Meatloaf and meatballs are at one end of the spectrum of ground meat dishes that range up to finely textured pates and terrines. Most recipes for meatloaf and meatballs are interchangeable in terms of ingredients. What distinguishes one from the other is the shape.
You don’t have to go very far to find inspiration for what type of meatloaf or meatball to make. A simple search on Google will yield more recipes than you can shake a stick at for everything including Asian-inspired sweet-and-sour varieties, Greek keftethes, subtly creamy Swedish meatballs, marble-sized gems for Italian Wedding Soup, Mexican albóndigas, and 8-ball-sized orbs that are redolent of Parmesan, basil, and oregano cooked slowly in red sauce.
Same thing with meatloaf—you’ll find variations upon variations. Including those that are free-form shaped to those baked in a loaf pan to stuffed-and-rolled varieties.
The big divide comes with how you top your meatloaf. Just as there’s spirited debate about wet ribs or dry ribs in Memphis and Cajuns are raging over which gumbo is best, die-hard meatloaf connoisseurs take sides over how to top a righteous loaf: with ketchup gravy, brown gravy, breadcrumbs, bacon, or nothing at all.
Finding Your Own Path
If you want to create your own meatloaf or meatballs without using someone else’s recipe, consider the fundamental elements that go into both.
Many feel that meatloaves or meatballs made entirely of beef turn out too dense and can sometimes be dry. Therefore, mixing beef with pork ups the fat content, flavor, and juiciness. Take it one step further and add ground veal to the mix for its delicate texture and mild flavor. A common formula for mixing meat for either preparation is 50% ground beef to 25% each of ground pork and ground veal.
When choosing the beef, you can control the amount of fat in your finished product by choosing from different lean-to-fat ratios. An 85/15 (lean to fat) is a good all-purpose grind that will give you excellent flavor and a juicy end product, whether using it for meatloaf, meatballs, or a burger. You can further control the amount of fat by choosing to use ground turkey or chicken.
If you like to grind your own meat, try experimenting with different cuts and combinations. For example, combining chuck and sirloin is a classic blend for flavor and juiciness. However, ground short ribs, hanger steak, and brisket are all great candidates for creating your own signature meatloaf flavor profile and texture. A coarse, single-grind, for example, is best and is comparable to the grind that would be used in a rustic country-style pate.
To increase the juiciness and add another layer of flavor, tried adding some diced bacon to the mix.
Various combinations of 3 or 4 aromatic vegetables are the foundation for defining the heritage or style of your final dish. For example, carrots, celery, and onions make up the classic French mire poix. Add garlic to the mix and you have Spanish sofrito. Onions, celery, and bell pepper make up the Cajun-Creole holy trinity, while ginger, garlic, and soy provide an Asian profile.
When making a burger, the integral fat works to hold the meat together in shape as it cooks. Adding ingredients to the ground meat makes the mix looser so additional help is needed to bind it during cooking so it doesn’t disintegrate.
The most common binders for meatloaf and meatballs are bread or breadcrumbs, eggs, or a combination. Eggs alone will certainly solidify the blend and create a somewhat firmer texture. Using bread or crumbs will bind as well, but have the added benefit of helping the mix retain moisture and flavor during cooking and result in a lighter texture.
By following the basic formula, there isn’t a meatloaf or meatball you can’t create with what you most likely already have in your refrigerator and pantry.
But if you want to practice before heading out on your own epicurean exploration, here are a few recipes to get you started:
- Grilled Meatloaf
- Arkansas Meatloaf
- Meat Loaf Parmigiana
- Tuscan-Style Meatloaf with White Wine-Vegetable Sauce
What’s your favorite blend to use for meatloaf? Is it the same for meatballs or different? What’s your favorite add-in ingredient? What camp are you in when it comes to meatloaf topping?