All About Meatloaf: The Quintessential American Meal

Where Did This Classic Come From? And, is There a "Real" Recipe?


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A plate of meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy has been called, "the All-American meal." Trying to find a casual restaurant or diner that doesn't have a meatloaf on the menu, is like trying to find an Italian restaurant that doesn’t serve pasta. Like many classic American foods, the true story of how it came to be will never be known for certain.

Origins of the Mystical Meatloaf

One theory is that it's just a larger, loaf-shaped meatball. The Italian immigrants that populated the Northeastern states would take their traditional meatball recipes, and to save the time of rolling each individual meatball, they simply formed it into the shape of a loaf of Italian bread, topped it with tomato sauce, and baked it.

Others believe the modern meatloaf was really born during the Depression of the 1930's. To stretch the small amounts of meat people had, it was ground and mixed with stale breadcrumbs. Sometimes these ​loafs actually contained more "loaf" than meat. Many attribute meatloaf becoming such a classic American "comfort food" to the fact that these Depression-era cooks were able to make something so tasty and filling, during such hard times.

Meatloaf Controversies and Considerations

Here are a few of the things cooks love to argue about when they discuss what's the "real" way to make this recipe:

  • What makes the best filler? Some swear by the time-tested dry bread crumbs. Others use rice or barley. Many claim you can't beat the texture of fresh bread soaked in milk. Some radicals don’t use any cereal filler, but this is considered American culinary heresy and their recipes are NOT considered "real" meatloaf!
  • Should you add eggs or not? The pro-egg crowd claim that it's vital to help bind the loaf, and also adds richness. The anti-egg group says it's completely unnecessary and makes the loaf tougher.
  • What are the best meats and combinations to use? This one really gets people's gravy boiling! Many recipes call for all beef, usually ground chuck, especially in the Midwest where cattle is king. In the south, where the hog is revered, it's common to use half beef and half pork. And, in the Northeast, a 1-1-1 ratio of beef, pork, and veal is very common, which further supports the Italian meatball / meatloaf connection.
  • What makes the best glaze or topping? This debate goes beyond regional traditions and is more of a family-by-family thing. There are literally thousands of variations including tomato sauce, ketchup, barbecue sauce, mustard, bacon, mashed potatoes, etc., and of course, all claim to be "the best!" What most people do agree on is that some type of glaze makes for a tastier and moister meatloaf. This is just one of the many tips for making great meatloaf we have compiled for you.