Meatloaf 101

John Bowman, a musician friend and lover of good food, recently posted on FB asking for best meatloaf recipes. I confidently pulled up the blog and found… Nada. Hard to believe, but true. Then my friend Tracy, who writes for her blog, The Culinary Jumble, recently posted a great recipe, noting that meatloaf just isn’t made much in the U.K. We traded some tips, but I didn’t have a posted recipe to share, so I’m going to send this one to her without a doubt, (And do check out her blog!) in any case, it’s time to correct that omission. We love meatloaf, even though 5 year old Monica locked herself in the bathroom and had to be extricated by the landlord because mom was making meatloaf again, (True story; it was the cook’s fault, not the meal’s).

Meatloaf is a perfect example of the adage, ‘great cooking is almost always simple, but not always easy.’ There’s a bad meatloaf story in every kitchen. While simple it may be, it’s also a dish rife with opportunities to screw up. So today we’ll explore a little history, a little science, some technique, and finally, a great recipe.

In plainest terms, meatloaf is just that – seasoned ground meat, most commonly beef in this country, though pork, lamb, game, poultry, and even seafood are also used – what is a crab cake, other than meatloaf? Combinations of meats are quite common as well. The loaf is formed in various shapes and cooked; usually baked, but sometimes smoked. There are schools of thought for cooking in a loaf pan, and also on a baking sheet.

While notably popular in North America, meatloaf isn’t a native per se. The earliest published variant I’m aware of came from a 4th or 5th Century AD Roman cookbook. There are modern versions from Ireland to Russia, Norway to Portugal, Greece to the Middle East, as well as Northern Africa, the Philippines, and South America. Immigrants to the U.S. brought all these here, and we’ve heartily adopted it. The first American recipes showed up in the late 1800s.

Now, before we talk ingredients, a bit of the science behind the dish. Because we’re dealing with ground meat, quite a bit of the natural connectivity present in whole cuts is lost; as such, cooks rely on binders to keep a meatloaf together, but that’s really only half the equation. What happens to meat when it’s cooked is equally important to the success or failure of a meatloaf. Let’s assume we’re baking at 350° F. When the internal temperature of our meatloaf hits 120° F, proteins in the meat begin to coagulate, making it firm up. When that temperature rises to around 140° F, coagulation becomes more pronounced, and notable separation of solids and liquids commences. At around 150° F, a fairly catastrophic breakdown of collagen occurs, and our meatloaf releases a whole lot of moisture while becoming distinctly chewier. Some of that is good, too much is bad; so this is where a stabilizer comes in handy, helping retain some of that cast off moisture. At 160° F, collagen begins to convert into gelatin. The fairly firm mass of solid meat relaxes a bit, and even though things are technically drier than they were twenty degrees ago, those changes make our meatloaf tender and juicy – The sweet spot, if you will, but also, the root of a couple of potential problems.

First problem – Most recipes don’t list a suggested final internal temperature, so most cooks don’t cook to one – They use time alone, and as an old boss of mine was fond of saying, “Hope is a poor formula for success.” Secondd problem – A whole lot of meatloaf recipes I found that bothered to mention a final internal temperature for meatloaf cited 165° F as the cook-to temp to reach before you pull it out of the oven to rest.

Overcooking is easily the number one cause of meatloaf failure, and almost all cooked meats need a post-cooking rest. Meatloaf is no exception, and many a fine effort has been ruined by the lack thereof. Resting achieves several things, one of which is the completion of cooking. Think of your meatloaf as a heat sink, and you get the picture; if you’ve baked a meatloaf made with 2 pounds of flesh at 350° F, it will take a good 50 to 60 minutes for the internal temperature to reach 155° F. Pull it out of the oven, set it on top, and the heat built up does not dissipate quickly. Ten minutes later, the internal temperature will read right around 165° F; leave it for 15 minutes and it’ll be higher yet. A big roast of beef or pork wants a good 30 minute rest before carving – With that in mind, ask yourself this: How often do you wait that long, and how often has a big roast like that not turned out as you wished, if your answer was, “Not often?” The other important aspect of a rest is that it allows the meat to cool down. While that may seem counterintuitive, it’s absolutely necessary. We don’t eat meatloaf at 160° F, unless we want second degree burns. An internal temperature of around 120° F is ideal; this cooling time allows your meatloaf to firm up and recover some of its moisture retaining capability. The moral of this story is that, regardless of what you put in your recipe, improper cooking and resting will certainly ruin it, while proper technique will make the best of any reasonable effort.

