The Perfect Meatloaf
April 1, 2008 11:33 AM   Subscribe

Fill in the blank: "The secret of great meatloaf is ___________."

I have a reason for asking. The general recipe for everyday, mundane, every-gramma-made-it, I-know-a-great-truckstop, Norman Rockwell Americana meatloaf is pretty straightforward. Yeah, we all have our little tweaks and variations -- but the basic recipe seems rather simple.

But I ALWAYS mess it up. Generally, what comes out of the oven is more suited to build housing. Am I using too many eggs? Not enough? Too much kneading? Too many crumbs? More veggies? Maybe a lower grade hamburger? Maybe a higher grade? Add glaze from start? Wait 'til it's almost done? How do I know when it's done?

I have all the ingredients assembled and I plan to start cooking tomorrow morning. Any last minute advice would be muchly appreciated.

Points for tradition. I'm sure Habanero Loaf with Banana glaze is wonderful -- but that's not what I'm after.
posted by RavinDave to Food & Drink (72 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
as midwestern as it is, mayo.
posted by thebellafonte at 11:35 AM on April 1, 2008

1) don't knead it. At. All. just gently mix/press it together. it gets tough and dry when you mess with it too much.

2) use good quality BBQ sauce rather than catsup.

3) enjoy.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:36 AM on April 1, 2008

I've had meatloaf in an Italian-Canadian house with biscuit dough marbled through it that puffed up and expanded when it was baked. That was pretty fantastic.
posted by Evstar at 11:37 AM on April 1, 2008

lfr is right- kneading is how you end up with meatbrick.

I like to add carmelized onions and ground pork.
posted by oneirodynia at 11:38 AM on April 1, 2008

Use hamburger with a good bit of fat in it. Sorry, just the way it is. Meat loaf ain't health food. Forget the breadcrumbs and use rolled oats. Put an egg in there, a brown one if you can get them. Put some bacon on top to both seal in moisture and add some additional moisture as it cooks and renders. And for the love of all that is holy, just use ketchup.
posted by littlerobothead at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2008

my mom uses quick oats instead of breadcrumbs, fattier beef, and slathers the top with ketchup and strips of bacon, which seems to keep moisture in. you shouldn't use more than one egg for an average loaf, and you should handle the meat gently and not pack it too tightly. just enough to stick together.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:40 AM on April 1, 2008

The answer to your blank is oatmeal.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:41 AM on April 1, 2008

Wrapping it in Bacon.
No bullshit.

Cut it with egg, breadcrumbs (fresh white bread through the food processor), browned onions, mustard, salt, thyme (i think).

Use ketchup and cider glaze, wrap it in slices of bacon, tuck it under and cook. Cook down the leftover glaze for dip.

Cooksillustrated/cookscountry has the best baseline recipes for meatloaf.
posted by Lord_Pall at 11:43 AM on April 1, 2008

3 ground meats: chuck, veal, pork.
stale bread instead of bread crumbs.
no kneading, shaping.
sundried tomatoes on top.
posted by thinkpiece at 11:44 AM on April 1, 2008

white trash brand loyalty - Ritz Cracker crumbs and Liption's onion soup mix.
posted by bartleby at 11:45 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

littlerobothead, the only difference between brown and white eggs is the colour of the shell.
posted by Evstar at 11:45 AM on April 1, 2008

"The secret of great meatloaf is CHEESE"
posted by Stewriffic at 11:48 AM on April 1, 2008

Do you have an oven thermometer? That's my secret to just about everything. This isn't a recipe where there is a lot of question as to when it is done. If your oven is the right temp, and you fill a bread pan and follow the recipe, it's done when the recipe says its done.
posted by Eringatang at 11:50 AM on April 1, 2008

it's done.
posted by Eringatang at 11:50 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

more detail:

Stuff that is dry (breadcrumbs, oatmeal), and/or stuff that contains salt, will tend to dry out / pull juices out of the meat, regardless of what baste / glaze or meat blend, or whatever-the-hell-else ingredients you use. Basic chemistry, yo, salt and sugar are both hygroscopic (they attract moisture, meaning they are dessicants). So go easy on the dry ingredients and cut down on the salty, sugary stuff. Use it as a garnish, late in the cooking cycle, or upon serving instead.

