Few foods inspire fond nostalgia more than mom’s meatloaf. I grew up eating a version made with ground beef, onions, parsley and oatmeal baked with ketchup on top. Occasionally Mom buried a hard-cooked egg or two in the center of the mixture that made it look fancy once the loaf was sliced. Leftovers, if there were any, made for delicious sandwiches.
These days, we've all become more health-conscious, and some of the classic ingredients don't fit into our food plans. As my own family’s likes and dietary preferences changed over the years, I modified my mother’s basic recipe repeatedly. When one child gave up red meat, I substituted ground turkey and added a Thai chili glaze and finely chopped carrots and red bell peppers to boost the otherwise bland flavor. For my ovo-lacto vegetarian, I created a loaf with brown rice, mushrooms, pecans and Cheddar cheese.
Whatever the ingredients, each variation had the same soul-satisfying effect: a tasty dish that seemed to promote easy conversation. It’s almost a bonus that the meal has universal appeal and the fixings are inexpensive.
Of course, meatloaf can be dressed up with exotic additions like venison, duck or chicken livers with a splash of brandy (in which case you could rightly call it a pâté). Regardless of what name you give it, it’s quintessential comfort food that’s easy to make, it delivers a lot of flavor and makes for great sandwiches the next day.
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The Meat of the Matter
Classic meatloaf has been made for generations with ground beef (the best cut is chuck) or a mixture of beef, veal and pork. Short of having a butcher grind the meat to your personal specifications, the standard market blend of equal parts of the three meats is a good choice. Beef alone, while the most flavorful, makes a relatively dense loaf but also helps hold it together when sliced; veal adds tenderness (use too much and it may be mushy and bland), and pork adds a somewhat richer flavor.
Like almost everything in the meatloaf pantheon, this mixture is variable. Some people alter the basic ratio; others omit the veal or include diced ham or bacon, especially strips on top. For a Greek-inspired loaf, ground lamb is a logical choice.
If you find the taste of lamb too assertive, use part beef. Hunters (or their beneficiaries) lacking the time or inclination to make an elaborate pâté or terrine might include bits of minced venison or even boar in their mixture to boost the flavor while keeping the dish practical enough for daily fare.
Meatloaf Without Red Meat
Many non–red meat eaters who were once meatloaf aficionados turn to turkey, and for good reason. Turkey is an excellent substitute because it’s lower in cholesterol and fat than most red meat, and it’s extremely versatile.
Personally, I prefer lean ground turkey (to extra-lean) because it includes the more flavorful, moister thigh and leg meat with the breast. You can use extra-lean breast meat, but with less fat the loaf tends to be drier. All ground turkey includes meat, skin and fat processed into a ground form. The different names — lean or extra-lean — reflect the naturally occurring proportions of fat to meat in the parts of the bird that are used. (Because chicken is an even blander tasting bird, I never use it for meatloaf.)
Even if you’re using a plant-based protein, you want your loaf to be satisfying and flavorful. A good way to accomplish that is by mixing textures. Brown rice and pecans lend a toothsome chewiness to my veg loaf, while white and reconstituted porcinis enhance the mouthfeel and taste. “Mushrooms aren’t only flavorful, very healthy and loaded with antioxidants — they add that wonderful meaty texture we all crave,” says Claire Criscuolo, co-founder of Claire’s Corner Copia, a popular New Haven eatery and author of four books, including Welcome to Claire’s: 35 Years of Recipes and Reflections from the Landmark Vegetarian Restaurant.
Ovo-lacto vegetarians often use cheese and/or eggs as binders. For vegans (who abstain from eating all animal products), several substitutes are available in supermarkets and health food stores for the sharp Cheddar and eggs in the recipe that follows. One caveat: This route requires trial and error, as vegan products vary widely.
More Flavorful Meatloaves
Besides mushrooms, vegetables and herbs help boost the flavor in all meatloaves. You’ll want to sauté the crunchier veggies (like celery) first, to ensure they cook sufficiently. I brown the onions in my Thai turkey meatloaf to get a richer flavor, but the minced carrots and bell peppers are small enough to become tender while the loaf bakes, so I don’t bother sautéing them.
In general, the milder the meat, the more “doctoring” the mixture needs (unless you and your family like bland food). Turkey is a willing partner to a pantry full of global accents, from premixed ethnic spice packets and condiments to cheeses, diced dried fruits, olives and nuts.
A tip for blending the ingredients: Do so quickly and without overmixing. If using a food processor, pulse the mixture until just blended. Otherwise, your loaf will become heavy.
Binders and Liquids
The main difference between meatloaf and beef or turkey burgers is the binder, typically fresh breadcrumbs, crushed crackers or quick-cook oatmeal, which hold the ingredients together and lighten the texture. Because they can also impact the taste of the meatloaf, binders with neutral flavors are best unless you like the taste of rye, sesame or herbs used in some baked goods.
But you can’t use crackers or bread alone: They act like sponges and absorb the meat or poultry’s moisture and leave the loaf dry. Liquids will soften a binder and add flavor. Rather than the canned tomatoes or V8 juice my mom used, I add ingredients like uncooked tomato salsa to play up the Latin theme of my Mexican meatloaf. A combination of Thai sweet chili sauce plus smoky Lapsang souchong tea does the same for turkey meatloaf.
There are plenty of liquids that work, from barbecue sauce, pickled jalapeños and their juice, and Indian chutney and yogurt to a couple tablespoons of bourbon mixed with stock. Wine and beer don’t work especially well unless they are first boiled to remove the alcohol taste.
