It seems fair to say that meatloaf does not enjoy the very best reputation among foodstuffs. You tend to think of it as something harried parents make, and when their kids ask what's for dinner and are told, they say, "Aw, meatloaf?" and then smother it in ketchup and glumly pick at it with their forks for a while before asking to be excused so they can go misspell things on the internet. It's necessity food. Functional food. Sad food.
There are a few different reasons for this. The simplest is that people often screw meatloaf up, primarily by trying too hard to make it something other than a big loaf of meat, starchy filler, and flavoring ingredients. The most depressing is our deep-seated cultural loathing of things that are good. The most perverse is meatloaf's traditional popularity: Everybody's parents made it; everybody got bored of it; everybody associated it with their harried parents and boring Chore Food; everybody abandoned it as soon as he or she could; everybody rounded into adulthood, got over their post-adolescent need to appear to have only the very most refined tastes, thought, "Damn, meatloaf is fucking good," and then, "Damn, I don't know how to make meatloaf," and then, "Damn, I wish I was my mom so I could make meatloaf for myself," and then, "Wait, that's like a paradox or whatever"; and then everybody had a depressing grilled chicken breast with steamed fucking kale instead.
And friends, that is a goddamn tragedy. Because when you step away from the conception of meatloaf as a depressing undifferentiated protein mash for sad people, here's what you see: a big, greasy heap of rich red meat, roasted crispy on the outside, juicy and tender on the inside, filled with all kinds of tasty additions and topped with whatever the hell you like. A hedonistic, decadent indulgence, right? Slavering caveman food! Refinement flung to the dogs!
We like meatballs, we like hamburgers, we like things that are bigger than other things, and meatloaf is essentially like those first two things only a little bit different and a lot bigger, especially when you make one that is obscenely, nigh disturbingly large, as we are going to today. So, let's reconsider meatloaf. Also, let's have some fucking meatloaf.
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What follows are instructions for making a meatloaf that will taste so good your oven will refuse to yield it to you when the loaf has finished cooking, and instead defiantly detach itself from the wall, scoot out into the street, and make a break for the pristine Canadian wilderness. This preparation is also pleasingly simple and straightforward, and it will yield a glorious, juicy meatloaf roughly the size of an adult capybara. Apart from the meat, you may very well already have every single other ingredient in your kitchen. To begin with, preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
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Now, dump four—yes, four, damn your eyes!—pounds of meat into the largest bowl-like vessel you have. Meatloaf isn't called meatloaf by accident: the generic word meat gives you some wiggle room to account for your own taste and preferred proportions. It's common to use a mix of beef, pork, and veal for meatloaf—veal for juiciness and gelatin (which gives a good meatloaf its soft, moist texture), pork because pork is most of what makes life worth living, and beef because someone has to do something about all these damn cows all over the place—and that's what I recommend, too. How you go about assembling that combination, and in what proportions, is entirely up to you, but you absolutely cannot go wrong if you buy four pounds of your local grocer's or butcher's prepackaged "meatloaf mix" or "meatloaf blend" or some such, which is typically mostly beef, plus smaller, roughly equal amounts of pork and veal.
Or, hey, get four pounds of ground chuck if you want. Or two of chuck and two of ground turkey, for the sake of pretending that you are attending to your physiological wellness with this giant greasy log of pulverized meat. Your meatloaf will be dramatically drier and crumblier this way, and not as flavorful, but it will still probably taste good. (But, really. Put some veal in there. It's evil and you're going to go to hell for it, but it also tastes like it is worth eternal damnation.)
So now your bowl is full of ground meat. It's time to add other things to the bowl. That's awfully broad, and we're going to get more specific about exactly what things to add in just a moment, but first you need to know this: A terrific, not-so-secret rule of thumb with meatloaf is that you want one whole cup (or damn near close to it) of Things That Are Not Meat for each pound of meat in your meatloaf. So if you have four pounds of meat, you want four cups or so of Things That Are Not Meat. Things That Are Not Meat have the effect of preventing the meatloaf from turning into a dense, chewy, rubber tire of a meal, and also, conceptually, help you feel better about calling it a meatloaf—made from something not so dissimilar to dough, bread-like or cake-like when completed—rather than a giant meatball or a meatheap or a meatpile or a trio of sad farm animals that wandered in front of a riding lawnmower and shouldn't we have a funeral for them or something.