that's one of the reasons I recommended good quality bbq, it tends to have less sodium/sugar load in it, in favour of savoury spices, but meh, ok you did ask for traditional.
posted by lonefrontranger at 11:52 AM on April 1, 2008

posted by SpacemanStix at 11:52 AM on April 1, 2008

Green chili sauce.
posted by thirteenkiller at 11:54 AM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

the sauce needs: ketchup, powdered mustard, brown sugar (I think this is the Betty Crocker recipe)
posted by hulahulagirl at 11:55 AM on April 1, 2008

As a few people said above, my mother always used quick oats and the result was always loaf-tastic. I'd add that a good (and spicy, if that's your thing) BBQ sauce will make any good meatloaf great.
posted by Nelsormensch at 11:57 AM on April 1, 2008

Not just ground beef; also use ground pork. 2/3 beef, 1/3 pork.
posted by LionIndex at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Second thinkpiece on the three-meat combo. It makes a much more tender, flavorful meatloaf that beef alone.
posted by cabingirl at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2008

You know what someone needs to make?-----> .... 7 layer meatloaf.

No seriously. Same concept as turducken, but it'd be layered:

--layer of ground beef
--layer of ground white pork
--layer of ground chicken
--layer of ground sausage
--perhaps a layer of roast beef
--Ham. Definitely Ham.
--layer of ...(drool)... bacon

Once its done baking, slice it with a sharp knife (so you can show off the different colored layers), arrange it with a little mashed tater (sprinkled with parsley) and some kind of bread (mmm, glorious glorious bread).

I know what you're thinking. "This is madness!".... No... THIS IS MEATLOAFFFFFFF.
posted by jmnugent at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

thinkpiece is right: 3 meats. Beef for structure and flavor, veal and pork for tenderness and moisture. Like making a giant meatball.
posted by uncleozzy at 11:59 AM on April 1, 2008

Nthing oatmeal. Makes a huge difference.
posted by Malor at 12:00 PM on April 1, 2008

Oatmeal and garlic.
posted by electroboy at 12:04 PM on April 1, 2008

Beer! I brown the onions, then add a bottle of dark beer to them, and cook it down for a while until it's pretty syrupy. I also use fresh whole wheat breadcrumbs.
posted by amarynth at 12:05 PM on April 1, 2008

3 meats FTW! Breadcrumbs, 1 egg, onion finely diced. I make my glaze with ketchup , brown sugar, and BBQ sauce. I've done the laying the slices of bacon on top too and it works really great. I add some of the glaze into the meat itself before I bake, then I glaze it in the last 15 mins. The others are right -- don't knead it too much. It just makes the meat tough. You can make it in the meatloaf pan, but I've also seen chefs form the loaf and then cook it on a baking sheet with a lip.
posted by theantikitty at 12:15 PM on April 1, 2008

1/3 Pork Sausage is an easy way to make it more moist. Also, add the liquid to the breadcrumbs/oats/weetbix about 5 minutes before mixing with the meat. You want the loaf to look wet but not soggy when combined.
posted by arruns at 12:15 PM on April 1, 2008

The Cook's Illustrated meatloaf cooking setup - not a loaf pan, but a sheet pan with a cooling rack/hunk of foil on top - works really nicely to get a much less gross meatloaf. The gelatin idea they have is also nice and could probably help with your meatbrick issue.
posted by milkrate at 12:20 PM on April 1, 2008

Nthing oats, for a very moist, meaty meatloaf.

Eggs, black pepper, a dollop of mustard, a dollop of A-1 sauce, and oats. Mighty fine.
posted by Miko at 12:24 PM on April 1, 2008

posted by rose selavy at 12:26 PM on April 1, 2008

To the usual, add mashed blueberries, bright-yellow mustard, and worcestershire sauce.
posted by not_on_display at 12:27 PM on April 1, 2008

Based on my dear mother's delicious recipe, I'm in the rolled oats and a beef/pork mixture camp.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 12:37 PM on April 1, 2008

The secret of great meatloaf is ______"Going to my Grandmother's house."___________

Since that's not available, I'd say the secret is part veal and part bacon.
posted by 26.2 at 12:40 PM on April 1, 2008

3 ground meats: chuck, veal, pork.
stale bread instead of bread crumbs.
no kneading, shaping.
sundried tomatoes on top.
posted by thinkpiece

Quoted for truth. This is the classic Italian recipe.
posted by desuetude at 12:41 PM on April 1, 2008

Not Your Average Joe's in the Boston area makes some good meatloaf. They actually grill it after they slice it, but I'm not sure if it's baked at all. My guess is that they form the loaf, cut it into pieces, and then grill the pieces.
posted by backseatpilot at 12:46 PM on April 1, 2008

Response by poster: Man, so many great ideas. I made a special trip to the grocery store for "Progresso Italian Bread Crumbs", now I'm seeing a sizeable choir singing hymns to "Quick Oats". That has me curious, so I'm gonna head out again and grab some of those.

