The truth about meatloaf: I hated it.
I love my momma. And looking back, I truly appreciate the fact that she took the time to make home-cooked meals. No matter how much my sister and I might have objected to the dinner du jour, we always knew, deep down, that it was made with love. Lots of kids grow up on take-out food and that becomes the norm for mealtime. As adults, many of these kids will have entrenched, highly unhealthy (not to mention expensive) eating habits that they pass on to their kids. So Mom gets a shout-out for teaching us right.
But Momma’s meatloaf very nearly scarred me for life.
And yes, she reads my blog. Don’t worry: I read this post to her before I put it up, because the LAST thing I wanted to do was to hurt her feelings. She thought it was hysterical. I also noticed Dad nodding in baleful agreement as I read. As a matter of fact, I didn’t understand why Mom thought it was SO hysterical until later that evening, when she shot me a text with the picture below.
It’s a bit hard to make out, but I think you get the point. As it turns out, she had just made her meatloaf the night before. She wanted me to put her picture in this post—and then send her my meatloaf recipe. Momma has a wonderful sense of humor. Thanks Mom, I love you.
To be fair, I’m sure that the recipe for Momma’s meatloaf came from a reputable source like Betty Crocker or a church cookbook. Although I will not recount the entire recipe for you, I will itemize its fatal flaws below.
Why I hate the meatloaf I grew up with
The recipe called for an envelope of Lipton Onion Soup Mix. Not just onion, mind you, but GOLDEN onion. There are plenty of nutritional reasons for not subjecting your meatloaf to this substance, but my main objection is that you completely lose control over the flavor profile. You end up with a one-note, sad meatloaf that is vaguely evocative of—you guessed it—soup.
You can build a TON of flavor into your meatloaf by using ACTUAL onions, herbs, cheese, and good ol’ S & P. Sure, the soup mix has lots of other umami-building stuff like monosodium glutamate (MSG) and soy protein. You can take care of that with a few dashes of fish sauce (yes, really) or Worchestershire sauce. You could even (gulp!) add a tiny bit of Vegemite—which, by the way, also contains glutamates. However, unlike MSG, which is an artificially synthesized flavor enhancer, these glutamates are a natural byproduct of the yeast fermentation process that gives Vegemite its umami superpowers.
As a side note, I never knew that Vegemite was an actual thing (aside from a song lyric involving a sandwich) until about a month ago. Conceptually (even olfactorially), Vegemite seems disgusting. But use a tiny bit in your sauces, soups—and yes, meatloaf—and you’ll be a convert. Trust me.
The meatloaf was slathered in ketchup. Now, right there I’m going to get a ton of hate mail from everyone who insists that meatloaf isn’t meatloaf without ketchup. If ketchup is what floats your boat, then by all means, use it. For me, it’s too heavy and sweet. It also tends to burn…which is how I remember many childhood meatloaves (e.g., see photo above). I prefer a light coating of tomato sauce, a sprinkling of Romano cheese, and S & P. But to each his own! Don’t hate!
The oblong loaf pan ensured that the lower half of the meatloaf stewed in a combination of its own juices and grease. Said grease would then slowly congeal as the meatloaf cooled, forming a nasty, reddish-orange fat frosting. I can’t think of many things in this world that are more unappetizing than that. I solve this problem by lining a sheet pan with aluminum foil. Then I set the meatloaf onto a cooking-spray coated rack so that the drippings can fall onto the foil as the meatloaf cooks. No more fat-frosted meatloaf, and clean-up is a cinch.
Epiphany: meatloaf can be good
Over the years, I have come to realize that not all meatloaves are alike. In fact, some are very good. Even superb. And the leftovers offer limitless meal possibilities. The last meatloaf I made yielded 3 meals for my family: of course, the requisite meatloaf dinner, then Italian grinders, and then a pasta dish featuring the remaining meatloaf crumbled into a tangy sauce of tomato, onion, and peppers. My mouth is watering just thinking of it.
