A Meatloaf in Every Oven

Two Chatty Cooks, One Iconic Dish and Dozens of Recipes - from Mom's to Mario Batali's


By Frank Bruni

By Jennifer Steinhauer

Illustrated by Marilyn Pollack Naron

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The definitive guide to an American classic though the lens of New York Times journalists Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer’s culinary friendship.

Frank Bruni and Jennifer Steinhauer share a passion for meatloaf and have been exchanging recipes via phone, email, text and instant message for decades. A Meatloaf in Every Oven is their homage to a distinct tradition, with 50 killer recipes, from the best classic takes to riffs by world-famous chefs like Bobby Flay and Mario Batali; from Italian polpettone to Middle Eastern kibbe to curried bobotie; from the authors’ own favorites to those of prominent politicians. Bruni and Steinhauer address all the controversies (Ketchup, or no? Saute the veggies?) surrounding a dish that has legions of enthusiastic disciples and help you to troubleshoot so you never have to suffer a dry loaf again.

This love letter to meatloaf incorporates history, personal anecdotes and even meatloaf sandwiches, all the while making you feel like you’re cooking with two trusted and knowledgeable friends.



(in alphabetical order)

Cathy Barrow

Cathy, the author of the food blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen, is a canning and cooking teacher and food preservation expert. She writes the "DIY" column in the Washington Post's Food section and a quarterly column for Allrecipes magazine. She has also written for NPR and for the New York Times, Garden and Gun, Saveur, Southern Living and National Geographic, among other publications. In 2015, she won the prestigious IACP Award for best single-subject cookbook for Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry.

Mario Batali

With his red hair, his orange clogs and his passion for all things Italian, Mario has become one of the best known and most beloved American chefs of the last quarter century. He owns twenty-six restaurants around the world, including, most recently, La Sirena, in New York City, the center of his culinary empire. He's also an educator, the author of eleven cookbooks (the most recent of which is Big American Cookbook) and a host of the ABC daytime talk show The Chew.

April Bloomfield

April, who was trained in Britain, shot to culinary fame in the United States with the 2003 opening of the gastropub The Spotted Pig in Manhattan's West Village. Both that restaurant and another Manhattan one, The Breslin, earned Michelin stars, making April one of a select group of New York chefs with multiple Michelin-starred places. She's also a chef-owner of the Manhattan restaurants The John Dory and Salvation Burger. She's the author of the cookbook A Girl and Her Greens: Hearty Meals from the Garden.

Melissa Clark

Melissa is a writer for the Food section of the New York Times, where her popular column "A Good Appetite" regularly appears. She has also written thirty-eight cookbooks, many of them in collaboration with some of New York's most celebrated chefs, including Daniel Boulud (Braise), Andrew Feinberg (Franny's), Claudia Fleming (The Last Course) and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses (The Perfect Finish). Her next cookbook, Dinner, a guide to taking nightly meals to the next level, will be published by Clarkson Potter in 2017.

Bobby Flay

Bobby is one of the shining stars of the Food Network and has been showcased in more than a half dozen of its cooking shows over the last decade, including the current hit Beat Bobby Flay. His restaurants span the globe, and his chain Bobby's Burger Palace sprawls over a dozen states. But he remains especially proud of his two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants: Bar Americain, which reflects his long romance with Southwestern cooking, and Gato, which demonstrates his fluency in Spanish cuisine.

Garret Fleming

Garret was a contestant in Season 13 of Top Chef and is, in fact, the top chef at Barrel, a restaurant in Washington, D.C., that specializes in bourbon in the glass and Southern cooking on the plate, which Garret honed in his native Charleston, South Carolina, at the Peninsula Grill and Mercato. He was one of the brains behind the popular Washington restaurants Lincoln and The Pig before bringing his talents to the kitchen at Barrel in 2014.

Alex Guarnaschelli

Alex's busy career spans TV shows on the Food Network and the Cooking Channel; a book, Old-School Comfort Food: The Way I Learned to Cook, that combines recipes with autobiographical reflections; and the Manhattan restaurant Butter, where she's the executive chef. She became only the second woman ever to be crowned "America's Next Iron Chef" when she received that honor on Iron Chef America in 2012.