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Toppings and Sauces
Another way to add flavor is by spreading ketchup or a complimentary condiment over the mixture to form an attractive glaze as the loaf bakes. The best are relatively thick and have some sweetener in them to caramelize. Originally I used Heinz’s ketchup (and still prefer that brand) on my meatloaf. I still do, but now I pump it up with a little Worcestershire sauce or Frank’s Hot Sauce.
Some folks think meatloaf needs gravy. Not me. Since most of my concoctions are ethnically inspired, when I do add sauce, it’s generally for sandwiches the next day. Two of my favorites are salsa verde and a mixture of mayonnaise and chimichurri.
Meatloaves can be baked in individual or large loaf pans (or even molds) or patted into an oval shape and baked in a shallow dish. My brown rice loaf is baked in a ring mold and served with green beans in the center. But beware the “big stick.” As Claire Criscuolo cautions: “Meatloaf is tricky even when baked in a loaf pan, and a mold with ridges is even more difficult to prevent sticking. A nonstick pan is ideal. In the restaurant, we just pluck out any stuck pieces and mold it back on the meatloaf, and all is well.”
Thank goodness that homey old meatloaf is so forgiving.
My mom’s updated meatloaf recipe is imbued with the flavors of Mexico or the American Southwest: ground beef seasoned with salsa, jalapeño peppers, cilantro and cumin. It’s equally tempting as a hot entrée or sliced for sandwiches — especially when the bread is spread with a little chipotle-flavored mayonnaise.
Serves 6 to 8
1 1/2 pounds mixed ground beef chuck, veal and pork
1 cup uncooked quick-cook oatmeal
1 cup fresh tomato salsa
3/4 cup finely chopped onions
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped canned pickled jalapeños
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon ground cumin
2 large eggs, beaten
1/2 tablespoon salt or to taste
Ground black pepper
3 tablespoons ketchup mixed with 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce or Frank’s Hot Sauce
- Preheat the oven to 350º F. Lightly coat an 8x5x3-inch loaf pan with vegetable spray.
- In a large bowl, combine the meat, oatmeal, salsa, onions, cilantro, Worcestershire sauce, jalapeños, garlic, cumin, eggs, salt and pepper and mix just until well-blended. Do not overmix. Transfer the mixture to the loaf pan, patting gently to smooth the meat down.
- Spread on the ketchup and bake until the juices run clear and the loaf has pulled away from the edges of the pan, about 60 minutes. Remove, let stand for at least 10 minutes before slicing and serving. Or chill and use for sandwiches.
Thai Turkey Meatloaf
Smoky Lapsang souchong tea and Thai sweet chili sauce help make this turkey meatloaf very juicy. Leftovers make great sandwiches. (If you don’t like smoky tastes, omit the tea.) You can easily make this in a food processor. To keep the mixture light, just pulse the processor as you mix the ingredients.
Serves 4 to 6, with enough for leftovers
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/2 cup finely chopped onions
3 large cloves garlic
1 medium carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped
1⁄2 large red bell pepper, seeded and membranes removed, coarsely chopped
1⁄2 cup chopped cilantro
2 pounds lean ground turkey
1 tablespoon Lapsang souchong tea leaves, finely ground
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
2 large eggs, beaten
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
4 tablespoons Thai sweet chili sauce, available at Thai markets and some supermarkets
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350º F.
- Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté until wilted and lightly browned, about 5 to 6 minutes. Set aside.
- Pulse the garlic, carrot and bell pepper in a food processor until minced. Add the cilantro and pulse to blend. Put in the turkey, reserved onions, tea, eggs, breadcrumbs, 3 tablespoons of Thai chili sauce, salt and pepper to taste and pulse until just blended. Do not overmix. Transfer the mixture to a 9x5x3-inch loaf pan, patting lightly to smooth. Spread the remaining Thai chili sauce over the top.
- Bake for 45 minutes or until the juices run clear. Remove and let stand 5 to 10 minutes, then cut into slices and serve, or serve at room temperature.
Brown Rice-Cheddar “Meatloaf”
A vegetarian twist on meatloaf, this hearty and flavorful main course can be baked in a ring mold or traditional loaf pan. It’s so satisfying, it may convert — or at least tempt — die-hard carnivores. I often make this with the leftover cooked brown rice that’s delivered with take-out meals. Though delicious as is, I sometime serve this with a mixture of mayonnaise and chimichurri or salsa verde on the side.
3/4 cup uncooked brown rice
1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
Vegetable oil to grease a 6-cup ring mold or loaf pan, preferably nonstick, plus 1 tablespoon for cooking
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup chopped onions
6 ounces white mushrooms, trimmed, wiped and finely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
8 ounces sharp white Cheddar cheese, shredded
3/4 cup chopped pecans
3 large eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
- Bring 2 cups of salted water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the rice, cover and reduce the heat to low. Cook until tender, about 30-45 minutes depending on the brand. Drain any excess water and set aside.
- Meanwhile, cover the porcini mushrooms with hot water and soak until softened, about 20 minutes. Drain and discard any gritty or tough parts and finely chop. Set aside. Reserve the liquid for another purpose, if desired.
- Preheat the oven to 350º F. Grease a 4-cup (preferably nonstick) ring mold or loaf pan. Melt the butter and remaining oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until wilted and lightly colored, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and garlic and continue cooking until all the liquid has evaporated, about 3 minutes, stirring often.
- In a large bowl, combine white mushroom-onion mixture, the reserved porcinis, cooked rice, Cheddar cheese, pecans, eggs, mustard, salt, pepper and cayenne pepper. Mix until blended. Pack the mixture into the ring mold or loaf pan and bake until firm and browned on the top, about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes, run a sharp knife around the edges, invert onto a plate, slice and serve.
Joanna Pruess is an award-winning writer and cookbook author whose passions include food, travel and entertaining.