Food & Drink

How to make meatloaf right – it’s about fat and starch

Before slicing, let the baked meatloaf rest in its fat and juices for 10 minutes.
Before slicing, let the baked meatloaf rest in its fat and juices for 10 minutes. Michael Tercha/Chicago Tribune/TNS

If you can’t make a good meatloaf, I question your commitment to American values.

The method is the shortest I’ve ever written:

1. Combine all your ingredients.

2. Bake until done.

Of course, I’m way too chatty to leave it at that, so let’s start with the ingredients.

First, there’s meat. You can make meatloaf out of just about anything that’s not extinct. Beef, veal, lamb, pork, turkey, mastodon. Wait a minute …

Regardless of the meat or combination of meats, you want your meatloaf to have two qualities: You want it to be moist, and you want it to be flavorful. Fortunately, both are easy to achieve.

To ensure a moist meatloaf, you need fatty meat and an added starch. Lean meats, like ground turkey or 90 percent ground beef, can seem dry. Thus, I recommend either a fattier beef (like ground chuck) or adding some ground pork or minced bacon.

You'll also need a starch, like breadcrumbs, uncooked oatmeal or what the French call a panade, a mix of torn-up bread and milk. You add starch because the more you cook meat, the more juice is squeezed out of it as the protein nets tighten. If your meatloaf were made out of meat alone, that juice would flow out of the meatloaf into the bottom of the pan, leaving it as dry as a Bob Newhart routine. The starch actually absorbs the juices, keeping your meatloaf moist.

If you’re using dried breadcrumbs or oatmeal, use about a third of a cup per pound of meat with an equal to slightly less amount of milk. If you’re using torn bread slices, use about a cup, soaked in a third of a cup of milk, per pound of meat.

Now for the other ingredients.

You'll definitely need egg, roughly 1 per pound of meat. The egg helps hold the whole thing together, making it easier to slice without crumbling like the hopes of a tone-deaf “American Idol” contestant.

Next, your flavoring ingredients. Aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot, green pepper or garlic are lovely. Different chefs advocate for adding the ingredients raw or briefly sauteed. Raw is easier, although a brief sweating in oil or butter will bring added moisture to your meatloaf.

Other liquid ingredients like Worcestershire or soy sauce, ketchup or barbecue sauce, add flavor along with moisture. The first two, being more concentrated, would be added in smaller amounts – a tablespoon per pound of meat – than the latter two, which could be added at maybe 1/2 cup per pound.

Other ingredients include herbs, spices, various cheeses, rice, mashed potatoes – you name it. Remember, it’s your meatloaf.

No matter how you flavor your meatloaf, be sure to add enough salt. Salt brings out all those flavors. Without it, your meatloaf will be as sad and tasteless as a clown funeral. Add about a teaspoon for every pound of meatloaf, a teaspoon and a half if you’re using kosher.

Finally, mix all your ingredients in a bowl just long enough to bring it together into a homogenous mass.

Before baking, cook a tablespoon of the mixture in a little fat in a hot skillet. If you need to adjust any seasonings, do it now and fry another spoonful. When it tastes good to you, mold the mixture on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet, or press it into a loaf pan (9-by-5-inch), and bake in a 400-degree oven until it’s 165 degrees in the center, about an hour. Let it rest in its fat for about 10 minutes or so to allow any liquid to soak back. That'll give you the juiciest, most flavorful meatloaf this side of Meatloavia.

Here are a few ideas for improving your basic meatloaf:

Greek style: Half and half lamb and beef mixed with egg, breadcrumbs, 2 teaspoons dried oregano and 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese.

Thai style: Half and half pork and turkey or chicken, egg, breadcrumbs, 1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon each minced garlic and ginger, 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, optional tablespoon bottled Thai curry paste.

Southwestern style: Beef or half and half beef and pork, egg, crushed tortillas (in place of breadcrumbs), 1 1/2 cups fresh or canned corn, cumin, chile powder, cilantro, optional minced jalapeno.

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