Big Little Recipes

For Better Meatloaf, Use This Big Little Trick

You're five ingredients from dinner tonight.

March  5, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re making your new favorite meatloaf.


Meatloaf has been an American favorite since the late 1800s. So it's no surprise that, over a century later, the number of meatloaf recipes is seemingly endless (or, over 30 million according to Google). From the meat to the mix-ins, anything is fair game.

Take this favorite Food52 recipe: Meatloaf, Plain and Simple by longtime Food52er Sdebrango. When it won our Your Best Dinner That Makes a Good Lunch recipe contest, Food52 editors described it as a “no-frills meatloaf” with “everything you love with none of the distractions.” Yet it still has 14 ingredients, including two meats (beef, pork) and various vegetables (onion, carrot, celery).

For what it’s worth, compared to a lot of meatloaf recipes, Sdebrango’s is relatively simple. This one uses three meats and comes with its own homemade blackberry barbecue sauce. This one throws in bacon and Parmesan for good measure. And this one is so umami-focused, its glaze alone has six ingredients.

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Top Comment:
“After having many different types of meatloaf over the years - and since I'm not a fan of glazes or the hamburger taste I get with ketchup - I still prefer the soup because it makes a nice light "gravy" that is even good on mashed potatoes. Otherwise, my recipe is simple like the one here: beef, sauteed onions, egg, sopping wet slice of bread with a little extra water, soup, S&P. I've used all kinds of bread: slices, dinner rolls, seedless deli rolls, leftover hot dog or hamburger buns, etc. as long as it's plain. I always mix by hand so the bread is smashed well and distributed throughout the meat. Then free form in a roasting pan. For me, this has a flavor all it's own; it doesn't taste like hamburger, chili, tacos, or any other ground beef recipe. Except, ha ha, my stuffed peppers or stuffed cabbage. :D”
— Jaye B.
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So, just how simple can classic meatloaf be? We know we need to add mix-ins, otherwise we’d just have a giant hamburger. But which ingredients are necessary? And which ones can we do without?

Get all your ducks in a row. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Meat

It’s called meatloaf for a reason. (Though, I have always wanted to try this lentil loaf!) The default pick is beef—in American cookbook classics from The Joy of Cooking to The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Pork and veal sometimes make an appearance, as do wildcards like bacon and pancetta. But, if all-beef was good enough for the recipes that helped make meatloaf such a favorite in the first place, it’s good enough for me. If you can, get freshly ground beef from a butcher; it’s coarser and looser, which means a less-dense loaf. And I like to use 15 to 20 percent fat, which means a very-flavorful, never-dry loaf.

Bread

In The Food Lab, J. Kenji Lopéz-Alt describes bread crumbs as “perhaps the most important ingredient of all when it comes to improving the texture of a meatloaf.” Not only do they help retain moisture, but they increase tenderness, too. Some cooks use other starchy ingredients, like rolled oats or even puffed rice cereal, but we’re going to use English muffins. Unusual, yes, but stick with me: In a meaty situation like this, I prefer blitzing up my own fresh bread crumbs versus using dried. But the catch with fresh bread? Its crust is often too hard to blitz, so recipes will tell you to ditch it. But the catch with ditching the crust? It’s full of flavor. Because English muffins are individually shaped, they have an even higher ratio of crust, and, because they’re pre-packaged, the crusts are soft and blitz-able. They’re also reliably flavorful, with sourdough-esque vibes. And I always have them in my freezer.

Eggs

Sure, egg yolks add some rich flavor to a meatloaf, but the real reason we need eggs is for structure—to help bind the meatloaf together. This is especially important since we’re making a free-form meatloaf, or one that you shape by hand, versus using a loaf pan. The shape won’t be as perfectly rectangular, but the crust will be way better (read: more deeply browned) since there’s more exposed surface area. Thanks to the eggs, our free-form loaf will stay together in the oven and yield neat slices at the table.

Onions

While bread and eggs are structural—they bind the meatloaf—aromatics are all about flavor. Which is probably why so many recipes have so much fun with them. Onion, celery, carrot, mushrooms, fresh herbs, dried herbs, and on, and on. This recipe stops at onion. Admittedly, I didn’t think this would be enough. But my standard approach for Big Little Recipes is to start as simple as possible, then add more as necessary. So, I sautéed yellow onion—like, a lot of yellow onion—until it was very tender (the last thing you want in a meatloaf is crunchy bits) and had complex, caramelized flavors. And, to my own surprise, the result was chef kissing fingers. It reminds me of French onion soup, where you need little more than onions and beef broth to make something special.

