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Not your average meatballs, these Iowa Ham Balls are a regional favorite made with leftover ham in a sticky sweet sauce!
Everybody loves meatballs, right? We sure do! Be sure to also try our Baked Greek Meatballs, Swedish Meatballs, Italian Wedding Soup (because soup with tiny meatballs is amazing), and our Spaghetti and Meatballs.
Iowa Ham Balls
Sometimes I am asked where I get inspiration for recipes to share. This time it was a podcast.
I hardly ever listen to music, preferring podcasts instead. There are so many amazing podcasts out there, but my hands-down favorite podcast is "The Moth". It's filled with real stories from regular people telling about their life experiences on stage in front of a live audience without notes and it has made me laugh and cry and my life is richer because of it.
A few weeks ago, I just happened to be listening to an episode while doing my makeup one morning, when a story came on involving distance bike riding across the state of Iowa, marriage equality, and ham balls of all things.
I had been trying to figure out a final dish to share for Iowa Week as part of my American Eats series where I'm making recipes that each state is known for, working my way across the U.S.A. one state at a time. Pork was already on my radar since Iowa produces about ⅓ of the pork that we consume in this country.
But ham balls were not something I saw on any lists when I was doing my research. But as soon as I heard about them on the podcast, I texted my food blogging friend Jenni, from The Gingered Whisk, since she happens to live in Iowa.
She immediately responded enthusiastically that yes, ham balls are a total Iowan thing and that they definitely belonged in my series. Which worked out well since it gives me another great way to use up any leftover ham from Easter in a tasty, fun way that I hadn't tried before!
What are ham balls?
These aptly, albeit boringly, named ham balls are basically just meatballs made with ground-up leftover ham that get baked with a sweet and sour sticky glaze.
They are quite large and served most frequently as a dinner meatball, although you could totally make these smaller and serve them in a slow cooker as a party appetizer if you wanted to.
Ham ball ingredients
The recipes that were available online were kind of all over the place with some calling for a mix of ham loaf (a meat product which I had never heard of and which I think might only be available in Iowa and neighboring areas but it's just ⅔ ground ham and ⅓ ground pork) and ground beef and others calling for leftover ham that you grind yourself and mix with ground beef or ground pork.
I used my food processor to chop leftover ham until finely ground. Just be careful not to turn it into a pate. You could also use a meat grinder if you have one.
Then there was the question of what fillers and binders to use. I looked at a bunch of ham balls recipes and saw everything from crushed graham crackers or butter crackers, to panko bread crumbs, crushed shredded wheat cereal, Chex cereal, and even Frosted Flakes.
Unlike most recipes where I will try it multiple times and ways, I just made the call to go for graham crackers in this recipe for two reasons.
- It sounded weird and unique but not as out there as Frosted Flakes.
- I saw this version more than any of the others.
- We had a bunch on hand since I always stock up on graham crackers and I didn't have any of the other options to work with.
Next time I think we will try it with the butter crackers since the graham crackers added more sweetness than I think we would have preferred, but basically you can use whatever you have on hand to make these ham balls and still get away with it.
Ham Ball Glaze
The other key component of this recipe is what glaze to use. The two main approaches are either a brown sugar sweet and sour glaze made with brown sugar, vinegar, and dried mustard, or a tomato-based sweet glaze made with either ketchup or tomato soup.
I went with the tomato-based glaze approach this time around but next time I might try the brown sugar approach to see which I prefer between the two. I'm including a brown sugar version in the notes of the recipe just in case that sounds better to you.
How to make Iowa ham balls
- Mix by hand: Combine the ground ham, ground pork, beaten eggs, graham cracker crumbs, milk, and minced onion in a large bowl and squish it all together with your hands. Try not to overwork meatballs or they will turn out dense and tough.
