Meatloaf has some obstacles to overcome: it has an unprepossessing appearance, and an uninspiring, slightly off-putting name, which it shares with the famous singer. And it wasn’t a compliment when it was given to him: the singer’s father took one look at his newborn son and said he looked like “nine pounds of ground chuck,” before persuading the hospital staff to put the name “Meat” on his crib (which is real commitment to a joke).
I can’t speak for baby Meat Loaf, but when it comes to the dish, the name is at least an extremely accurate description. Meatloaf is made up of ground meat (often beef, sometimes pork, occasionally veal, or a mixture thereof), cut with bread or other carbs, and bound together with egg. The whole thing is generously seasoned, before being shaped into a loaf, glazed, and baked either freestyle or in a loaf tin. It’s a little like a hamburger, a little like a giant meatball, but is served in thick slices, like a loaf of bread.
There are meatloaves all over the world and across history: in De re coquinaria, the Roman cookbook, the author Apicius has a recipe for a patty made of chopped meat mixed with wine-soaked bread, pine nuts and spices. Almost every country has its own version of a baked ground meatloaf (many, interestingly, have whole boiled eggs inside them): Sweden has köttfärslimpa, the Philippines have embutido, the Czech Republic call it sekana. Unusually, it’s never quite caught on in the UK, although haslet, a minced pork mixture cooked in a loaf tin and sliced, is popular in its home county of Lincolnshire. But it’s America that has truly taken the meatloaf to its heart.
The “original” American meatloaf came from Pennsylvanian Dutch settlers in the eighteenth century, who had a dish called scrapple, which was often served for breakfast. Scrapple used all the bits and bobs of a pig that were leftover once it had been butchered. It was boiled, seasoned, cut with cornmeal and pressed into loaves. Its use as a way of stretching and bulking out cheap cuts meant that meatloaf became a favorite during the Great Depression, and it has long been an American comfort food.
While you’ll still find it on diner menus nationwide, at its heart, meatloaf is a home-cooked food. It lends itself to family cooking: it’s straightforward to make, can be done in advance, and while it might not be beautiful, it’s a crowd-pleaser.
There are many, many ways to make a meatloaf, and I don’t pretend that this is the definitive version. In fact, recipes vary wildly, with ingredients spanning prunes, angostura bitters, vegetable soup, sherry, peaches and cereal flakes.
My meatloaf keeps it simple: a mixture of ground beef and pork, with milk-soaked breadcrumbs, grated onion and a little Worcestershire sauce and parsley. The glaze varies too, according to taste and tradition: sometimes an onion gravy is poured on top, others use a tin of cream of mushroom soup. Some top the loaf with streaky bacon, or even “frost” it with mashed potato. But I’ve gone for the classic — sometimes referred to as “meatloaf sauce” — ketchup with a little brown sugar and a splash of vinegar.
Meatloaf is usually served with mashed potato and green beans, and sometimes gravy. And like all the best comfort food dishes, it makes absolutely cracking leftovers. A meatloaf sandwich (especially toasted) is an elite Sunday night supper.
Serves eight | Takes 15 mins | Bakes 1 hour 15 mins
For the loaf
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 onion, grated
- 1⅔ fl oz milk
- 2 oz breadcrumbs
- 1 egg, beaten
- 17½ oz beef mince
- 14 oz sausage meat (about six sausages)
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tsp dried or 1 tbsp chopped parsley
For the glaze
- 3½ oz ketchup
- 1 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp cider vinegar
- Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9×5 inch loaf pan with a folded-over strip of tin foil laid across the long sides of the pan. The edges of the foil should overhang the pan, so that you can use them to help you remove the cooked meatloaf
- Melt the butter in a pan and gently cook the onion until soft but not coloured. Soak the breadcrumbs in the milk in a large mixing bowl
- Add all the other ingredients (apart from those used for the glaze) including the cooked onions and all the meat to the soaked breadcrumbs, and squidge with your hands until the mixture is evenly combined
- Shape into a rough sausage, and place in the loaf pan. Smooth the top with the back of a spoon. Mix together the glaze ingredients and spoon half of it on top of the meat
- Bake for forty-five minutes, then carefully pour off any accumulated juices. Paint the rest of the glaze on the top, and bake for another thirty minutes. Allow to sit for ten minutes before removing from the loaf tin and slicing
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.