Ketchup

Every meatloaf needs a glaze. Many of them are ketchup-based, with perky additions like dried spices, vinegar, and sugar. The ironic part is that ketchup already has dried spices, vinegar, and sugar. Which is why a lot of cooks (including Ina Garten) just use ketchup. We’ll do the same. Think of it like ketchup on a burger—it’s simple, and it works. I also like mixing some ketchup into the meatloaf itself, to add a little sweetness and acidity to balance all the savoriness. A lot of recipes call for tomato paste to do the same, but why bother when we’re already using another flavorful tomatey ingredient?

Water!

The secret ingredient in the legendary restaurant Rao’s meatballs is water. Yep, water. As in, two cups of water mixed into two pounds of meat. This nifty trick yields a noticeably moister, lighter meatball—and, if a meatloaf is just an oversized meatball, why can’t the same apply? I tried the Rao’s ratio with one meatloaf and let’s just say it didn’t go great. Decreasing the water fixed all this. Then, adding the water at a different step took an otherwise humble meatloaf over the top. Remember those caramelized onions? As soon as they’re golden brown, we’re going to pour the water all over them. Not only does this cool them down faster, but it de-glazes all those good bits stuck to the bottom of the pan and creates an ultra-flavorful onion broth. Plus, it’s a headstart for cleaning your sauté pan. That’s pretty cool, too.

If you’re like me, you already have most of these ingredients in your kitchen. And while the whole thing comes together quick enough for a weeknight, I think it's the perfect Sunday supper—not in the least because any leftovers make the very best sandwiches to bring to work throughout the week.

What’s your go-to meatloaf like? Tell us in the comments!

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Emma is a writer and recipe developer at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing stories about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now, she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter.

87 Comments

Franchelle D. May 21, 2019
I LOVE meatloaf! I hide all the veggies inside: spinach, carrots, onions, poblano peppers, parsley, lots of herbs in a food processor and sautéed in combo of bacon fat and olive oil. I use ground beef, pork and lamb, crumbled fried bacon, Italian bread crumbs mixed with cream, eggs, salt, pepper. Lots of ingredients, but well worth it. Glaze with Pick-a-Pepper (spicy, tamarind infused, smoky, slightly sweet) sauce - that’s my real secret ingredient,
 
James S. May 13, 2019
I used a mix of pork and beef . I add onion Italian bread crumbs ,egg and milk and parsley. Works for me.
 
annie A. March 23, 2019
In the description of the meatloaf you say 2 cups of water to 2 lbs of meat. And yet the recipe calls for only 3/4 C of water to the 2 lbs of meat. Which is it?
 
Valerie March 23, 2019
If you read the paragraph under Water! he says the 2C. didn't work with the meatloaf (like they used in the meatballs) so he decreased the amount of water. That's why the recipe cut the amount of water.
 
Jim G. March 18, 2019
I tried the meatloaf and it was unlike any that I grew up having. It was moist and very tender. Only 1 problem too much salt. Also, I did not chop the onions I used a food processor and added 2 stalks of celery and 1 carrot. I also chopped the English muffins in the food processor and then added the eggs to the ground muffins. This made it easier to incorporate into the meat mixture All in all a good recipe. Thanks
 
Jaye B. March 17, 2019
My Mom always used Campbell's tomato soup for the sauce component, adding 1/3 to 1/2 can to the meat mixture depending on the amount of meat, the rest over the top near the end of cooking (usually diluted). After having many different types of meatloaf over the years - and since I'm not a fan of glazes or the hamburger taste I get with ketchup - I still prefer the soup because it makes a nice light "gravy" that is even good on mashed potatoes. Otherwise, my recipe is simple like the one here: beef, sauteed onions, egg, sopping wet slice of bread with a little extra water, soup, S&P. I've used all kinds of bread: slices, dinner rolls, seedless deli rolls, leftover hot dog or hamburger buns, etc. as long as it's plain. I always mix by hand so the bread is smashed well and distributed throughout the meat. Then free form in a roasting pan. For me, this has a flavor all it's own; it doesn't taste like hamburger, chili, tacos, or any other ground beef recipe. Except, ha ha, my stuffed peppers or stuffed cabbage. :D
 
Rosalind P. March 17, 2019
I have been making meat loaf for decades, mostly good to very good (with an occasional "what did you do, Mom?!!!). But there's one thing I've been trying to do, unsuccessfully, and it has to do with texture. I love the firm, almost-but-not-quite pate texture you get in some cafeteria or restaurant meat loaf. Dense, tight, moist, slices evenly, not in the least bit crumbly. I cannot use pork, or milk. Would gelatin help? More intense procesing (like Chinese fishballs)? Any advice? It's never too late!
 