Amanda Hesser

Author of the best seller The Essential New York Times Cookbook, Amanda was a New York Times food scribe for several years before breaking out to co-found Food52.com, the groundbreaking (and award-winning) site where cooks exchange recipes, ideas and kitchen tips. She is also the author of Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes and The Cook and the Gardener. In Nora Ephron's feature film Julie & Julia, an homage to Julia Child, Amanda played herself.

Annie Miler

Annie trained at the Cordon Bleu in London and in several Los Angeles restaurants, including Campanile and Spago Beverly Hills. But she learned to make her trademark celestial baked goods from her grandmother in the Midwest and her comfort food at cult-favorite Clementine, which she opened in Century City in 2000. A Beverly Hills branch came along in 2012.

Sam Molavi

Compass Rose, in Washington, D.C., is where Sam got his first gig as executive chef, drawing on his knowledge of the global ingredients that form the restaurant's menu. His culinary education is decidedly old-school: His father was a chef in the District, and his mother manages one of its premier groceries. He is the former sous-chef at Ripple, also in the District.

Daniel Patterson

Daniel, a California chef, writer and restaurateur, was named "Best Chef: West" in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation. At twenty-five he opened his first restaurant, Babette's, in Sonoma, and he has since built a small California empire. His restaurant group, DPG, oversees Coi (which propelled the cookbook Coi: Stories and Recipes), Alta CA and Aster in San Francisco and Plum Bar + Restaurant and Haven in Oakland. He recently started a wholesome fast-food chain, LocoL, with Los Angeles chef Roy Choi.

Michael Schwartz

A winner of the James Beard Award and all manner of other acclaim, Michael first made his national mark with the opening in 2006 of Michael's Genuine Food & Drink in the Miami Design District, a neighborhood that his restaurant helped to put on the map. His subsequent South Florida restaurants, all part of the Genuine Hospitality Group, include Harry's Pizzeria, Cypress Tavern and ella. He is also the author, with JoAnn Cianciulli, of Michael's Genuine Food: Down-to-Earth Cooking for People Who Love to Eat, which showcases recipes from the Michael's Genuine restaurant, still going strong.

Mike Solomonov

Mike is considered the foremost American advocate of what he describes as modern Israeli cuisine, which is the focus of his internationally renowned restaurant, Zahav, in Philadelphia. His 2015 book, Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, written with Steven Cook, was an instant best seller. His other Philadelphia restaurants include Abe Fisher, Dizengoff, Rooster Soup Co. and several locations of Federal Donuts. He branched out to Manhattan with Dizengoff NYC. He's also the star of the PBS documentary In Search of Israeli Cuisine.

Mark Usewicz

Mark's obsession with opening a fish market was sparked by his wife, a scientist with a background in marine biology. His culinary education began in Paris, wove its way through Boston and landed him in Brooklyn, where he co-founded Mermaid's Garden, a fish shop, restaurant and consultancy.

Michael White

Michael is one of the country's most venerated interpreters of Italian cuisine, the various byways of which he explores at his hugely popular New York restaurants, including Marea, which is devoted to Italian seafood, and Osteria Morini, which explores the Emilia-Romagna region. He's also the head chef and part owner of the Altamarea Group, which operates more than a dozen restaurants internationally, in locations as far-flung as London, Istanbul and Hong Kong.


Once upon a meatloaf, two perpetually busy, uncommonly hungry New York Times writers discovered that they shared a kitchen passion.

They were talking about eating, which was a favorite sport of theirs. They were talking about cooking, which they did at disparate skill levels. One of the writers, a woman, was as fearless at the stove as she was at City Hall, where she routinely grilled the mayor. She could whip up practical meals for her picky kids one minute and impractical feasts for sophisticated friends the next. The other writer, a man, was once the newspaper's chief restaurant critic and knew his way around a dozen ethnic cuisines, but he was shy with a spatula, timid with tongs and all nerves in front of the food processor. To pulse or not to pulse? He could stand there for an hour, dithering instead of dicing.

