Meatloaf is a garbage dish, and that’s why we dig it so much. By definition it’s a hodgepodge of whatever meats and filler are available, spiced liberally, then minced, formed, and baked into a uniform loaf. Subtlety need not apply here; meatloaf is meant to be a one-way ticket to Flavortown, U.S.A.
But caution must be heeded. Here is a dish where overzealousness or careless handling could cause ruin in the form of dry, tough, or rubbery meat. As we turn it over to the experts (and our food-obsessed staff) for their ace tips, we invite you to leave your meatloaf tricks in the comments below.
Chris Shepherd, chef/owner of Underbelly and One Fifth in Houston
Grind is important. Ground chuck is where it’s at. It has good, beefy flavor and a good fat content. Combining egg, milk, and breadcrumbs—that’s the first step. Let all of that soak together and add it, along with your seasonings, to the ground chuck. I prefer individual meatloafs and make 10-ounce patties. I use my hand to form a tunnel on the top, no more than half an inch deep. I then take a mix of ketchup, Worcestershire, and hot sauce and layer it along the tunnel. Bake at 400 degrees for 14 minutes, then let rest. That’s my meatloaf—the tunnel is key.
Bridget Vanaman, sous chef of Mott Street in Chicago
1. Use fresh bread instead of dried because that helps keep it moist (white bread works, but we often use brioche scraps because we have them at the restaurant).
2. Puree all ingredients other than the meat so that there is even distribution of flavor. This also increases the moisture. So instead of diced onions throughout, you have onion puree keeping the meat moist.
3. Take a bit of the mixture and cook it off first to make sure seasoning is spot-on.
4. Use eggs and milk in your seasoning puree.
5. Pack the meat loosely into your pan—just enough to hold its shape, but not tight. Nobody likes a condensed hockey pucks. We’re making meatloaf, not meat bricks.
Ziggy Gruber, chef of Kenny & Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston
One of our secrets is that we put caramelized onions, rather than raw ones, in our meatloaf. We cook the onions for several hours to get them really colorful and full of flavor. They add a sweetness that mixes well with the saltiness and makes you crave the meatloaf more. I put the meatloaf in a 500-degree oven for 10 minutes and then take it down to about 275 and cook until done, about 45 to 55 minutes. This gives a slight bit of crust on the outside, and another bit of caramelization, without overcooking the whole meatloaf.
Nick Curtola, executive chef of the Four Horsemen in Brooklyn
You need to make sure to buy ground beef that has a nice fat content. No lean waist-watching stuff here! Or cut in a little ground pork. You also want to make sure it is seasoned well with salt and whatever spices you’re using. Adding moisture is nice, too. Use some sweated onions or some breadcrumbs softened in some beef stock. Basically fat and salt—always fat and salt. A good tip is to season and get the mix ready, then just fry up a little meatball of it to taste for seasoning. That way you can adjust before committing to cooking off the whole thing. And then just cook it gently: 325 degrees Fahrenheit until it hits 145 or so, then let it carry [with thermal momentum]. Treat it like a piece of meat or a hamburger in that sense. I’m also a big fan of the ketchup glaze. Or better yet, HP sauce.
Marcos Ascencio, chef of Bar Lupo in Chicago
I am a huge fan of meatloaf and something that brings back lots of memories. It’s all in the types of meat and how tight you pack it. I like to keep it pretty loose; I prefer it softer and crumbly, not too dense. I normally use a mixture of chuck, brisket, and short rib, which I grind myself. At this point I treat it like my meatballs, with onions cooked in red wine, and plenty of cheese, eggs, milk, and a little bread for binding. I also like to stuff it with a soft-boiled egg, and if I am feeling fancy, I wrap it with caul fat.
Ari Taymor, chef of Alma at The Standard in West Hollywood
Your best bet sauce for meatloaf is a horseradish crème fraîche. Grate some fresh horseradish into crème fraîche, then add a little lemon and some salt.
As you’re mixing the meat mixture with your bare hands, add in a cup of Clamato juice. It adds moisture and zestiness to the loaf. I’m serious about this.
Josh Capon, executive chef of Lure Fishbar in New York City and Miami
Line the inside of the meatloaf with soft-boiled eggs, then wrap the meat around them. When you slice into the meatloaf it makes for a great visual as well as a rich and tasty center.
My meatloaf has kicked up considerably since I started cooking it in a crockpot. Just make your regular meatloaf recipe, using any/all of the suggestions above. (I usually add a ketchup glaze on the top of mine, because that’s how I roll.) Then wrap it all up into some aluminum foil (so that it resembles a football more than a meatloaf) and put it in your crockpot on low.
Warning: A regular, one-and-a-half pound meatloaf will cook in about four hours (to get to the done temperature of 150 degrees or so). So this is not a crockpot recipe you can set up before work, because by the time you get home, your meatloaf will resemble a shoe more than a football. Make it on a Sunday afternoon, maybe while you’re even watching some football, and you will be rewarded with the juiciest, greatest meatloaf in all of creation. Hey, I just said I liked it, I didn’t say I know how it works.