My go-to meatloaf nowadays—a Mediterranean-esque creation—involves 1.5 pounds of ground meat. You can go straight chuck or mix in pork, turkey, chicken, or even veal. (I usually choose to forego the latter, because the idea of doe-eyed baby cows living out their short little lives in tiny pens just makes me feel BAD. But if you like veal, I won’t judge. It IS sublime.)
Components of a good meatloaf
Non-meat substances are a basic requirement for a meatloaf that is not a tasteless, dry, dense, meat-football. I add a cup of breadcrumbs: Panko works great, but you can use any kind you want—even crushed crackers. Although I haven’t ever tried it, you could certainly use oats or rice instead (experiment to find the correct ratio). I always include a half cup of Romano cheese for a sharp, salty tang, but you can use Parmesan if you prefer a milder flavor. I add a half cup each of minced shallots and diced, roasted red bell peppers. In place of the bell peppers, you can substitute any variety of moisture-adding vedge: green chiles, spaghetti squash, or zucchini, for example.
A single large egg acts as a binder. I add a couple of tablespoons of tomato sauce, and a handful of minced parsley (flat leaf, please). Then the wedding ring comes off because, baby, we’re gonna get dirty. I get my hands in there and WORK that meat: but only just enough to incorporate everything. Uniform ingredient distribution is not the goal here.
At this point, I assess the meat mixture to make sure that it’s not too dry or too wet. If it’s too dry a mixture, I’ll add a tad more tomato sauce. For a too-wet mix, I’ll add another quarter cup of breadcrumbs. You’ll develop a feel for the correct consistency. Keep in mind that if you’re using a leaner meat like chicken or turkey, it’s a good idea to add a tablespoon of olive oil to the mix (sure you’re adding some fat back, but it’s good fat, and it’ll keep your meatloaf from drying out).
Now, I set up my baking contraption, form my loaf, and set it on the baking rack. I try to make the loaf fairly uniform in thickness, since we don’t want a raw middle and overcooked ends. I coat the loaf lightly in tomato sauce, then sprinkle on Romano cheese, salt, and pepper. I make a foil tent for the meatloaf during the first 3/4 of the bake: this prevents scorching (e.g., blackened ketchup) and keeps the loaf from drying out. I put it in my preheated, 350° oven, and away we go. After an hour, I remove the foil and use an instant-read thermometer to gauge the temperature. We’re looking for 160°: this can take anywhere from 1-1.5 hours.
When I first made meatloaf for Phil, I made an interesting discovery: he likes sauce on his meatloaf. Like, actual SAUCE. It’s how his momma made it for him—so I set out to create a tasty “meatloaf sauce” from his description: bell peppers, onions, and tomato sauce were involved. I decided to go for a tangier sauce, and what I came up with was a big hit. This sauce now does an encore performance as the sauce for Meatloaf Grinders, and as a fantastic pasta dish in my “Parade of Leftovers”.
To make it, I slice green bell peppers, roasted red bell peppers, and Vidalia onions. These get a slow sauté with a couple tablespoons of minced garlic. I add a pinch of pepper flakes if we’re in the mood for some spice. When the veggies are soft and translucent, I add in a large can of crushed tomatoes and any tomato sauce that I have left from the meatloaf. Then I add 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar (or red wine vinegar) and 1 tablespoon of Splenda (or sugar). The sauce simmers and gets happy for 45 minutes while the meatloaf bakes. YUM. I have to admit: Phil was right. The sauce punches meatloaf up to a whole new level.
Since I started making a sauce to go with the meatloaf, I no longer make mashed potatoes as my go-to starchy side. I last served it with polenta, which I loved, but Phil was not a fan. Next time will likely be rice. Pasta is also great, but since a pasta dish features prominently in the Parade of Leftovers, it’s not my first choice.
Meatloaf freezes really well. I like to divvy it up into single servings and Food Saver them: they make a super-easy meal for time crunches. Below is my standard meatloaf recipe. It’s very easy to riff on, just as long as you keep the proportions of “meat substance” to “non-meat substance” roughly the same.
