Classic doesn’t have to mean boring. Perfect meatloaf should be tender, juicy and packed with savory flavor. Extra points if it’s brushed with a sweet/tart glaze. This is a dish that’s equally adept at making your kids jump for joy as your (adult) dinner guests.
I don’t think of us as “fancy” people. To be sure, our pantry is chock-full of ingredients from various parts of the world, but that’s more about variety than any attempt to impress. That being said, I do have a culinary philosophy: if I’m going to take the time to make something, I’m going to try to make it well. With childhood favorites, that’s even more important because they can so easily not live up to our memories of them. Meatloaf, that all-American classic, is no exception — and making a really good one requires a little thinking outside of the box.
I used to think meatloaf was something you could just throw together. Don’t you just toss some ground beef with a few spices, mix in an egg and boom, done? Well, yes, if you want to end up with a meatloaf that’s bland, dry, and mealy. No, thank you.
Getting the Mix Right
To make something truly crave-worthy, we turned to our friend and favorite culinary scientist. Kenji López-Alt wrote a rightfully famous recipe for meatloaf. He’s published it both on Serious Eats and in his book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science. We’ve made Kenji’s recipe before and it’s delicious. It’s velvety, rich and incredibly moist (sorry to you “moist” haters but there’s no other way to describe it). In fact, it’s almost too refined for what we crave on a casual Wednesday. It’s also a bit more work than we’re willing to put in for a homey dish.
We wanted our meatloaf to be a little more rustic but also to have lots of flavor and moistness, so that’s where Kenji’s wizardry comes in, in the form of gelatin.
The reason you’ll often find veal in the packages of “meatloaf mix” at the grocery store is because veal contains more gelatin than beef and pork. The problem with veal is that it doesn’t have a lot of flavor, and it’s also kind of pricey (plus, it can be a challenge to source good quality, ethically raised veal). So we leave it out entirely, relying on powdered gelatin instead to help the meatloaf retain moisture. Beef is obviously the main ingredient, providing good meaty flavor, and pork adds its own flavor, as well as a good amount of fat which is needed for that juiciness.
And speaking of flavor, we pack in lots of it in the form of garlic, soy sauce, anchovies, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. Note: Don’t be afraid of the anchovies. I promise you it won’t taste fishy at all, but they add a savoriness that is absolutely fantastic. And it wouldn’t be Perfect Classic Meatloaf without a sweet-tart ketchup glaze brushed on top.
The Meatloaf Process
The process is super easy. Preheat the oven to 350ºF and set a rack in the middle. I also like to place a baking dish with a few inches of boiled water on a lower shelf which helps keep the meatloaf from cracking. Line a baking tray with foil or parchment. Pour the chicken broth into a little bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Stir it to combine and set it aside.
Melt the butter in a large skillet and sauté the onions, along with the thyme, salt and pepper. Cook until they turn soft and translucent. A little golden is okay but you’re not looking for dark brown. Tip: if the onions start to brown too much, lower the heat and add a tablespoon or two of water to the pan. Add the anchovies, garlic and tomato paste and cook three minutes longer, until the garlic is fragrant and the anchovies dissolve. Turn off the heat and add all the liquids — the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and chicken broth-gelatin mix. Allow the onion mixture to cool slightly before you mix it in to the meat.
Add beef and pork to a large bowl and add the cooled onion mixture, along with the breadcrumbs and eggs. You want to combine everything thoroughly but without squishing the meat, which would make the meatloaf tough and dense. (We use the same caution when making meatballs.) I like to use my fingers but you could also use a fork. Shape the mixture into one large rectangular loaf (or two smaller loaves) on the lined sheet pan.
Baking the Loaf
Bake for 1 to 1 1/4 hours (if you made two smaller loaves, begin checking after 45 minutes), until the internal temperature reaches 150ºF and the meatloaf is cooked through. Remove the tray from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 450°F.
While the meatloaf is baking, make the glaze: combine the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, and pepper in a small saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally, until the sugar is melted, about 2 minutes. Tip: You can make the glaze up to 3 days ahead. Keep it refrigerated until ready to use.
Use a brush or a spoon to apply a thick layer of glaze to the meatloaf, then return it to the oven. Bake for another 3 minutes. Glaze it again and bake until the glaze is beginning to bubble, about 2 minutes longer. Remove it from the oven and allow it to rest for at least 15 minutes. We like to serve it with mashed potatoes, steamed sugar snap peas and extra glaze on the side.
- ⅓ cup homemade or low sodium chicken broth
- 2¼ teaspoons unflavored gelatin (1 packet)
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 3 cups finely chopped yellow onions (3 medium onions)
- 1½ teaspoons fresh thyme (or ½ teaspoon dried)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 3 anchovy filets, finely chopped
- 4 medium cloves garlic, minced or grated (about 1 tablespoon)
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 pounds ground chuck (85 percent lean)
- 1 pound ground pork
- ½ cup plain dry bread crumbs or panko
- 2 large eggs, beaten
- ¾ cup ketchup
- ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat the oven to 325ºF and set a rack in the middle. Line a baking tray with foil or parchment and set aside. If you want, place a baking dish with a few inches of boiled water on a lower shelf which helps keep the meatloaf from cracking.
- Add broth to a small bowl or ramekin and sprinkle gelatin over it. Stir to combine and set aside.
- Melt the butter in a medium skillet set on medium. Add onions, thyme, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent but not dark brown, about 8 to 10 minutes. Add anchovy, garlic and tomato paste and cook 3 minutes longer, until garlic is fragrant and anchovy dissolves. Turn off the heat and stir in the soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and chicken broth-gelatin. Allow the mix to cool slightly.
- In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, pork, cooled onion mixture, bread crumbs, and eggs, and mix lightly but throughly with your hands or a fork. Don't squish or the meat loaf will be dense. Shape the mixture into 1 large rectangular loaf (or 2 smaller loaves) on the lined sheet pan. Bake for 1 to 1¼ hours (if you made 2 smaller loaves, begin checking after 45 minutes), until the internal temperature reaches 150ºF and the meat loaf is cooked through. (A pan of hot water in the oven, under the meat loaf, will keep the top from cracking.) Remove from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 450°F.
- Meanwhile, Make the Glaze: Combine the ketchup, brown sugar, vinegar, and pepper in a small saucepan and cook over medium-high heat, whisking occasionally, until the sugar is melted, about 2 minutes. Remove from the heat.
- Use a brush or a spoon to apply a thick layer of glaze to the meatloaf, then return it to the oven and bake for 3 minutes. Glaze again and bake until the glaze is beginning to bubble, about 3 minutes longer. Remove from the oven and allow it to rest for 15 minutes. Slice and serve with any extra glaze, as desired.