm…. I love any sort of appetizer meatballs. I made a Hawaiian version once, and I had to do my best not to eat them all before the guests got there.
    I LOVE the addition of jelly in there. That has got to add such an interesting flavor… Especially if you use the chili sauce instead of ketchup… Can’t wait to try them!

  3. What a nice post to sit down to this morning, and to kick off this holiday weekend. I must try these meatballs. Thanks for the recipe!

  4. As a head start to my new year’s resolution to live more in the present, I have decided to start “assigning” myself recipes from your blog, my recipes folder in my e-mail and a half-organized stack of recipes pulled from magazines. The someday I’ve been waiting for to try these is now. First up from your blog are the balsamic chicken, roasted red potatoes and roasted asparagus from a post last December, and those awesome cheddar garlic biscuits and chicken fingers you recently wrote about.

  5. Meatballs trump all other traditions. I adore them! I made some earlier this week as well. Tucking this one away for another day. Thank you! I hope you’re enjoying the holidays. How did the puff pastry work out?! xo

  6. Gabby, Well then you know! : ) Great appetizers indeed.

    Niki, Hope you enjoy!

    Jacqui, Thank you, as always, for your sweet words. 🙂

    Vicki, your list of to-try recipes is such a good one. I heartily approve and can’t wait to hear what you think!

    Redmenace, The puff pastry was amazing! I learned it’s better to cut it thick, so as to allow for maximum puff…but Ashley’s advice is stellar.

  7. Oh my lord! I am salivating right now! It is 11:55PM right now, and I can go for a couple dozen of these! Yum!

    And as always- beautifully written and photographed post. 🙂

  8. Julie, hope you enjoy these meatballs. 🙂

    Tim, Thanks!

    Kamran, Ha! Thanks, friend!

    LimeCake, Thanks!

    Food Hound, What a sweet comment. Thanks for the encouragement!

  9. We always have meatballs at Christmas, and quite similarly prepared too. Meatballs are my mister’s favorite food (or at least very high up on the list) so I’ll have to make these for him. He’ll be so happy!

  10. These sound perfect, especially with the slow cooking to transform that sauce into a thicker glaze. I know someone who would dearly appreciate some of these. Thanks for the recipe!


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