If you don’t like meatloaf, you just haven’t met the right one.
Meatloaf isn’t so much a specific item with a recipe, but more of a description really. It’s meat, shaped into a loaf. What you do with it however… ah, now there’s the world of possibility at your fingertips. Truly, meatloaf is the Bob Ross painting of the cooking world… there are no mistakes, just happy accidents… or in this case, tasty accidents. There’s no two alike. Every family has their own traditional recipe but they are all made according to the cooks taste. Sometimes they are made more traditional, and some are made with culinary or cultural themes in mind.
I watched an episode of Beat Bobby Flay on Food Network recently, where the competition was in fact making meatloaf. Bobby Flay created a Korean inspired meatloaf, complete with kimchee, while his opponent (a barbecue master) made a traditional meatloaf and opted to smoke it! Believe me when I tell you I was hungry watching the show.
The components of meatloaf are simply ground meat, eggs, bread crumbs and seasonings. A traditional American meatloaf is usually topped with ketchup, but that is optional too.
First comes the meat.
While ground beef seems to be the “obvious” choice, ground turkey is highly popular and versatile and makes an awesome meatloaf. On the East coast where I’m originally from, the grocery stores sell packages of “meatloaf mix” that look like this:
Then the binder
Eggs and breadcrumbs serve as a binder, holding the meat together allowing it to be sliced after cooking. Without enough binder the meat will just crumble and you’ll be thinking you should be having tacos or sloppy joes instead.
The rule of thumb for the eggs is one large egg per pound of meat. If it’s large (5 lbs+) or you’re using a leaner meat like turkey or venison, add an extra egg to maintain moisture. You can use egg whites or Egg Beaters.
For the bread crumbs, for every pound of meat you’ll need 1/3 of cup of dried bread crumbs. Dried bread crumbs include purchased bread crumbs (plain or seasoned), panko, corn flakes, oats, soda crackers or saltines, rice crackers and croutons. Make sure they are crushed so they mix well with the meat. Fresh bread also works well, just give it a few pulses in a food processor to turn in into crumbs and you’re good to go. Double the amount of breadcrumbs needed if you’re using fresh bread.
Next the seasoning
There’s so much to put here I don’t know where to start.
- Any dry seasoning mixtures or dry rubs – Barbecue, Cajun, Montreal Steak seasoning, Italian seasoning, etc
- Sauces – Worcestershire, steak sauce, bbq sauce, fish sauce, red wine, liquid smoke
- Soup mixes – Onion, beefy mushroom, etc
- Fajita or taco seasoning
- Parmesan, Bleu, Cheddar, smoked provolone, ricotta, swiss or feta cheese
- Hard boiled eggs (that was a huge thing back through the 40’s -60’s)
- Veggies – Onions, mushrooms, grated zucchini or carrots
- Other meat
- Italian Sausage
- Sage flavored sausage (would work well with ground turkey)
I was taught to make meatloaf and meatballs with the same mixture… garlic, onion, oregano, basil, parmesan cheese, salt, pepper & parsley. I took this a bit farther when I mixed ground beef & sweet Italian sausage and then stuffed it with a ricotta mixture and served it with marinara sauce. Amazing!
Go Greek with lemon, garlic & fresh oregano (with a beef/lamb mixture and serve with mock tzatziki of Greek yogurt, grated cucumber and dill … YUM!).
You can opt to go more Mexican with some fajita seasoning and lime (topped with salsa?) Mmm!
Love cheeseburgers? Consider ground beef with Montreal Steak seasoning and a splash of A-1, then throw in some diced bacon and cheddar or bleu cheese. (Topped with bbq sauce?) OMG!
Thanksgiving anytime? Turkey & sage sausage meatloaf, use stuffing mix for breadcrumbs (still crush them, maybe not as fine so they’re noticeable) stuff with mashed potatoes or diced sweet potatoes and top with cranberry sauce for glaze. (Now that this is in my head I may need to do this one next week.)
On to the topping
While ketchup is the traditional favorite it’s far from the only choice. Barbecue sauce, sriracha, canned diced tomatoes with basil, salsa, kimchee, Hunts canned “meatloaf sauce”, cream of celery, onion or mushroom soup, plain (unseasoned) tomato sauce, tomato soup, steak sauce, bottled chili sauce or cocktail sauce. Pretty much anything else that you think might sound good including mixing some of the above items… or nothing at all. My folks were anti-ketchup on meatloaf so I didn’t actually try this until I was an adult.
