A couple of years ago, my brother, who was visiting from out of town, was sitting in the kitchen while I fixed supper. He asked what I was cooking and I replied, "Meat loaf." He was silent for a moment and then asked, "Are you using mom's recipe?" I laughed and told him I wasn't. From my peripheral vision, I detected a sigh of relief. Our mother was a wonderful cook, but there were two dishes she made that left a lot to be desired. One was macaroni and cheese; the other, meat loaf.
After I got married, I tried numerous meat loaf recipes and, although more flavorful than what my mother used to make, none were good enough to earn a regular rotation on our dinner table.
Ten years ago, after I got home from having surgery, a friend brought us a delicious dinner that included meat loaf. It was the best meat loaf I'd ever eaten! She shared the recipe with me and I've been making it ever since. I still remember how nourishing that meat loaf was to both body and soul so, when my husband had surgery last week and asked me to make meat loaf for him post op, how could I refuse?
Sweet and Sour Meat Loaf uses a lot of the same ingredients as my mother's recipe. So why was my friend's meat loaf better? Like most food, personal preference plays a role, but it also comes down to what is and isn't in the meat loaf. Let's look at the anatomy of a meat loaf.
- Meat: The main ingredient is ground meat. The meat can be beef, pork, turkey, lamb or a combination of meats.
- Vegetables: Chopped onion, green pepper, celery, carrots, mushrooms or canned diced tomatoes are common additions. They add flavor and, depending on the size, texture.
- Liquid: Liquid is needed to keep the meat loaf moist. Water, milk, beef broth, catsup, barbecue sauce, tomato sauce or Worcestershire sauce are often used.
- Binding: These are the ingredients that keep the meat loaf from falling apart. Eggs are traditionally used in combination with bread crumbs, oats, crushed crackers or uncooked packaged stuffing mix.
- Seasonings: You can season meat loaf with herbs and spices you like, but make sure whatever you use goes well with the rest of the ingredients.
These five elements are true of every meat loaf recipe I've ever tried. However, some recipes call for additional elements.
- Filling: Cheese or other ingredients are often placed in the middle of the meat loaf. Half the meat mixture goes in the baking pan, the filling is added and then topped with the rest of the meat mixture.
- Topping: Toppings can range from as simple as a jar of brown gravy or a squirt of catsup, to bacon strips draped across the loaf, to a combination of ingredients that can be added at the beginning or towards the end of the cooking time.
Once the ingredients are combined, they can be baked in a square pan, loaf pan (regular or miniature), muffin tins or shaped by hand into an oval shape and baked in whatever size pan you have. Depending on the size pan you use, you may need to increase or decrease the baking time. I like to bake meat loaf in a 9-inch square pan. When I serve it to company, though, I like to use a meat loaf pan.
A meat loaf pan is nothing more than a loaf pan with a removable rack. The rack serves two purposes. One, it allows the fat to drain from the meat while cooking. Two, the handles on the rack make it easy to lift the meat loaf from the pan and transfer it to a serving platter.
1 cup oats (uncooked)