"Is there any dish that you feel confident about?" she asked him.

"Just one," he confided. But then he paused, because he was sure that what he was about to divulge would shame him. Few if any of the restaurants he appraised had it on their menus.

"You can tell me," she said.

He apologized that the dish wasn't fancy.

He apologized that it wasn't some farm-to-table wonder, dependent on the seasons, resplendent with obscure vegetables.

He apologized that he was apologizing.

And then he talked about ground chuck, tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar and how his mother mingled these in an entree that was the quintessence of comfort, at least if comfort includes bread crumbs.

He talked about an analogue to it that he'd more or less invented, comprising ground lamb, feta, fresh mint and more.

He talked about mixing these with his hands and molding them with his fingers.

"Meatloaf," he said. "I make meatloaf."

She didn't flinch. She didn't sneer. She beamed, nodding so fast and hard that he feared for her neck. Almost instantly, they began discussing the sturdy virtues of ground pork. They moved on to the debatable utility of ground veal. And ground turkey: Was it truly viable, or was it the great white whale of meatloaves?

The next thing they knew—the next thing we knew—we were in meatloaf love.

So consider this book a love story, written in the special language of our relationship, with its vocabulary of ounces and tablespoons, of lightly beaten eggs and coarsely grated cheese, of cayenne pepper and smoked paprika. It reflects a decade's worth of weekly and sometimes daily conversations distinguished by abrupt topic shifts and abundant non-sequiturs. On the phone, we'll do fifteen minutes of office gossip ("I hear they're yanking him from Europe") followed abruptly by five minutes on meatloaf moistening ("Have you tried soaking the bread in whole milk?"). In a given series of e-mails, we'll toggle from Senate filibusters to sautéed shiitakes, from Obamacare to oregano. Always we snap back to meatloaf. It's our default setting. It's our North Star. We've exchanged recipes for it by text, by instant messenger, by Google chat.

We've also exchanged recipes with colleagues, friends and celebrated chefs, many of whom—including Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, April Bloomfield and Alex Guarnaschelli—shared their favorites with us for inclusion in this book. And we have discovered in the process that everybody has his or her own meatloaf story, meatloaf sensibility, meatloaf biases. Meatloaf is the most personal of dishes, and the most autobiographical. Show us a person's meatloaf and we'll show you that person's soul. Meatloaf is mirror: You are how you loaf.

Meatloaf is metaphor: It's life made loaf. You take what's precious (in this case, the meat) and stretch it as far as it'll go. And you learn that there are infinite ways to do this, an embarrassment of options. You need only flex your imagination. You need only raid the cupboard. Do you bring in the exotic? Incorporate some fire? Meatloaf is a yardstick for your daring, a referendum on your imagination, a judge of your loyalty to precedent, an arbiter of your regard for the classics.

Just as you can paper over your own flaws and smooth out your own shortcomings, you can redeem your meatloaf with split-second inspiration, last-minute epiphanies. You can improvise. You can adjust.

Is the meat mixture you're about to mold too weepy? Bread crumbs are your emotional caulk. Too dry? Another egg is your calmative. Bland? That's why the universe created hot sauce, and that's why it created so many of them: Tabasco, Sriracha, salsa picante. They speak in different dialects. They make different meatloaves. And when all else fails, add bacon. This is true in life, and this is true in loaf.

Meatloaf is spontaneity itself, and more than any other dish, it brings out the kid in the adult, repurposing child's play as mature, purposeful activity. Did you ever have one of those at-home chemistry sets with different liquids and different powders that you could combine in countless ways, for countless hues? Meatloaf is its kitchen cousin. Ever burrowed your fingers into Play-Doh? Meatloaf is its kin, best sculpted with bare hands. It's mischief made protein. It's fun that actually feeds.