Onward to content; what should go into the perfect meatloaf? At your local supermarket, they probably offer a pre-made meatloaf grind. My advice is to avoid that; we’re making this at home, from scratch; we don’t want somebody else’s idea of ideal. That ubiquitous grind, by the way, is often comprised of beef, pork, and veal. That mix, while great for meatballs, just doesn’t hold up that well in a notably larger meatloaf. I’ll state without reservation that the best mix is beef with a bit of pork, in the form of bacon. We grind our own here, using our trusty Kitchenaid mixer attachment. If you have one of these mixers, I strongly urge you to snag the grinder attachment; this allows you to custom mix absolutely fresh grinds for anything you like – The difference between that and store ground is night and day; (Just like coffee, meat starts to degrade notably as soon as it is ground). For home grinders, consider that meatloaf is supposed to be a fairly economical meal, so avoid expensive cuts; they’re unnecessary for this application, and the fact that you threw Wagyu in is likely to be lost in the melange anyway. Our formula is 50% – 50% Chuck to Round, (I like Top Round best). Chuck is inexpensive, has the fat content you’re after, and great flavor when used right. Round has great density, decent flavor, relatively low fat content, and is usually cheap. This combination, twice ground, (course plate, then fine plate), yields a beautiful meatloaf base. We’ve often ground the bacon in as well, which is very nice; if you do, use a tablespoon of Avocado oil for sautéing your veggies. I’m also a fan of adding your dry spices to the mix just prior to second grind; it yields great dispersion of those additional flavor notes.

If you don’t own that grinder toy, ask your store’s on duty meat person to grind a couple of cuts that you select; any decent outfit with a sense of customer service will do this for you. Unless you really know and trust your meat folks, don’t believe a package that says ‘Fresh Ground,’ especially in a large chain supermarket – I’ll guarantee you that stuff is bulk grind from God-knows-where that they’ve re-ground in the store. It’s not fresh, and it’s likely not all that good.

Now we come to the mix – what else should or should not be in there. The most common additives, eggs and bread crumbs, are really a stabilizer and an extender, respectively. I agree wholeheartedly with the use of both, and here’s why. As mentioned above, the meat for this dish has lost significant connectivity due to being ground; eggs help to stabilize some of that lost structure. Bread crumbs help by absorbing some of the moisture shed by the meat during cooking, as well as providing a subtle, smoother mouth feel without compromising flavor.

There is one more critical additive, and that’s a moisturizer. Eggs are often thought of as performing this function in meatloaf, but in fact they don’t. Many recipes use some form of dairy, but I’m not a fan of that, because it adds too strong a flavor note. While tasty, that dairy note bring stroganoff to mind, and that’s just not what we’re after. What you want is stock, which will add ample moisture and compliment the flavor of the meat. What kind is up to you, though I strongly encourage it to be homemade. Store bought will work in a pinch, but it lacks the fat and gelatin content of homemade, with its wonderful richness and enhanced mouth feel. Beef, chicken, or vegetable will do; all add certain notes to the final product, so use what you wish to emphasize. Beef stock will deepen the meatiness of your loaf, and some folks find that overkill. Veggie stock adds moisture with the least flavor. Chicken stock will add subtle richness without too many major notes. In any case, stock, eggs, and bread crumbs provide the perfect matrix to keep your meatloaf juicy and flavorful – try it, you’ll like it.

Next, we have seasoning. This should be comprised of flavor notes you really like, that are complimentary to beef. Some of these need to go into the mix, naturally, and some need to go on top, (Some form of glaze is a must). We’re of the opinion that certain veggies absolutely belong in great meatloaf, because without them, you’re simply making seasoned burger. The recipe that follows is our go-to combination, but I encourage you to alter, add, or delete as you see fit. As Bob Ross would say, “That’s your meatloaf…”

