Ingredients That Will Seriously Upgrade Homemade Meatloaf

Popular culture often treats meatloaf as more of a punchline than a main course. Someone unfamiliar with American culture trying to research it will likely conclude that it's a dowdy bargain dish, the domain of budget-conscious institutional dining services and overextended working-class moms. Nope, meatloaf doesn't get a lot of respect, and this is a shame. Humble as it may be, it can be wonderful comfort food, whether served hot from the oven with mashed potatoes or cold as a hearty lunchbox sandwich the next day.

And if you think about it, there's no reason why meatloaf can't be elevated into celebration food. After all, it's basically a close cousin of pâtés, sausages, and terrines, which are also mixtures of seasoned, cooked ground meat and perhaps other ingredients. But while some pates and other fancy meat preparations require advanced cooking techniques and a careful touch, meatloaves can be easily upgraded into something completely new just by changing up a few key ingredients. Here are some surprising suggestions for making your next meatloaf memorable.

1. Bread slices

Meatloafs are inherently rich and hearty since most include fat from both ground meat and binders such as eggs, milk, and bread. All this fat lends flavor, but it also produces an unappetizing byproduct: a pool of grease the meatloaf swims in when it's done cooking. You can just drain it off before serving, but wouldn't it be neater and more efficient to keep it from happening in the first place?

With just a few ordinary slices of bread, you can. Just place your meatloaf mixture on top of bread slices before cooking, and the bread will conveniently soak up all the excess grease. This will work whether you mold freestanding meatloaves (just build your meatloaf on top of the bread slices) or bake them in a loaf pan (in this case, tuck the slices in the bottom of the pan before you add the meat mixture). Your meatloaf will turn out the same as it usually does but without that pesky pool of grease. And as an added bonus, you'll have a few pieces of decadently fatty, crispy toast to serve alongside your meatloaf.

2. Shrimp

A classic surf-and-turf dinner — a good steak paired with a lobster tail and perhaps some fancy sides — has long been the go-to special-occasion restaurant meal for many diners. The decadence of piling two luxury proteins onto a single dinner plate signals that it's time for unapologetic indulgence. But while we're not going to try to convince serious steak lovers that any meatloaf can compete with a prime ribeye, it is indeed possible to give the humble meatloaf a major upgrade and a surf-and-turf vibe with a surprise garnish: shrimp sautéed in chile oil.

What makes this surprising combination work is that the punchy seasonings of the meatloaf itself — mustard, barbecue sauce, and horseradish, along with the usual sauteed garlic and onions — harmonize with the flavor of the spicy shrimp. To serve this festive dish, place a thick slice of hot meatloaf on a bed of mashed potatoes and top with a few cooked chile shrimp. It may not be a ribeye, but it's still a meal worthy of a celebration. And even better, you don't have to get dressed up or remember finger bowl etiquette to enjoy it.

3. Cognac

Most meatloafs we are likely to encounter have simple, hearty flavor profiles. Whether you grew up with comfortingly basic loaves flavored with a touch of onion and topped with brown gravy or more tangy ketchup-laced versions, you've probably been conditioned to think of meatloaves as rough-and-ready meals, easily assembled from unassuming kitchen staples. This is largely for historical reasons: While mixtures of ground meat enriched with bread have been recorded as early as the fourth century C.E., meatloaf first came into prominence in the U.S. during the Great Depression when they were seen as a thrifty means of making pricy meat go further. 

But there's no reason why today's meatloafs have to stick to their identity as poverty food, nor any reason their seasonings should be limited by tradition. Ground meat marries well with a huge range of flavorings, so if you want to liven up your meatloaf, a fun thought experiment would be to consider similar dishes and their distinctive flavorings. A meatloaf is pretty much the same as a country pâté terrine, just more coarsely ground and quickly cooked. So try adding the signature flavors of a classic French terrine –- such as a touch of cognac. If you want to up your game, soak some dried fruit in cognac and mix it in for an extra touch of elegance.

4. Caramelized onions

A great advantage proficient home cooks have is the power to make ordinary ingredients special just by preparing them a little differently. Take, for instance, the humble onion: It's a workhorse ingredient in most home kitchens, offering up mouthwatering flavor at an affordable price. It shows up in almost all meatloaf recipes, too, in forms ranging from freshly diced onions to canned fried onions, dried onions, and onion soup mix. While all of these can be fun and tasty, they don't sound exactly fancy.

But you can indeed elevate your meatloaf by simply caramelizing your onions — and maybe using a few more than usual to showcase their richness and natural sweetness. Just be aware that caramelizing onions is not the same as just browning them. Instead, it's a much slower, more thorough process in which sliced onions are cooked with oil or butter over low heat for an extended period (about half an hour). This ensures the onions are thoroughly and consistently browned and their natural sugars caramelized, which gives them a distinctly elegant look and flavor. To enhance them even more before incorporating them into your meatloaf, deglaze the pan with broth, wine, or vinegar once the onions are browned to your liking.

5. Bacon jam

Bacon is another favorite meatloaf add-in, and it's easy to see why home cooks love it — the smoky sweetness it contributes makes an ordinary meatloaf seem special. And if you're one of the ambitious cooks who like to wrap their meatloaves in bacon, you and your guests surely look forward to the bit of crunch and chew the bacon wrapper provides as well as its great flavor. On top of that, it looks really cool, too.

But if you want an even more intense bacon flavor for your meatloaf — as well as a touch of sweetness — consider using an even more concentrated and convenient form of bacon: Bacon jam. A sweet-salty condiment made by simmering cooked bacon pieces in maple syrup along with other flavorings such as onions, shallots, vinegar, and spices such as chile powder,  it adds a bit of unexpected elegance to an otherwise ordinary meatloaf. Stir a few big spoonsful of bacon jam into your meatloaf mixture and use a few more as a glaze when the meatloaf is nearly cooked for a smoky, flavorful main course.

