Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
When meatloaf is good, it is heavenly. It consistently ranks in the top ten on comfort foods lists—and a trend in recent years has been for upscale restaurants to add this homey dish to their menus, and it sells like crazy.
Meatloaf isn't always good though. It can be dry or greasy, full of funky bread products or strange vegetables, and maybe worst of all, with a density approaching that of lead—perhaps aged mahogany. I've even had examples that exhibited all of these characteristics.
Recently, I was asked for meatloaf—my friend Angel wanted to know if I had a recipe. Well, yes—I actually have a bunch. You can take a basic meatloaf and give it all kinds of culinary twists, many of which are divine. So, I'll give you the meatloaf recipe that I adapted from the one I grew up with. However, more than that, I'm going to give y'all the method. The specific ingredients fall into two categories—those with a flavor to give, and those with a function to fulfill. When you know which is which, you know what you can change with abandon. Nice, huh? I love that trick!
Fat Content in Ground Meat
You can make meatloaf out of almost anything—including tofu, although I'm not so sure about that one. I guess that would be tofuloaf. Veal, chicken, pork, turkey and of course beef all show up in recipes, with the absolute classic being a combination of beef, pork and veal.
What is important to remember here are that there are three factors to consider in the meat. The first is texture—how finely ground, or how the particular protein cooks up. The second is flavor—I'd love to use veal for it's delicate flavor if I could ever find it. Instead I count myself lucky if I can find ground pork—which is delicious. The final factor is fat. All meats will contain some fat, but some such as pork have far more than others—such as ground turkey breast.
With that said—you want to avoid so much fat that you end up with a greasy mess. If the meatloaf on the plate gets that yellowish scum on top that congeals—ew! On the other hand, you need some fat or else you'll have a dry, flavorless bit of jerky. And not even good jerky. So keep that in mind. My personal preference is ground beef with about 7-10% fat, with some ground pork in there as well. Quite often I can't find ground pork, so I usually make an all ground beef meatloaf. If you are able to find other ground meats, or have a grinder—knock yourself out!
Oatmeal as a Binder for Meatloaf
Rule #1—Binders (The Four Easy Rules of Meatloaf)
There are four rules to making a great meatloaf. Three categories of ingredients, binders, flavorings and moisturizers, plus one technique. First, let's talk about binders.Binders are simple. They are the ingredients that hold the meatloaf together—so that you don't have a crumbled mess. You want to use enough to have the meatloaf hold
Binders are simple. They are the ingredients that hold the meatloaf together—so that you don't have a crumbled mess. You want to use enough to have the meatloaf hold it's shape, but not so much that you taste nothing but binder. In this case, I've used eggs, which are pretty common, and oats, which are less so. I like to grind the oats for a better texture (it just occurred to me that if you have a pass from your doctor, oats are all right on a gluten free diet, depending on the condition and the type of oats). You can use just about anything you want—breadcrumbs are the most common. But the type and texture of the breadcrumb can vary all over the place.
Flavorings can often open up a can of worms when discussing meatloaf with die hard proponents. I'm not going to argue—I like all kinds of variations. The recipe I used in the video and which I outline below is very simple, the way my grandmother made it. I like this one—it's quick and easy, and bakes off nicely. It also is basic—the veggies and seasonings enhance the flavor of the meat without competing or overwhelming it. But as long as you're careful with the flavors that double as moisturizers, you can make any substitutions you want.
Minced Onions and Garlic
Moisturizers are the veggies. You have to have a little fat, but not too much, and you need some moisturizers, but not too much. I give amounts below, but you can see in the video I didn't need quite so much for this one. Sometimes I use it all. Sometimes less. It depends on the mixture of meats and their fat contents. The onion and pepper, once ground, release a great deal of liquid - which also keeps the breadcrumbs or oatmeal, and therefore the meatloaf, juicy. Swap veggies if you like—again, I grew up with these. You'll also need some liquid. Ketchup is nice, and very traditional, as is tomato sauce or diced tomatoes—you can even use salsa and add cumin or chili powder. Just remember you need something.
Veggies for Moisture
Rule #4—Don't Overmix!
The last thing to remember is not to over mix the meat, and not to compress the meatloaf to death. See how I really loosely combine the ingredients in the video and just pat the meatloaf together. This makes sure the meatloaf is very tender. You can use a loaf pan, but frankly, that's fussier than I want to mess with. But if your mama did it that way, you'll think I'm a heretic, so that's all right. The #1 rule in the kitchen is that your own mama or granny did it best, no matter what anyone else says, ever. After that, you can follow other recipes.
That's it—the big rules. This is incredibly versatile. And yummy.
Classic Southern Meatloaf Recipe
This makes two regular size meatloaves—I either do them both if my brothers are coming, or wrap one well and freeze it for up to a month. That's my favorite—dinner done and waiting on me!
You can always cut it in half, no big deal. I just hate have something like just a little bit of ground pork or ground beef leftover—they come in 1 lb packages usually. A half recipe leaves not enough for a second application. So I often tweak recipes to come out with no bits of leftover ingredient (veggies like onion don't count since I use those so much), and I did that here to give myself a 'freebie' dinner on a busy night.
- 2 lbs lean ground beef—I like to use 90-93% lean
- 1 lb ground pork—not sausage though
- 1 cup tomato sauce or V-8 juice
- 1/2 cup uncooked oats
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 of a large yellow onion
- 1/2 green bell pepper
- 3-4 cloves garlic
- 2 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
- 1 Tbl hot sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
For the sauce:
- 1/2 cup ketchup
- 1 Tbl Worcestershire sauce
- 1 Tbl hot sauce (or less—make it yours!)
- 1 Tbl honey or brown sugar
Classic Southern Meatloaf Directions
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In the bowl of a food processor, combine everything except the meat and sauce ingredients and pulse well to combine and form a loose paste.
- In a large bowl, mix the meat with the v-8 mixture, mixing lightly but thoroughly. Don’t over mix the meat, it will make the finished meatloaf too tough.
- If you wish, divide the meat mixture in half. Form the mixture into two loaf shapes. At this point I freeze one, or just bake off both depending on how many I'm feeding. One will feed a family of four easily.
- If you make two loaves, then simple experience tells me that each takes about 1 1/4 hours. However, the best way is with a thermometer—and an internal temperature of 150-155F.
- About a half an hour into the baking time, pour the sauce on top of the loaf and continue baking. I usually paint goofy messages on top of mine—it makes my children crack up. If you have a baking rack, it works for removing or keeping the fat away from the loaf. A turkey baster works well too—or just pour it off once or twice as it renders.
Tried this Recipe?
© 2010 Jan Charles
Lynn Savitzky from New Jersey on April 06, 2015:
As someone who makes meatloaf regularly, I appreciate this article a lot.