How We Rediscovered Meatloaf

Each week we lift the lid on CHOW.com's Test Kitchen to reveal the process behind the recipes.

From a distance, meatloaf appears pretty standard. Look closer and you realize: No way. As evidence, take the following conversation from the CHOW Test Kitchen as we figured out what types of recipes to develop for an upcoming slideshow.

Me: "Let's just make a classic version. You know, ground beef, lots of grated carrots, celery, onion, and some chopped parsley."

Food Editor Amy Wisniewski: "You put CARROTS in your meatloaf?! My family always just made it with beef, tomato juice, soda crackers, and cheddar cheese."

Associate Food Editor Christine Gallary: "We didn't put any of that stuff in. Just ground beef with Worcestershire served with savory brown gravy."

Kitchen Editorial Assistant Lisa Lavery: "No pickle relish?"

Me: "Ew, pickle relish?"

Lisa: "Yeah, pork and beef with plenty of pickle relish and a ketchupy glaze."

OK, so scratch any notion of one "classic" meatloaf. Part of the dish's charm is that it truly is one of those foods with nearly endless family twists. My vegetable-packed, NorCal hippie-child meatloaf, Amy's cheese-packed Midwestern loaf—I never realized such a mundane dish could reflect so much about where and how we grew up.

So we started developing a variety of recipes: chicken with Gouda, beef with bacon and cheddar, a relish-laden adaptation of a Lee Bros. recipe with sausage and beef, and Christine's crowning achievement: a chicken Parmesan mini meatloaf muffin. The project raised some interesting questions about technique: When to free-form the meatloaf and when to put it in a loaf pan? What sort of breadcrumbs or binder to use? Raw or cooked vegetables?

Our recipes aren't done, but we've already drawn some conclusions. First, use a loaf pan with leaner meats like turkey or chicken to keep all the moisture locked in. When using fattier meats or mixtures containing cheese, free-form the loaf and bake it on a rimmed baking sheet so the grease and other liquids can easily drain out.

Filler-wise, we've stayed away from "fresh" breadcrumbs and mostly played around with variations. Fresh bread soaked in milk proved a little too good at keeping a chicken meatloaf moist, while milk-soaked dried crumbs worked well in mini meatloaf muffins. Our latest question: Is panko too fussy for a dish that's supposed to be simple?

What we no longer have doubts about is whether anyone really wants meatloaf in this age of sophisticated home cooking. No matter how uncool the dish sounds, every single one we've made has been descended upon shockingly fast by the CHOW.com staff and devoured. Guess no matter whose family variation you're presented with, it's hard to resist the simple appeal of the savory brown loaf.

Look for CHOW.com's meatloaf slideshow in April.

Photo of bacon-cheddar meatloaf by Roxanne Webber

Roxanne Webber is the former senior features editor at CHOW.com.