HalfPint March 19, 2019
@Rosalind, if you want a more dense and almost bouncy (sorry, couldn't find a better descriptor) like Chinese fishballs, you have to knead the meat mixture, almost like bread dough. It's counter-intuitive since we are always told not manhandle the mixture or over-work it, but if you want it dense and tight, it's what you have to do. That is how my Vietnamese mother use to make fishballs and the pork roll (cha lua) . She worked the finely ground (in her little Moulinex food processor) fish or pork really well and then tested the bouncy-ness by cooking a small amount in a fry pan. If it was the 'right' consistency, she would stop kneading and roll out the balls. If it wasn't there yet, she kept working the paste until she got the texture and consistency that she wanted.
 
Russ March 24, 2019
Hmm, looks like someone else has similar advice, lol, but yes I would second the idea of processing the mix with a food processor so that there's a more fine and even texture (not sure I'd use English muffins for this).
Instead, I'd start with leaner meat - too much fat may prevent tighter texture since as it melts/shrinks during cooking it might create separation (no proof, just a thought that occurred to me).
Then use panko crumbs coupled with the egg for binder definitely add gelatin for moisture retention, then process it in steps, stopping to put small samples in the microwave to check if the texture is where you want it. I may have to try this myself to see if my advice is worth a hoot, lol.
 
Russ March 24, 2019
Btw, with lean to extra lean ground beef, I'd suggest adding a tablespoon or two of EVOO to give it some healthy fat and offset the dry texture that you get from removing the less healthy animal fat.

And one more tip, if you're into sprouted grains (like wheat or barley berries), they give a nice chewy texture, thou for the denser, pate style you might want to try running them through your food processor until finely chopped (might be able to reduce the amount of bread/crumbs, just a thought ;?)
 
Sue J. March 17, 2019
I find these comments very interesting. I grew up in Iowa. I only mention this because maybe this is a midwestern thing. But my Mom always used cracker crumbs and milk for meatloaf. (and hamballs Yum!) No one has said they use cracker crumbs in all of these comments. This is the way I have always made meatloaf, too. Where are all of the cracker crumb people? Hmmm. Maybe I'm a lone wolf. Or an oddball. I'm kind of leaning toward oddball.
 
Jaye B. March 18, 2019
I grew up in the midwest, too, and I heard about using cracker crumbs with milk or water many times though I never tried it. I think we tend to do what our Moms did for the old standby recipes. I always use cracker crumbs when frying fish because Mom did. Saltines make a much lighter breading though it's been a long time since I've fried fish. :)
 
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Emma L. March 18, 2019
Love this tip! What kind of crackers do you use?
 
Sue J. March 19, 2019
We have always used good old saltines. Always have them handy in the pantry.
 
Sue J. March 19, 2019
Oh. And we, too, use cracker crumbs for breading things like pork tenderloins for sandwiches. That's definitely a midwestern thing.
 
Jaye B. March 19, 2019
Sue - Yep, I've used them for lots of things. They're really good for breaded pork chops which I fry until golden and then finish in the oven. I've always crushed the crackers in a plastic bag so they don't turn to powder in a processor. I accidentally did that once and it wasn't the same. Do you use a fine grind for your meatloaf crackers?
 
Sue J. March 19, 2019
I do it the old fashioned way with a rolling pin on a piece of waxed paper. It ends up kind of medium to fine.
 
Jaye B. March 19, 2019
I use a rolling pin on the plastic bag. :) I'm going to try crackers next time I make meatloaf. Thanks for reminding me about this "old time," not oddball, ingredient.
 
Charlotte March 17, 2019
One pound 10% grass fed ground beef~one pound 10% ground turkey~2 beaten eggs~1/4 c. Cream~2 slices of crustless white bread ( sourdough)~1 packet of Liptons onion soup mix~ 1 tsp. smoked paprika~lots of fresh black pepper~1 T. Worcestershire sauce~ 1 small can of chipotle chili’s in adobo sauce~~in big mixing bowl tear the bread into whipped eggs,cream and all other ingredients, creating a “panade” French for wet bread paste used to thicken things like meatloaf. With wet hands fold meats into panade until smooth and incorporated, place on sheetpan, forming with your hands an oblong loaf, pop into 375’ oven 30 mins. Remove and add a slathering of ketchup mixed with a T. of Adobo sauce (leftover from a can of Chipotle chilis... if you like it spicy, chop up a few of those chipotles and add to meatloaf mix. After slathering with chipotle ketchup mixture pop back in oven 20 mins. Add handful fried and fried French’s onion rings on top (gilding the lily if you will). Back in oven 5 mins. just to crisp the dried onions. YOU can test internal [email protected]’ rest 10 mins. slice thick slabs of heaven. Serve with extra sauced so inclined. Served always with chivey mashed potatoes, chopped steamed broccoli served on a blue plate! Special! Do not skip the onion rings, the crowning glory... trust is me on this one!
 
