There are few dishes more satisfying and comforting than meatloaf. It’s robustly flavored, while still being moist and tender. It’s uniquely American, and yet it has close relatives all over the world. What’s not to love about a loaf made out of meat?
The fact that it’s easy to make only endears it to us. As easy as it is to make, though, it’s also easy to mess up. I recall the tough, flavorless meatloaves of my childhood that were only made edible by swiping each bite through the ketchup and mashed potatoes that were inevitably served alongside.
When I set about making a meatloaf that’s really worth eating, I wanted to come up with a version that would deliver on everything we want in a meatloaf.
It’s no surprise that one of the most important elements in meatloaf is the meat. As you peruse the meat counter of your local grocery store, you often see a combination of ground beef, pork and veal sold as meatloaf mix. It’s a solid trio and, as long as it doesn’t include any seasonings, will serve you well.
Most often, I use a combination of ground beef and pork. Beef brings the flavor to the mix, but it tends to dry out when it’s the only meat being used. That’s why I like to pair it with pork. While pork is mildly flavored, its fattiness helps to make the loaf moist and juicy.
Of course, a good meatloaf includes a few more ingredients than meat.
For maximum flavor and an injection of moisture, I like to add a generous amount of finely chopped vegetables. Onions, garlic, carrots and red or yellow bell peppers are my go-to combo, but I know many discerning meatloaf lovers who also include celery, shredded zucchini, chopped spinach, kale; the list goes on.
Whichever veggies you add, be sure to chop them finely. If you add big chunks of vegetables, the meatloaf is likely to fall apart when sliced. If you have a food processor, you can simply toss the onion, garlic, carrot and red pepper in and pulse until it’s very finely chopped, but hasn’t turned into total mush.
Eggs are a must, as are breadcrumbs, which both act as a binder in this meatloaf. I soak my crumbs in milk, in an effort, again, to add moisture. Milk can also play a part in making the loaf tender, which is why most ragu sauces also include it. It is possible to go overboard on the breadcrumbs, which will result in a solid, brick-like loaf. But without them, the meatloaf can lack structure and fall apart easily.
If you stopped here, you would have a lovely, basic, All-American meatloaf, ready to be coated in ketchup and baked, which I often do. Sometimes, though, it’s fun to give the loaf an Italian twist by adding Parmesan cheese and chopped basil before forming the meat mixture into a loaf on a baking sheet.
From here, I brush it with a bit of marinara sauce and top it with thin slices of pancetta, the Italians’ unsmoked version of bacon. The pancetta curls, twists and becomes delightfully crispy as the meatloaf bakes, and turns what is often a boring-looking main dish into a spectacular showpiece.
I skip the mashed potatoes and serve it with pasta (which I toss with more marinara sauce) and sautéed vegetables. No, it’s not the meatloaf from my childhood. It’s a whole lot better.
Meredith Deeds is a cookbook author and food writer from Edina. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @meredithdeeds.