Eds' note: The following is excerpted (with permission) from Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer's wildly entertaining new book, A Meatloaf in Every Oven: Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish and Dozens of Recipes, from Mom's to Mario Batali's. The italics below are notes from us to further explain some info—we'll pop in only when absolutely necessary.
Meatloaf is metaphor: It’s life made loaf. You take what’s precious (in this case, the meat) and stretch it as far as it’ll go. And you learn that there are infinite ways to do this, an embarrassment of options. You need only flex your imagination. You need only raid the cupboard. Do you bring in the exotic? Incorporate some fire? Meatloaf is a yardstick for your daring, a referendum on your imagination, a judge of your loyalty to precedent, an arbiter of your regard for the classics.
Just don’t mess with the fundamental ratios of meat to its binders and moisteners (a good rule of thumb: 1 1/2 pounds meat to 1 cup of bread crumb or your binder of choice). Don’t take extravagant liberties with the cooking times (350°F for 40 to 50 minutes is a good starting point).
While we contend that all sorts of ground meats make for great meatloaf, we caution you not to go too lean, because you’ll end up with a dry meatloaf. Meatloaf is not a diet food, so don’t try to bully it into being one. Meet and eat it on its own terms.
For a turkey or chicken meatloaf, we recommend dark meat over white. When buying ground beef, don’t look for lean sirloin; fatty chuck will serve you better. One of the reasons that lamb works so well in meatloaves—and that we have several recipes calling for ground lamb— is because of its fat content. It produces a luscious loaf. (For classic meatloaf, go for an equal quantity of beef, pork, and veal.)
That said, we have recipes for meatless loaves—few are entirely vegetarian (made of lentils, beans, zucchini, farro, kasha, and more), while a few use fish.
What can’t you loaf is really the question.
If you’ve used only traditional bread crumbs in your meatloaf, you haven’t scratched the surface of starchy binders and of ways to incorporate bread. Many of our recipes specify bread soaked in milk or half-and-half, because that can add extra moisture to a loaf that either needs or would benefit from it. When we do use dried bread crumbs, we sometimes suggest panko, or Japanese bread crumbs, as they work beautifully in meatloaf, having a fluffier effect.
But the function of bread crumbs can also be achieved with oatmeal, with farro, with crushed saltines, with cooked rice, even with cornflakes: We’ve seen and tried recipes with all of these possibilities and more. One of the recipes that made the book’s final cut ditches bread crumbs in favor of tortilla chips; another assigns the role to potato chips.
More: Watch the authors chat their way through a tuna meatloaf on Facebook Live.
When in doubt, let your favorite meatball recipe. As Jennifer said on Facebook Live “every meatball is a meatloaf that has not yet grown up. Up the binders to get it to stick together, but you can almost always upsize a meatball recipe to meatloaf.”
Cheese is your ally. If you’re especially concerned about a moist meatloaf, choosing and making one that calls for a significant quantity of cheese, in particular a creamy cheese or one that melts quickly and thoroughly, is a smart strategy. In these pages you will find a range of cheeses that fit that bill: Cheddar, blue, feta. You will find pecorino, too, though that’s less a moistener than it is a conveyor of sharp, salty punch. It’s Parmesan’s bossier sibling. Don’t be afraid of it.
We tend to lean away from raw onions—and most other raw vegetables—and generally instruct you to sauté them in either olive oil or butter, depending on the recipe. Doing this takes the over-aggressive bite out of onions and can prevent chopped vegetables from turning your meatloaf gritty. It’s a textural upgrade.
Use your food processor discerningly. It’s always tempting to reduce work and save time by putting onions, carrots, celery and such in the food processor instead of chopping them by hand, but if you do that, make sure not to reduce those vegetables to a paste, as that’s not always the best form and consistency for them if they’re going into a loaf, which is supposed to have a certain variation, a certain unevenness and even dots of color. Pulse a bit, then check the vegetables, then pulse a bit more. Repeat that until they’re diced well but not to a fare-thee-well. Or do the work with a sharpened knife. Sometimes chopping feels like grueling work because you’re doing it with a bad knife whose edge has dulled.