Finally, le coupe de grâce – The glaze. In keeping with the simple is best principle, this is where certain prepared sauces get used a lot. We’ve tried straight ketchup, Heinz 57, A-1, Pickapeppa, Tiger sauce, Thai sweet pepper sauce, seasoned tomato sauce, seasoned tomato purée, and even fruit purées. All of these were good, but if I had to pick a top three, I’d vote Pickapeppa, Tiger sauce, and Thai sweet chili sauce, (Thai Kitchen makes a decent bought sauce, but you can make your own – Hit me up if you’d like a recipe.) As for what goes into this version, we’ll stick with a classic doctored ketchup; while you can make your own ketchup, it’s incredibly tomato intensive, far more than you’d imagine, so buying something decent is much more practical for the majority of us. Muir Glen and Annie’s make decent organic versions, and even Heinz and Hunts make no HFCS or preservative versions now. While lots of folks add more sugar to their ketchup based glaze, we don’t – that noble condiment has more than enough already, and it’s the tangy end we’re looking to bolster with our sauce.

So, here you go, our guaranteed spectacular recipe.

Build Notes: We don’t put cheese in ours; it’s meatloaf we’re making here, not cheeseburgers, (But if you like it, do it – sometimes I just like being snarky.) We bake on a rimmed baking sheet, not in a loaf pan; you get a nice caramelized crust this way, which helps seal in moisture a bit, and contributes a textural element to the dish.

 

Urb&Monique’s Meatloaf

2 Pounds 85%-15% Ground Beef

1/4 Pound thick cut Bacon

2 large Eggs

1 small sweet Onion

1/2 small Carrot

1/2 stalk fresh Celery

3/4 Cup Stock, (Beef, chicken, or veggie)

1/2 Cup plain Bread Crumbs

1 teaspoon Sea Salt

1 teaspoon Smoked Sweet Paprika

4-5 sprigs fresh Cilantro

1/2 teaspoon fresh ground Pepper

4-5 shakes Hot Sauce, (Tabasco, Franks, Cholula, etc)

 

For the Glaze

¾ Cup Ketchup

¼ Cup Malt Vinegar

2-3 dashes Worcestershire Sauce

2-3 dashes of Hot Sauce

 

Prepare glaze; in a small bowl, combine ketchup, vinegar, Worcestershire, and hot sauce and whisk to incorporate. Set aside, uncovered, at room temperature.

If you’re grinding your own, grind beef and set aside in the fridge.

Preheat oven to 350° F

Heat a sauté pan over medium heat.

Cut bacon into lardons, roughly 1/4″ square pieces.

Add the minced bacon and sauté, stirring steadily, until most of the fat has rendered out and the bacon is nice and crisp, about 3-4 minutes.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the bacon onto several layers of clean paper towel. Leave the bacon fat in the pan and return it to the burner.

Rinse, peel and trim onion, garlic, cilantro, carrot and celery. Fine dice onion, carrot, and celery, mince the garlic, and chiffonade the cilantro.

Add onion and carrot to the hot fat and sauté until onions begin to turn translucent, about 2 minutes. Add celery and sauté for another minute or so, then add garlic, incorporate, and sauté for another minute. Lightly season this blend with sea salt and a few twists of pepper. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, crack eggs and whisk lightly to a uniform blend. Add broth and bread crumbs, and whisk to incorporate. Add the sautéed veggies and combine.

Add measured quantities of sea salt, pepper, paprika, pepper sauce, and cilantro. Whisk all to thoroughly incorporate.

Now add the ground beef and bacon, and combine by hand until well incorporated.

Line a heavy baking sheet with parchment.

Carefully empty the mix from your bowl onto the sheet pan.

Form a uniform loaf shape, roughly 10″ x 6″. Slightly flatten the top of the loaf, and make all exposed surfaces as smooth and even as possible.

 

Bake loaf at 350° F for 40 minutes.

With a basting brush, apply a nice thick layer of baste to the entire loaf, and return to heated oven – Because the baste is rather sugar intensive, adding it now helps to keep it from burning, and allows the added flavor notes to be more pronounced in the final product. Set any remaining baste aside to use as a table condiment for service.

Bake for 10 minutes more and check internal temperature with a quick read thermometer, (You can also use a probe thermometer, as we do, which allows you to leave it in while baking.)

When temp reads 155° F, remove meatloaf from oven, turn off heat and slide plates into oven to warm.

Allow loaf to rest for 15 minutes.

Slice roughly 1″ thick, and serve with roasted potatoes and a crisp, green salad.