How is it that so many seemingly normal people just can't stand meatloaf when it's so goddamn good? I mean, it's basically a comprehensively integrated hamburger, and who doesn't like hamburger?
In asking around for this article, I became concerned for future generations, since it seemed that the hatred was inversely related to age. Reactions jumped from love or like, straight to uncontrollable wince at the mere mention of it, with no middle ground. Rarely is someone just OK with meatloaf. This leads me to believe that people who hate it are, as is so often the case with food aversions, indelibly scarred by a childhood culinary mishap. And with many of those I spoke to, this was, in fact, true. Bang, statistical anomalies. We are then left with most folks liking or loving meatloaf, reinforcing the general goodness of meatloaf and my hope for humanity. Man, that was a close one.
What's to hate, really? The fact is there isn't much to it — just ground meat, seasoning and filler. Chopping up meat allows for combining scraps into a homogeneous product, and makes tough cuts palatable. Filler cost-effectively increases overall food volume. It's an old strategy — Apicius tells us that Romans combined minced meat with wine-soaked bread into patties, while in the Middle East, meat mixed with bulgur wheat is baked or grilled. Loaf simply indicates it's been formed into an oblong shape. Modern American-style meatloaf differs from more ancient preparations in that raw meat is used, whereas earlier meats were already cooked.
But it has more variations that one might think, mostly in the fillers: the ubiquitous bread crumbs, but also oats, rice, mashed potatoes, and even potato chips and Wheaties. The last two, both in recipes from the 1950s, don't make much financial sense to me. Also from those wacky '50s is frosted meatloaf, which sports a jacket of mashed potato (known to late 2000s hipsters as "meat cake").
In the context of meatloaf, I fear a major gap of culinary knowledge transfer has occurred in my lifetime. An alarming number of my younger friends and family have only ever had meatloaf from Boston Market. Worse yet, when confronted with burger/meatloaf similarities, one friend proclaimed that while hating meatloaf (had it once at age 6), she loved burgers, and even had a special way of making them. Recipe for Cara's Burgers: Cook ground beef in a pan, pour into bowl, eat with spoon. Who will teach the children?
For people who recount having had some brainwashingly bad version as a child, the adjectives "dry" and "funny tasting" were common. Indeed, my teenaged cousin Grace insists she "must use both gravy and ketchup, not one or the other," presumably to moisten and/or drastically affect flavor.
I've never been a fan of ketchup or anything tomato-based on my meatloaf; I'm strictly a gravy man. But whether as glaze or sauce, ketchup and meatloaf are undoubtedly associated. It probably has to do with food technology at the end of the 19th century, since that's when raw ground meat (at that time veal, but eventually beef) was first commercially available. Around the same time, Heinz ketchup was born and, soon after, Campbell's started selling their soups (including tomato) as kitchen time-savers, to use as sauce instead of making one from scratch. That was 100 years ago. Marketing, bitches!
In any case, dryness is pretty easy to address. You lose moisture two ways: migration from meat to filler, or evaporation from overcooking. Typically, bad meatloaf will suffer from both. Flavor is a bit less obvious, but since there are so few main components, simply using good meat and good filler has a big impact. It's easy to imagine that most fast-food, cafeteria or even diner meatloaf is made with an overwhelming skew toward economy, using the cheapest possible meat and filler, and lots of the latter.
For both moisture and flavor, meat to filler ratio is crucial. After testing and measuring, I've found that one gently packed cup of fresh breadcrumbs for every pound of meat is good. Fresh breadcrumbs are key for good adhesion and smooth texture, dry or even panko are far less effective. Also helpful is moist meat, which in this case means fat content. Sometimes you can find "meatloaf mix" at the supermarket — usually pork, veal and beef — but it's uncommon. I like to use equal parts lean ground beef and ground pork, which is pretty fatty. Moisture retention is good, and flavor remains beefy. Note that ground sausage overwhelms.
A second technique is to introduce moisture initially via vegetables like red peppers and mushrooms, finely minced so as not to impact texture. The 'shrooms also contribute savoriness, to offset the flavor-diluting breadcrumbs. Moisture is added during cooking with a blanket of bacon, which slowly renders animal fat into the loaf. And before anyone accuses me of bacon bandwagonry, a dish called "porcupine," consisting of minced meat studded with bacon shards, was around as early as 1884.
A final trick I use is geometry. Instead of a bread pan, I use a baking sheet and hand-shape — sculpt, if you will — the meat into a relatively short loaf, which reduces cooking time and thus moisture loss. As a bonus, two pieces fit nicely on a standard slice of bread, thus increasing yummy browned surface area.
Now I don't want to be a meatloaf braggart, but my meatloaf recipe is awesome. It has converted vegetarians. Plural. I've stolen from others and added my own touches, but this is the first time I've written it down or even measured anything. I do it for you, future meatloaf generations. Do not let it be in vain.
Henry Hong’s Meatloaf
1 pound 90 percent lean ground beef
1 pound ground pork
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/2 cup finely diced red bell pepper
1 cup finely diced onion
2 cups finely minced mushrooms
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 cup spinach chiffonade (finely sliced)
1 raw egg, scrambled
3 strips of bacon
1 1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Saute onions, mushrooms, bell pepper, and garlic over medium-low heat for about five minutes or until onion and pepper are soft. Remove from heat and allow to cool—save all of the liquid that has formed.
2) While vegetables are cooling, in a large bowl break the ground meat apart into small pieces—this will help in the combining process.
3) Add cooled vegetables and remaining ingredients except bacon and mix until ingredients look evenly distributed. If the mixing is difficult, add a bit of water to soften the mixture. To check seasoning, take a small piece of the mixture and microwave briefly. Adjust salt and pepper accordingly.
4) Form into a large ball and forcefully pat it all over to root out potential air pockets and generally firm it up.
5) Move ball onto a baking sheet or into a roasting pan and sculpt the mixture into a long, baguette shaped loaf—this recipe should result in a loaf measuring two-inches high, four-inches wide, and 14-inches long. If space is an issue, form into two loaves seven inches in length each.
6) Drape bacon over top and down the sides a bit, stretching and pulling for a snug fit.
7) Bake for 20 minutes, then carefully remove bacon and raise oven temperature to 450 degrees and bake for an additional 10 minutes.
8) Remove meatloaf and allow to cool a bit before slicing. You may have to use two spatulas to maintain structural integrity while lifting out.
9) Do not add ketchup. Or at least taste it naked first. Please.
A food processor is very useful for making fresh breadcrumbs and mincing the vegetables. If you don’t have one, make sure to mince the vegetables as finely as possible. To make fresh breadcrumbs, freeze the bread, place it in a bag, and beat the crap out of it with a wine bottle or other blunt instrument. It takes 5-6 slices of standard sandwich bread to make 2 cups of breadcrumbs.
The bacon will be pretty flaccid after its time in the oven and will probably need additional cooking to be edible, unless you like really floppy bacon. Just a warning so those expecting a mid-recipe treat are not disappointed.
There will be a fair bit of fond (brown sticky meat residue) left on the sheet or pan. This may look tempting as a base for pan gravy, but for some reason it makes for very bad gravy. You won’t need gravy or any other sauce, though, I assure you. For a so called Sicilian-style meatloaf, you can add boiled eggs to the mixture, wrapping the meat around so they sit whole in the middle.
Sicilian-style braciole, a rolled beef dish, has boiled eggs in the center, thus the moniker.