Classic Comfort Food: Meatloaf

It sometimes seems as if there are a million meatloaf recipes out there; every family probably has its own.

But no matter what, there are three ingredients that are essential to the perfect meatloaf.

And as part of the Early Show series "Comfort From the Kitchen," Chris Kimball, editor in chief of Cook's Illustrated and host of "America's Test Kitchen", shared his meatloaf secrets Tuesday.

Of course, Cook's Illustrated does nothing half-heartedly. Chris's test kitchens closely examined everything that went into meatloaf, trying different combinations and substitutions to develop what they felt was the perfect recipe.

And, buzz has it that meatloaf is becoming somewhat chic to serve at dinner parties in this economy! Apparently, it's seen as a good reflection of the times and hey, everybody loves it!

Kimball says the original meatloaf "was called a cannelon, which was a cylinder of minced mat wrapped in thin slices of beef and tied. With the advent of the meat grinder, cheap cuts of meat could be turned into ground beef and used as a staple of American home cooking. Over time, many meatloaf recipes were developed at test kitchens owned by large food companies who were creating dishes to promote their convenience products."

Here's what Cook's Illustrated and "America's Test Kitchen" found produced the best meatloaf:

The Meat

"We tested every possible combination of beef, pork, and veal, plus tests of ham and ground up bacon. The winner, oddly enough, was a classic supermarket Meatloaf Mix using 50 percent ground chuck and 25 percent each veal and pork.

"Pork adds flavor, the beef is necessary for texture as well as flavor, and the veal keep the loaf tender. (Veal contains a high level of gelatin.)

"QUICK TIP: If you only have ground beef on hand, add a teaspoon of unflavored powdered gelatin to two pounds of meat. The gelatin will act much like the veal, keeping the texture softer and moister."

The Filler

This ingredient keeps the meatloaf texture from becoming too dense and hamburger-like.

"We tested Grapenuts, Corn Flakes, rice, grated potato, mashed pinto beans (pass the salsa!), quick-cooking tapioca, cracker crumbs, quick-cooking oatmeal, and fresh breadcrumbs. And the winner? The winners were any of the last three, but we settled on saltine crackers as the easiest alternative."

The Liquid

Every recipe also needs a liquid of some sort to keep the meatloaf from being too dry. Chris settled on either whole milk or yogurt, because they didn't add too much flavor to the meatloaf, but still succeeded in keeping the dish tender.

Of course, the meatloaf recipe includes a few other ingredients as well: onion, garlic, parsley, egg, dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, a little bit of hot sauce and some dried thyme.

Cooking the Meatloaf

The dish is called meatloaf; you would assume that it should be cooked in a loaf pan, right? Chris says the problem with doing that is that fat and juices released from the meat during cooking have no where to go, so they just fill up the pan and the meat winds up stewing, not really baking.

He suggests making a free-form loaf and placing it on an aluminum foil-covered baking pan. That also enables a nice crust to form on the sides and top of the meatloaf.

Finishing Touches

Chris brushes a simple glaze of ketchup, brown sugar and cider vinegar over the top of the loaf and THEN covers the top in slices of bacon!

Meatloaf Variations

  • Kitchen Sink Meatloaf: Some people think of meatloaf as one of those dishes you can literally throw everything but the kitchen sink into and have it be a success. Chris generally believes that's NOT the way to go, but he has found one "kitchen sink" recipe he likes. Some of the wacky ingredients in that dish include cottage cheese, sour cream, rye bread, curry powder, chili sauce, and onion soup mix.
  • Frosted Meatloaf: This meatloaf may look like it's frosted like a cake, but you'd better believe the topping is not sweet icing -- it's mashed potatoes!
  • Sicilian Meatloaf: Basically, this style of meatloaf involves making the standard mixture, patting it flat, then placing cheese (and sometimes prosciutto or other meats) inside and rolling the whole thing up into a log, which is then baked.

    For Chris' meatloaf recipes from Chris, go to Page 2.