Fat, starch contribute to truly fine meatloaf
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Fat, starch contribute to truly fine meatloaf

  • COURTESY CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    A meatloaf is one of the most freestyle recipes you can put together. Just follow a few basic rules to ensure a moist and tasty end result.

  • COURTESY CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    Before slicing, you’ll want to let the baked meatloaf rest in its fat and juices for 10 minutes. Then you’ll have the juiciest meatloaf ever.

  • COURTESY CHICAGO TRIBUNE

    Mix the ingredients thoroughly, but don’t overmix. Getting your hands into the bowl is the best option.

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Can you believe it’s been four decades since “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”? I spent the better part of my Time Warp-ed college years dancing “just a jump to the left.”

My real favorite song, though, was “Hot Patootie — Bless My Soul.” That’s the one that unleashed upon the living that remarkable singer, Meat Loaf.

Now, I’m pretty sure that Meat Loaf the chanteur was preceded by meatloaf the dish, but who can deny either’s profound impact on American culture?

WHY YOU NEED TO LEARN THIS

You may not be crazy about Meat Loaf, but, if you can’t make a good meatloaf, I question your commitment to American values.

BASIC STEPS

These could easily be the shortest cooking instructions ever:

1. Combine all your ingredients.

2. Bake until done.

Of course, I’m way too chatty to leave it at that, so let’s start with the ingredients.

First, there’s meat.

(You probably saw that coming, didn’t you?)

Ah, but what kind of meat? Well, what do you like, because you can make meatloaf out of just about anything that’s not extinct. Beef, veal, lamb, pork, turkey, mastodon. Wait a minute …

Regardless of the meat or combination of meats, you want your meatloaf to have the following qualities: You want it to be moist, and you want it to be flavorful. Fortunately, both are easy to achieve.

To ensure a moist meatloaf, you need two things: fatty meat and an added starch. Lean meats, like ground turkey or 90 percent ground beef, can seem dry. Thus, I recommend either a fattier beef (like ground chuck) or adding some ground pork or minced bacon.

You’ll also need a starch, like breadcrumbs, uncooked oatmeal or what the French call a panade, a mix of torn-up bread and milk. You add starch because the more you cook meat, the more juice is squeezed out of it as the protein nets tighten. If your meatloaf were made out of meat alone, that juice would flow out of the meatloaf into the bottom of the pan, leaving it as dry as a Bob Newhart routine. The starch actually absorbs the juices, keeping your meatloaf moist.

If you’re using dried breadcrumbs or oatmeal, use about a third of a cup per pound of meat with an equal to slightly less amount of milk. If you’re using torn bread slices, use about a cup, soaked in a third of a cup of milk, per pound of meat.

OTHER INGREDIENTS

You’ll definitely need egg, roughly 1 per pound of meat. The egg helps hold the whole thing together, making it easier to slice without crumbling like the hopes of a tone-deaf “American Idol” contestant.

Next, your flavoring ingredients. Aromatic vegetables like onion, carrot, green pepper or garlic are lovely. Different chefs advocate variously for adding the ingredients raw or briefly sauteed. Raw is easier, although a brief sweating in oil or butter will bring added moisture to your meatloaf.

Other liquid ingredients like Worcestershire or soy sauce, ketchup or barbecue sauce, add flavor along with moisture. The first two, being more concentrated, would be added in smaller amounts — a tablespoon per pound of meat — than the latter two, which could be added at maybe half a cup per pound.

Other ingredients include herbs, spices, various cheeses, rice, mashed potatoes — you name it. Remember, it’s your meatloaf.

No matter how you flavor your meatloaf, be sure to add enough salt. Salt brings out all those flavors. Without it, your meatloaf will be as sad and tasteless as a clown funeral. Add about a teaspoon for every pound of meatloaf, a teaspoon and a half if you’re using kosher.

Finally, you can mix all your ingredients in a bowl just long enough to bring it together into a homogenous mass. (If this is for a dinner party, try to avoid the phrase “homogenous mass.” Just sayin’.)

Before baking, cook a tablespoon of the mixture in a little fat in a hot skillet. If you need to adjust any seasonings, do it now and fry another spoonful. When it tastes good to you, mold the mixture on a parchment- or foil-lined baking sheet, or press it into a loaf pan (9-by-5 inches), and bake in a 400-degree oven until it’s 165 degrees in the center, about an hour. Then, let it rest in its fat for about 10 minutes or so to allow any liquid to soak back. That’ll give you the juiciest, most flavorful meatloaf this side of Meatloavia.

Oh, and don’t forget the leftovers: meatloaf sandwiches. Yum.

HOW TO DRESS UP BASIC MEATLOAF

>> Greek style: Half lamb and half beef, with egg, breadcrumbs, 2 teaspoons dried oregano and 4 ounces crumbled feta cheese.

>> Thai style: Half pork and half turkey or chicken, egg, breadcrumbs, 1 to 2 tablespoons fish sauce, 1 tablespoon each minced garlic and ginger, 2 tablespoons minced cilantro, optional tablespoon bottled Thai curry paste.

>> Southwestern style: All beef or half beef and half pork, egg, crushed tortillas (in place of breadcrumbs), 1-1/2 cups corn, cumin, chili powder, cilantro, optional minced jalapeno.

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