Meatloaf “Leftovers Parade”
I make a lot of meatloaf so that I can get a few meals out of it. Any leftovers that I haven’t eaten up after 2 days go into the freezer for a crazy-easy meal at some point in the future. No recipes required. Here are just a few ideas:
Italian grinders: these are a simple matter of good hoagie rolls, chunks of meatloaf, and a dollop of sauce. Sprinkle some mozarella and Parmesan on top, and bake them off in your oven or toaster until the cheese melts.
Tangy meat sauce over pasta: here, you just crumble your leftover meatloaf into the sauce you made and eat it with pasta. I’d suggest a pasta shape that likes to get saucy: penne, radiatore, or rotini, for example. Let the pasta finish cooking in the sauce: if it’s too thick, add a ladleful of the pasta water and mix in. Sprinkle with parsley and pass the Parmesan at the table.
Baked potatoes with meatloaf, sauce, and cheese: top your baked spuds with your sauced, crumbled meatloaf and any other toppings you’d like!
Update: I took the leftovers from my last meatloaf, mixed the crumbled bits directly into the pepper-tomato sauce in a freezer-safe container, and kept them in the freezer for a month. Phil and I came back from a trip and had an easy meal even though the fridge was empty!
- For the meatloaf
- 1½ lb. ground meat (chuck, pork, turkey, etc.)
- ½ cup shallot or Vidalia onion, chopped
- ½ cup roasted red bell pepper, peeled and chopped
- 1 cup bread crumbs (more if needed)
- ½ cup grated Romano cheese, plus more for coating
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp. Asian fish sauce (optional)
- 2 tbsp. tomato sauce (more if needed), plus more for coating
- (or use ketchup if you must)
- 1 tbsp. olive oil (only if you’re using ground chicken or turkey)
- 2 tbsp. parsley, minced
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- For the sauce
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 1 green bell pepper, sliced
- 1 roasted red bell pepper, sliced
- 1 Vidalia onion, sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
- 1 28-oz. can of crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup of tomato sauce
- 2 tbsp. rice vinegar or red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp. Splenda or sugar
- Salt & Pepper to taste
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Add all ingredients for the meatloaf to a large mixing bowl (with the exception of the coatings). I usually add 2 large pinches of salt and several grinds of black pepper, but you can adjust that to your own taste. Work the ingredients through the meat mixture just enough to incorporate (it doesn’t matter if ingredients aren’t distributed uniformly. Check the consistency of your mixture: you want to be able to form it into a loaf without having it fall apart, but you don’t want it to be too dry. If the mixture is too wet and falling apart, add an additional ¼ cup of breadcrumbs. If the mixture is too dry, add another tbsp. of tomato sauce (more if needed).
- Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil. Set a baking rack onto the foil and coat generously with cooking spray. Form the meat mixture into a loaf, making sure that it’s roughly the same thickness throughout for even cooking. Rub on the tomato sauce and sprinkle with Romano cheese. Sprinkle lightly with salt and fresh-ground pepper.
- Tent some aluminum foil over the meatloaf: I sometimes lay 2 pieces of foil over each other and fold one side of the long ends over several times. This is the “spine” of the tent. The foil doesn’t need to cover the meatloaf tightly: just tuck the open ends down toward the baking rack. Place the meatloaf in the oven.
- Meanwhile, make the sauce. Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the peppers, onions, and garlic. Sauté until soft and translucent, 6-8 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and tomato sauce, stir to combine. Sprinkle with the vinegar and sugar or Splenda; stir. Bring almost to a boil, then reduce heat to a low simmer. Stir occasionally to prevent scorching. Simmer for 45 minutes.
- Check the meatloaf after an hour with an instant-read thermometer: the meatloaf needs to be 160° throughout. Remove the foil. At this point, you can spoon some of the sauce on top of the meat loaf if you’d like. Continue baking as needed.
- Remove the meatloaf from the oven and rest for 10 minutes. Slice thickly and serve with the sauce. Enjoy!