Meatloaves are a simple combination of meat, filler (starch), binder (egg), moistener (liquid), and flavorings (herbs, spices, ketchup, etc.). Toppings and sauces are often added for extra flavor and eye appeal.
MEATS Ground meats — beef, veal, pork, sausage, ham, and lamb — are the mainstay and body of the traditional meatloaf. Meatloaf can be made with one meat, or with a combination of meats for a more complex flavor. For best results, quality meats should be used. The standard proportion is 1 pound of ground beef and ½ pound of another meat, typically ground pork, but the meats and portions are interchangeable. This amount will fit into an average size 9-by-5-inch loaf pan and will serve 4 to 6 people. Some meat markets offer a meatloaf mix of equal portions of beef for flavor and texture, pork for succulence, and veal for smoothness. You can make your mix using a food processor to grind the meat, but do not over-process, or the meatloaf will be too dense.
Beef Ground beef chuck. For best results, use lean meat with about 15 percent fat. Do not use extra-lean, as some fat is needed to enhance the flavor and prevent the meatloaf from drying out.
Pork Ground pork, ground pork sausage, and link sausage. Ground pork is all pork without seasonings. Pork sausage has seasonings and some fat added. Italian sausage has Italian seasonings added and is available mild or hot. Various types of link sausages (such as kielbasa, chorizo, andouille, and others) can be added for extra-spicy flavor.
Ground Lamb and Veal These may be available fresh at your supermarket or butcher shop or can be purchased frozen. If any frozen meat is used, thaw thoroughly in the refrigerator and pat dry with a paper towel. Game Ground venison and buffalo are now appearing in some markets and can be substituted for other meats.
POULTRY AND SEAFOOD Ground turkey and ground chicken have recently become popular, offering leaner versions of the traditional meatloaf mixes. Cooked or canned salmon or other firm cooked fish, such as halibut or snapper, can also be used in a loaf.
VEGETARIAN BASES a mixture of vegetables, beans or other legumes, and cereal and nuts as the base for loaves will appeal to the vegetarian or those on special diets.
FILLERS the primary purpose of “fillers,” or the starch ingredients in a meatloaf mixture, is not to stretch the meat or the food-buying dollar, but to give the loaf body and texture and to absorb the flavorful juices. The most common filler is breadcrumbs, either fresh or dried. Dried breadcrumbs, in both fine and coarse grinds, are readily available in packages, in a range of styles and flavors — Progresso is an excellent brand or the light, and fluffy panko (Japanese breadcrumbs, found in Asian markets and well-stocked supermarkets) are a reliable choice. Different pieces of bread (also found in some packaged crumbs), such as whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, sourdough, cornbread, pita, challa, and focaccia, contribute their unique flavor and texture to the meatloaf. Other common fillers are crushed crackers; quick-cooking oats or other dry cereal; crushed tortilla chips; cooked rice, lentils or beans, pasta or potatoes; or instant grits or bulgur.
It is also easy to make your own breadcrumbs, which can be very handy when you are caught without any in the pantry, and enables you to experiment with any bread you like. One bread slice will make about 1 cup of crumbs.
To make fresh breadcrumbs, trim crusts from bread slices, if desired, tear into large pieces, and process in a food processor or blender into coarse or fine crumbs.
To make dried breadcrumbs, spread the fresh breadcrumbs on a baking covering and allow it to dry in a 200°F oven for about 20 minutes or on the counter overnight. If not using immediately, store all breadcrumbs in a tightly covered container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. To crush saltines or other crackers, place crackers in a zippered plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin or jar.
MOISTENER Milk, soup, juice, broth, cottage cheese, sour cream, yogurt, wine, gravy, barbecue sauce, and other sauces are used to keep the loaf tender and moist.
BINDER Eggs are used as a binder to hold the meatloaf together. One egg is usually sufficient for 1 to 1½ pounds of meat, two eggs for 2 lbs. of meat. If you prefer, you can substitute 2 egg whites or ¼-cup egg substitute for one egg. The unbeaten eggs can be mixed with all of the ingredients at once or lightly beaten before adding to the mixture. Beating the eggs incorporates air and may make a lighter meatloaf.
FLAVORING Onions are the most commonly used ingredient to add flavor. Other flavorings include garlic, celery, mushrooms, carrots, and tomatoes. Some cooks prefer to sauté the vegetables first, but most vegetables, if finely chopped, will cook in the 1-hour baking time for the assembled loaf. Leftover cooked vegetables in your refrigerator are a handy option, too. For extra flavor and zest, ingredients such as ketchup, chili sauce, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, mustard, horseradish, bacon bits, capers, herbs, spices, salt, and pepper can be added to the mix.
TOPPINGS, GLAZES, AND SAUCES Toppings and glazes are used to add flavor and color and help keep the meatloaf moist while baking. Sauces may be added at presentation or passed at the table. Follow the recipe directions for these enhancements, or create your own.
GARNISHES, though optional, give the meatloaf a final change, adding color and interest. Some choices are parsley, cilantro, watercress, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper strips, baby vegetables, fruit slices or wedges, mushrooms, pickles, olives, nuts, hard-cooked eggs, and even edible flowers.
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