There's no meatloaf like Mom's

Published May 14, 1998|Updated Sept. 13, 2005

In the vast repertoire of many good cooks, there is only one meatloaf recipe: meatloaf a la Mom. It's a childhood memory, a savory slice of comfort nestled beside a mound of slightly lumpy mashed potatoes.

To actually prepare another meatloaf would be akin to fixing something that isn't broken. No one can dish out comfort better than Mom's.

While my favorite meatloaf probably will always be my mother's _ which was her mother's _ it's a big world out there, with endless loaves of ground beef, lamb, venison, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, salmon and even vegetables.

A loaf is a simple meal you can make with your hands, a bowl and a baking pan. Best of all, you can toss it together the night before, cover and chill it, then pop it in the oven after work. Few leftovers are better than cold meatloaf sandwiches on firm, white bread with a little mayonnaise, mustard or ketchup.

My mother's meatloaf is sweet and easy, and I automatically think of her whenever I make it. A whiff of the sweet-and-sour glaze of ketchup, brown sugar and vinegar slathered over the baking meatloaf sends me back to my family's farmhouse in Iowa, where we would eagerly await the oven timer's announcement that dinner was ready.

My husband's mother makes a wonderful ham loaf. She used to lovingly serve it whenever we visited, certain that it was Tom's favorite. For the longest time, Tom didn't have the heart to tell her that she was confusing him with an older brother. He politely ate the ham loaf while disliking every bite.

This brings us to yet another truth about meatloaf: Most people either love it or can easily live without it.

Those who wrinkle their noses typically envision a school cafeteria meatloaf, said Melanie Barnard, a cookbook author from Connecticut who is somewhat of a meatloaf expert.

"If you ask them whether they actually tasted it, they didn't," Barnard said. "It was mostly that they didn't want to be at school, and this was an association with school."

Not that school cafeteria meatloaves are bad. Barnard is quick to report that she liked the meatloaf served at her school, but she got the best mileage from her mother's leftover meatloaf sandwiches, which she traded for Twinkies.

"I frequently traded because I knew there was more meatloaf at home, and we never had Twinkies," Barnard said.

Now Barnard is on a mission, not to derail Mom's meatloaf, but to expand our horizons.

Her cookbook, Everybody Loves Meatloaf (HarperPerennial, 1997, $14.95), is a collection of 122 recipes she gathered and developed with the help of family and friends who were eager to share favorites.

She was driven to write the cookbook because she found that very few people have more than one meatloaf recipe. Most stick to Mom's, "and it never occurs to them that there are more out there," she said.

The American tale of meatloaf reflects changing times.

"Meatloaf went underground when people got uppity in the '80s and only wanted to do cutting-edge cuisine," Barnard explained. "It was an embarrassment. People still ate it; they just didn't talk about it."

Then food, like fashion, went retro.

"People have returned to their roots a little," Barnard said. "People in their 30s, who as little kids were raised by parents who both worked, and who grew up on McDonald's, want to return to home cooking, but they don't want it to be basic. They're not ready to settle for everyday, ordinary meatloaf _ these are people of taste."

This explains why trendy restaurants offer fancy meatloaf that costs a lot of money. Upscale loaves such as Dilled Salmon Loaf with Lemon-Caper Sour Cream are included in Barnard's cookbook for the same reason.

"Depending upon the occasion, meatloaf can be a culinary masterpiece, or it can be a flavorful everyday staple," Barnard writes. "There are loaves for celebrations _ say, a rich pate-like loaf with some mellow red wine _ and then there are loaves to brighten the most mundane of days, hearty slices of ground meats bound together with good bread crumbs and topped with ketchup and bacon."

Barnard's cookbook offers meatloaves, poultry loaves, seafood loaves and vegetarian loaves to suit every taste and occasion.

Many cultures have enjoyed versions of meatloaf for centuries, from French pate to Swedish meatballs, Barnard said. If it has a starch, a binder, meat and seasonings, it's meatloaf.

Barnard's love affair with meatloaf is linked to her maternal grandmother, who took great pride in the preparation and serving of many good meatloaves. Her grandmother taught her to mix gently, pat smoothly and tend the loaf carefully during baking.

Her grandparents were "summer nomads," who took her along on several road trips.

Truck stops were the place to eat, and her grandmother would allow them to stop only if there were a requisite number of trucks in the parking lot.

A 10-truck stop was a winner, and Barnard almost always ordered meatloaf with gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans. Her first taste of turkey loaf was at one such truck stop.

Barnard has been making meatloaf ever since, and she offers this primer:

"Don't throw in everything yucky in the refrigerator. Using the best ingredients is the secret to the best meatloaf."

Her favorite meatloaf has a blend of meats: about two parts ground beef (for juiciness) to one part each of lean ground pork and veal (for delicate flavor). Many groceries sell this mixture in meat departments. For the juiciest loaf, use only fresh, not previously frozen meat.

