The main ingredient in this meatballs dish may sound bizarre, but most people have probably tried meatballs with grape jelly at a potluck without knowing the ingredients. The grape jelly combines with chili sauce or barbecue sauce to make a sweet and sour glaze over the meatballs. The sauce thickens as it cooks, concentrating the flavors and better coating the meatballs. Make your own meatballs from scratch or use pre-formed packaged meatballs.
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Look for bite-sized meatballs in a style of your choice -- most grocers sell original and Italian-style meatballs -- to save on prep time for sweet and spicy meatballs. Packaged, pre-cooked frozen meatballs can be added to the dish from frozen or warmed in the oven before mixing with the sweet and sour sauce.
If you have a favorite meatball recipe, you may prefer to use homemade meatballs for this dish. Start with ground beef or ground turkey; ground pork is sometimes used in meatballs for extra flavor. Add your choice of seasonings and spices, such as Worcestershire sauce, garlic, onion, salt and pepper. Mix in an egg and breadcrumbs to bind the meat. Roll the meat mixture into 1-1/2- to 2-inch diameter meatballs. Bake the meatballs in the oven or in a skillet with a bit of oil until brown on all sides and cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit.
Chili Sauce or Barbecue Sauce
The sour component of the sweet and sour sauce comes from chili sauce or barbecue sauce, although chili sauce is the favorite in classic homemaker recipe books. Do not confuse this condiment with hot sauce or chile sauce. Found in the grocery aisle with ketchup and other condiments, chili sauce is a tomato-based sauce with added seasonings and spices to give it a somewhat smoky flavor. Barbecue sauce offers a similar alternative, but the spices and sugar in barbecue sauce tend to make the sweet and sour sauce both sweeter and smokier than chili sauce.
To make your own chili sauce, thicken a standard 8-ounce can of tomato sauce with a few tablespoons of tomato paste and sweeten it with brown sugar to taste. Add some tangy acidity with lemon juice. Finish with diced onion, a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce and spices such as dry mustard, smoked paprika, chili powder, garlic powder and onion powder.
Blending Sweet and Sour
Grape jelly sweet and sour sauce is a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, but the two ingredients must be thoroughly combined for best results. Jelly tends to be chunky until warmed, requiring a bit of whisking to break it down into the chili sauce. Meatballs fall apart easily if overworked, so it is best to mix the sweet and sour sauce ingredients separately before adding them to the meatballs.
Whisk equal parts chili sauce or barbecue sauce and grape jelly -- not jam -- in a saucepan. Warm the ingredients over medium-low heat, whisking occasionally, just until hot, and the jelly completely liquefies. A standard 12-ounce jar of chili sauce and a small 12-ounce jar of grape jelly make enough sauce for roughly 1 pound of meatballs or 36 small meatballs.
Finishing the Dish
Sweet and sour meatballs with grape jelly are generally regarded as a slow cooker dish, but they can also be baked in the oven at about 350 F. Add the cooked meatballs to the slow cooker or baking pan. Pour the hot sweet and sour sauce in the dish and stir gently to evenly coat the meatballs. Cover with a lid or aluminum foil.
The meatballs typically require at least 1 hour of cooking time in the oven or at the slow cooker's "high" setting to ensure they reach an internal temperature of at least 160 F. Expect a longer cooking time for a slow cooker's "low" setting; a meat thermometer is the best way to determine doneness.The meatballs taste best when the sauce thickens to a sticky glaze that envelops the meatballs, which is achieved with a prolonged cook time of several hours at a low heat setting.