Moroccan Meatballs ~ Kefta Tagine

These Moroccan meatballs, or kefta tagine, are made with spiced ground beef or lamb, and bathed with a buttery saffron-cilantro sauce.

A white bowl filled with Moroccan meatballs with a spoon resting inside and some small orange wedges on the side.

Kefta is the savory spiced ground meat of Morocco, served in meatball form or used as stuffing. Serve the kefta directly from the tagine or pot, with warm slices of toasted bread for mopping up the sauce. In some Moroccan homes where fiery dishes are appreciated, a whole dried red pepper is added to the sauce.–Paula Wolfert

What's so special about the sauce?

Cookbook author and Mediterranean cooking monarch Paula Wolfert does something in this recipe that came as something of a surprise to us. First, she soaks saffron threads in hot water. The elixir, which Wolfert dubs “saffron water,” summons more of the spice’s aroma and flavor than simply crumbling a few dry strands into a dish, she explains. Given its seeming superpowers, saffron water isn’t just a clever cooking technique, it’s a savvy spendthrift tactic when you consider the justifiably steep price of a stash of saffron. “In fact,” she continues, “I’ve discovered that if I soak all the ground spices called for in a recipe in a little saffron water before adding them to the dish, their combined flavors are intensified and better distributed.” But actually, that wasn’t what surprised us. What was new to us was how she keeps a stash of extra saffron water on hand for everyday use. Although she didn’t go into detail as to what those uses are, here’s how we’d have our way with it:

Use it as part of the liquid when making rice or any rice dish;

Stir it into cream sauces;

Sip it as a warm tonic (saffron is quite the restorative, you know);

Toss it into a vegetable or seafood soup;

Pour it into that roasting pan when you deglaze it;

Dump over partially cooked sliced carrots and allow it to reduce down to a glaze with a dribble of honey;

Whisk into a vinaigrette (bet a lemon and honey vinaigrette would be just lovely with this);

Turn it into a hot toddy with a splash of brandy or bourbon or….

Moroccan Meatballs | Kefta Tagine

  • Quick Glance
  • (4)
  • 25 M
  • 1 H, 5 M
  • Serves 4 or 5
5/5 - 4 reviews
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  • For the saffron water (you will only need to use 1/4 of this in the recipe; see the LC Note above for other uses)
  • For the kefta
  • For the sauce


Make the saffron water

Toast the saffron strands in a warm, but not hot, skillet for just a minute or so. Crush again.

Soak the crushed, toasted saffron strands in the hot water and store in a small jar in the refrigerator for up to a week. Pour out 1/4 cup saffron water for use in this recipe and reserve the remaining 3/4 cup for another use (see LC Note above). For longer storage of the saffron water, quadruple the recipe quantities above, pour the saffron water into a plastic ice cube tray, and freeze into cubes. Once they are frozen, shake out the cubes and store in a freezer bag. Each cube will be equivalent to 2 tablespoons saffron water or a good pinch of dried saffron threads.

Make the kefta

Combine the ground lamb or beef, crème fraîche or beef suet, paprika, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, salt and pepper, parsley and cilantro in a food processor and blend until a paste forms. Transfer to a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minute or until ready to cook.

Shape the meat mixture into 24 olive-size balls and place on a plate. If you think you may not have seasoned the meatballs sufficiently with salt and pepper, pinch off a tiny bit of a meatball, sizzle it up in a skillet, and taste it. Season the meat mixture accordingly.

Make the sauce

Place an 11- or 12-inch tagine or cazuela or Dutch oven on a heat diffuser, if you have one, over medium-low heat. Add the grated onion, butter, saffron water, spices, salt, 3/4 cup of the cilantro, and hot water.

Slowly raise the heat and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer gently to blend the flavors, about 10 minutes.

Add the kefta, or meatballs, to the sauce and poach, covered, for 30 minutes, turning them midway through the cooking.

Add the lemon juice to the sauce. Taste and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper. Transfer the hot pot to a wooden surface or a folded towel placed on a serving plate and garnish with the remaining 1/4 cup cilantro.

