Jan has been cooking and writing about food for over 20 years. She has cooked on multiple television stations, including the Food Network.
The Perfect Southern Meatloaf
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, my friend Angel wanted to know if I had a recipe—and I actually have a bunch. You can take a basic meatloaf and give it all kinds of culinary twists, many of which are divine. I adapted this meatloaf recipe from the one I grew up with. And perhaps even more important than giving you the recipe, 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?
In This Article
- The Southern Method
- 4 Rules for a Successful Meatloaf
- The Secret Classic Southern Meatloaf Recipe
The Southern Method
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.
Texture, Flavor, and Fat
There are three factors to consider in meat. The first is the texture—how finely ground or how the particular protein cooks up. The second is flavor—I'd love to use veal for its 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. I usually can't find ground pork, so I often make an all-ground beef meatloaf. If you are able to find other ground meats or have a grinder—knock yourself out!
4 Rules for a Successful Meatloaf
There are four rules to making a great meatloaf. Three categories of ingredients, binders, flavorings, and moisturizers, plus one technique.
Rule #1: Binders (The Four Easy Rules of Meatloaf)
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.
Rule #2: Flavorings
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 with or overwhelming it. But as long as you're careful with the flavors that double as moisturizers, you can make any substitutions you want.
Rule #3: Moisturizers
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.
Rule #4: Don't Over-mix!
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.
The Secret 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 is done and waiting on me!
You can always cut it in half. No big deal. I hate having just a little bit of ground pork or ground beef leftover—they usually come in 1 lb packages. A half recipe leaves not enough for a second application. So I often tweak recipes to come out with no bits of leftover ingredients (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.
For the loaf:
- 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
- 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.
- Mix the meat with the v-8 mixture in a large bowl, 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 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.
© 2010 Jan Charles