Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Simple Meat Loaf

Meat loaf is one of the ultimate comfort foods- like many others- it is simple, but has literally thousands of variations. It's one of those things that you can use up some of the odds and ends in your pantry if you feel like experimenting. My meatloaf is usually a little different every time- and that's great. It's based, naturally, on my mother's recipe, with my own spin on it.

Meat loaf is a classic comfort food

Many people make meat loaf with a combination of ground beef, ground pork, and ground veal. It works great- if that's the way you roll, go for it. I've tried it as well, it works. However, for whatever reason, my mother almost always made it with just beef- so for me, meatloaf is a beef thing. Mom's recipe was basically the same as her meatball recipe- which is fantastic, but my sister was fond of joking that mom's meat loaf was just a big meatball with no sauce. It was still great, and one of the things I remember as comfort food, but there are places meat loaf can go, that mom's couldn't. The meat loaf I've evolved starts similar to hers, but I go for a less grainy, crumbly texture, so I use more binding than she would.

So, with that in mind, the binder you use- usually bread (or breadcrumb) and egg  is key to making meat loaf more "loaf" like and less "meatball" like. When I make mine- I start by building my binder- while I've used breadcrumbs before, I think you get a better texture by using actual bread. You could get fancy and use some kind of specialty bread, but I just go with a few slices of white bread. If they are stale, they will crumble more easily, but fresh works just as well. The binding base starts with about 4-5 slices of white bread, crumbled into a bowl, then I add two eggs (scrambled).

Meat loaf starts out as a humble pile of bread and egg

I've also found that it's easiest to mix everything together if I incorporate my seasonings into the bread mix before I add the meat. I often vary things here, but I tried to keep it simple this time- two onions, minced, salt, pepper, and thyme. I had a few fresh chives, so I added a few. I like to add a little something acidic so I went with a little balsamic vinegar (worchestershire works well too)- about two tablespoons. This is also a good time to check how wet your bread and egg mixture is- it should be a moist paste once everything is mixed. If it appears to be too dry, add a little liquid- beef stock is great, but I like to be a little different here so I added a little apple juice until it was wet enough- about 1/4 cup.

Binder and seasoning for meat loaf

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It's not meat loaf without meat...

Many meat loaf recipes use different blends of meat- most often equal parts beef, pork, and veal. Just to keep the heart of mom's recipe alive, I usually stick with just ground beef. It takes a large package- about 3lbs- preferably 80/20 ground beef that has a good amount of fat content. This is the part that gets messy- break up your ground meat into smaller chunks and add it to your binder. The only way to do this is to get your hands dirty- so wash up, or put on rubber gloves and dig in. Knead the binding and onions etc into the meat. The heat from your hands should soften the fat in the meat a little making it easier as you go. You actually want to knead for several minutes even when everything is blended together to develop a little extra gluten in the bread.

Embrace your inner child and don't be afraid of a little mess.

Once your meat mixture is  combined as evenly as possible, form it into a loaf shape. If you have trouble getting it to hold it's shape, you may want to add a little more bread. Try to get the loaf nice and smooth without seams so it doesn't split open during cooking. When you're happy with your loaf, lay it in a metal baking pan that you've lightly greased with a touch of oil or cooking spray.

A meat loaf is born...

At this point, we can dress up our meat loaf a little- if you have bacon, wrapping the loaf with a few strips of bacon is always nice, but not necessary. If you, like me, like to have a nice crust on the outside of your meat loaf, you'll need to slather it in some kind of sauce. Barbecue sauces are a good candidate, but you also get great results with simple and traditional ketchup- put a little on and rub it into a nice thin coating.

Ketchup makes a nice glaze for any meat loaf

Make sure your oven is preheated to 400 to 450 degrees. If you have a digital probe thermometer, you can guarantee perfect results- set yours for about 140 degrees and insert the probe in the thickest part. 140 degrees is just about the point where the center will no longer be pink. If you like your meatloaf more medium, set it around to 130 - but as much as I like my steaks medium rare, meat loaf doesn't seem right to me if it's pink in the middle. The whole baking process should take about 45 minutes to an hour. Once you hit your internal temperature mark, take it out and let it rest for 10 to fifteen minutes. Your ketchup glaze should be nice, dark, and crusty.

Meat loaf with a a nice dark glaze

If you want something to do while the meat loaf rests, with a little effort the pan drippings can be transformed into a rich gravy or sauce. We won't go into details here since it's basically the same process I used in my chicken gravy post. Just heat up your pan drippings, whisk in a handful of flour, when the flour paste is cooked enough, add some liquid- beef stock is the obvious choice, but you can also use things like wine or beer. Season it, and reduce until you get to the thickness you like. I made this pan full of grease into a rich dark beef gravy using a bottle of a nice amber beer (don't worry kids, the alcohol cooks off rapidly) - a Samuel Adams Winter Lager.

The pan drippings make a great base for a gravy
I'm sure just about every reader will have their own ideas about how to make a meat loaf that differ from mine. I'm sure some people will even think I'm doing it completely wrong- but honestly, this meat loaf came out pretty good- it went over well with the whole family, including the kids. That's one of the things that makes meat loaf such a common classic dish- it's a very simple concept that can be spun in a ridiculous number of ways. Every dinner table in the western world has something at least vaguely similar- and every recipe is a little different (and some are VERY different) - but they all have their merits. Don't be afraid to experiment and find the combination and method that becomes your family's standby. I don't know that I've found one single recipe that I can say is the one... but I'm having a lot of fun experimenting.

3 comments:

  1. The texture of this is perfection love it!

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  3. Meatloaf is nasty.Especially if it's made from turkey,ground beef and pork sausage.It gives me upset stomach.And the smell. Makes me want to vomit. Why in the hell frozen food companies are making meatloaf dinners.Give me a hamburger anyday!

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