The starch gives the characteristic juicy and slightly soft texture to a loaf. It can be dried bread crumbs, cracker crumbs, cereal, rice or even pasta. Her choice for most loaves is fresh bread crumbs made from the best-quality firm bread.

A binder _ usually an egg _ keeps all the elements together. If you're concerned about cholesterol, 2 egg whites or \ cup of cholesterol-free egg substitute can be used in place of each egg.

Commercial condiments from soy sauce to ketchup are wonderful seasonings, whether added to the mixing bowl or as part of a glaze.

Place the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and, with your hands, scoop from the bottom and mix through open fingers to keep the ingredients as light and aerated as possible. Don't use a fork, mixing spoon or electric mixer. Kids may love digging in, too, but don't overmix; that causes loss of texture and makes for soft, spongy meatloaf.

Don't overbake or underbake. Use a meat thermometer to gauge the proper temperature for doneness. More crust will form with more surface exposure to the oven, so many meatloaf recipes are best shaped into 9- by 5-inch loaves in a 13- by 9-inch baking pan. Metal pans promote more browning and more crust, which Barnard prefers, but glass pans are fine.

Finally _ and perhaps most importantly _ if you're a kid, defer to adults when the meatloaf platter is passed at the table.

"At our house, meatloaf etiquette requires that the adults be offered the end pieces, which are considered the most desirable because they have the most crust," Barnard said.

Here's my sentimental favorite meatloaf. My mother got the recipe from her mother, who got it from someone at a church dinner about 40 years ago. At the time my grandmother first made it, my mother was a newlywed, seeking good recipes.

"I had made meatloaf other ways, and it didn't taste like I wanted it to," Mom said. "I think the onion soup and stuffing give this one more flavor. Once I made it, I never made another meatloaf."

Mother's Meatloaf


2 pounds ground beef

2 beaten eggs

1 can (10{ ounces) condensed French onion soup

} cup dry herb-seasoned stuffing cubes


{ cup ketchup

\ cup packed brown sugar

1 tablespoon vinegar

\ teaspoon dry mustard

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

In large mixing bowl, use your hands to gently but thoroughly mix all the ingredients.

In 13- by 9-inch baking pan, shape into 9- by 5-inch loaf, smoothing top, and bake in preheated oven 45 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare topping by combining all ingredients.

After meatloaf has baked 45 minutes, spread topping over meatloaf and return to oven for another 15 minutes, or until meat thermometer inserted into center of meatloaf registers 160 degrees. Makes 8 servings.

Prizewinning Meatloaf

} pounds lean ground chuck

6 ounces lean ground pork

6 ounces ground veal

1 cup milk

1 cup firm fresh white bread crumbs or uncooked quick oats

{ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley

cup finely chopped onion

1 egg

2 tablespoons prepared chili sauce or ketchup

1 tablespoon prepared horseradish

1\ teaspoons salt

{ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In large mixing bowl, use your hands to gently but thoroughly mix all the ingredients.

In 13- by 9-inch baking pan, shape meat into 9- by 5-inch loaf or pat into 9- by 5-inch loaf pan, smoothing the top. Bake in preheated oven about 1 hour until meatloaf is firm, top is richly browned, and meat thermometer inserted into center of loaf registers 155 degrees.

Let meatloaf stand in pan 10 minutes, then cut into slices to serve. Makes 8 servings.

Source: Everybody Loves Meatloaf by Melanie Barnard.

Classic Meatloaf

1{ pounds lean ground beef or turkey

} cup rolled oats (quick or old-fashioned)

} cup finely chopped onion

{ cup ketchup

1 egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce

2 cloves garlic, minced

{ teaspoon salt

\ teaspoon black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine all ingredients in large bowl; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf mixture into 10- by 6-inch loaf on rack of broiler pan.

Bake in preheated oven 50-55 minutes or until meatloaf is to medium doneness, when meat thermometer inserted into loaf registers 160 degrees for beef or 170 degrees for turkey. Let stand 5 minutes before slicing. Cover and refrigerate leftovers promptly and use within 2 days or wrap airtight and freeze up to 3 months.

Makes 6-8 servings. Nutrition data perserving: 230 calories, 11 gm carbohydrates, 18 gm protein, 13 gm fat, 75 mg cholesterol, 1 gm fiber, 390 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 51 percent.

Variation: For a Caribbean Meatloaf, to classic meatloaf ingredients add 2 teaspoons Caribbean jerk seasoning or Mexican seasoning; mix lightly but thoroughly. Shape meatloaf as above but bake 30 minutes. Drain 1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple in juice, reserving juice for another use. Combine pineapple, 1 jar (9 ounces) mango chutney, 1 jalapeno pepper, finely chopped (optional) and 1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint or cilantro; mix well.

Remove meatloaf from oven; spoon { cup pineapple mixture over top; continue baking 20-25 minutes, until meatloaf is to same doneness as classic recipe. Let stand 5 minutes. Serve with remaining pineapple mixture.

Source: Quaker Oatmeal Kitchens