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The method to this meatloaf madness

By JANET K. KEELER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 5, 2002

The quest for perfect meatloaf stops at Mom's recipe box for some lucky people.

The quest for perfect meatloaf stops at Mom's recipe box for some lucky people.

Her recipe is so flavorful, so easy, so comforting. Why fiddle with anyone else's?

There are other people who aren't so fortunate. Making a satisfying meatloaf remains trial and many, many errors for them.

"A lot of baby boomers were raised with meatloaf that's almost punishment," says Alton Brown, host of of Food Network's Good Eats and author of the new I'm Just Here for the Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang; $32.50). "It was stretch food."

After studying more than 500 meatloaf recipes sent in by readers, we wondered how an expert would make this beloved comfort food. What meat is best? Dried bread crumbs or fresh? What purpose does the egg serve? Should the meatloaf be baked in a loaf pan or free form in a larger baking dish?

We turned to Brown, a chef and food scientist, for guidance. First of all, he explains by telephone from his home in Marietta, Ga., meatloaf has three components: ground meat, binders and flavorings. Class is in session.

The meat of the matter

The texture of meatloaf has everything to do with the meat, Brown says. For instance, all-beef meatloaves tend to be more coarse and livery-tasting than loaves made from a mixture of meats.

"To me, there are two kinds of failure with meatloaf," says Brown, who claims a passion for this humble food. "One is textural, and the other is the flavor component."

At least, Brown says, use beef and pork, a combination that's conveniently packaged and sold in many grocery stores. He adds ground lamb because it brings boldness to the taste and is "dirt cheap."

Ground veal is mild so it doesn't boost flavor much, he says. It does help make a smoother textured meatloaf and one that holds together better.

Brown recommends ground chuck, sirloin and lamb for a basic meatloaf. The ratio should be half chuck and a quarter each sirloin and lamb.

"I never buy ground chuck but buy a (boneless) chuck roast and ask the butcher to grind it," he says. "For one thing, it lets me see the actual piece of meat it (the ground beef) comes from."

Brown says he has yet to see a lean meatloaf worth eating, sad news for people counting fat grams.

"It needs fat because fat carries the flavor," he says. "I could probably make a moist turkey meatloaf if I put enough cream in it."

The ties that bind

Binding ingredients hold the meat together so that it can be sliced. Starches, eggs and dairy products are binders but not all of them are necessary in one loaf, Brown says.

"The meatloaf is like salad dressing," he says. "It's an emulsion, an amalgam of things that don't want to get along together. Just like water and oil."

The most prominent binder in meatloaf is the starch, usually bread crumbs, cereals, crackers or chips.

"Starch molecules gelatinize, soak up a lot of liquid and blow up. They are very thirsty," he says. "They get in crevices, expand and hold things together." They also help retain juices that would otherwise run into the pan.

He is a fan of Japanese panko, the coarse, untoasted bread crumbs popular in many restaurant dishes these days. (Buy them in Asian markets and specialty food stores.) Panko, light in both structure and taste, doesn't interfere with other flavors and adds volume.

Eggs and dairy products, such as cheese, milk and sour cream, are also binders. Eggs solidify as they cook, adding more body to the meatloaf.

"Dairy has both fat and protein, sort of like liquid meat," Brown says. "When a protein cooks, it's kind of like a Slinky in its relaxed state."

Brown says it's unnecessary to use all three binders -- starch, eggs and dairy -- to make a firm meatloaf. For example, a meatloaf that includes veal, milk and eggs will hold together fine without bread crumbs.

"From World War II on, meatloaves had a lot of starch in them because it was filler," Brown says. Filler was how 1 pound of meat could feed six people for dinner.

The principles of flavor

There are so many ways to flavor a meatloaf that it is easy to go overboard. Resist the temptation to empty the refrigerator and pantry into the mixing bowl.

"Keep seasonings to a minimum," Brown says "I don't want to taste a ton of spices. There doesn't have to be many, the meat tastes good on its own."

For instance, he explains, once strong and tangy Worcestershire sauce goes into the bowl there's not much sense adding a lot of other spices. Also, it's a good idea to think about the sodium in your ingredients. Worcestershire, soy sauce and packaged onion soup mixes, all common meatloaf ingredients, have a lot of sodium in them. Additional salt will probably not be needed.

When using aromatics, such as celery, onion, garlic, saute them the first. If they go into the mixture raw, they might not cook enough wrapped in the dense meat to bring out their full flavor. Plus, Brown says, who wants to get a mouthful of raw onion and garlic? Sauteing first is especially important when using mushrooms because they are watery; cooking draws the water out.

"I look at every ingredient and try to think how I can get the most out of it," he says. "Always think about the flavor of the ingredient. Why add something that doesn't bring anything to the party?"

The shape of dinner

To loaf or not to loaf, that is the burning question. The name of the dish itself indicates it should be baked in a loaf pan but that's not how many people, including Brown, do it.

A meatloaf cooked in a loaf pan is usually swimming in fat from the cooking meat. Not a good thing, Brown says.

"First of all, the meatloaf is not roasting or baking in a loaf pan, it's stewing and braising," Brown says. "This overcooks it and makes the meatloaf grainy. A dry environment produces a better a meatloaf."

Form the meat mixture into a loaf or round shape and place it in baking dish, a pie pan or cake pan, leaving at least an inch on all sides. This creates a drier environment and exposes more surface to heat which results in a crustier loaf.

Brown blasts the meatloaf at 450 degrees for 15 minutes then lowers the temperature to 300 or 325 to finish. The higher temperature, he says, sears the meat, retaining juices and forming a crust.

How long should a meatloaf cook? Until the internal temperature reaches 160 degrees. That might be in 45 minutes or 1 1/2 hours, depending how many pounds of meat you've used.

"What's time got to do with food? Almost nothing. Temperature has everything to do with it," he says. "Any recipe that doesn't use time as just an approximation I don't trust."

Busy cooks will be disheartened to know that Brown lets his meatloaf sit for at least an hour, tented with aluminum foil, before slicing. That allows time for juices to draw back into the meat; the foil tent keeps it warm.

"There's a lot of chemistry going on there," he says. "There's a reason it tastes better the next day."

The final test

We took some of Brown's suggestions to heart and applied them to a basic meatloaf recipe.

The grocery store butcher ground the boneless chuck roast without blinking and we scooped up some ground sirloin and lamb, which wasn't "dirt cheap" but the same price as the beef, about $2.80 a pound.

Chopped celery, garlic and onion were sauteed until soft and we snubbed the loaf pan for a larger 9- by 13-inch baking dish. We were nervous about the 450-degree oven, having always baked meatloaf at 350. We gingerly tried a more conservative 400 for 20 minutes and then lowered the temperature to 325 degrees. When the meat thermometer registered 160 degrees, 45 minutes later, the free-form meatloaf came out of the oven. It took an hourlong rest.

At first slice, we suspected Brown was on to something. The texture was smooth, the meatloaf firm and juicy. At first bite, we knew he was right. The individual ingredients melded together seamlessly. The beauty of Brown's technique is that it can be applied to any meatloaf recipe.

Even Mom might be able to learn some new tricks.

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