In short, I think I'll be making 3 medium loaves instead of 1 big one (as I had planned). I have most all the other ingredients, so I'll try three versions based on what I've read here.

Thanks all!!!
posted by RavinDave at 12:49 PM on April 1, 2008

Just had a meatloaf sandwich. Yum.

My favorite touch is a thin layer of catsup on top before it goes in the oven. That and cooking it well enough/hot enough that the sugar in the catsup/top layer gets crispy and crunchy.
posted by Pantengliopoli at 12:53 PM on April 1, 2008

Campbell's Cream of Mushroom Soup.
posted by drinkcoffee at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2008

In short, I think I'll be making 3 medium loaves instead of 1 big one (as I had planned). I have most all the other ingredients, so I'll try three versions based on what I've read here.
posted by RavinDave

I think I may have found another reason you got meat-brick. The bigger it is, the longer it has to be in the oven for it to cook through, the drier it is going to be.
posted by Grither at 1:01 PM on April 1, 2008

nthing worcestershire sauce and using a variety of meats. Try using Italian sausage in the mix for the pork portion, and if you like spice, use spicy Italian sausage.
posted by chan.caro at 1:14 PM on April 1, 2008

Nthing oatmeal. Consider Heinz 57 steak sauce as a topping in place of ketchup.
posted by Daddy-O at 1:19 PM on April 1, 2008

Response by poster: Grither ... I think you're probably right, but the fact that I was treating it like pizza dough probably contributed too. ;)
posted by RavinDave at 1:20 PM on April 1, 2008

NO NO NO! on the oatmeal....use CORNFLAKES! Also bacon and ketchup on top and be sure to use a LOT of onions.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:44 PM on April 1, 2008

Note that they actually sell that 3-meat mixture as "meatloaf mix" in many supermarkets... so it's not that hard.
posted by smackfu at 1:44 PM on April 1, 2008

not ketchup
posted by sero_venientibus_ossa at 1:46 PM on April 1, 2008

Didn't see anyone mention this but this is really the secret ingredient for me: one entire can of Campbell's Condensed Tomato Soup. Mix it in with the meat, and then use whatever ketchup/BBQ sauce on or in it that you normally would.

One time I made meatloaf without it and it came out like most people's meatloaf (awful).
posted by bradbane at 1:48 PM on April 1, 2008

No one had mentioned this yet, but it rocks: cook it in a slow cooker.

I got a slow cooker and bought a cookbook to go with it, and it mentioned meatloaf. I had never heard of cooking it that way, but I tried it and it is the most delicious freaking thing ever. It stays soooo moist. I've made it several times since then and it never fails to impress. My recipe says 4 hours on high for a two pound loaf.
posted by showbiz_liz at 2:01 PM on April 1, 2008

posted by Pollomacho at 2:03 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I use beef, the 85% stuff. My favorite glaze is ketchup, brown sugar and Worcestershire Sauce. I put 'em together and heat gently to combine. It takes more than you think, like a cup-and-a-half or two cups.

The meat loaf ALSO contains ketchup, brown sugar and Worcestershire Sauce, + and egg (or two), chopped onion (raw, let 'em cook in with the meat, it adds moisture), a oatmeal (a couple or three good handfuls) and a little soy sauce (adds salt and richness). Mix completely, but leave it 'fluffy', don't pack it down.

Then I form it into balls about the size of a softball (more or less) and press 'em into crater shapes. make meatloaf cups to hold the glaze. Then fill the cups to overflowing (just) with glaze and bake it on baking sheet. That allows the grease to drain away. I would NEVER use a loaf pan. They're hard to seve from there and they're always dripping with grease.

Sometimes I make the 'loaves' half that size to be served individualy.