It's as forgiving as a laid-back god. One egg or two? This matters less than you might think. A few dashes too much vinegar? The Earth will continue spinning, and your meatloaf will be just fine. You needn't be as punctilious with your measuring cups and spoons as you are when making pastry. You can guesstimate. You can round. It's all being absorbed into something greater, all going into the oven and will all work itself out.

There's not a recipe among the dozens here that you should feel exactingly yoked to and irrevocably bound by. Don't mess with the fundamental ratios of meat to its binders and moisteners. Don't take extravagant liberties with the cooking times. Don't get glaze-happy and wind up with soup. But otherwise, you can dial up the spices if that's your druthers, swap out bread crumbs for crackers if you're feeling the itch. We can't promise a result that'll be as wholly pleasing as the one you'll achieve with recipe fidelity, but we can predict that you'll wind up with something sufficiently satisfying—and all your own.

Because meatloaf is customizable. It allows for a personal stamp. It can be ambitious or humble, its flexibility demonstrated by its ability to bridge the two of us and by this book's recipes, most of them easily mastered but a few of them more challenging and time-consuming. You can dress meatloaf up or you can dress it down. You can treat it like royalty or treat it like a ragamuffin. We go in both directions, allowing it to experiment with eclectic costumes and an array of accents. We turn it into the Meryl Streep of comfort food.

That's not hard to do, because the meatloaf tradition is a global one. You find meatloaf on just about every continent (we're hedging here, because we can't swear to Antarctica) and in scores of countries, at least if you acknowledge, for example, that a meatball is to a meatloaf as a sapling is to a tree: It just hasn't grown and realized its full potential. In that sense Middle Eastern kibbeh (or kibbe or kebbah, depending on the region) is related to meatloaf, an example of the impulse to grind meat and then extend and amplify it in ways that also bind it into a shape that holds together. Kibbe are balls, tiny torpedoes or even patties of, typically, ground lamb or ground beef with minced onions, cracked wheat, maybe sautéed pine nuts and various spices. What does that resemble? A meatloaf.

And what's a fine French pâté or terrine, really, but a meatloaf in shrunken, silken, delicate drag? It starts with meat and puts it through a drill fundamentally similar to the grinding, binding and seasoning that lead to meatloaf. In their book Charcuterie, Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn refer to pâté as "the Cinderella meat loaf," by which they mean the young woman in a ball gown before midnight, not the sooty chimney sweeper of the morning after. A meatloaf is a pâté minus its glass slippers.

Meatloaf in its larger, truer form exists in Vietnam, where it's boiled and called gio. It exists in South Africa, where it's animated by curry (and, sometimes, dried fruit) and called bobotie. Chileans often put hard-boiled eggs in their meatloaves. So do Italians and Germans. Meatloaf enjoys particular popularity in Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe, including Sweden; there are culinary anthropologists who see a link between the modern meatloaf and the Swedish meatball. What you're snacking on at IKEA isn't merely a post-shopping canapé. It's a miniature meatloaf.

But where did it all begin? How far into the past must we travel to see, on the culinary horizon, the meatloaf lumbering into view?

There are various theories. There are competing histories, including the belief that meatloaf, or its closest antecedent, emerged in medieval Europe, around the fifth century, in a Mediterranean dish of finely diced meat scraps joined with fruits, nuts and seasonings. From that moment on, meatloaf in its many iterations and guises was often a sort of culinary scrap heap, a refuge for leftovers, in the spirit of many casseroles and of shepherd's pie. It was a way to stretch protein. It was a way to use up excess vegetables. It was a ragtag orchestra of ingredients on the verge of expiration. And it made music more uplifting than anyone could have anticipated.

Americans embraced it with more fondness and fervor than perhaps anyone else, to a point where it's often mentioned alongside hot dogs and hamburgers as one of the country's iconic dishes and essential comfort foods. Its narrative in this country includes an early chapter set in colonial times, when German immigrants made scrapple, an amalgam of ground pork and cornmeal that established the meat-starch union at the core of most meatloaves.

