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Funny story – when I starting writing this post I was wondering about the origins of what we know as meatloaf. Obviously I consulted the Google because who else do you ask inane questions to if not the great Google. Well I kind of forgot about Meatloaf the Man and was quite perplexed when I started reading the meatloaf Wiki entry. Needless to say I do not know any more about the origins of meatloaf, the food,  but I now have Paradise by the Dashboard Light on a loop in my head. DAMN YOU MEATLOAF!!!

I digress.

Meatloaf is one of those foods that gets a really bad rap because it is so royally screwed up by so many cooks, professional and home, that most people just pass it by. This is so totally not right. Meatloaf shouldn’t be some unidentifiable hunk of dried meat covered in a layer of gummy ketchup smothered in a mess of brown “gravy” as most restaurants/diners would have you believe. Granted this is how it is most commonly seen, but that doesn’t make it right. Or edible. And there is much more to a good meatloaf than baking off a hunk of ground meat. A meatloaf is only going to be as good as the ingredients you put into it, as is the case with most things.

There are a couple secrets to a good meatloaf I am going to share with you…

Let’s start with the meat. A word about ground beef – right on each package of ground beef is a fraction label to explain the leanness. The industry norm for ground beef is around 80/20, meaning that the ground beef is 80% muscle to 20% fat. but you can buy 70/30, 85/15, 90/10, etc. Fat is what gives meat flavor – hence why the best steaks are heavily marbled with fat – and it is necessary. The 70/30 is far too fatty and not something that I would buy without a specific purpose – it shrinks up a lot because fat melts when it gets hot & I just don’t like to work with it, anything lower than 80/20 tends to be dry and flavorless especially when cooked over medium so I also steer clear. When grinding myself or buying I stick with the 80/20 and would recommend the same for general usage.

That said, when you are making meatloaf, or even meatballs, you really shouldn’t use all ground beef. It just doesn’t yield a very good end product; a blend is always best for texture & flavor. My first choice is always a roughly 50/50 split of 80/20 ground beef and ground veal. Ground veal is not always as readily available as I would like and I use ground pork instead, a more than adequate substitute if you can’t find or have an aversion to eating veal. I use veal over pork because I like the taste better and I prefer the leanness of it. If I do end up using pork I generally buy a lower fat ground beef to make up for it, I am not a huge fan of greasy meatloaf.

Second secret is to not mash the holy hell out of it when mixing. Ground meat of any variety is not helped when it is all smashed up. It warms up the fat making it pasty and dense and eliminating any porousness, for lack of a better term, the meat had. This is one of the reasons you get tough meatloaf, meatballs, hamburgers or even sausage, really. Think about it. Would a cake be better if you smashed all the air out of it? No. Neither is a meatloaf or burger. Fold your ingredients in, only until they are incorporated. Do it as fast as possible and make sure the meat is cold when you start.

The last secret to a good meatloaf is a twofer. The binding & fillers. For binding I use a combination of egg and heavy cream. The egg holds it all together and the cream adds an unctuousness because of the fat content that you can’t get with another method. I usually use 1 egg & 2 Tbsp of cream per pound of red meat, I do it up different if I am using poultry. As a filler I use panko bread crumbs, a coarser Japanese style bread crumb. The panko is not as dense and doesn’t add a brick-like texture to meatloaf that regular bread crumbs tend to because they are so finely ground. If you are going to go through the trouble to select good meat and then not smash it to paste then use the panko, the difference is discernable.

Now this isn’t so much a secret as just some good advice – don’t add raw onion, garlic, peppers, etc to any kind of meatloaf…well unless you have a desire to eat crunchy, undercooked veg, anyway. Cook them before hand, like in this recipe, to get richer flavor and no harsh raw onion or garlic obnoxiousness. This is especially true with garlic & onion. Raw they add aggressively strong gassy flavors that may be ok when you eat it initially but will get brutally strong as it sits making the leftovers gross. I love garlic & onion, but not when they club me like a baby seal. No matter how large of a meatloaf you are making there is not enough time to adequately cook those things completely IN the meatloaf, trust me, I am a professional.

I snuck some beer into the sauce, too. I used Sam Smith Stingo, a barrel aged old ale, that worked perfectly. A Belgian double or a rich porter/stout would also work well as long as they aren’t hoppy…as is tradition.

