Meatloaf is such an American classic that you would think there would be a settled, go-to recipe. Not so.
Meatloaf ranked in the top five online recipe searches last year; it was second on Google and fourth on Yahoo. The relentless pursuit of a better meatloaf doesn't surprise cookbook author and North Carolina native James Villas.
"People just don't understand meatloaf. They really think it's throwing a lot of garbage together," says Villas, who offers seven recipes for meatloaf in his new cookbook, "From the Ground Up." "You have to take it seriously. There's a whole philosophy behind meatloaf."
There are many divides in the meatloaf debate: Free-form or loaf pan? Beef, pork, veal or poultry? In what combination? Coarse ground or finely ground? Ketchup glaze or not? Gravy or no gravy? Bacon or no bacon? (Well, nobody really debates that last one.)
The most amazing thing about meatloaf may be that it's so forgiving. No matter what choices you make on the meatloaf decision tree, you can end up with an excellent result. My go-to recipe came from Cooking Light magazine: It's a sun-dried tomato and turkey meatloaf served with a red currant and red wine sauce that bakes in a loaf pan. It's not particularly crusty, but the taste is excellent, and the recipe makes one for now and another for later.
Over the past few years, meatloaf has made its way out of the diner, where it has long been a staple. There are excellent restaurant versions: bacon-wrapped thin squares of meatloaf at Lucky 32 in Cary and the smoky slab of meatloaf that is finished on the wood-fired grill at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh.
While their meatloaf methods differ, our experts agreed on a few key points.
First, use panko bread crumbs. These Japanese bread crumbs are fluffier and coarser than the sandy version typically used, which can produce a mushy meatloaf. "Don't substitute Progresso for panko," says chef Jay Pierce of Cary's Lucky 32. "It's not as densely packed."
Second, make your meatloaf a day ahead. This trick is used in restaurant kitchens because the dinner rush is easier if some dishes are made ahead of time. But there is logic to the technique, as 18 Seaboard chef and owner Jason Smith explains: "It tastes better the next day."
And it's easier to slice, which leads to the third tip: For a nice crust, grill or sauté slices of meatloaf.
With these techniques, your meatloaf may become as popular as it is at 18 Seaboard, where it makes up 15 percent of sales during lunch, the only time it's on the menu. Smith says, "People compliment us all the time, from little old ladies who make it at home to the man who eats at Herons (a five-diamond restaurant in Cary) on an expense account."