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Master the meatloaf

By McClatchy Newspapers

Meatloaf is such an American classic that you would think there would be a settled, go-to recipe. Not so.

"People just don't understand meatloaf. They really think it's throwing a lot of garbage together," said James Villas, who offers seven recipes for meatloaf in his cookbook "From the Ground Up." "You have to take it seriously. There's a whole philosophy behind meatloaf."

There are many divides in the meatloaf debate: freeform or loaf pan? Beef, pork, veal or poultry? In what combination? Coarse ground or finely ground? Ketchup glaze or not? Gravy or no gravy? Bacon or no bacon? (Well, nobody really debates that last one.)

The most amazing thing about meatloaf may be that it's so forgiving. No matter what choices you make on the meatloaf decision tree, you can end up with an excellent result. My go-to recipe came from Cooking Light magazine: It's a sun-dried tomato and turkey meatloaf (served with a red currant and red wine sauce) that bakes in a loaf pan. It's not particularly crusty, but the taste is excellent, and the recipe makes one for now and another for later.

Over the past few years, meatloaf has made its way out of the diner, where it has long been a staple. There are excellent restaurant versions.

While their meatloaf methods differ, our experts agreed on a few key points.

First, use panko bread crumbs. These Japanese bread crumbs are fluffier and coarser than the sandy version typically used, which can produce a mushy meatloaf.

"Don't substitute Progresso for panko," says chef Jay Pierce of Cary's Lucky 32. "It's not as densely packed."

Second, make your meatloaf a day ahead. It tastes better, and it's easier to slice, which leads to the third tip: For a nice crust, grill or sauté slices of meatloaf.

Here is some more advice from our experts:

  • Do not overmix your meatloaf or it will turn out like a brick. Mix using your hands until the ingredients are just combined.
  • A freeform meatloaf allows you to develop a crust on the outside, but it can dry out. Consider this trick: lay slices of bacon on top to baste the meatloaf while cooking, then remove the bacon 15 minutes before finished to develop crust.
  • If you bake your meatloaf in a loaf pan, which ensures a moist loaf, consider draining the fat 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time to develop a crisp top. This method is best served by cooking ahead, which makes slicing the meatloaf easier. If you cut into a loaf-pan-baked meatloaf while it is still hot, it will fall apart.
  • Sun-dried Tomato Turkey Meatloaf

    Makes 2 meatloaves, 5 servings each.

         1/3  cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)

         3     slices bread

         1     medium onion

         4     cloves garlic

         1    cup grated Parmesan cheese

         1/2  cup thinly sliced basil

         1/4  cup chopped parsley

         2 1/2     pounds ground turkey

         2    eggs

         1/2  cup red currant jelly

         1/4  cup dry red wine

         1     teaspoon all-purpose flour

    PLACE sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl. Cover with boiling water. Let sit for 5 to 8 minutes.

    HEAT oven to 400°. Coat two metal loaf pans with cooking spray.

    PLACE bread in food processor and mince until fine. Place bread crumbs in a large bowl and set aside.

    MINCE onion and garlic in food processor and add to bread crumbs. Drain tomatoes and slice. Then add tomatoes, cheese, basil, parsley, turkey and eggs to the bread crumb mixture. Mix together using hands.

    DIVIDE meatloaf mixture and place in pans. Smooth out the top. To freeze, wrap with plastic wrap, removing as much air as possible and then wrap with heavy-duty foil and freeze. Or bake at 400° for 55 minutes or until the internal temperature is 160°.

    COMBINE red currant jelly, wine and flour in small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes until jelly melts. Serve with the meatloaf.

    Lucky 32's Meat Loaf

    Makes 8 servings.

         4     tablespoons butter

         3/4  cup chopped yellow onion

         1/2  cup finely chopped celery with stems and leaves

         2     teaspoons minced fresh garlic

         1/2  cup diced green bell pepper

         1/4  cup chopped green onion

         2    eggs

         1/2  cup half-and-half

         1/2     pound ground pork

         1 1/2     pounds ground chuck

         1     teaspoon Tabasco

         1     tablespoon Worcestershire

         1     teaspoon ground mustard

         1/4     teaspoon cayenne pepper

         1     tablespoon fresh thyme

         1 1/2     teaspoons salt or to taste

         3/4     teaspoon black pepper or to taste

         1    cup panko bread crumbs

         12     slices bacon

    HEAT oven to 350°.

    MELT butter in skillet over medium-high heat and sauté onions until golden. Add celery, garlic and bell pepper and sauté until tender. Spread vegetables out on a cookie sheet to cool and allow some moisture to evaporate.

