Breaking the Bad Meatloaf Cycle

My mother’s idea of meatloaf was a couple of pounds of ground beef mixed with an egg or two and a sachet of Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.  Packed into a standard bread pan, the resulting loaf was dense, grainy in texture, and uniformly drab gray within.  This was – hands down – the worst meal my mother (an otherwise good cook) made.

She ran it by us two or three times and then stopped making it altogether, put off no doubt by the close-mouthed refusals and the pretend gagging coming from either end of the dinner table.  Ah, children, what precious gifts!

I have to admit, my mother’s bad meatloaf took the younger me by surprise.  Nothing served to us was ever that bad, so for years I assumed that it was meatloaf’s fault.  That meatloaf itself was just a bad dish.  Never mind that it might be served to raves at friends’ dinner tables, or that it had the reputation for being a comfort classic.  I decided all the meatloaf fans were misguided people with substandard tastebuds because, certainly, if they tasted what I tasted and liked it…well, you get the idea.  But for a loyal child, it was easier blaming the meatloaf and its cheerleaders than my mother’s cooking ability.  Alas, it was her ability (or lack of it) that was the problem; I know this now.  I think my mother was simply uninterested in meatloaf – it wasn’t a meal in her background or even in her periphery – and therefore she made no effort with it.

I didn’t realize this until years later when other people, people I knew well who possessed food judgment I trusted, began describing their mother’s meatloaf.  To a person, eyes went all dreamy, smiles lit up faces.  Words of praise streamed from those upturned mouths: the crispy outer crust that was fought over, the herb-scented steam rising from a slice, the tender texture of that first and each successive bite.  Herb-scented?  Crispy and tender?  Wow, I thought, there must have been something wrong with – gulp – my mother’s version and not meatloaf itself.

My husband was one of those meatloaf nostalgiasts (my word), and after listening to a couple of years’ worth of wistful meatloaf reminiscences while sharing married, meatloaf-less dinners, I thought he probably deserved something he liked so much.  Around 1987, I turned to one of my Silver Palate cookbooks and set out to make a worthy loaf.

Guess what?  It was good.

Turns out, there are necessary components to a good meatloaf, not one of which is Lipton’s Onion Soup Mix.  Incorporate a combination of meats and some good moist bread crumbs in the proper balance, and you’ll bring to the table something flavorful, light not leaden, and with the perfect balance of crisp outside to tender inside.  My recipe, pretty standard but very delicious, follows.  Everyone here likes this recipe so I don’t often deviate from it.

If you want to experiment a bit, let me direct you to a cooking magazine for ideas on how to do so.  I used to be a food magazine junkie; I used to have time to be one.  Nowadays, just to keep up with trends, I limit myself to one subscription and the occasional checkout line impulse buy.  For the impulse buy, I have recently become smitten with  Fine Cooking magazine.  It offers both the practical (such as answers to baking science questions) and the challenge (a step-by-step of how to make traditional steamed pork buns), with a smattering of lovely consumer goods thrown in for visual delight.

The magazine also has a regular feature called Cooking Without Recipes, and the subject of CWR in the February/March issue is meatloaf – perfect warm, comforting food for these last two dreary months of winter.  In this feature, you won’t find a group of hard and fast recipes.  Instead, you’ll find instructions for the essential techniques – seasoning, achieving texture, mixing, and cooking – along with suggestions for combinations of meats and seasonings so you may mix and match to come up with a meatloaf customized to your taste.  Such a column, one that frees you to take some risks and experiment, is a great idea.

Not My Mother’s Meatloaf

The Roquefort Meat Loaf in Silver Palate’s Good Times Cookbook (©1984) inspired me to make this simple version of the American comfort classic.  My recipe is essentially Sheila Lukins’ and Julee Rosso’s meatloaf without the tunnel of Roquefort cheese running through the center, something that struck me as excessive back then and really 1980s silly today.  But if you like cheese, go back to the original and give it a whirl.

Remember, your meatloaf will only be as good as your ingredients.  I like a combination of beef, pork, and veal, and will choose a good quality white bread with some texture but also moistness for the fresh breadcrumbs.  Something like this sliced potato bread (store bought, as I don’t often make white bread, but homemade would be great) with its body and tender crumb is a good option.

Excellent herbs and aromatics are a must.  They can be a simple onion, fresh parsley, and dried thyme; or you can get a little fancier with carrots, celery, mushrooms, and any combination of fresh herbs.

Fine Cooking recommends soaking the bread crumbs in milk, but I find if I choose a bread that isn’t too dry to begin with, and meats that have a moderate amount of natural fats, the soaking isn’t always necessary.  You, however, are empowered to use whichever method you prefer.

  • 1 pound ground beef, preferably chuck
  • 8 ounces ground pork
  • 8 ounces ground veal
  • 1 medium-sized yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cups (about 4 slices) fresh white bread crumbs
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped flat leaf parsley
  • 1/2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 1/4 cup ketchup, plus 2 Tbsp. extra for glazing
  • 1 heaping Tbsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 tsp. salt
  • freshly ground black pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.  Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil, and spray this lightly with non-stick spray.  Set aside.

Saute the chopped onion in a Tbsp. of canola or olive oil.  Stir until softened but not browned.  Let cool.

Combine the eggs, onion, parsley, thyme, 1/4 cup ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl.  Break up the meat into the bowl with the other ingredients.  Add the fresh bread crumbs and gently combine all the ingredients together with your hands, lifting and mixing from the bottom of the bowl and up.  For the best finished texture possible, do not overmix and do not compact the ingredients together while you are combining.

Turn the meat mixture out onto the baking sheet.  Form this into some kind of loaf shape – I usually go for the oval football shape.

Pat gently to bring everything together and to smooth out the top and sides.  Glaze with additional ketchup if desired.

Bake in the preheated oven for an hour.  Let cool a bit to set, then slice and serve.

©2011  Jane A. Ward