If this is your first meatloaf ever or you’re getting the kids cooking and want to keep it simple (or just don’t have much on hand), shoot for the basics. Ground beef, eggs, bread crumbs and onion soup mix (one envelope for every 2-3 lbs of meat) and ketchup on top. Delicious!
Putting it all together
Some people insist on putting meatloaf in a loaf pan, others don’t. As Bob Ross said “it’s your world”. However depending on how much meat you’re using, it may not fit in a loaf pan. I prefer to use either a roasting pan which will allow it to sit in its own juices or a broiler pan, so that the juices and fats can gather underneath way from the loaf.
When using a roasting pan, add water or beef stock to the pan along with any herbs you want to season your gravy. When the meat is done, put it on a platter to rest and pour the liquids into a saucepan along with additional stock and seasonings then thicken with cornstarch or a flour roux for a delicious gravy.
Using a broiler pan is preferred if you’re trying to watch your fat intake, you don’t plan on making gravy or you’re making a stuffed meatloaf and you don’t want the liquids to surround the meat. Do put a little water in the bottom of the pan to keep the fat from burning.
As I mentioned before, I stuffed a meatloaf with a ricotta mixture (same as you would use for lasagna). When I did it I used a Bundt pan; a loaf pan would have worked just as well but I was using a lot of meat. I lined the bottom and sides with the ground meat mixture, then put the filling in the cavity, then put an additional layer of meat on the bottom.
What I found is that its best to either turn it out of the pan before baking or line the pan with foil so that it doesn’t stick to the pan since it’s hard to get any tools in there to loosen it.
An easier method is to put half of your meat into the pan and build up the sides like this.
Once you have that built you can fill it with just about anything… bacon, cheese, mashed potatoes, mac & cheese, veggies (inside out cabbage roll anyone?), layers of frozen ravioli, you name it! Then roll out the rest of the meat mixture, put it on top and pinch the edges to seal.
Another option it to spread out the meat mixture on a counter top lined in plastic wrap, put the fillings in the center then roll it up. You just don’t want to do this if you’re using fillings that can run or melt out (softer cheese, mashed potatoes, etc).
Next, just top it if you want and put it in a preheated oven at 350°F for approximately 20 minutes per pound. You want the meat to come to 160°F to make sure it’s done. As with all meat, let it rest for 5-10 minutes before slicing.
A few ideas I want to throw out there before I finish.
I realize that cooking for one breaks conventional rules especially if you want to eat what you make once and not all week. Seniors, college students and singles tend to eat out because cooking for one can be “awkward”. Consider baking the meatloaves in muffin tins or mini loaf pans (check out my post Work Smart, Save Money, Eat Great). Leftovers are easily stored in the freezer and will make for quick meals or great for packing lunches. Meatloaves can also be frozen in a raw state as long as the meat has not been previously frozen. Pair them up with those ketchup packets in the bottom of your fridge and it’s a winner.
My grandmother (the fun one) really mastered cooking for one. She got mini loaf pans and froze her raw meatloaf in the pans. Once they were frozen solid they could be put in a freezer bag for easier storage. When she wanted meatloaf for dinner she’d take one out and put it back in one of those mini loaf pans to thaw. Later she would top it with the contents of a ketchup packet and pop it in her toaster oven!
“Frosting” like cupcakes is not only a fun decorating idea, but it’s great for a potluck or buffet line, kids and dieters too! Portion control that doesn’t look like portion control.
If you need dinner done when you come home and don’t want to wait on the oven time, you can also make meatloaf in the crockpot by putting it on low for 6 hours. A real time saver!
For the record meatloaf leftovers make the best sandwiches, whether open faced and smothered in gravy or on toast or hearty rolls with lettuce & tomato. They’re even good fried with eggs for breakfast instead of sausage or crumbled in to pasta sauce, tacos or sloppy joes! (And that makes it frugal!)
I hope you give this a try, either as a first timer, a seasoned cook with new creative inspiration or as a single who’s looking forward to not eating out, you’re guaranteed to love it. If you have inspiration to add, please share as I’m always looking for new and creative ideas! Happy eating!