So, what to add? One big onion, Spanish or sweet or white, diced small—that's about a cup of Things That Are Not Meat. A few cloves of minced garlic—this is a negligible addition to your Things That Are Not Meat, so we won't count it because I dislike doing math with fractions more than absolutely necessary. A half-cup or so of minced carrot. Whisk three eggs with a fork in a small bowl or mug, and pour 'em in there. Two glugs of milk. And, finally, two and a half cups or so of bread crumbs or (fun!) saltine crackers out of which you bashed the ever-loving shit with a hammer or some other implement of violence while they cowered helplessly inside a sturdy plastic bag and made vain amends to their merciless cracker gods. Or, uh, croutons are good too.
(A note here: You can scale back the starchy ingredients a bit if you want to add some chopped bell pepper or celery or friggin' kale or whatever-the-hell instead. Don't make the mistake of scaling them all the way out, even if you think that doing so is going to make your meatloaf more healthful in an Atkins-y kind of way or more meatily macho or whatever dumb idea would prompt you to consider such a thing. The starchy ingredients are key.)
Now, season your unconstructed loaf. Be generous with salt, black pepper, and paprika. If you want to throw some crushed red pepper or cayenne or thyme or parsley in there, have at it. Don't go nuts. If I see you dumping fenugreek in your meatloaf, we're quits.
That'll do for the ingredients. Now roll up your sleeves and knead that big gross mass of crud with your dainty bare hands until the ingredients are just barely mixed together. Gunning for an even distribution of Things That Are Not Meat in your meatloaf will be the death of it: you will end up with a dense, tough, bottomlessly depressing protein boulder, and you will sob as you eat it unless you are a British person, in which case you will think that all it lacks is a nice cup of hot dirtwater to dip it in, and also that there is a second "i" in aluminum. What you want is for the ingredients to be mixed together just well enough to form a coherent mass in the bowl—no loose pockets of onion or bread- or cracker-crumbs, no puddle of scrambled egg at the bottom of the bowl—and that's it. Be very gentle.
So now you have a large meaty wad in a giant bowl in your kitchen, and it looks like Moby Dick's brain, and it's kind of making you uncomfortable, and you want to know what to do with it. Generations of your forebears made the grave mistake of squeezing this wad into a deep, narrow, form-fitting loaf pan, where it would stew in its own rendered juices and come out mushy and partially dissolved, rather than baking and forming the nice brown crust that anything that calls itself a loaf is required to have. You will not be following in their footsteps. Instead, you are going to hand-mold this thing into a vague, charmingly idiosyncratic loaf shape on an aluminum foil-lined hotel pan or roasting pan or rectangular cake pan that is big enough not to squeeze the loaf on any side. (Don't use a shallow cookie sheet here. Four pounds of meat are going to release an awful lot of liquid, and you don't want it overflowing into the nethers of your oven.) Again, as with the kneading of the ingredients, be gentle with your loaf. Don't roll it around or press it roughly or squeeze it. Just gently form it into a loaf shape. Hell, if you used a big round bowl to mix your ingredients, you could just upturn it onto the baking pan and admire the rustic, impressionist hemisphericity of your creation.
And now, cook this giant thing in your preheated oven for, oh, about 90 minutes. If you have a fancy thermometer, you can call the meatloaf done whenever the middle of it gets to around 160 degrees. Or, you can be less of a dork about it and wait 90 minutes, prod the thing with a fork, go, "Eh, it's probably done," and move on to the next paragraph.
So your meatloaf has formed a nicely browned crust and smells incredible and it's all you can do to restrain yourself from climbing into the oven with it. Is it time to eat? No! First, you must open the oven, squirt regular old by-God ketchup all over the top of the meatloaf, and then cook it for another 15 minutes. Some people like to use tomato paste or diced or sliced tomatoes here, acting on some woefully misbegotten notion that anything coated with a half-gallon of regular old ketchup is insufficiently fancy for discerning palates. Those people are stupid. Ketchup tastes goddamn incredible on meatloaf, which is meatloaf and not fucking steak tartare, so put some goddamn ketchup on it and quit being a twit. In 15 minutes the ketchup will have darkened attractively, and the meatloaf will be done.
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Serve your meatloaf with mashed potatoes, cold beer, and more ketchup. And, OK, something bright and green and fresh-tasting, too—a salad, perhaps. Now, eat.
Oh, so juicy. So soft and savory and crispy-on-the-outside and, er, ketchuppy. Enjoy. Put what's left in your refrigerator (in, like, the biggest airtight container the world has ever known); tomorrow, hew a thick slice from the wonderful brown mass, sock it between two pieces of regular old sandwich bread, and wash it down with a can of cheap beer and a grin wider than the outside. This, friends, is not bare, dismal nutriment. This is rich, meaty, glorious food! Food to be eaten with a smile, if perhaps not with a scepter.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org. Image by Jim Cooke.