Marsha S. March 16, 2019
oops! and onion powder...I left that out!!!!!
 
Marsha S. March 16, 2019
I use ground chuck..add in minced sauted onions, minced parsley, one egg, about 2-3 tablespoons milk, seasoned bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons marinara sauce, a few shakes of garlic powder and one teas. worchestershire sauce, salt and pepper. After baking on 350 degrees for 40 minutes, I add my homemade marinara sauce on top and bake another 20 minutes...my husband won't allow me to make it any other way!..Although I like the idea of adding in some sour cream.I, tooput in 2 pieces of white bread on the bottom of the loaf pan to absorb all the fat that pours out of the meatloaf!!!!!
 
Erica L. March 16, 2019
Wow! I never thought of putting bread in the bottom of the pan to absorb the fat! That is such a great idea! Why didn’t I think of that?? I make great meatloaf (I’m actually making it for my sons “birthday dinner”. (My kids get to chose what special recipe they want me to cook for their BD dinner) I’m trying the bread thing. Thank you so much!
 
Marsha S. March 17, 2019
Way to go..such a simple fix to eliminate an oily meatloaf....
Good luck and enjoy!
 
Patty K. March 16, 2019
combo of pork, hamburger & veal, bread, lawery's seasoned salt, Worchestershire sauce, chili sauce, salt, pepper, dried onions, egg, milk , water in pan and I have added a big tablespoon of horseradish for a little kick to the meatloaf!
 
DEBBIE March 16, 2019
I loved it when I could get the meatloaf mix of pork, beef and veal but they don’t sell it any more. I have to make my own mix.
 
Jean H. March 15, 2019
Good basic meatloaf. My mother always used milk soaked bread. As do I. She also used a pinch or 2 of ground sage and a couple tsps. Worchestershire sauce. I still make just as she did. She would sometimes put her homemade chili sauce on top. I love it that way. I don't care for ketchup but family members put ketchup on theirs.
 
Elizabeth H. March 15, 2019
improved taste and texture if you use 1 lb beef, 1/2 lb pork and 1/2 lb veal
 
Christine March 15, 2019
a extra great trick I leaned from sara Moulton. cook the loaf on top of white bread slices. it absorbs the extra fat
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 18, 2019
Love that! And I bet the fatty bread tastes amazing, too...
 
Marc H. March 15, 2019
Golden raisins, pine nuts or walnuts, lots of chopped parsley and thyme. I like 3 meat combo, beef, pork, veal (2:1:1 ratio). Ketchup/soy glaze.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 18, 2019
Yum! I love raisins in everything—gotta try this.
 
Kuki March 15, 2019
Aunt Edna’s Meatloaf has been my mainstay for years....1 egg, mix with 1 cup sour cream, 1 pckg onion soup mix, 1/2 cup Pano, whisk all together, add 1 1/2 lb. 80/20 ground beef. Mix together, form Loar, “ice” with chili sauce and lay 2 slices bacon cut in half (4 pcs.) diagonally across [email protected]° 45min to 1 hour. Slice and serve. You can spice it up more if you want but this is a great basic recipe!
 
Kuki March 15, 2019
Loar should be loaf!
 
Author Comment
Emma L. March 18, 2019
Yes please to sour cream and onion soup mix!
 
Janet March 15, 2019
I use a can of Rotel and Panko instead of water and bread crumbs. The meatloaf is spicy and moist.
 
DEBBIE March 15, 2019
My meatloaf starts with fresh ground beef and pork (equal amounts), finely chopped onions and some finely chopped bell pepper. I use bread crumbs -finely ground, eggs and a big splash of milk. I add oregano, thyme, garlic, S&P. My topping is a thick blend of ketchup and brown sugar (sorry Melody D - gotta have it). This makes the best sandwiches the next day.
 
Melody D. March 14, 2019
I hope I am not being too offensive but I really don't like ketchup based glazes on meatloaf. Please stop doing it. My mother always made an creole sauce and I think I was spoiled. She also made meatloaf moist by adding a fair bit of chicken or beef broth. Very yummy and so moist.
 
Leslye D. March 15, 2019
Your first instinct was correct. If you don’t like ketchup then don’t use it. The rest of us have no obligation to follow your personal taste.
 
Amanda B. March 15, 2019
Melody, I don't use a ketchup based glaze. In fact, I don't glaze at all! My family much prefers a slightly crunchy, crusty exterior to our meatloaf. My loaf is plenty moist, just has a nice crust to it.
 
Kevin K. March 15, 2019
Ditto. Glazed meatloaf is gross.
 
Charlotte March 17, 2019
Ya!
 
Frank March 13, 2019
We like to add grated carrot or shredded spinach - hide the veggies!