For millions, old-fashioned meatloaf is the ultimate comfort food. Tastes like Mom or Grandma or Uncle Hugh’s been in the kitchen putting together a classic that begs to be served alongside mashed potatoes and a pile of peas. There are hundreds of meatloaf recipes, all united by the claim that they’re the best in the world. And they’re all probably correct. But let’s take a minute to go beyond the list of ingredients and turn to a pro for tips on how to make that incredible meatloaf even better. Here’s how.
1. Meat Matters
The marbled meat and bits of fat that goes into ground beef makes for a juicy, crave-worthy loaf, but you’ll get a more interesting end product if you don’t go exclusively for the traditional main ingredient. Harvey Wolff, the culinary school-trained chef from the upscale Nosh food truck based in Seattle, Wash., highly recommends mixing it up when it comes to selecting meat. “Never go all beef, never!” he said. He suggests bringing a little bit of ground pork to the party. Or, make the loaf leaner by blending in some ground turkey. Try bison, lamb or go wild with venison. As far as the beef goes, Wolff and his team grind their own chuck. If possible, find a butcher who will do a custom coarse grind. It might cost a bit more, but the improved taste will be well worth it. If you want to take the sustainable route, shop at farmers markets or look for grass-fed beef.
2. Texture Tips
The ideal meatloaf holds its shape while staying moist, which is no easy feat. Clever cooks nail that contrasting texture by adding a splash of milk to the breadcrumbs, a time-honored tradition for making the most succulent meatballs. You could also take a page from the Blended Burger Project sponsored by the James Beard Foundation, and reduce the amount of meat, adding roasted mushrooms to fill in for the missing protein. Shredded carrots, zucchini or sauteed spinach will also work, adding color as well as flavor. Instead of raw onions, try sauteing them first to soften and caramelize, bringing a softer quality to that ingredient.
3. Spiced Right
Most meatloaf recipes are fairly straightforward when it comes to diving into the pantry. Salt and pepper reigns, but it’s easy to add complexity and character by going deeper into the spice rack. For Italian-style meatloaf, add a tablespoon of chopped fresh basil, a teaspoon of thyme and oregano, and while it’s baking you’re kitchen will smell like Tuscany. Take ground lamb on a trip to the Greek Islands by blending in a teaspoon of oregano, or make that turkey meatloaf Moroccan with a tablespoon of harissa chili paste and a teaspoon of cumin. Dill brightens up a salmon loaf, and a little liquid smoke makes porky versions taste as if they’re emerging from a wood-fired oven. When experimenting with new combinations, start small and add more if the flavors aren’t as pronounced as you’d like. When you hit the magic formula, don’t forget to make note of it. (Like on your Allrecipes’ reviews!)
4. Handle with Care
Once all the ingredients are assembled in a mixing bowl, use a light touch to combine. Set aside the spoon and work the mixture lightly with your hands, just long enough so everything has been incorporated. When adding it to the loaf pan, gently pat down the meatloaf mixture rather than packing it in too firmly. Because chef Harvey’s Nosh loaf is destined for sandwiches, however, the kitchen crew does pack the mixture in more firmly, like a terrine.
5. The Big Finish
Ketchup or a brown sugar glaze is the traditional topper on the majority of meatloaf preparations, but consider the alternatives. Chef Harvey uses a roasted tomato and thyme mixture on top: “It adds the acidity to cut the fat. Balances it right out.” Among the many options: Barbecue sauce, Sriracha-spiked ketchup, Chimichurri and Hoisin.
6. Resting Time
Once the meatloaf has baked, remove it from the oven and drain off any excess fat. Let it rest for at least five minutes before slicing. That allows time for the mixture to settle, making serving easier. Go for a whole new level of yum by making meatloaf in the morning, chilling it, slicing it and finishing on the grill or in a grill pan. The caramelized char on each slice might remind you of the best burger you’ve ever eaten.
7. Shape Shifting
Sure, it’s called meatLOAF, but surprise the family by cooking your creation in a muffin pan, in a mug or get really artistic and sculpt dinner into whatever makes sense for the season. Like the scary Halloween Zombie meatloaf. Talk about an Instagram-worthy meal. Look around in your cupboards. You probably already have a mold or a fun pan that would work. Have some fun. Because… you know, it’s meatloaf!