My family is so spoiled, they won't eat other people's meatloaf. And I'm REQUIRED to make extra glaze for dipping.
posted by davereed at 2:16 PM on April 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

everyone used to complain about how they loved how the "edge" or "heel" pieces came out the way I make it (crispy/burnt on the outside) , so I once made a batch in muffin tins. (kinda like those new pans where every brownie is a corner brownie) People loved their little mini-meatloves, and I've taught kids to make it that way, as it's a dinner a 10-year old is relatively safe making on their own.
posted by penciltopper at 2:18 PM on April 1, 2008

Use the receipe on the Quaker Oats site. It never fails! My mom had me start making it when I was 9 and its still the only thing I can cook.
posted by thewalrusispaul at 3:13 PM on April 1, 2008

Fresh Basil
posted by Echidna882003 at 3:17 PM on April 1, 2008

I do a low-carb meatloaf with diced onions and mushrooms as the filler, with two parts lean ground beef, one part each ground veal and pork. Mix it all together with an egg (yeah, no kneading) and lattice strips of bacon on top. Moist, meaty, good.

So, the secret is bacon.

The secret is =always= bacon.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:26 PM on April 1, 2008

Actually, the secret is allspice, nutmeg, corriander, cracked pepper and thyme added when you mix it all together. Forgot that part.
posted by Slap*Happy at 3:30 PM on April 1, 2008

Worcestershire sauce and/or steak sauce in the meatloaf. Ketchup on top. Don't skimp on the milk. Don't overhandle it.

Cold meatloaf sandwich the next day on good bread with mustard.
posted by theora55 at 4:27 PM on April 1, 2008

My mom uses regular ground beef, not lean.. ketchup.. eggs.. chopped onions, and breadcrumbs, but it's those "italian seasoning" breadcrumbs you buy in the store (so probably already pretty stale..). Mix it up with your hands. That's pretty much it. put in loaf pan, put more ketchup on top, put foil over top (loosely), bake.
posted by citron at 5:00 PM on April 1, 2008

@penciltop how long do the mini-muffin-tin-meatloaves go in the oven for and at what temp? This sounds like a great idea.

seconding putting loose tin foil over it to help keep it moist.

I usually do 1/2 breadcrumbs and 1/2 oats to get the best of both worlds.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 6:07 PM on April 1, 2008

Fat isn't necessary for moisture:

1:2 ratio lean ground beef (94%)
1:2 ratio lean ground turkey
1 egg for binding
1 medium onion sautéed with meat for moisture
processed saltine crumbs for bulk
Worcestershire sauce
salt, pepper
whatever other little tricks that makes your meatloaf the best

gently mix and form

braise and then brown
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:59 PM on April 1, 2008

no, no, i have the secrets: a SHALLOT, and PARMESAN or ROMANO (or a blend) of cheese mixed in to the meat. also, oats. ooh, and some thyme mixed in there. lots of salt. catsup and a can of tomato paste.
posted by apostrophe at 8:02 PM on April 1, 2008

A couple things.

Meatloaf is about going by feel. The ratios can vary. If you think it's too dry when you're putting it together, add some au jus/Le Gout stock/beef stock or worcestershire sauce to moisten it up. Don't "handle" the raw meat too much, as that dries it out. And most importantly, people mistakenly think because it's a "loaf" you should cook it in a tight-fitting loaf pan. This is a no no. You need a relatively shallow, big/wide roasting pan. Trapping it in a tight loaf pan leaves no place for the steam to escape, and that overcooks it.

Here's my recipe for it, the one I give to friends. It includes the notes, which touch on what I already said:

For loaf:
Ground beef: usually around 4 or 5 pounds
Eggs: 1 egg per pound of beef for the first 3 pounds, and usually no more than 3 or 4 eggs total for as much as 5 or 6 pounds of beef
(Fresh) breadcrumbs: totally by feel
Onion soup mix (dry): 1 package per pound of beef for the first 2 pounds, and no more than 2 or 3 packages total for as much as 5 or 6 pounds of beef
Worcestershire sauce: again, it's a whim thing mostly
Jus/beef drippings (optional), if finished mix is still a bit dry
Ketchup: enough to coat the finished loaf and add a stripe down its middle

Vegetables, as much as you like of, say:

