Meatloaf is perhaps the ultimate comfort food, and therefore the least glamorous. Many of us use recipes handed down for generations. But somehow meatloaf was not part of my family tradition, so I needed to invent one. And naturally, it had to kick you know what.
When devising the ultimate meatloaf, the first question is, are there any rules? How far outside the loaf pan can I go? I dreamed up all sorts of exotic creative approaches, but then I realized what we all want is meatloaf, not a sausage. Something familiar. Something that tastes like home. Comfort food. Something Grandma would recognize as meatloaf. Only I wanted it to be better and I wanted it cooked on the grill for a smoky flavor.
My ultimate meatloaf would have to be moist and tender. I love simple recipes, and, while a well-seared steak with only salt and pepper may be a breathtaking violin solo, meatloaf has the opportunity to be a string quartet, with more complexity. I also want leftovers that make a killer sandwich.
From a culinary standpoint, there were four crucial problems to solve: Flavor, texture, moisture, and crust.
When Googling meatloaf, the most common recipes start with a blend of beef, pork, and veal, and many grocery stores actually sell packages of “meatloaf mix” made with equal parts of each.
Since meatloaf contains ground meats and they need to be cooked up to 155°F, they tend to dry out. Many recipes add wet ingredients, among them milk or cream, soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, KC style barbecue sauce, salsa, canned soup, and Worcestershire. But if you add wet stuff, you need to add a starch to absorb it or else the loaf will fall apart. That may be why people add bread, bread crumbs, crackers, oatmeal, and flour. Another reason people use these mix-ins is a carryover from the Depression when hamburger was almost always extended with some sort of grain.
My Italian American wife and her family have been using bread soaked in water and squeezed almost dry in meatballs for generations. Of all the starches I have seen in meatloaf recipes on the internet, my favorites are dried potato and goldfish crackers, mainly because, if I wasn’t Meathead, I’d be Potatohead, and goldfish crackers are my favorite snack.
Another popular mix-in is some kind of fat. Fats bring flavor to the party, they don’t need starch to absorb them, they don’t evaporate during cooking, and they don’t drip off easily. Good sources of fat are ground beef fat, strips of bacon, pork belly, or even butter.
In the recipes I researched, the most popular vegetable mix-ins were onions, bell peppers, garlic, and celery. I also found recipes with chopped carrots, chopped tomatoes, mushrooms, canned peas, raisins, dehydrated onion soup mix, and cheeses. I have even seen pickled beets in several recipes (mostly recipes from New Zealand and Australia). I hate beets. I know, it’s an unreasonable prejudice. But it stems from a troubling childhood incident with borscht and the “children in Russia who are starving”. Forgive me.
Some recipes add sweeteners like granulated sugar, honey, jams, etc. Almost all recipes include one or two raw eggs as a binder.
Glaze, sauce, or nekkid?
A glaze baked on top is common. Ketchup and brown sugar are the most popular toppings, sometimes mixed together, but I’ve also seen barbecue sauce, fresh tomatoes, and honey on top. Alton Brown uses a balsamic glaze. Sign me up for anything having to do with balsamic. Others prefer a sauce, like a marinara, or a cream sauce with mushrooms. These pasta sauces intrigue me because if you make enough sauce, you could serve slices of meatloaf on pasta. Of course, if this is what you like to do, why not just make meatballs and be done with it?
But the more I thought about it, the more I had reservations about toppings. I want my loaf browned all over so I don’t want sauce getting in the way. I want the complexity that comes from the Maillard reaction. Some folks try to get the best of both worlds by holding the glaze until the last 15 minutes of the cook, but then it softens the crust.
I asked members of the Pitmaster Club for side dishes. Most went with mashed potatoes and peas, green beans, or carrots. In fact, in testing this recipe I was inspired by the Shepherd’s Pie at my local Irish pub and placed the meatloaf slices right on top of the mashed potatoes. In that case, I made Buttery Garlic Mashed with a big scoop of sweet peas mixed with onion sautéed in butter.
One thing is essential: Leftovers go on a sandwich. I like to grill or griddle slices of meatloaf and serve them on a bun like a burger with lettuce, tomato, and my secret sauce. You might like the sandwiches better than the loaf!