Spoon the kefta and sauce directly from the pot onto plates, with warm slices of toasted bread for mopping up the sauce.

Print RecipeBuy the The Food of Morocco cookbook

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Recipe Testers' Reviews

Yum! What a great recipe to make and use my new tagine. Everything came together as written. I did learn that saffron doesn’t last forever (googled that) so it was a good excuse to buy some new. I made extra saffron water for the freezer, because we are definitely having this again. All the spices made for a complex sauce with no spice overpowering. I used crème fraîche, and I believe it tamed the lamb taste. I would make the meatballs larger next time, but that is a personal preference. The only question I had was which side of the grater to use. I used the larger holed side, and it gave the sauce a little texture. My testers really enjoyed this recipe.

It may just be that I’m biased towards any kind of lamb meatball, but I thought this tagine was wonderful. The richness of the meatballs is nicely counterbalanced by the bright, lemony sauce. Delicious. Easy to make, too. Using a food processor, these meatballs come together quickly. And the 30-minute poaching time — pretty quick, compared to many tagines — makes this recipe doable on any night of the week. The only way in which this recipe differed from expectations was that, following the instructions to make “olive-sized” meatballs, I ended up getting 36, rather than the 24 specified. No complaints about that though. They still fit in my tagine in one layer, and cooked up perfectly in the time specified.


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  1. I haven’t made this yet BUT I’ve made my first mistake. I steeped 1/2 a teaspoon of saffron in a cup of hot water only to read that I only needed 1/4 of that.

    I get that the recipe’s author finds the saffron water a useful thing to have on hand but with an expensive spice that can be sold in 1/2 teaspoon increments, I wish I’d made what would be used immediately.

    I’ll get around to finishing it in a few days when I’ve gotten the ground lamb and creme fraiche but I’d really recommend adding a note to the top of the recipe indicating that people might or might not want to use so much saffron for the actual kofta.

    Meanwhile, it was curious to see that the Moroccan word for meatball is the same as the Indian word.

    PS YES, I know that was my own impulsive mistake. I’d still recommend the edit.

    1. Thank you, Rainey. We appreciate that saffron is very expensive, and that not everyone wants to keep the saffron water on hand. I have updated the ingredients to note that it isn’t all used, should the reader want to reduce the amount of saffron water they make. We hope you have the opportunity to try some of the other suggestions for uses for the saffron water listed above.

          1. It was delicious! Tons of flavor from the rich combination of spices but not a hint of heat (we’re weenies).

            My husband, who’s been to Morocco, said it reminded him of things he ate while he was there, tho he said he remembers lots more vegetables.

            We had it with a rice pilaf — which benefitted from some of that extra saffron water. ; > When I make it again — and I definitely will! – I’ll double the amount of sauce, possibly thicken it a bit at the end (perhaps some beurre mani?) and simmer some chunks of carrot with the kofta.

          2. Nice! I’m so please that you both loved it. Thanks, Rainey.

  2. I have a wonderful Moroccan cookbook that was a gift some years ago. I often make the fishball recipe using leftover bits of fish I freeze over a few month’s time. It calls for saffron water, and it really makes a big difference in the use of saffron. Thanks for posting this recipe again. I’ll definitely try it.

      1. 5 stars
        I have made this using lamb, beef and even “beyond beef.” It is wonderful with whatever one chooses to us as the “meat”. How can one go wrong with this wonderful cornucopia of spices! This is a great make-ahead guest meal. (I prep everything and then put the koftah into the sauce to cook as the final step) or even as a buffet dish for a cocktail party. It is always delicious and versatile.

  3. This is, hands down, the most delicious thing I have ever made. I am so glad that I found your site!! This recipe has the perfect amount of heat and spices. I will be making this again and again!! Thanks!

      1. Oh, I have tried quite a few – baked fish with almond crust, jerk chicken, skillet steak pepperonata, salmon with blistered tomatoes, hot buttered rum apple apple (perfect crust), figs with honey…and many others. First time I commented, though.

  4. These were absolutely wonderful! We used antelope instead of the lamb. Everyone in the house enjoyed them. Will try with goat next time.

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