Roughly once a year — right about now, as it so happens — I get a sudden and very urgent hankering for meatloaf. One day, it's stuffed squash and warm grain salads and beef stews, and the next day, all I can think about is meatloaf. Tender, savory bites of meatloaf glazed with (yes, of all things) ketchup. If you have been scarred by dry or tasteless meatloaf in a past life, it's time to revisit this classic. Here's how to make the most tender, most tasty meatloaf you can imagine.
The Basic Meatloaf Formula
All recipes for meatloaf start with the same basic formula: 2 pounds of ground meat and a "panade" made of bread or crackers soaked in milk. Along with a few eggs, this panade helps to hold the ground meat together and adds some essential moisture to the mix. Don't worry — your meatloaf won't taste like bread, but you'll definitely miss it if it's not there!
Any ground meat can be used to make meatloaf: beef, pork, veal, or lamb. You can use just one kind of meat, or you can mix a few different kinds together to give your meatloaf different flavors and textures. Personally, I love a mix of about 70% beef (for its flavor) and 30% pork (for its fatty richness). You definitely want a bit of fat in your mix so the meatloaf doesn't end up dry and crumbly. I usually look for a beef that's only 80% to 85% lean.
A mirepoix made of small-diced onions, carrots, and celery is classic here, but you can swap some or all of those veggies for any of your favorites: mushrooms, more carrots, peas, even broccoli. Whatever vegetables you use, be sure to cook them before they go into the meatloaf so they're tender and toothsome rather than crunchy.
Call me old-fashioned, but I love a swath of good ol' ketchup on my meatloaf. The ketchup concentrates during cooking, creating a creamy, ultra-tomato-y glaze that pairs perfectly with the deep savory nature of the meatloaf. If you're not a ketchup fan, you can use your favorite BBQ sauce or any other sauce you find appealing. You can also skip the glaze altogether and drape the meatloaf with strips of bacon before cooking — as we know, bacon makes everything better and that certainly holds true here.
A Final Note
The last piece of the puzzle to making a fantastic meatloaf is two-fold: cooking time and letting it rest. A 2-pound meatloaf will reliably cook in about an hour — try not to overcook or the meat will start getting tough and crumbly. The best way to know when a meatloaf is done is by checking its internal temperature; as soon as it hits 155°F, you can pull it from the oven. Letting it rest for a few minutes before you slice and serve also gives the juices inside the meatloaf time to redistribute and settle, just like when you're cooking a steak or a roast. If you slice the loaf too quickly, the tasty juices pool out and leave the meatloaf dry.
Let the loaf cool for at least 15 minutes before serving.
How To Make Meatloaf
Makes approximately 10 thick slices
What You Need
1 cup torn-up bread pieces, or 1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup whole or 2% milk
1 small onion, diced small
1 small carrot, peeled and diced small
1 stalk celery, diced small
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 pounds ground meat — beef, pork, veal, lamb or a mix
2 large eggs, beaten
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1/2 cup ketchup, bbq sauce, or other sauce to coat (optional)
1/2 pound bacon (optional)
Baking sheet, roasting pan, casserole dish, or loaf pan
Measuring cups and spoons
Heat the oven to 350°F: Set the oven to pre-heat and place a rack in the bottom third of the oven. Line a baking sheet or other baking dish with aluminum foil.
Soak the bread pieces in the milk: Combine the bread pieces and the milk in a small bowl. Let stand until the bread has broken down into a thick porridge, occasionally stirring and mushing the bread against the sides of the bowl. You can leave the crusts on the bread or trim them off before soaking; if you leave them on, remove any large pieces that haven't broken down after soaking.
Cook the veggies: Warm a few teaspoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the diced onions, carrots, and celery. Cook until the onions are translucent and the carrots have softened, 6 to 8 minutes. If the vegetables begin to brown, turn down the heat. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the thyme and tomato paste, and stir until coated. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
Make the meatloaf mix: In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground meat, beaten eggs, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper, soaked bread and milk, and the cooked vegetables. Use your hands to work the ingredients together until just combined.
Shape the loaf: Transfer the meatloaf mixture to your foil-lined baking sheet or baking dish. Shape it into a loaf roughly 9 inches by 5 inches. (If using a loaf pan, just pat the meatloaf mixture into the pan.)
Coat the loaf with ketchup or bacon (optional): Spread 1/4 cup of the ketchup mixture over the meatloaf (reserve the other 1/4 cup for later). Alternatively, drape the loaf with bacon slices.
Bake for 45 minutes: Bake the meatloaf for 45 minutes, then spread with the remaining 1/4 cup of ketchup, if using.
Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes: Bake the loaf for another 10 to 15 minutes (about 1 hour total), until the middle of the loaf registers at least 155°F on an instant-read thermometer.
Cool 15 minutes before serving: Let the loaf cool for at least 15 minutes before serving. If you baked your meatloaf in a loaf pan, carefully drain off the liquid fat before transferring the meatloaf to a cutting board. Cut into thick slices and serve. Leftovers will keep refrigerated for up to a week, or can be wrapped and frozen for up to 3 months.
Meatballs: This same recipe can be used to make meatballs instead of a loaf (though I usually leave out the carrots).
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(Image credits: Emma Christensen)