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Iowa Ham Balls Recipe

Why It Works

  • Crumbled Ritz crackers bind the pork mixture together and add a buttery flavor that pairs well with the ham.
  • Buttermilk lightens and brightens the rich ham ball meat mixture.
  • Adding condensed tomato soup to the glaze thickens it and adds umami to the dish.

Last year, I moved in with an Iowan. The way people outside the Midwest confuse Iowa and my home state of Ohio, you might assume that my fiancée, Liz, and I grew up in similar cultures—and, sure, in many ways, we did. But they weren’t the same. The Midwest is a massive region, and Des Moines is hundreds of miles from Cincinnati. (They aren’t even in the same time zone.) So, on trips to various parts of Iowa to visit Liz’s family and friends, I’ve been getting an education in Hawkeye State traditions. 

Even before I was driving up to Iowa once a month, I was intrigued by ham balls, Iowa’s version of those glazed cocktail meatballs that are irresistible at parties. And now that I have an Iowan roommate, I’ve been working on my own recipe.

Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Per countless vintage sources, the Iowa ham ball originated as a way to repurpose leftovers. Cooks would grind up the previous night’s ham, mix it with binders and milk, shape it into meatballs, and bake it, often in a sugary glaze.

“We Iowans are a creative lot,” Liz’s mom, Iowa native Jill Cook, said when I reached out to ask for ham ball tips. “Austere farming situations are sometimes the mother of invention.” (The similarly resourceful Pennsylvania Dutch have their own ham ball tradition.)

These days, Iowa grocery stores sell a ham ball-specific mixture of ground ham and pork called “ham loaf,” and the balls are on restaurant menus across the state. Like so many make-do dishes, the ham ball has become a beloved part of the culture.

The Basic Ingredient Ratio for Iowa Ham Balls

There are rules for Iowa ham balls now. “I don’t use the same recipe for ham balls every time I make them,” Jill says, “but the standard Iowa recipe has half ground ham, half ground pork, and always crackers, egg, milk, and a glaze with brown sugar, mustard, ketchup, and vinegar.”

Many Iowans would agree, at least generally. How do I know? In the past couple of months, I’ve found, compared, and in some cases, tested more than 80 Iowa ham ball recipes, spanning more than 150 years. (The oldest recipe I found, from the Waterloo, Iowa Courier, is pitched as a use for “what is usually left, and otherwise lost, of boiled ham,” a poignant lead-in, and calls for “as many eggs as you have persons to eat.”)

Serious Eats / Qi Ai

The formula is consistent. While there are variations between decades and recipes, of course, generations of Iowans have used the same one-to-one-to-one ratio: one pound ham, one pound pork, one cup cracker crumbs. (Sometimes, it’s actually one-to-one-to-one-to-one, with one egg, but cooks more often use two eggs, and somewhere between 1/2 and 1 cup of milk, for that amount of meat.)

Mix it all up (with added seasoning, if you’d like, though the ham is salty enough that you don’t need salt), form it into balls, nestle them into a baking dish, pour a sugary glaze (a basic brown sugar-and-vinegar syrup works) over the top, bake at 350℉ for 45 to 60 minutes, and you have real-deal Iowa ham balls. That’s it. You can stop reading here and get to work.

Or you can stick around for just a few more paragraphs to find out what I learned from making 128 ham balls in two months.

Tips for Tender Ham Balls

A lot of what I learned through testing ham ball recipes was what not to do. Adjusting that meat-to-cracker-crumb ratio up and down resulted in ham balls that were either pasty and dry or spongy and greasy. 

But I did make some changes to the basic recipe that I used as a starting point. For my first test, I compared different binders: saltines and graham crackers (Jill’s go-to), which are traditional, plus panko and fresh bread. Of those options, saltines were the clear winner, giving me a neutral (and not-too-sweet) flavor and a tender texture, but I still wasn’t thrilled with the result. It was too neutral. Bland, almost. That’s how I ended up with Ritz crackers, which add a buttery flavor that pairs well with ham.

Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Influenced by a few 1960s recipes for sweet-and-sour ham balls, I tried introducing pineapple, ginger, clove, cinnamon, allspice, and a touch of soy to the formula. Some of that stuck. Pineapple and clove go well with ham, and soy, ginger, and floral white pepper round out the flavor profile.

Finally, because heavy and rich ham and pork balls fortified with egg and cracker crumbs need all the lightening and brightening they can get, I swapped buttermilk in for the traditional whole milk. At a mere 1/2 cup, the buttermilk adds just a touch of acidity (but you can substitute milk if you want).

Dialing in the Sweet to Tart Ratio in the Glaze

When I cut the amount of sugar in the glaze, which seemed like a reasonable way to keep the ham balls on the right side of cloying, they lost some of their sweet-and-salty appeal, as the salt prevailed. So, I went back to 1/2 cup of sugar. Don’t skimp. (Some older recipes call for even more.)

While the glaze is often fortified with ketchup or other tomato products, I was initially resistant to putting tomato in the glaze, preferring the older combination of brown sugar, mustard, and vinegar. But after many rounds of testing, I finally had to admit that tomato, in condensed soup form, was an effective way to thicken the glaze and add umami to the dish, as it does for meatloaf. Iowa cooks have evolved the recipe over the years for a reason.

Serious Eats / Qi Ai

Even with these few adjustments and fine tuning, this is still a straight-down-the-line Iowa ham ball recipe, informed by months of research and testing. 

In the make-do spirit of this dish, feel free to fiddle with it a little bit. Maybe you want more pineapple juice in the glaze. Maybe you want to take it out. Maybe you want to mix some red pepper flakes, or a teaspoon of allspice, or dry mustard, into the meat. Maybe you have country ham or bacon on hand, and you want to try adding that. (I liked my bacon-accented ham balls, with four ounces of ground bacon replacing some of the ham and fresh pork, but Liz correctly noted that it was too far from the Iowa standard for this recipe.) That’s what the structure is for—to create space for improvisation and invention. Happy hamballing.

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