Making a meatloaf isn’t exactly rocket science, but turning out a good one is more complicated than you might realize. Ideally, your meatloaf should be moist, juicy and flavorful, and it should hold together when you slice it. All too often, you’ll find your meatloaf falling apart, or coming out dry and crumbly. The difference comes down to the recipe you use and how you bind the loaf together.
Bring Out the Myosin
Think for a minute about how ground beef looks and feels when you work with it. If you have a package in the fridge, you may even want to take it out now and have a look at it. The whole point of ground beef, or any ground meat, is that the muscles that make it up are turned from a solid piece of meat into a loose pile of chopped-up muscle fibers. If you stir it around a little bit with your fingers or brown it and stir it in a pan, it just crumbles.
So, for meatloaf that doesn’t crumble, you need to make that pile of loose, separated ground-up muscle come together in a cohesive form. One of the simplest ways to do that is to knead the meat a little bit before you shape it into your pan for baking.
There are proteins in every meat called myosins. As you work ground-up meat, the ends of these muscle fibers get tangled up together and form a loose network. That holds the mass of meat together and binds up the fat and moisture in the meat mixture, which helps your finished meatloaf stay moist and tender.
The ideal time to do this is while you’re adding the seasonings and other ingredients to your meatloaf, since you need to mix those into the meat anyway. Keep going until the meat begins to feel just sticky and looks a little bit fuzzy to the eye. Don’t overdo it, or the meat will begin to develop a too-soft, almost mushy texture.
Don’t Skimp on Salt
It’s important to season your meatloaf mixture properly for a couple of reasons. One is that it just tastes better. Even if you’re trying to keep your sodium low, seasoning your meatloaf properly while it’s under construction means you’ll feel less need to add salt at the table. That’s a win.
More importantly, though, salt helps bring out the myosins in the meat. The ideal quantity is about a teaspoon of coarse kosher or pickling salt per pound of ground meat, or less if you’re using fine table salt. It can be hard to judge the right amount if you’re also adding ingredients like seasoned salt or packaged onion soup mix. A simple way to test the seasoning is to put a small spoonful of your meatloaf mixture onto a plate and microwave it until it’s done, then taste it once it’s cool enough to put in your mouth. If it tastes good, you got it right.
Add a Panade to Your Meatloaf
If you’ve ever stuck a spoon into a casserole, you already know that a combination of starches and liquids can make your foods hold together. When you’re adding those starches and liquids to a ground meat dish, like meatloaf or meatballs, the French term panade is generally used to describe it. If you grew up listening to burger chains talk about their all-beef patties, this might seem like cheating, but it’s hard to make a good meatloaf without it.
The simplest version of a panade is just fine breadcrumbs added to your meat mixture. The existing moisture from the meat soaks into the breadcrumbs as your meatloaf bakes, and the bread’s starches thicken and bind the other ingredients together. This version of the technique is simple and straightforward, but it’s not perfect. The biggest issue is that it sucks moisture from the meat, and “dry” is not really what you’re shooting for in a meatloaf. That’s why most recipes call for added liquid as well.
Usually, your recipe suggests soaking bread pieces or breadcrumbs in milk or another liquid and then adding that to your meat mixture. The milk provides moisture that helps keep the meatloaf from feeling dry, and the proteins in the milk also help hold the other ingredients together. If you’re smart, you’ll add all of your flavorings to the panade as well, and then when you mix it into your meat, the flavorings and binders will get blended evenly throughout the whole thing.
A panade doesn’t have to be made from bread or breadcrumbs. Some recipes call for oatmeal, and leftover cooked rice will also work. Even leftover white sauce or gravy fits the definition of a panade, and gravy would add flavor while helping to prevent the meatloaf from falling apart.
When in Doubt, Add an Egg
Eggs are often called for in meatloaf recipes. In fact, a lot of meatloaf recipes are happy to add just breadcrumbs and an egg and leave it at that.
Eggs are a legitimate source of moisture in your meatloaf, but they do much more as well. The yolk of the egg adds richness to the meatloaf mix and a bit of protein, and it also adds emulsifiers such as lecithin. Those emulsifiers help keep the fat and juices in the meat and any other liquids you’ve added stay nicely combined in the meatloaf. The end result is a moister, tastier meatloaf.
The whites of the egg are mostly water – and therefore most of the egg’s liquid content – but they also contain much of the egg’s protein, which sets in the heat of the oven and helps bind the meatloaf together. Too much egg white can make the meatloaf rubbery, so you may also see recipes calling for some combination of whole egg and extra egg yolk. Whether you’re working from a recipe or just winging it, adding an egg is seldom a bad call.
Your Meat Mixture
You can certainly make a meatloaf with all beef, but a lot of recipes call for pork and veal or perhaps ground chicken or turkey. These all play a role in the finished meatloaf’s texture as well. Beef brings a bold flavor to the meatloaf, but an all-beef meatloaf is prone to falling apart. Ground pork adds fat and richness, both of which help to improve the texture and mouthfeel.
Veal doesn’t bring much flavor, but it’s high in naturally occurring gelatin. That helps hold your meatloaf together. The same holds true for chicken and turkey: Think about the jelly that forms in the bottom of the roaster when your bird cools down.
If you don’t want to add veal or chicken to your meatloaf, you can get a similar result through a pretty straightforward “cheat.” Dissolve some plain, unflavored gelatin in a bit of beef broth – chicken or vegetable broth will do in a pinch, or just lightly salted water – and add that to your meat mixture.
Give It a Few Minutes
One final tip to help your meatloaf hold together: Give it some time when it comes out of the oven. The various starches and proteins that help hold it together and the gelatin that naturally occurs in the meats are all at their weakest when it’s just hot from the oven. Let it rest for several minutes, as you would with a roast, before you handle it. That gives all the binders in the meatloaf a chance to set again and help hold it together.
You can help your own cause by making it easy to remove the meatloaf from the pan. Some manufacturers make special loaf pans for meatloaf, with a removable bottom that’s perforated for fat to flow through and escape. If you’re using a regular loaf pan, line the long sides and bottom with a piece of doubled-over aluminum foil and then cover that with parchment. When it’s time to remove your meatloaf from the pan, run a knife between the pan and the unprotected ends and then use the band of foil and parchment to gently lift out the meatloaf.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.