According to Mr. Hart, the authority on all food I have made in this house for well over a decade, this is my bestest traditional meatloaf – I make a couple wild game ones that are off the hook but they don’t count here. Truth be told I thought the same thing, but he said it first. I think its the contrast of fresh herbs to bacon & sweet onion, it gives it a richness that I can only equate to a country style pate, one of my most favorite things on the planet to eat. The recipe is kind of odd in that the meatloaf and mushroom sauce are built from the same base – multitasking at its finest – but I like that kind of oddness in that it means one less dirty pan to wash. I can also say with the upmost authority that it was awesome fresh and even better when I sliced it down for meatloaf sandwiches on grilled garlic herb bread w provolone cheese the next night. Of course I made mashed potatoes to go with…I think thats a meatloaf law or something :)

Traditional Meatloaf w Mushroom Gravy yield – dinner for 4 w leftovers

  • 4 slices Thick Cut Bacon, small dice
  • 1 whole Spanish Onion, small dice
  • 1/2 Red or Green Bell Pepper, small dice
  • 2-3 cloves Garlic, minced (my garlic cloves are small, I used 3)
  • 1# (ish) Ground Beef
  • 1# (ish) Ground Veal or Pork
  • 2 Large Eggs
  • 1/4 cup Heavy Cream
  • 1.5 Tbsp Kosher Salt
  • heavy dose Fresh Ground Black Pepper
  • 2 Tbsp Dijon Mustard
  • 2 Tbsp Chopped Fresh Herbs – I used rosemary & thyme
  • 1.5 cups Panko Bread Crumbs
  • 1/4 cup Canned Tomato Sauce (optional to smear over the top)
  • 1# Button or Crimini Mushrooms, cleaned & quartered
  • 4oz Brown Ale (I used Sam Smith Stingo & it was perfect)
  • 4oz Chicken Stock
  • 4oz Heavy Cream
  • 1 Tbsp Chopped Fresh Thyme
  • 1 Tbsp Soy Sauce
  • 3 Tbsp Butter

Preheat your oven to 350. Get your bacon & veg chopped up.

Heat a large saute pan over medium high heat, add the bacon and render until crisp. Add the onion, peppers & garlic. Season with salt & pepper and sweat over medium heat until the onion is tender and the garlic smells sweet. Increase the heat a touch and cook out for a few more minutes to get some color on the onions.

When the onions are cooked take all but 1 cup-ish of the mixture out of the pan and put it into a bowl to cool down. The stuff in the bowl is for the meatloaf, the stuff in the pan is for the sauce.

Once the meatloaf veg are no longer steaming hot add the meats, eggs, cream, dijon, seasonings and bread crumbs to the bowl with the veg and gently fold together to get all of the ingredients evenly distributed – remember – DO NOT SMASH TO HELL! Form into the shape/pan you are going to be baking it in. I bake mine off in a standard pie pan in a rounded loaf, as you will see below, but it can be cooked in any shape you want. Once shaped smear the top with a thin layer of tomato sauce – I like this for that little layer of tangy it adds – but I NEVER use ketchup. Bake to an internal temperature of 155 and let it rest for 15 minutes when it is out of the oven.

The sauce takes about 30 minutes, average meatloaf about an hour, so you dont want to start this until the meatloaf is about half way done. To get it started – reheat the stuff you left in the pan until it is bubbly again. Quarter the mushrooms and add to the pan to saute until tender. Deglaze the pan with the beer and let it reduce by half then add the cream, stock & thyme. Bring to a light simmer and reduce by about half – you want it to thicken up and get all bubbly.

Add the soy sauce, taste and adjust seasoning as needed with salt, pepper or soy. Bring to a heavy simmer and swirl the butter in to melt and thicken the sauce. Pour over your meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Or hell…eat it with a spoon :) Sauce recipe makes enough for 4 generous servings.

Prep time was minimal, clean up was pretty easy, dinner was a huge success and meatloaf sandwiches are the bomb! I would call that a win no matter how you spin it.

Somewhat Related: I have gotten some feedback about my frequent use of dijon mustard – apparently mustard is a thing folks feel quite passionately about. I respect that, honestly, but don’t really get it on this one specifically. I, personally, am not a mustard fan when used as a condiment. It has it’s place, matches certain flavors well and I appreciate it when used judiciously but is not something that I would voluntarily add to my burger or sandwich. That said I use it in a million other places and LOVE it. Like in this meatloaf – if I didn’t tell you it was in there you would never know, but tasting it side by side, one with and one without, the one with would be noticeably better. All I ask is you don’t write it off as “gross” and give it a shot. There are many things that I do not like when they stand alone, I am a ridiculously picky eater given what I do for a living, but dijon mustard is one of those ingredients that compliments and intensifies so many other flavors, similar to salt, that to discount it because you don’t like it on a hot dog is a bit short sighted…that’s all I’m sayin’