The first recorded recipe for the modern American meatloaf is from the late 1870s, according to the food historian Andrew Smith, who told us that it instructed the cook to finely chop "whatever cold meat you have." That meat, he said, would likely be beef, because New Englanders killed their cows before winter, when feeding them would prove more difficult, and tried to take full advantage of every last bit of the meat, looking for uses for the cheap cuts. Meatloaf was such a use. To the chopped beef they added pepper, salt, onion, slices of milk-soaked bread and egg. You'll find these very ingredients and steps in many a meatloaf recipe today. But back then, Smith said, meatloaf wasn't for dinner. It was for breakfast.

From the late 1800s, a meatloaf-esque recipe for ground veal with bread crumbs and eggs appeared in the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. But the profile of meatloaf rose to a whole new level in the 1890s, with the spread of industrial-scale meatpacking, which created scraps aplenty. Scraps were best chopped or ground and softened and seasoned, and that's precisely what happened to them in a burger, in a meatball and in the most physically imposing member of this culinary family: the meatloaf. The meatloaf was a home not just for scraps but for spices that connected it to the cook's epicurean ancestry. One old American recipe combined veal, ham and bread crumbs with grated nutmeg, mace, cayenne and lemon rind for a decidedly French flavor profile. This loaf was covered with an egg wash and crushed crackers.

Meatloaf became a staple of many Americans' diets during the Depression, because it helped home cooks extend precious protein farther than it might otherwise go, so that more people could be fed with less meat. By then meat grinders were common and meat grinding less difficult, two developments that helped to popularize meatloaf. In the 1940s meatloaf was an emblem of wartime ingenuity; this was the era of Penny Prudence's "Vitality Loaf," made with beef, pork and liver. The Culinary Arts Institute published a recipe for Savory Meat Loaf that called for beef, vegetable soup and cereal.

By the 1950s, meatloaf was here to stay. Betty Crocker had recipes, which home cooks tweaked. A 1958 book, 365 Ways to Cook Hamburger, included seventy recipes for meatloaf, and while you won't find nearly that many here, that's because some of those seventy went a bit wild, advocating smashed bananas, for example, or ketchup-filled peach halves. (We've exercised more restraint.) Meatloaf became an expected option at American diners. It never made inroads like that into upscale restaurants, but every now and then, an ambitious chef will sneak it onto his or her menu, either presenting it in some exalted form or keeping it simple and serving it as an act of nostalgia, as a gesture of respect for a food that so ably sustained Americans through hard times.

We both feel that when we cook meatloaf, we're connected to something bigger: a tradition, a time line. Meatloaf is elemental. It's enduring. And if comfort foods are those that are not only an answer to hunger but also an existential balm, served without undue fuss or expensive implements, then meatloaf rules the category. It reigns supreme. It's the fluffy caftan of comfort foods.

And yet. Meatloaf can be as divisive and polarizing as American politics. There are meatloaf partisans who believe that the ultimate meatloaf harbors equal measures of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal, and there are others who feel that ground veal is a wanly flavored waste of time. There are people who "bloom" powdered gelatin in water and mix this into their meatloaf before putting it in the oven, as a sort of insurance policy against drying or disintegration, and there are others, like us, who think that too many extra steps almost ruin the point of meatloaf, which should never be a headache, and that good ingredients used in proper proportion should in most cases eliminate any need for gelatin.

We admit to our own meatloaf prejudices and we come to meatloaf with our subjective pointers, and it's time now to present these: our meatloaf manifesto. We'll do that by going through the usual components and construction of meatloaf.

While we contend that all sorts of ground meats make for great meatloaf, we caution you not to go too lean, because you'll end up with a dry meatloaf. Meatloaf is not a diet food, so don't try to bully it into being one. Meet and eat it on its own terms.

That said, we have recipes for meatless loaves in the pages to follow. A few are entirely vegetarian, while a few use fish. We also have a few turkey meatloaf recipes that are certainly lower in calories and fat than, for example, our Homely Homey Blue and Bacon Loaf, which is a splendiferous nutritional apocalypse. (We won't pretend otherwise, and we make no apologies.) But we're more intent on moistness and flavor than on virtue. For a turkey or chicken meatloaf, we recommend dark meat over white. When buying ground beef, don't look for lean sirloin; fatty chuck will serve you better. One of the reasons that lamb works so well in meatloaves—and that we have several recipes calling for ground lamb—is because of its fat content. It produces a luscious loaf.

