How to make the perfect meatloaf
Meatloaf is at heart a simple thing: ground meat mixed with an ‘extender’, some vegetables, herbs, spices, and flavourings, and served with a sauce or gravy. It’s a relatively cheap, easy, and quick-to-prepare meal that isn’t usually greeted with disinterested glances. There are, however, many ways to make a meatloaf and Forq is featuring here a collection of original meatloaf recipes. All the main components in meatloaf can be varied to create a seemingly infinite selection of meatloaf recipes. This is no bad thing, but perhaps overwhelming when all you want is to produce a tasty dinner for hungry mouths.
This then, is my guide to producing the perfect meatloaf recipe. Working from the Forq Test Kitchen, I’ll talk you through the options and help you to decide which flavours you want with your specific meatloaf, depending on the meat that you use and the style you’ll serve. But to put what I think is the perfect, every-day meatloaf on the dinner table, all you need to do is follow ‘Forq Recommends’ from every section. You’ll end up with a meatloaf recipe that should feed six people (although not all of them adults), to be cooked in an oiled two-pound loaf pan.
1. Every meatloaf recipe starts with meat
Meatloaf can be made with any ground meat that takes your fancy; from the staple of beef to something we might regard as more exotic, such as camel. There are, however, two prerequisites when it comes to your choice of meat for your meatloaf: First, it must be high quality. Second, the meat needs to have a high fat content. At Forq, we are verging on evangelical when it comes to using locally reared, high quality meat. It’s important for a host of reasons, including animal welfare and the environment, but for anyone who questions the viability of asking your butcher to mince prime steak to make a meatloaf, the simple fact is that it tastes better. And by virtue of it tasting better, you will find smaller quantities more satisfying. (It sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s true.) And don’t forget that this is meatloaf; meatloaf combines meat with a carbohydrate extender and a selection of vegetables: meaning, a little goes a long way.
As for the fat content in your meatloaf recipe, again, this is significant for two reasons: flavour and binding. It’s the fat which holds on to the flavour in meat, meaning that 10% fat ground steak will have a deeper flavour and more pleasant texture than 5% fat meat. And 15% fat ground steak will taste better yet. Fat also holds your meatloaf together and keeps it moist. We aren’t producing dry, crumbly meatloaf, from the Forq Test Kitchen or anywhere! So trust me, go with the higher fat content if you can.
I’ve tried tens, if not hundreds of different types of meatloaf recipes over the years. Some of them benefit from the addition of sausage meat to the ground steak for a more robust flavour; other recipes use lamb because its sweetness works best with Middle Eastern and Indian subcontinental spices and vegetables. But when it comes to a knock-out every-day meatloaf recipe, my preference is to produce a meatloaf using a combination of beef and veal. Beef is hearty, but the veal brings a lighter, sweeter touch to the mixture. Combining meats in your recipe is more interesting for the palate, too. Even if it is meatloaf, a reliable mid-week meal, you don’t want it to be shoveled into mouths with apathy. You want your meatloaf to be savoured.
Forq Recommends: a mix of ground steak and veal. A 50/50 mix is perfect. You’ll need roughly 350g (12oz) of each for a meatloaf for six people.
Meatloaf provides a marvelous means for sneaking at least one portion of the recommended five-a-day into vegetable-phobes.
2. Every meatloaf requires an extender
Meatloaf needs some kind of crumbled or crushed carbohydrate to make it go further. This is thrifty cooking, after all. Adding something like breadcrumbs will also lighten the meatloaf mixture (meaning that it won’t sit in your stomach like a digestion-defying cannonball) and make it easier to handle during preparation. But what flaked, crushed, or crumbled substance produces the best result in your meatloaf recipe? Honestly, I think whatever you prefer and have to hand is best. Whether that’s fresh breadcrumbs, breadcrumbs that you’ve made and stored, crushed puffed rice cereal, rolled oats, or matzo meal, all of them will work well in your final dish.
In the interests of economy, I toast and blend the end slices from a loaf of bread; they’re not the best slices from the loaf and I’d rather not waste them. Unless the bread is on the stale side (and even then, don’t shy away from using it) don’t feel compelled to toast it. However, I prefer the drier, slightly caramelised flavour from toasted breadcrumbs. I also find them easier to work. Yes, it is an extra step in the process, but it takes only a moment. As for people who urge you not to use the crusts: waste not, want not. When the bread is toasted and crumbled, the difference is negligible. In the rare but occasional circumstances that there isn’t enough bread to hand, I think nothing of taking a rolling pin to a ziplock bag of puffed rice cereal.
Forq Recommends: toasted, crumbled bread. Two slices is more than enough.
3. Every meatloaf needs good vegetables
Meatloaf requires onion–a truth universally acknowledged. I don’t think that I’ve ever made a meatloaf without garlic, either. They are givens. But what about other vegetables? After all, meatloaf is a marvelous means of sneaking at least one portion of the recommended five-a-day into vegetable-phobes. Mashed aubergine is heavenly with lamb and Middle Eastern spices. Chopped bell peppers are great with beef and chili. Mushrooms help to intensify the flavour if you’re cooking with turkey or chicken, as well as provide some moisture. Spinach is a delicious accompaniment to either beef or lamb: combine it with cheese for the beef and Indian spices with the lamb. Add some grated courgette to almost anything with impunity. I’ve even used grated apple with pork, puréed chestnut with veal, and dried apricots and prunes with lamb (see all the original recipes here from the Forq Test Kitchen – these flavours are all explored in detail). All you need to do is ask yourself: ‘What style of meatloaf am I producing?’ and pick the vegetable or fruit that goes best with it. Then it’s a case of chopping, grating, or mashing accordingly.
