"Personally, I hate ketchup. Like HATE WITH ALL MY HEART," chef Kevin Gillespie rages. "But in meat loaf, it seems to work. It has to be that juxtaposition of sweet and savory."
Chefs these days might take certain liberties with the scrappy Depression-era dish, drizzling it with Sriracha or thatching together a roof of bacon like the Top Chef contestant does at Revival in Decatur, Georgia. Yet there is still something satisfying about classic meat loaf (see the recipe)—ketchup lacquering and all.
"It was on regular rotation in my house growing up, and my dad always made it. His version was pretty traditional, made with ground beef and a tomato-paste glaze," Ashley Christensen, the chef/owner of Poole's Diner in Raleigh, North Carolina, says. "Almost more memorable than the actual meat loaf, though, was the sandwich he'd make the next day with the leftovers: rye bread, mayonnaise, iceberg lettuce and a slice of ice-cold meat loaf."
Now, when Christensen says traditional and we say classic, we don't mean the wheat germ- and pork liver-packed "Vitality Loaf" from Penny Prudence made back in the World War II days. We mean the kind Mom (or Dad) used to make, which we still crave today: ground meat speckled with chopped onions and bread crumbs, and lathered with eggs and a little Worcestershire sauce.
A tiny history lesson in meat loaf: Experts trace the birth of the iconic meat slab to those ancient entrepreneurs, the Romans. In De Re Coquinaria published in the fourth century by a glutton named Apicius, the meat loaf called for chopped meat, bread and wine. But after the invention of the meat grinder in the 1800s, the dish's real solidification in American cuisine came with trial. Cheap, lean meats could be stretched with bread and milk during the Depression, and wartime rations of beans and rice morphed into a meatless loaf.
And this is why you won't see anyone getting mad at the bastardization of meat loaf when it's ground with game meat as Brian Millman does at Atwood in Chicago or glistening with barbecue sauce as Ericka Burke does at Chop Shop in Seattle. Meat loaf survives and, yes, thrives with adaptation.
"Its staying power derives from how easy it is to prepare and tweak, and how, generally—and I stress generally—forgiving it is to make," Emma Bengtsson, the chef at Aquavit in New York City, says. "But there's some room for error."
Case in point: the dry, crumbly loaves of school cafeteria nightmares. However, our version is anything but, and, between our own runs in our Test Kitchen and polling meat loaf-loving chefs, we came away with these tips to making perfectly velvety meat loaf.
① It's OK to feel crumby. The age-old question arises: Do you go with panade, the French-style milk-soaked bread, or plain old dried crumbs? Across the board, chefs do dry. But then that leads to another question: What kind of crumb? "I tend to use panko when making meat loaf, because it gets distributed more uniformly," Millman says. "I use egg yolks and day-old bread crumbs," Burke counters, and we agree. Eggs add fluff and bread crumbs heft in our loaf.
② Give your banana bread pan new life. "Two major problems usually arise: The first is that people make the loaves too big, and they struggle to cook them evenly. The second is that in order to make sure it is cooked all the way through, people tend to overcook it and make it dry," Gillespie says. "Solution: smaller loaves!" So we bust out the 9-by-5-inch pans to make perfectly sized logs.
③ Learn to love the word moist. Do not avert your ears. "Moisture is the name of the game," Gillespie says. "Meat loaf needs to be made with fattier meat blends, and it needs some sort of extender in order to stay moist." Whereas other chefs blend pork, beef and veal, we simplify things by going beef only: ground chuck that's 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat.
④ Give it a rest. Like a seared rib eye or a roast chicken, meat loaf also needs a little alone time. "Lots of recipes omit this step," Christensen says. And like the aforementioned proteins, this crucial exercise in self-control allows juices to redistribute and keep it, yes, moist. Oh, and Christensen isn't finished: "Last big mistake," she says, "not making enough for leftover meat loaf sandwiches on day two."
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