Prep and cooking techniques
One important concept: Don’t cook meatloaf in a loaf pan or a pan with high sides. Loaf pans keep the sides and bottoms from browning, and the brown crust is the best part. A far better strategy is to form the loaf and put it on a rack hovering above a pan so it can brown on sides. This technique also drains off the excess fats and liquids squeezed out when proteins shrink. If you use a loaf pan or a sheet pan, the fat just makes the bottom soggy, and the albumin squeezed out of shrinking proteins makes for an ugly tan glop that nobody wants to eat. Just gently place the raw loaf on the gridiron on your grill.
We’ll cook at 325°F, which is high enough to brown the exterior, but not so high as to cause the proteins to get their undies in a bunch and squeeze out all the moisture. At that temp, it should take about an hour for the loaf to cook through, but please do not use a clock to tell when this recipe is done. It is done when the meat hits 155°F in the deepest part of the center, the temp at which ground meat is safe.
Serve with: Garlic Mashed Potatoes, and sweet peas with sauteed onions. To drink: A nice simple rosé is my first choice. If you prefer beer, try Guinness stout, since it is served on top of mashed potatoes and reminiscent of shepherd's pie.
- 1 ½ cups unseasoned bread crumbs
- 2 tablespoons dried crumbled basil leaves
- 2 teaspoons dried crumbled oregano leaves
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon Morton coarse kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- ½ teaspoon ground cumin
- ½ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 1 small onion
- ½ small sweet red bell pepper or you choice of colors
- ½ cup sun dried tomatoes
- 1 pound coarsely ground beef chuck, 80 to 85% lean
- 1 pound ground pork
- ½ pound uncooked bacon
- Prep. In a big bowl, mix the wet stuff thoroughly.
- In a small bowl, mix the dry stuff thoroughly.
- Set aside 1/2 cup of the dry stuff for the crust. Add the remaining 1 cup of the dry stuff to the wet stuff and stir it together. Let it soak for a minute or two.
- Chop the onions, peppers, and sun dried tomatoes into small bits. Add the veggies to the big bowl. Chop the bacon into small bits and add that to the bowl along with the rest of the meat. Mix gently. Resist the temptation to overwork the mass and pack it tight. We don't need no stinkin' meat bricks. If it doesn't mix thoroughly, that's OK: bursts of flavor are fun. Form it into a cylinder about 3" in diameter. Yes, I know this sounds weird, but this tube shape will insure that it cooks evenly on all sides and it makes it easier to roll around on the grill to brown on all sides.
- Pour the remaining 1/2 cup of the dry stuff on a flat surface such as a cutting board and set the loaf on it so the bottom gets coated. Sprinkle the rest of the crust over the rest of the surface and roll it around so the loaf is coated on all sides.
- Place the meatloaf in the refrigerator to firm up while you prepare the grill.
- Fire up. Set up your grill for 2-zone cooking. Preheat the indirect side to about 325°F. That's a good temp for browning things without squeezing out too much moisture. Start a pot of water boiling for the potatoes.
- Cook. Place the loaf on the grate on the indirect side. If you like, throw some wood on the fire to add a bit of smoke, but not too much. Roast until the temp in the center of the loaf is 160°F, which is the temp at which the eggs are thoroughly cooked and safe.
- Serve. Remove the meatloaf from the grill, slice and serve with mashed potatoes and/or your favorite side dishes.
- Now tell us, what do you do with your leftovers?
Here are some nice looking recipes I studied and they might provide you with inspiration.
HuffPost’s French chef Kerry Saretsky Boeuf Bourguignon Meatloaf with an amazing red wine ketchup.
Millionaire’s Meatloaf (topped with chili shrimp) adapted from Chef David Burke’s formula by the New York Times.
The alchemists at Cooks Illustrated like to make the very best recipe they can, regardless of ingredients.
A popular pretty standard classic recipe from Gourmet magazine on Epicurious.com.
Quaker Oats has several recipes including a simple, classic one.
Meathead goes over the top with an Italian sausage recipe with a cheese, pepper, and onion center, wrapped in bacon, smoked, topped with grilled marinara, and served on pasta.