For a good, ordinary meatloaf recipe, a mirepoix of onion, carrot, and celery–along with some garlic–takes the beating. If I’m making a meatloaf which uses just onion and garlic, I tend to add it to the meatloaf mixture raw; but if I’m using a mirepoix, or indeed chopped red pepper, I always soften it in a hot pan with a splash of oil for five or ten minutes first.
Forq Recommends: finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery, and crushed garlic. One medium-sized onion, one medium-sized carrot, one large rib of celery, and two cloves of garlic, fried off in a splash of olive oil.
4. Every meatloaf requires flavour
As you build out both your go-to meatloaf recipes, as well as branch out in new directions, the flavourings you choose give your meatloaf its character: the herbs, spices, and condiments which bring depth and interest and a rounded ‘mouth-feel’ to your food. What you add will depend on what you’ve used so far. These additions need to complement the meat and the vegetables or fruits to create palate harmony. Is this a savoury, earthy meatloaf recipe, or a sweet and spicy recipe? Do you need to introduce something sharp to keep it interesting? Or does it require something herbal? Ask yourself where you are heading, and add accordingly. Those classic flavour combinations are classic for a reason!
Unless it’s there to make a statement, for example stilton with beef, or mozzarella with spinach, I don’t add cheese to my meatloaf mixtures. But I know plenty of people love to add a sprinkling of parmigiano or a handful of grated cheddar. If you think your meatloaf would be better for it, go right ahead.
Tomato ketchup won’t be a good addition to a pork and apple meatloaf, but the classic partners of sage and mustard are perfect. Chill would likely overpower a poultry-based meatloaf, but you will require a touch if you’re making an Indian-inspired meatloaf–along with aromatic spices such as a cinnamon, cumin, coriander, and turmeric–or a bit more for a Mexican-style version. If you like aniseed flavours, try some tarragon with a chicken mixture; if you don’t, lemon and thyme or lemon and parsley are tasty options, especially if you’ve added grated courgette, too. Beef-based mixtures usually benefit from the sweet depth of tomato purée and mustard is super to add kick. My go-to herbs for meatloaf are thyme and oregano, or sage for earthy flavours, and coriander for spicy ones. But for an uncomplicated–albeit delicious–mid-week meatloaf, you want additions that are close-to-hand, in your fridge, pantry, or growing in the garden.
Forq Recommends: tomato purée, mustard, thyme, and oregano. Two tablespoons of tomato purée, one dessert spoon of strong mustard, and a teaspoon and a half each of chopped fresh thyme and oregano.
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5. Every meatloaf requires gravy
Last but in no way least, we come to the sauce or gravy to serve with your meatloaf. They seem to be divided into two general camps: gravy or tomato sauce. Of course, the type of gravy or the sort of tomato sauce that you make will depend on the meatloaf that you’ve prepared. You’ve put together a rich meatloaf with venison? Then you will require a correspondingly decadent gravy with port and redcurrant jelly. A chicken and turkey meatloaf with courgette, lemon, and parsley will need a lighter white wine gravy. My Indian-style kofta meatloaf demands a thick tomato and coconut based curry sauce. If you’re heading down Mexico-way, you’ll want salsa and guacamole. Picnic meatloaf needs tomato ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard. The only hard-and-fast rule is to follow the flavours!
My advice: find yourself a good gravy recipe and a good tomato sauce recipe and adapt them as you need to.
Forq Recommends: thick onion gravy. Slice a medium-sized onion and fry it off in a tablespoon of oil with a pinch of sugar and a pinch of salt until it begins to caramelise. Stir in a tablespoon of flour to create a sticky roux. Add 100ml of Madeira or Marsala to make a smooth paste. Then pour over 300ml of good beef stock and allow the gravy to cook through and thicken. It will take about 20 minutes. You can substitute the alcohol and the stock as required to meet the needs of your meatloaf! (Or your roast dinner.) My grandmother pours her gravy over her meatloaf about half-way through its cooking time. I serve it along side. Either option is completely delicious.
6. Anything else?
You’ll need at least one egg to bind the mixture and some salt and pepper. A meatloaf this size will need about one hour minutes at 170º Celsius. Check it after 50 minutes, and be prepared for it to take up to 75 minutes to cook. It will be browned on top and pulling away from the sides of the pan when it’s cooked. Don’t forget to let it rest in the tin for ten minutes before you serve it.
And to go with it, you’ll need some rice, mashed potato, or baked potatoes, and some vegetables.
Forq Recommends: Mashed potatoes and whatever vegetables are fresh on the allotment. Easy, midweek perfection. The perfect meatloaf and the perfect meal.
Forq-Featured Meatloaf Recipes
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