Our caveat about food processors is related to another bit of advice: Don’t get so carried away with the mixing of your meatloaf that you over-work it, striving for some kind of immaculate blend. That’s not meatloaf’s nature. That’s not its calling. Its wrinkles and blemishes are essential to its homespun, earthbound charms, and a pasty uniformity in a meatloaf is like an excess of Botox and filler on a face. It elevates flawlessness over character and creates something suspicious, strange and less inviting than arresting.
Use your hands with abandon. There are meatloaf recipes that will tell you to mix the ground meat and everything else with a spoon, but you’d need some kind of magical spoon and some kind of magical strength for that approach to be nearly as efficient and effective as rolling up your sleeves and treating the mixture the way you would treat dough in the bread-making process. Just be sure to wash your hands well beforehand, and take the meat out of the refrigerator a good twenty to thirty minutes before you’re going to need (and knead) it, so it’s not so cold that the work is actually unpleasant. The meat will also loosen up and mix better if it’s at room temperature.
Have the skillet or pan in which you’re going to place the mixture nearby, because your hands will be sticky and clumpy, and you want to limit how much reaching and walking around you need to do before the loaf is shaped and you can wash them anew.
Is the meat mixture you’re about to mold too weepy? Bread crumbs are your emotional caulk. Too dry? Another egg is your calmative. Bland? That’s why the universe created hot sauce, and that’s why it created so many of them: Tabasco, Sriracha, salsa picante. They speak in different dialects. They make different meatloaves. And when all else fails, add bacon. This is true in life, and this is true in loaf.
We generally shun meatloaf pans. There are two reasons: It’s more difficult to slice meatloaf and cleanly remove those portions from a narrow pan in which the loaf is snugly ensconced, its sides wedged tight against the metal sides. Also, a meatloaf, as it cooks, often releases juices. If there’s some space around the meatloaf, as there is if you cook it in a cast-iron skillet or in a rectangular baking pan of at least 9 by 13 inches, those juices have a place to pool and you can spoon them back over the loaf as it cooks or over the slices before you serve them. And if you’re glazing the meatloaf, you can cover the top and brush the sides if it’s in a vessel that allows you access to the sides. A tight loaf pan doesn’t allow that access.
There are nonetheless situations in which we prefer and recommend a loaf pan—with certain vegetarian loaves, for example. Before cooking, they may not hold their shape well, and the loaf pan is a sort of mold that keeps the whole production together until it’s had enough time in the oven to stiffen. So keep it in mind for loaves that in uncooked form are a bit looser, and for loaves whose ultimate appeal has much to do with their appearance. No matter how artful your eyes and nimble your hands, a loaf you’ve sculpted is never going to be as evenly, tidily proportioned as a loaf that a pan has sculpted for you.
A final note on pans: Beware one that’s overly large, as the pooling juices are more likely to disperse, sizzle and evaporate during cooking.
If you’ve been turned off of meatloaf because you always find it dry, you haven’t been eating the right meatloaf or the meatloaf you’ve been eating has been cooked too long, which is the distressing tendency of many meatloaf makers. Because they can’t check—and go by—interior color as easily and reliably as when cooking, say, a chop, they err on the side of overcooking. They figure: It’s only meatloaf. Well, disrespect your meatloaf and it will disrespect you.
We err in the opposite direction, if we err at all, and would encourage you to aim for medium-rare in meatloaves made of beef or lamb and for medium in meatloaves made of pork, chicken or turkey. Use a meat thermometer, which plunges easily into the center of a meatloaf (here are temperature guidelines).
Meatloaf is as forgiving as a laid-back god. One egg or two? This matters less than you might think. A few dashes too much vinegar? The Earth will continue spinning, and your meatloaf will be just fine. You needn’t be as punctilious with your measuring cups and spoons as you are when making pastry. You can guesstimate. You can round. It’s all being absorbed into something greater, all going into the oven and will all work itself out.
Excerpted from A Meatloaf in Every Oven: Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish and Dozens of Recipes, from Mom's to Mario Batali's by Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer. Copyright © 2017 by Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Life & Style. All rights reserved.
Tell us: What goes into your meatloaf?