Pesto is an Italian condiment with mass appeal. It’s easy to see why: Pesto is garlicky, herbaceous, and endlessly versatile, whether it’s tossed with pasta, turned into a salad dressing, or drizzled on soup. The oily mixture is bold with flavor and can brighten just about anything it touches.
These simple chicken meatballs are proof. Store-bought or homemade pesto lends its signature flavor and a pale green hue while also providing moisture, which ground chicken tends to lack thanks to its leanness. Since pesto already contains plenty of aromatics, utilizing it in meatballs also means you don’t have to add much more.
That makes this recipe a 4-ingredient wonder, fit to be served with more pesto or warm marinara sauce for dunking, over pasta, and beyond!
Why Add Pesto?
Ground chicken is inherently lean, which means it can make for dry meatballs in many cases. Pesto, on the other hand, is rich with olive oil, so stirring it into the ground meat mixture acts as a wonderful insurance policy against dryness. It lends good fat to the mixture for moist chicken meatballs that are packed with pesto flavor.
The other big perk of pesto is it’s a bit of a one-stop stop. The oily combination of basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, and nuts (usually pine nuts or walnuts) is ultra savory and aromatic, so there is no need to chop other aromatics or dig around your spice cabinet when making these meatballs.
It delivers all the flavor and moisture you need, so the only other ingredients that are required (besides the ground chicken, of course) are breadcrumbs and an egg for binding plus just a bit of salt.
What Type of Ground Chicken Works Best?
Depending on the grocery store, you may only have one choice for ground chicken. However, if you do have a few options, choose ground chicken made from dark meat (thighs) rather than ground chicken made from white meat (breast). The percentage of fat is usually missing from ground chicken packages, but if you do see it, look for something that’s around 90 to 92% lean rather than 98 to 99% lean.
You can also use ground turkey for these meatballs, but skip the 99% lean option and choose ground turkey made from dark meat, which is usually listed at anywhere from 85 to 93% lean.
Tips and Tricks While Making These Meatballs
While this recipe is easy and fuss-free, a few tips and trips never hurt:
- Wet your hands before rolling: The meatball mixture can easily stick to your hands when you’re rolling it. Lightly wetting your hands before you start helps prevent this from happening so you form smooth balls.
- Turn the broiler on at the end: These meatballs are baked rather than fried, which means cooking is less messy but you lose some browning. To counter this, turn your oven’s broiler on in the last few minutes of cooking to help turn the tops of the meatballs golden brown.
- Make ahead, if you like: Bake a tray or two of meatballs, and, once cool, move the baking sheets to the freezer. Let the meatballs freeze solid, then transfer to a zip-top freezer bag for up to one month. Thaw them in the refrigerator overnight before rewarming in the oven, or thaw directly in simmering sauce for about 15 minutes.
Other Ways to Serve These Meatballs
I love serving pesto chicken meatballs as-is with both additional pesto and warm marinara sauce (most often jarred in order to really keep things simple) for dipping. It makes for a crowd-pleasing and hearty appetizer. Or pair with garlic bread and a green salad for a comforting dinner.
If you can’t imagine meatballs without pasta (my husband surely can’t), you can also serve them over pasta (or creamy polenta) sauced generously with pesto. Alternatively, crumble the meatballs to use as a pizza topping, or toss them with marinara and turn them into sub sandwiches.
More Ground Chicken Dinner Ideas
- Herb Chicken Burgers
- Chicken Larb Lettuce Wraps (Larb Gai)
- Baked Chicken Samosas with Mint Yogurt Dip
- Buffalo Chicken Meatballs
- Kofta-Style Chicken Stuffed Peppers with Yogurt Mint Sauce
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Arrange a rack in the top third of the oven and preheat. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
Make the meatball mixture:
Place the ground chicken, breadcrumbs, pesto, egg, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Mix lightly with a fork until just combined.
Form the meatballs:
Form the meat mixture into 20 (about 1 1/2-inch) meatballs and place them on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them out evenly as you go.
Bake the meatballs:
Bake until browned and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the middle reads 165°F, about 15 minutes. Switch the oven to broil and continue to cook until the tops of the meatballs turn golden-brown in spots, 3 to 5 minutes more.
Serve with additional basil pesto or warmed marinara sauce for dipping.
Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
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