Best Smoked Meatloaf
With roots in the industrial revolution, the necessity of wartime rationing, and growth in popularity during the 50’s post war kitchens, Meatloaf has a home in the American culinary scene and culture. From diners to family dinners this iconic dish has seen countless variations and flavor profiles, modified to fit the tastes and regions of the home cook. Today let’s take the meatloaf out of the oven and onto the smoker for a flavor that is unique and a texture that is perfection.
The best meatloaf is many things, moist but not soggy or greasy tight but not sausage like structure, well-seasoned, and sliceable. As Kenji Lopez of Serious Eats says:
The very best meatloaf should be tender and moist, with a distinctly soft but never mushy texture. “Velvety” and “rich” should come to mind when tasting it, tender enough to slice with a fork but firm enough to pick up that bite without it breaking. It should be a sponge for moisture, oozing juices when you eat it but not leaving a puddle on your plate. It should be deeply rich and meaty in flavor and savory, with just a hint of vegetable undertones to complement and lighten the slice. But make no mistake: meatloaf is about the meat. And, of course, it needs to reheat well for sandwiches. -Kenji Lope
So how do you best accomplish this gastronomical feat? It all starts with the meat.
BUILDING A BETTER MEATLOAF
Any ground meat will create a meatloaf, but for a truly exceptional dish we must consider the muscle structures of meat, the fat content, and how the proteins constrict during cooking.
Beef comes from large, heavy, animals who walk around all day requiring a lot of effort from their muscles. This creates a tighter muscle structure with fat that is hard at room temperature, and rich flavorful meat. So, a beef only meatloaf tends to produce a loaf that is more coarse, drier, and has a less subtle flavor.
Pigs are much smaller, spend most of their time laying around, and thus create a more delicate lighter meat with a looser muscle structure and softer fat. This is the reason we use pork, and pork fat, for making sausages. An all-pork loaf then tends to be much tighter, less flavorful, but moister than an all-beef loaf.
The trick is to find the right ratio of beef to pork. This will help you create a loaf that has the perfect combination of rich meaty flavor and tender flavorful fat.
Next, we will need binders. The classic ingredients here have been milk, eggs, and breadcrumbs, but why?
Milk adds moisture to the meatloaf and some extra fat, but you have to be careful you do not add too much and make a loaf that will not hold its shape. Heavy cream or buttermilk work best here for the high ratio of fat to water.
Eggs are essential because they not only bring a richness, some fat, and moisture. They also provide additional protein which helps retain the structure to the loaf. This helps form the final loaf with as minimal working as possible. The more you work ground beef the tougher and tighter the final product will become.
Breadcrumbs are a wild card. I have seen recipes call for everything from fine breadcrumbs to instant oats, and historically this has been where home cooks stretch their dollar to make a bigger loaf. This ingredient is crucial in the final texture of your meatloaf and must be chosen wisely. Not only do they absorb and retain moisture, but they also cut the protein fibers helping to keep your meatloaf tender and juicy. We prefer the flavor and texture of hand ground butter crackers, perfectly seasoned with that extra butter flavor.
Onions and beef are a classic combination, to this add some carrots and garlic. We found that chopping this fine helps create a great base to enhance the flavor of our meats. We also like to add some diced red pepper to the mix for flavor and the help break up the final texture of the meatloaf.
Start by finely mincing the onions and carrots, you don’t want any large chunks of these in your final loaf. You can use a food processer if you want just to make sure to pulse and not over process, especially the onions as they can become bitter and metallic tasting. Add to this mixture your minced garlic and small diced red pepper. Give this a brief sauté in butter with a touch of salt till they veggies are soft. Remove from heat and add your cream with a touch of ketchup, Worcestershire, and soy sauce. The sauces may sound odd together but the effect they have on the final loaf is exceptional.
Let this mixture cool. Once it is cooled, add the beef, pork, eggs, and breadcrumbs. Season with kosher salt, cracked black pepper and a little granulated garlic. Gently, but thoroughly, mix with your hands to combine all of the ingredients. Mixing by hand is the gentlest way to mix without overmixing the loaf. We always break off a small portion, 1 Tablespoon worth, and cook in a skillet to test the flavor. Add more salt and pepper as needed.
SHAPING, GLAZING, SMOKING
Preheat your smoker to 240°F (115 °C), ensure you have a proper reading by using your Chefstemp Quad Xpro ambient temperature probe. Line a rimmed sheet pan with foil, then place the meatLoaf right in the center. You want to shape your loaf into a uniform log, it’s best to do this by compressing the sides then flattening the top till you get a loaf that is a uniform width and about 2.5-3 inches tall.
You can glaze your loaf with plain ketchup or jazz it up by mixing in chili powder, ground chipotles, brown sugar, cider vinegar, or whatever you choose. Here we kept it simple with a mixture of ketchup, apple cider vinegar and brown sugar.
Insert probes into both ends of the meatloaf, this allows you to monitor your hot zones and when you need to rotate your pan to keep the loaf cooking evenly. Let this smoke for about 2-2.5 hours, or until the internal temperature registers 160°F (71°C). Carry over cooking will take you the rest of the way up to 165°F (74°C). Always double check your temps with the Finaltouch X10 thermometer.
Let the meatloaf rest for 5-8 minutes to let the meat settle and the proteins to start relaxing, this will prevent the juices from being forced out of the loaf.
You can slice this and serve as is with a side of mashed potatoes or you can make sandwiches. Our favorite is simply dressed with a ketchup/mustard mix with dill pickles on white bread.
ULTIMATE SMOKED MEATLOAF
- 16 oz ground pork
- 32 oz ground beef
- 1 yellow onion
- 1 large carrot
- 1 red bell pepper diced
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2T butter
- kosher salt, cracked black pepper, and granulated garlic
- 1/3 C heavy cream
- 5T worcestershire sauce
- 2tsp soy sauce
- ¼ C ketchup
- 3 eggs
- 1 sleeve butter crackers
- 1 C ketchup
- 1/3 C brown sugar
- ¼ C cider vinegar
- Finely dice the carrots and onions or use a food processor on pulse mode to finely chop. Mince the garlic and dice the red peppers.
- Melt your butter in a skillet over medium high heat then sauté your vegetables, seasoned with a little salt, till soft.
- Add your cream, soy sauce, Worcestershire, and ketchup then remove from the heat and cool.
- Place your ground meat in a large bowl. Add the eggs, crumbled crackers, and vegetable mixture.
- Gently fold the meat together adding some salt, cracker black pepper, and granulated garlic. Remove a small amount and cook in the same skillet you cooked the vegetables. Taste and adjust the uncooked meat mixture with additional seasonings to taste.
- Line a rimmed sheet pan with foil. Place your ground meat mixture in the center of the pan and shape it into a uniform loaf.
- Preheat your smoker to 240°F (115 °C).
- Mix the ingredients for your glaze in a saucepan and heat till the sugar is melted and the mixture is combined.
- Glaze the loaf then insert the Chefstemp Quad Xproprobes into both ends of the loaf. Set this into the smoker.
- Rotate every 30 minutes to keep both sides cooking evenly and continue to cook until the meatloaf reaches 160°F (71°C).
- Remove the loaf and let it rest for 5-8 minutes. Slice and serve.
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