6. Spinach and feta

Meatloaves have a rib-sticking reputation, and there's nothing wrong with that — on a cold winter night, a thick, hearty slice of comfort may be just what you're craving. But if you're looking for something a bit different, consider doing something counterintuitive: lightening your meatloaf with summery flavors, such as spinach and feta. This Greek-inspired flavor combo will not only turn your familiar meatloaf into a delightfully different meal with year-round appeal but also add a touch of elegance.

Spinach and feta not only add moisture, texture, and flavor to an otherwise ordinary meatloaf but a nice dose of visual appeal. The bright green, just-cooked chopped spinach and white pops of feta, along with a splash of bright red tomato sauce, make for colorful slices that are a welcome change-up from the typical dull gray of most meatloaves. And if you like the idea of this flavor combo because it sounds light and healthy, you're not wrong — by using ground turkey instead of traditional pork or beef, you can lighten it up and highlight the flavors of the vegetables and cheese even more.

7. Italian sausage

If you balk at the idea of giving your meatloaf an upgrade because you don't have the bandwidth for elaborate cooking projects, there's good news: Making a memorable meatloaf doesn't have to take any more time or effort than making a boring one. Sometimes, a simple, smart ingredient swap is all it takes to transform a plain meatloaf into something special.

For example, you can punch up the flavor profile of your meatloaf by simply swapping out some of the plain ground meat for bulk Italian sausage (sweet or hot, depending on your taste). Just blend the sausage into the meat and other ingredients and cook as usual.  The sausage provides a generous dose of seasoning, sparing you the time and guesswork of figuring out how much salt, pepper, or other seasonings to add. This is a great option if you're a fan of meatball or sausage subs — and any leftovers will make fantastic sandwiches.

8. Cheese

A surefire way to elevate any food is by hiding other food inside it. For instance, there's a world of difference between a plain roll and a pepperoni roll or breakfast bun stuffed with cream or jam. And while plain roast chicken is always nice to have, a roast chicken loaded with stuffing or with truffle slices tucked under its skin is cause for celebration. And foods with surprise fillings that diners only discover at the table get bonus points for bringing unexpected delight.

Since meatloaves are big, sturdy structures, they make great (and reliably secure) containers for surprise fillings. An easy add-in that brings both flavor and drama to a standard meatloaf is a good, melty cheese tucked into its core. Bring the meatloaf to the table while it's hot and watch your guests ooh and ah as the molten cheese emerges from each slice, forming a flavorful topping for each bite. For best results, use shredded cheese and choose a firm cheese that melts well, such as Havarti, Swiss, or cheddar.

9. Mexican chorizo

Meatloaf has a reputation as a mild-mannered food, something safe and inoffensive to serve diners with conservative tastes or who would rather not put too much thought into what they're eating. But if you prefer your meals on the spicy side, you can make a meatloaf that's anything but mild-mannered by just adding in some Mexican chorizo. Not to be confused with Spanish chorizo, a cured, smoked sausage. Mexican chorizo is a fresh pork sausage generously seasoned with ancho chiles, garlic, oregano, and warm spices including cinnamon, cumin, and cloves.

Because Mexican chorizo is coarsely ground and sold raw, it can be easily removed from its casings and mixed into a meatloaf mixture, where it can contribute its bright red color and punchy flavor. To further play up the distinctively Mexican flavors, add a can of diced green chiles and a touch of cumin, cayenne, and pepper to the mixture. Top with a tomato sauce laced with chipotles en adobo and more green chiles for a memorable south-of-the-border-inspired meal.

10. Dried fish

While many of us think of meatloaf as an iconic American dish, variants of meatloaf appear around the world, independently developed by creative cooks looking for ways to make inexpensive meat scraps into flavorful meals. In Chinese cooking, especially the cuisines of southern China, a beloved dish for family dinners is a meatloaf variant called yook baeng, a steamed disk of seasoned ground pork. Unlike American meatloaves, these steamed meatloaves don't contain any starchy filler, apart from a touch of cornstarch. But they do come loaded with characteristic Chinese flavorings such as white pepper, chopped water chestnuts and scallion, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil.

And like American meatloaves, they can take on other flavors as well. Several Chinese meatloaf variants are commonly served, featuring flavorful add-ins ranging from pickled vegetables to preserved eggs to another common favorite, Chinese dried, salted fish. Both intensely salty and fishy, this dried fish is not for timid palates — but it makes a flavorful match with the mild ground pork, provided it's used sparingly.  It's not a pretty dish (it looks like a gray disk of cooked meat), which is why it rarely shows up on restaurant menus. But for those of us in the Chinese diaspora, it's comfort food par excellence, a favorite item on the weekday menu rotation. For everyone else, it's an easy way to transform the way you think about meatloaf.

11. Lamb

Look at enough North American meatloaf recipes and you'll notice some slight variation in the types and proportions of the basic meat used — some will call for beef, some for pork, and some for combinations of the two. This makes sense since meatloaves were traditionally a means of extending whatever inexpensive meat was available — and that meat was typically pork or beef.

But this isn't the case in other parts of the world. In the Middle East and Mediterranean, lamb is as likely — if not more likely — to be the default meat of choice, and it makes frequent appearances in kefta (or kofta) kabobs (grilled meat croquettes) and other ground meat preparations. And if you enjoy the hearty, gamey flavor of lamb, it makes a memorable and different addition to a meatloaf. Make a meatloaf mixture with equal parts ground beef and lamb and add Middle Eastern flavorings such as chopped parsley, allspice, and pine nuts. You can also add harissa if you want even more spice. The result will be something like a big, sliceable, kefta kabob you can share with friends and family.