Kitchen Basics: Meatloaf 101

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

My parents immigrated from Eastern Europe before I was born, so I grew up practically devoid of American classics like macaroni and cheese, green bean casserole, and even meatloaf. Although my grandmother would occasionally make some bizarre concoction involving peculiarly seasoned ground lamb and whole boiled eggs stuffed and baked into the meat and baked in a loaf pan, meatloaf it was not. Further, I suspect this early education in the art of ground meat made me rightfully fearful of The Meatloaf in general. So in short, I never touched the stuff.

Then one day while pregnant with Little Girl, I watched Ina Garten prepare meatloaf and it was done. I craved it. I mean, I needed meatloaf and I needed it now. So I ventured down the road of meatloaf, finding out that I should have been scared. Very, very scared. So many people prepared it badly -- dry and grainy (yuck), overly moist and runny (throwing up now), or a loaf completely devoid of any seasoning. It was horrible. So I played around with different techniques and ideas and developed some tricks of the trade for perfect meatloaf that I'm happy to share with you now.

Because let's face it: it's a Mommy Friendly food. It's cheap, it's easy, and if done right it's delicious. It's warming and comforting on a cold day and filling and satisfying for growing tummies. And no need to go insane with different seasonings and toppings. Sheesh. Let's keep it classic and good here using beef, onion-peppers, and a ketchup topping. Classic. Delicious.

As always, let's first discuss some common pitfalls for the meatloaf preparation.

Common Pitfall #1: Choice of meat.
Some people get a super greasy meatloaf because they swear by the beef-pork ratio. Which, normally I do too. But no need. Although the pork adds both fat and flavor (and by extension of the fat, also moisture), you don't need it if you follow my tricks stated below. You can certainly get away with lean ground beef. Nothing else. No chuck, no pork or veal additions. Just basic figure-friendly organic lean ground beef.

Common Pitfall #2: It's not what goes in it, but how you cook those things.
The classic meatloaf involves an onion-pepper mixture. I love it. The onions add sweetness and flavor and the peppers add texture and sweetness. Goes perfectly with ground beef. That's not the issue though.

I've seen recipes that call for raw onions and bell peppers to be mixed into the ground beef. This is stupid. First of all, both the onions and peppers will lack flavor. Onions and peppers (especially green bell peppers) need some love and attention to coax those gorgeous flavors out. In short, you need to saute them first in a little olive oil (more flavor and moisture). Doesn't have to be too long -- a small chop of both added to a saute pan with some olive oil, simple salt and pepper and a saute on low heat for 10 minutes to start to caramelize those veggies. That's the flavor. That's what's going to make your meatloaf taste good. Leaving them in raw will be both bland and make them too crunchy, and the tender ground beef will break around the tough uncooked veggies. So saute them first.

Common Pitfall #3: Add moisture AND breadcrumbs.
A binder you need in a dish like this is the classic egg-breadcrumb mixture. The breadcrumbs sort of bring all the ingredients together while the eggs acts like a glue to keep everything in one piece. A properly done meatloaf can stay together in one...loaf...soft of like bread dough...and not fall apart. But people go nuts with one or the other.

Most people add too many breadcrumbs. I've seen recipes that swear by using fresh bread cut up small and soaked in milk to others that say to use simple dried breadcrumbs. I say both are fine, just adjust what ever moisture to add or not. When using the fresh soaked in milk, look at the key thing there: soaked in milk. You're adding that moisture from the milk in addition to the binding affect of the bread. So done. If using dried breadcrumbs, then simple add a splash of cream to the mixture. Same thing.

Another cool trick I use often when working with ground turkey for turkey meatloaf is to add about 1/4 cup of chicken broth to the onion mixture while sauteeing, then letting the onions soak up that broth until they're nice and plump, then adding the onions to the turkey to mix in. What this does is it uses the process of osmosis: you add moisture into the onions which soak it up like a sponge, then you mix them in with the turkey and while the turkey is baking in the oven, the heat will draw the moisture back out and b/c the onions are evenly distributed among the meat, the moisture will dissipate into the meat creating a moist meatloaf.

I love science!

Common Pitfall #4: Don't overmix -- it's already dead, you don't need to kill it again.
There is such a thing as overmixing. You want to add all of your ingredients into a large bowl all at once, then give it all a mix. Don't mix then keep adding ingredients one by one -- this is how you overmix the meatloaf. You want to mix it enough just so that all the ingredients are incorporated and mixture comes together. Doing more than that will toughen the meat when you cook it. Mixing it just until combined will give you a softer and more pleasant texture when cooked.

Common Pitfall #5: Ketchup is the main thing for the top -- keep it simple!
A traditional topping for meatloaf is ketchup-mustard-brown sugar. The ketchup gives good color, overall flavor, and is the base flavor for the topping and dish. The mustard gives a hint of heat and spice, and a little acid which acts nicely. The brown sugar gives sweetness that will caramelize when baking and give a nice thickened sauce on top. The only thing I'd agree to for the topping to add is to substitute the brown sugar with a nice dark molasses or vinegar in place of mustard in a pinch. That's it. Don't venture too far off course here.

Well now that you know what not to do and why your mother's and friend's meatloafs have sucked, you can make your own. Here's a super basic recipe for meatloaf using regular ground beef. It's easy, it's kid-friendly, this version is relatively figure friendly as well using the lean ground beef and dry breadcrumbs, and will comfort you on any cold day. Just add hot mashed potatoes and steamed green beans for a classic meal!

Classic Meatloaf
1 lb organic lean ground beef, at room temperature
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 small white or yellow onion, shopped small (about 3/4 cup worth)
1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped small (about 1/2 cup worth)
3 cloves garlic, minced
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp dried oregano
2 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
2 eggs, lightly beaten
splash of heavy cream (approx 2 Tbs worth)
2-3 Tbsp Italian dried breadcrumbs
3/4 cup ketchup + 3 Tbsp divided (one's for the topping, one's for the meat mixture)
2 Tbsp Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp brown sugar (light or dark is fine)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place the ground beef in a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper (about a good pinch of each or to taste).

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan. Add the onions and peppers, season with a small pinch of salt and pepper, and cook on medium heat until vegetables are softened and starting to caramelize, about 10 minutes. If the veggies are starting to burn then reduce your heat to medium-low and continue to cook for the 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute until garlic is fragrant. Add the onion-pepper mixture to the ground beef. Add the oregano, parsley, eggs, cream, 3 Tbsp of ketchup, and breadcrumbs. Using your hands or a spatula, gently fold the mixture and incorporate all the ingredients. Adjust with breadcrumbs if the mixture is too liquidy; add more cream a little at a time if the mixture is too dry. You're looking for the mixture to be able to stay together and not fall apart into pieces (this means it's too moist so add more breadcrumbs) but not be too tough and grainy to the touch (this means it's too dry, add more cream). To tell if you have the right consistency, you should be able to pinch of an amount the size of a golf ball and roll it into a ball -- if it keeps its shape it's good. Pour the meat mixture into a non-stick loaf pan and spread out creating an even layered top.

To prepare the topping, simply whisk together the remaining 3/4 cup of ketchup, the mustard, and brown sugar in a small bowl. Pour this mixture directy over the top of the meat mixture in the loaf pan and smooth out to cover evenly on top.

Bake  meatloaf in oven for about 40 minutes or until top is bubbling and the meatloaf has pulled away from the sides of the pan. Let stand 5 minutes before cutting to cool and redistribute juices. Slice thick and serve with mashed potatoes and steamed green beans for a classic American meal.

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