A Big Little Recipe is a small recipe with the smallest possible ingredient list but big everything else: flavour and creativity. We don’t count water and salt. We’re going to make your favourite meatloaf.
Since the late 1800s, meatloaf has been a favourite American dish. It’s not surprising that there are so many meatloaf recipes, or more than 30 million, over 100 years later. Anything is possible, from the meat to the mix-ins.
This is Meatloaf Plain and Simple, a favourite Food52 recipe by Sdebrango. It won the Best Dinner That Makes A Good Lunch contest. Food52 editors called it a “no-frills meatloaf”, with all the essential ingredients (beef and pork) plus various vegetables (onion, carrot, celery, celery).
This is why it’s called meatloaf. This lentil loaf is something I’ve always wanted to make. The default choice is beef in American cookbooks, from Joy of Cooking through Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Wildcards such as bacon and pancetta are sometimes present, too. If all beef was good for the meatloaf recipes, it is good enough. Freshly ground beef is best. It’s more coarse and less dense, so it’s worth trying. I prefer to use 15 to 20% fat for a delicious, moist loaf.
Alt describes bread crumbs as “perhaps the most essential ingredient when it comes to improving a meatloaf’s texture.” While some cooks may use other starchy ingredients like rolled oatmeal or puffed rice, we will be using English muffins. It’s not a common practice, but it is something I do. In a meaty situation, I prefer to make my breadcrumbs rather than using dried ones. The problem with fresh bread is: The crust can be too difficult to blitz, so many recipes will advise you to get rid of it. The problem with removing the crust is: It is full of flavour. English muffins have a higher crust ratio because they are individually formed. They are also prepackaged so the crusts can be blitzed. They are also consistently flavorful with sourdough-Esque flavours. They’re also easy to store in the freezer.
Although egg yolks are a great addition to meatloaves, the main reason eggs are needed for structure. They help to hold the meatloaf together. This is particularly important when making a freeform meatloaf. You can shape it by hand or use a loaf pan. Although the shape may not be as perfect, the crust will be much more browned and more evenly browned because there is more surface area. Our free-form loaf will keep together in the oven and produce neat slices at the table, thanks to the eggs.
Bread and eggs are structural; they bind the meatloaf. But aromatics are all about flavour. This is why so many recipes use them. Onion and carrot, as well as fresh and dried herbs. This recipe ends with the onion. This recipe is incomplete, but I was not expecting it to be. My standard approach to Big Little Recipes is not to make it complicated but to add as much as you need. So I sauteed a lot of yellow onions until it was tender. Complex, caramelized flavours are what you want in a meatloaf. To my surprise, the result was the chef kissing his fingers. This reminds me of French onion soup, where you only need onions and beef broth to create something extraordinary.
A glaze is essential for every meatloaf. Many are ketchup-based and have perky additions such as dried spices, vinegar, or sugar. Ironically, ketchup already contains sugar, vinegar, and dried spices. This is why many cooks, including Ina Garten, use ketchup. We will do the same. It’s easy to imagine it as ketchup on your burger. To balance the savouriness, I like to mix some ketchup in the meatloaf. Many recipes call for tomato paste, but it’s unnecessary when you already have another flavorful tomatoey ingredient.
Water is the secret ingredient in Rao’s legendary meatballs. Yep, water. Two cups of water are mixed with two pounds of meat. This clever trick makes a meatball noticeably moister and lighter. It didn’t work out well for me when I tried it with just one meatloaf. All of this was fixed by reducing the water. Then, you added the water at another step to elevate the meatloaf. Do you remember those caramelized onions? We’ll pour the water over them once they are golden brown. This not only cools them down quicker but also de-glazes any good bits stuck at the bottom of your pan and creates an extremely flavorful onion broth. It also makes it easier to clean your saute pan. It’s also pretty cool.