Learn all you need to master―and trim down―this treasured American classic.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Meat loaf holds an honored spot in the pantheon of all-American foods, right up there with hot dogs, burgers, and apple pie. It was popular during World War II, when ground beef was among the most affordable and available meats; President Truman claimed meat loaf with tomato sauce was his favorite meal. And the 1950s saw the creation of "gourmet" meat loaves with a middle layer of hard-cooked eggs or "frosted" with a topping of mashed potatoes (as a sort of American version of British shepherd's pie). Today, meat loaf remains a family favorite.

All you need to prepare a meat loaf is ground meat (be it beef, pork, turkey, or lamb), a few seasonings, perhaps a vegetable or two, and some kind of binder (usually breadcrumbs and/or eggs) to hold it all together. That equation leaves lots of room for invention, including lower-fat versions.

Slimming down this suppertime standby is just a matter of technique. Doing so not only improves flavor but also does a lot to boost meat loaf's nutritional profile. Lean beef offers generous amounts of several different nutrients, including high-quality protein, zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, and phosphorous, and goodly sums of iron, riboflavin, and niacin. Veal and turkey, while not as high in iron, are also good sources of B vitamins and lean protein.

Choose the Meat
Meat is the main ingredient, and the one that most influences texture and flavor. Fatty cuts like regular ground chuck or ground beef (may be called "85 percent lean," but it's a hefty 15 percent fat by weight) are out because nearly all that fat will end up in the final product. Breadcrumbs, crackers, or whatever is used to bind the loaf will absorb the extra fat cooked out of the meat. While that makes for a moist texture, it isn't nutritionally sound. We found that 92 percent lean and 96 percent extralean ground beef work fine, especially when combined with a smaller amount of ground pork, which adds a bit of moisture. Ultralean ground turkey breast can also be used for a leaner meat loaf, but it makes for a dry final product. So we combined ground turkey breast with ground turkey or ground pork and added a little extra liquid to the mix. 

Bind It
We also experimented with various binding agents, including traditional breadcrumbs and eggs or egg whites. We learned to let the overall flavor of the meat loaf determine the binder. Our Diner Meat Loaf "Muffins" use crushed saltines, whereas our Asian-Style Meat Loaves use chopped rice crackers. You also can use fresh or dry breadcrumbs: It takes about twice as many fresh breadcrumbs to equal the binding capacity of dried. A good rule of thumb is to use 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs (or 1/2 cup dried breadcrumbs) for every 1 1/2 pounds of meat.

Add a Little Extra Liquid
Because lower-fat meat loaf relies on leaner cuts of meat and poultry, it helps to add slightly higher amounts of liquid flavorings like ketchup, salsa, and milk to keep the loaf moist and compensate for the lower amounts of fat.

Don't Forget the Eggs
Whole eggs and egg whites are interchangeable in most of these recipes, as both are adept at holding the multiple ingredients in a meat loaf together. We used egg whites most often in these recipes to keep fat down, and also because other higher-fat ingredients were already adding flavor.

Choose a Form
Meat loaf recipes can be made in a loaf pan, with a free-form shape, or in a muffin tin. Free-form loaves cook more quickly than those in a loaf pan, and muffin tin loaves cook in about half the time of a full-size loaf.

Let It Stand
Meat loaf firms as it stands: 10 minutes is usually sufficient. But you'll find that loaves become even firmer, and much easier to slice for sandwiches when allowed to stand in the refrigerator overnight. Slice what you need for dinner tonight, then refrigerate the leftovers in a chunk to cut, slice, or crumble as needed.

Handle with Care
Meat loaf is one of the easiest dinners to prepare and uses ingredients found in any supermarket. But you should use care when handling any raw meat.

•When shopping, pick up ground meat just before checking out.

•Refrigerate or freeze meat right away.

•Cook or freeze ground meat within 2 days. Use frozen meat within 4 months.

•Wash your hands before and after handling raw ground meat. Wash utensils, countertops, cutting boards, the sink, and anything else that comes into contact with raw meat with hot, soapy water.

•Use a meat thermometer to gauge the internal temperature of meat loaf. Cook ground beef, pork, and veal to 160 degrees and ground poultry to 165 degrees. Reheat any type of meat loaf to an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Note: We found that very lean ground beef may still be pink when fully cooked, so be sure to use a meat thermometer to test its doneness.

•Cooked meat loaf will keep in the refrigerator for up to 4 days and in the freezer for up to 3 months (ground poultry) or 4 months (beef, pork, or veal).

Versatile Leftovers
For many of us, the real appeal of meat loaf is enjoying the leftovers. These are some of our favorite ways to enjoy it the next day.

•Sliced on a sandwich
•Crumbled as taco or enchilada filling
•Crumbled and mixed with bottled marinara over pasta
•Thinly sliced on gourmet crackers
•Reheated and topped with refrigerated mashed potatoes (such as Simply Potatoes) for a speedy shepherd's pie