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The recipes in for meatballs and hamburgers have their variations, but a lot of overlap. Many look almost the same. Other than the cooking method and size, is there a fundamental difference that sets them apart?

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I edited, then figured I should ask: it seems like the primary difference is shape, not size. –  Jefromi Mar 14 '12 at 23:59
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2 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In the US, hamburgers are usually flat patties weighing somewhere between 3 and 8oz. and typically 100% ground beef. Many variations are possible, including mixing spices and other ingredients into the meat, but binders such as egg and breadcrumbs are not common. The defining characteristics of a proper hamburger for most Americans are the shape (flat), approximate size, beef as the primary ingredient, and sandwich-style presentation. A ground meat patty not made from beef is likely to be named differently (lamb burger, turkey burger, etc., even though the name 'hamburger' has nothing to do with ham).

Meatballs are smaller (maybe 0.5 to 3oz), roughly spherical, more likely to be seasoned, much more likely to contain eggs and/or breadcrumbs as binders, made from just about any kind of meat, cooked differently, served differently.

Also, the cultural traditions surrounding each are completely different. Spaghetti with meatballs and tomato sauce is classic comfort food; spaghetti with hamburger is unthinkable. Meatballs are usually served in a sauce of some kind; burgers (beef or otherwise) are served on a bun or bread with mayo, ketchup, mustard, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and so on. Many people like their hamburgers (beef) cooked rare or medium rare, but meatballs are always fully cooked. Meatballs can be held at temperature for a long time, or even cooked, chilled, and reheated; only cafeterias and other low-quality, high volume restaurants would pre-cook and reheat a hamburger -- at home or at a good restaurant the burger would be served as soon as possible after cooking.

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Meat-only burgers seem to be much more common in the States. Mr Bartley of the famous Mr Bartley's Burger Cottage in Boston, MA insists that a hamburger should be just beef, salt and pepper - "Anything else is meatloaf". Many European recipes for burgers do include onions, egg and breadcrumbs. I disagree with my confederates :) –  ElendilTheTall Mar 15 '12 at 8:42
    
I like that, "anything else is meatloaf". –  Gary Mar 16 '12 at 3:21
    
"spaghetti with hamburger is unthinkable" Unless you're someone who considers "ground beef" and "hamburger" to be synonymous, ala Hamburger Helper, in which case spaghetti with hamburger is a classic one-pot dish for busy weeknights –  Yamikuronue Mar 19 '12 at 15:09
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@Yamikuronue No argument there, but that's a slightly different meaning of hamburger. You're talking about hamburger, i.e. ground beef, as an ingredient. This question is about hamburgers, i.e. patties shaped out of ground beef and sometimes other ingredients. –  Caleb Mar 19 '12 at 15:38
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My experience with meatballs has always involved multiple meats combined together while hamburgers contain a single meat. In fact, I'd go so far to say that MeatLoaf is a closer cousin to Meatballs barring size, shape and spice.

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Most meatloaf and meatballs I've had experience with are made of a single meat; however they also contain other things such as onions, oatmeal, etc. Then again, I've also had hamburgers with similar additives, as well. –  Flimzy Mar 15 '12 at 3:18
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Methinks there's not going to be a definitive answer on this one unless there's a canonical definition of "meatball" and/or "hamburger." –  Jacob G Mar 15 '12 at 3:23
    
Yes, I'm sure you're right... –  Flimzy Mar 15 '12 at 3:23
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