If you've used only traditional bread crumbs in your meatloaf, you haven't scratched the surface of starchy binders and of ways to incorporate bread. Many of our recipes specify bread soaked in milk or half-and-half, because that can add extra moisture to a loaf that either needs or would benefit from it. When we do use dried bread crumbs, we sometimes suggest panko, or Japanese bread crumbs, as they work beautifully in meatloaf, having a fluffier effect. But the function of bread crumbs can also be achieved with oatmeal, with farro, with crushed saltines, with cooked rice, even with cornflakes: We've seen and tried recipes with all of these possibilities and more. One of the recipes that made the book's final cut ditches bread crumbs in favor of tortilla chips; another assigns the role to potato chips.

We tend to lean away from raw onions—and most other raw vegetables—and generally instruct you to sauté them in either olive oil or butter, depending on the recipe. Doing this takes the over-aggressive bite out of onions and can prevent chopped vegetables from turning your meatloaf gritty. It's a textural upgrade.

Use your food processor discerningly. It's always tempting to reduce work and save time by putting onions, carrots, celery and such in the food processor instead of chopping them by hand, but if you do that, make sure not to reduce those vegetables to a paste, as that's not always the best form and consistency for them if they're going into a loaf, which is supposed to have a certain variation, a certain unevenness and even dots of color. Pulse a bit, then check the vegetables, then pulse a bit more. Repeat that until they're diced well but not to a fare-thee-well. Or do the work with a sharpened knife. Sometimes chopping feels like grueling work because you're doing it with a bad knife whose edge has dulled.

Our caveat about food processors is related to another bit of advice: Don't get so carried away with the mixing of your meatloaf that you overwork it, striving for some kind of immaculate blend. That's not meatloaf's nature. That's not its calling. Its wrinkles and blemishes are essential to its homespun, earthbound charms, and a pasty uniformity in a meatloaf is like an excess of Botox and filler on a face. It elevates flawlessness over character and creates something suspicious, strange and less inviting than arresting.

Use your hands with abandon. There are meatloaf recipes that will tell you to mix the ground meat and everything else with a spoon, but you'd need some kind of magical spoon and some kind of magical strength for that approach to be nearly as efficient and effective as rolling up your sleeves and treating the mixture the way you would treat dough in the bread-making process. Just be sure to wash your hands well beforehand, and take the meat out of the refrigerator a good twenty to thirty minutes before you're going to need (and knead) it, so it's not so cold that the work is actually unpleasant. The meat will also loosen up and mix better if it's at room temperature. Have the skillet or pan in which you're going to place the mixture nearby, because your hands will be sticky and clumpy, and you want to limit how much reaching and walking around you need to do before the loaf is shaped and you can wash them anew.


  • "Liberally peppered with Bruni and Steinhauer's snappy dialogue, this is a terrific collection that deserves a look from meatloaf lovers of all ages."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

On Sale
Feb 7, 2017
Page Count
272 pages

Frank Bruni

About the Author

Frank Bruni is the author of three bestselling books and an op-ed columnist for the New York Times. Prior, he worked as the newspaper’s chief restaurant critic, Rome bureau chief and White House correspondent.

Jennifer Steinhauer is a veteran New York Times correspondent, passionate home chef and the author of the bestselling cookbook Treat Yourself as well as the novel Beverly Hills Adjacent with Jessica Hendra.

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Jennifer Steinhauer

About the Author

Jennifer Steinhauer has covered numerous high-profile beats in her twenty-five-year reporting career at the New York Times, from City Hall bureau chief and Los Angeles bureau chief to Capitol Hill. She won the Newswoman’s Club of New York Front Page Deadline Reporting Award in 2006 for her reporting on Hurricane Katrina. She has written a novel about the television business, and two cookbooks.

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