- Shape into large balls: You can really make these as big or small as you want depending on how you plan to serve them. I recommend using a large cookie scoop or ⅓ cup measuring cup if you plan to serve these as a main dish for dinner (what we did), or make smaller balls with a medium or small scoop if you want to serve them as appetizers.
- Bake: Arrange in a single layer in a large 9x13-inch baking dish. Bake uncovered for 45 minutes at 350 degrees F.
- Finish baking with the glaze: While the ham balls are baking, whisk together the sauce in a medium bowl by combining the ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar and dried mustard. Pour over the ham balls and continue to cook for a final 15 minutes until the glaze is hot and the ham balls are cooked through (60 minutes in total).
- Eat up! Serve with rice or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable for dinner or toothpicks for a great party appetizer.
More pork recipes
- Grilled Pork Chops with Sweet BBQ Pork Rub (I feel like pork chops get overlooked during grilling season! These are so good!)
- Grilled Thai Pork Tenderloin (one of Paul's favorite recipes on the blog)
- The BEST Brown Sugar Glazed Ham
- Slow Cooker Cuban Mojo Pork
- Smoker Pulled Pork (one of my favorite recipes on the blog)
- Pork Tenderloin Sandwiches (famous in Indiana but also popular in enough in Iowa that my friend Jenni recommended these when we were brainstorming ideas)
- Sweet and Sour Pork
- Smoked Pork Belly Burnt Ends
- Crock Pot Pork Green Chili
- Crispy Mexican Slow Cooker Pork Carnitas
Iowa Ham Balls
- 2 pounds leftover ham ground in a meat grinder or food processor
- 1 pound ground pork
- 2 large eggs beaten
- 1 ¾ cups graham cracker crumbs
- 1 cup whole milk
- ¼ cup dehydrated minced onion
- 1 ½ cups ketchup
- 1 cup brown sugar
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
- 1 teaspoon dried mustard
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Combine the ground ham, ground pork, beaten eggs, graham cracker crumbs, milk, and minced onion in a large bowl. I used my food processor to chop leftover ham until finely ground. Just be careful not to turn it into a pate. You could also use a meat grinder if you have one.
- Mix the ham ball ingredients together gently with your hands. You don't want to overwork meatballs or they will turn out dense and tough.
- Shape into large balls using a large cookie scoop or ⅓ cup measuring cup if serving as a main, or smaller balls with a medium or small scoop if you want to serve as appetizers.
- Arrange in a single layer in a large 9x13-inch baking dish. Bake for 45 minutes.
- While the ham balls are baking, whisk together the sauce in a medium bowl by combining the ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar and dried mustard. Pour over the ham balls after they have baked for 45 minutes and continue to cook for another 15 minutes until the glaze is hot and the ham balls are cooked through (so 60 minutes in total).
- Serve with rice or mashed potatoes and a green vegetable for dinner or toothpicks for a great party appetizer.
- Substitutions: While researching this recipe, I saw ham balls made with graham crackers, butter crackers, Panko bread crumbs, and even shredded wheat. I think any of these would work well, but I went with graham crackers because it sounded interesting and I had them on hand.
- Brown Sugar Glaze: If you want to try a different sweet and sour glaze that also looks popular with Iowa cooks, I would try using 1 cup brown sugar, ½ cup cider vinegar, ½ cup water, and 2 teaspoons dry mustard powder adapted from Frugal Hausfrau and Plowing Through Life. Whisk together in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil for 4-5 minutes to dissolve the sugar before adding to the ham balls.
- Adapted from Taste of Home and Food & Swine.
More States I Have Visited in my American Eats Series
Alabama • Alaska • Arizona • Arkansas • California • Colorado • Connecticut • Delaware • Florida • Georgia • Hawaii • Idaho • Illinois • Indiana • Iowa • Kansas • Kentucky • Louisiana • Maine • Maryland • Massachusetts • Montana • New York • Oregon • Puerto Rico • South Carolina • South Dakota • Texas • Utah • Wisconsin