    COMBINE eggs and half-and-half in a large bowl. Mix until combined. Add sautéed vegetables, pork, beef, Tabasco, Worcestershire, mustard, cayenne pepper, thyme, salt and black pepper. Mix well. Lightly work bread crumbs into meat mixture by hand and set aside.

    LINE a loaf pan with 12 bacon strips, six on each side, so that the bacon will wrap the meat loaf. Place a strip at the joint where the bottom meets the side of the pan and bring the strip up the side of the pan and allow the excess to fold over the outside of the pan. Continue in this manner, alternating from side to side. When bacon is all laid out, place meat mixture in pan. Fold the bacon strips over the top of the loaf, completely wrapping loaf with bacon.

    PLACE meatloaf in oven and bake until thermometer inserted in the center reads 160°.

    American Meatloaf Deluxe

    If you don't want to eat veal, you can replace it with pork or half pork, half beef. From "From the Ground Up: Hundreds of Amazing Recipes From Around the World for Ground Meats, including Beef, Chicken, Pork Seafood and More," by James Villas (Wiley, 2011). Makes 10 to 12 servings.

         5     tablespoons butter, divided (3 and 2)

         1/2     pound large mushrooms, stems finely chopped and caps reserved

         1     large onion, diced

         1/2     medium green pepper, seeded and diced

         2     celery ribs, diced

         3     garlic cloves, minced

         1/2     teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

         1/2     teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled

         1     pound ground beef round or rump

         1     pound ground pork

         1     pound ground veal

         1/2     pound bulk pork sausage

         1     tablespoon Dijon mustard

         1/2  cup ketchup

         3     tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

         1/2     teaspoon Tabasco sauce

         Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

         3     large eggs, beaten

         1    cup fresh bread crumbs, soaked in 1/2 cup heavy cream

         3     slices bacon

         Pimento-stuffed green olives, cut in half

    MELT 3 tablespoons butter in medium skillet over moderate heat. Add mushroom stems, stir for about 5 minutes until most of their liquid has evaporated. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, thyme and rosemary; reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft and the liquid has evaporated.

    HEAT oven to 350°.

    PLACE ground beef, pork, veal and sausage in a large bowl. Add cooked vegetables and mix lightly. Add mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt, pepper, eggs and bread crumbs soaked in heavy cream.

    MIX lightly with hands until blended. Shape the mixture into a firm oval loaf and place in a shallow baking dish or gratin dish. Drape the bacon over top, and bake 1 hour in the upper third of the oven. Remove bacon strips and continue baking 15 to 20 minutes longer, depending upon how thick the loaf is and how crusty you want the exterior.

    MELT remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small skillet over moderate heat before meatloaf is removed from the oven. Add the reserved mushroom caps and stir until nicely glazed, about 2 minutes. Transfer the meatloaf to a large, heated platter, arrange olives on top and garnish the edges with mushroom caps.

    Savor Café's Meatloaf with Sriracha Barbecue Sauce

    Savor Café chef and co-owner Lori Pearson says she makes the meatloaf a day ahead and then heats slices on a gas grill before serving. Makes 2 loaves (3 pounds each), 6 to 8 servings each.

         2     tablespoons olive oil or bacon fat

         1     green bell pepper, diced

         1/2  red bell pepper, diced

         1/2     large yellow onion, diced

         6    eggs

         1/4  cup spicy Dijon mustard

         2     tablespoons salt

         2     tablespoons black pepper

         2    cups panko bread crumbs

         5     pounds ground sirloin

         Sriracha Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows)

    HEAT oven to 350°.

    HEAT olive oil or bacon fat in a large skillet over moderate heat. Sauté peppers and onion until tender. Set aside. Let cool.

    WHISK together eggs, mustard, salt and pepper in large bowl. Once vegetables are cool, add to eggs. Add bread crumbs. Let sit 10 minutes.

    ADD ground beef and lightly knead with hands until thoroughly mixed. Mold meatloaves into rounded ovals in baking dishes. Bake for 50 minutes, rotating dishes in oven after 25 minutes. As meatloaves bake, make Sriracha Barbecue Sauce (recipe below.)

    SLICE meatloaf and serve immediately. Or make meatloaf a day ahead, slice and grill to reheat.

    Sriracha Barbecue Sauce

         1/2     onion, cut into chunks

         1/2  red pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

         1/2     green pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

         1    cup spicy barbecue sauce

         1/4  cup ketchup

         2     tablespoons Sriracha sauce

    PLACE onion and peppers in a food processor and chop until finely diced. Add barbecue sauce, ketchup and Sriracha sauce and whip together until combined.


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