Meatloaf's ratios are never the same each time, so you go by feel. Put the loaf ingredients except for the jus and ketchup in a huge wide washable bowl and goosh everything with your hands until it's the consistency you want. Avoid dry meat loaf--it's the easiest judgment mistake one can make, I find, and the results are nasty. If after you've worked it it seems dry and not congealed and smooth enough, add a bit of jus and re-goosh. It should look congealed and coated and smooth now--slippery like a seal, ha. Put it in a wide deep roasting pan like you would for a turkey, NOT a tight small loaf pan. You want lots of space around the meatloaf; it'll prevent it from overcooking and drying out. That extra space is also where you'll put all the vegetables you peel and cut to desired size, and the extra jus. Form the meat into a tidy loaf in the pan, coat it with a thin glaze of ketchup, put a stripe of ketchup down the center of the loaf, and surround the loaf with the veggies. Cook it for a few hours at 325 F until it seems done. It will smell great. Yum.

I love meatloaf!
posted by ifjuly at 8:04 PM on April 1, 2008

I hope this isn't too nontraditional, but it's my favorite meatloaf of all time.

1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground veal
1 lb. ground lamb
2 stalks celery, diced small
1/3 cup ketchup
3 Tb. mustard
3 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
3 eggs
1 cup crumbled Ritz crackers or Saltines

Mix all ingredients. Form two large loaves or four to five small loaves. Bake at 400 degrees F for 20-30 minutes. Spread 1/4 cup mayonnaise over top of loaves. Bake an additional 15 minutes, depending on size of loaves. Meatloaf juice should spring back. Juice should run clear, not pinkish. Mayo should disappear. You can also use olive oil instead of mayo.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 8:26 PM on April 1, 2008

Cooks Illustrated/America's Test Kitchen insists that it's gelatin, and it's hard to ever argue with them.
posted by Mael Oui at 8:27 PM on April 1, 2008

1 teaspoon of relish, 1 dash allspice per lb. of meat, some salt/pepper, onion flakes or chopped sweet onion plus the egg, breadcrumbs/oats and an 8 oz. can of plain tomato sauce - some of it mixed in and the rest poured over the top before it goes in the oven. Yum! Sometimes I put a grated carrot in to make it seem healthier.
posted by i_like_camels at 11:30 PM on April 1, 2008



No seriously, I have had some pretty tasty tofu-based meatloafs in the past. You generally want to add extra spices and some soy sauce to make up for the lack of "meaty" flavors but the texture of tofu actually works perfectly for "meat"loaf.
posted by Deathalicious at 12:29 AM on April 2, 2008

Bits of feta cheese mixed in with the meat.
posted by sveskemus at 12:03 PM on April 2, 2008

Thank you all for this thread- I have a meatloaf in the oven right now that contains many of your suggestions (oatmeal, mayo, feta).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:13 PM on April 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

@silkygreen: 20-30 minutes @ 350; I use the 6-large-muffin size tin. Since the surface-to-volume ratio is so different from a whole loaf, muffin-tin loaves only take about 1/2 the time of a single full loaf. That, and the fact that six little loaves make it easier to portion for two or freeze leftovers, are the added bonuses. If you want to be cutesy, you can "ice" them with mashed potatoes, with a cherry tomato on top as a cherry, etc.
posted by penciltopper at 9:57 PM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

Martha Stewart says there is no substitute for ketchup and I believe it. She has a recipe that has you make a glaze using ketchup, brown sugar and dry mustard. We end up making several flat loafs to get maximum glaze per bite.
posted by krikany at 5:34 PM on May 1, 2008

I smush mine down about a half an inch thick and make it into a heart shape (so my son calls it meat love). I make a lot of glaze (about a cup and a half) with ketchup, brown sugar, BBQ sauce (which is also in the meatloaf itself) and maybe a touch of molasses. Molasses is the secret to every good food in the universe.
posted by bayliss at 10:18 PM on May 2, 2008

Sriracha - sounds insane but adds so much flavor.
posted by heartquake at 9:21 AM on May 6, 2008

I made the Cook's Illustrated meatloaf mentioned above. It was awesome. The secrets are to use unflavored gelatin to replace some of the texture that veal adds, and to cook it on a perforated sheet of foil on top of a baking rack sitting on a cookie sheet so that the fat drains away and doesn't leave it super greasy.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 8:03 AM on October 20, 2008

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