Stories / Recipes

Beard to Table: James Peterson's Meat Loaf

Anya Hoffman

Anya Hoffman

February 07, 2013


James Peterson's recipe for meat loaf

In this new series, we'll be taking a closer look at some of our favorite recipes from JBF Award winners as well as from Beard himself. To start, we turned to a beloved cold-weather staple: meat loaf.


A well-made meat loaf is a dinnertime workhorse. It's comforting, it's savory, it can be dipped in ketchup: what's not to love? But if you haven't yet seen the meat loaf light (perhaps the memories of the too-dry, or too-moist, or too-chunky ones of your childhood still linger), get ready to be convinced. James Peterson's bar-setting recipe for the classic dish, from his JBF Award–winning cookbook Meat: A Kitchen Education, is the one that's going to make you a believer.

Peterson's meat loaf recipe distinguishes itself in a few key ways:

1) It's intensely flavorful.

The recipe calls for minced cremini mushrooms, which are indiscernible in the final dish, but magically make the meat taste meatier. If you happen to have a different kind of mushroom on hand, use those instead. We've made this dish with leftover sautéed oyster mushrooms that were in the fridge and it was delicious.

Peterson is also not shy with the salt. Under-salting will ruin a meat loaf, and once the dish is cooked the problem can't be corrected. If you're unsure of how much salt to add, start by adding a conservative amount, fry up a pinch of the ground meat mixture, and give it a taste. Remember that the bacon will add salt as well.

2) It's the right texture.

This meat loaf is perfectly moist. Instead of adding bread crumbs, Peterson suggests soaking slices of hearty bread in milk until it forms a paste. This mixture, along with a beaten egg, binds the loaf and gives it a light, pâté-like texture. One suggestion for those who don't like to find chunks of vegetables in their meat loaf: grate the onion instead of dicing it.

The dish is baked free-form in a roasting pan (we used a baking sheet) instead of in a loaf pan, which eliminates the whole stewing-in-its-own juices problem. For those of you who are a stickler for an aesthetically perfect meat loaf, try this trick: before cooking, pack the meat mixture into a 10-inch loaf pan to shape it, then turn it out onto the center of a greased roasting pan to bake.

Peterson also calls for wrapping the meat loaf in bacon slices, which imparts a lovely, smoky flavor and keeps the meat from drying out while it bakes. If you omit the bacon, begin checking for doneness after 50 minutes.

3) It's super easy to make.

Most meat loaf is relatively easy to make, but this dish is especially simple and forgiving. There are no bits of carrot or red pepper to soften, no glaze to mix up. You don't even have to preheat the oven.

Peterson suggests using a combination of ground beef, pork, and veal, but we've always made it with beef alone and it's absolutely delicious. Also delicious: a next-day sandwich made with slices of this meat loaf and a sauce of ketchup, mayo, and a little horseradish.

Have we convinced you? Get the recipe here.