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Meatloaf-Free-Form Or Loaf Pan?

I made turkey meatloaf last night, and it was great! I had been making meatloaf free-form style and can't remember the last time I used my Pyrex loaf pan. But, I decided to use it last nigh to make stuffing it with cheese and spinach easier (I didn't feel like spreading and rolling it-messy!).
I took measures to ensure it stayed moist by adding half and half, ketchup and onions. Boy, did it stay moist! It got me thinking about whether making meatloaf free-form style allows not just the grease to flow away, but the juices and even flavor.
I'm sticking with the pan for a bit to test out my theory.

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  1. I like free form meatloaf -- more brown, tasty crust! If you use enough breadcrumbs, your meatloaf will stay juicy and flavorful as the breadcrumbs will absorb the juices/fat.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Norm Man

      +1 cause of the brown crusties :)

      1. re: Norm Man

        Another vote for free-form meatloaf and the tasty crust that forms.
        I use toasted oatmeal in my meatloaf.

      2. I don't like the loaf pan because it makes for gray meat loaf. I use a free form so I can paint my ketchup/worchester mixture on the loaf. It makes a brown, tasty exterior. Some people advocate adding brown sugar to the ketchup and worchester. I usually don't. I do add some chili powder to it.

        I have seen people use a BBQ sauce the same way.

        I use a panade (white bread crumbs soaked in milk), which keeps the meatloaf both moist and tender.

        1. If you don't want to use a breadcrumb mixture, minced mushrooms (use a food processor!) makes incredibly moist meatloaf. I use a free form recipe from epicurious that has a mixture of onions, carrots and mushrooms, and it stays moist even for reheated leftovers.

          4 Replies
          1. re: TorontoJo

            I add sauteed onions and red bell peppers. I learned it from Alton Brown.

            On the recommendation of a friend, I added box grated potato to the loaf and that was very moist.

            I don't usually though. My meat loaf is never dry and is very popular in my household.

            1. re: Hank Hanover

              I put some ketchup into my mix, and blended it with onions and red and green bell peppers. And a clove of garlic too.
              Amazing flavor and moisture.

              1. re: monavano

                I used to put ketchup in mine but with the left over milk from the panade, some worchestershire and the egg, I found myself having to control how much liquid I used. I do add some spices and what not. I usually have garlic too. Have you found that you have to at least sweat your onions and peppers? I do or they won't get soft.

                I use a temperature probe set on about 160 - 165.

                1. re: Hank Hanover

                  Sounds like you are not dicing the onion and pepper finely enough. I don't precook the vegetables in mine with the exception of the cabbage (unless using coleslaw). They are plenty soft by the time the meatloaf, patties, or meatballs are done.

                  But sweating the vegetables WOULD decrease the liquid in the mix so would be useful if someone has problems with it being too loose/wet.

          2. One of my kitchen boxes didn't make it through a move, so for the last eight years, it's been free form. At first it was simply that my loaf pan was MIA, but I continued to use this method not only for all of the reasons listed above, but also to ensure that I can add whatever I want to it without worrying if I'm going to run out of room in my pan. (Um, we really like meatloaf.) My meatloaves tend to be so substantial that I actually made two smaller ones last time, to better control the cooking time. I do baste it a fair amount. I've never made a dry meatloaf.

            But now I am curious. Maybe next time the temperature drops below sweltering, I'll do a side by side.

            1. I like the loaf pan as my family has always liked the country gravy I make for the meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Never did like the ketchup versions. Just a personal preference.

              1. I have a meatloaf pan with a perforated insert that allows the juices to drain so the loaf isn't sitting in it. The meat shrinks away from the sides enough to brown the sides too, yet yields a moister loaf than free-form, which I did for ages before getting the special pan on a whim.

                On a side note, I am amazed that some folks do not use soaked bread crumbs (or an equivalent like oatmeal) for meatloaf or meatballs. I've been unfortunate enough to have been served breadless hockey pucks from time to time by people who think the bread is simply a cheapskate way to stretch the meat. That may be the initial motive, but the results are superior and I have never been one to knock peasant food.

                2 Replies
                1. re: greygarious

                  I agree-panades are a must in meatloaf and meatballs.

                  1. re: greygarious

                    I've never seen a meatloaf pan but will have to look for one. I'm not sure if I need to add a unitasker to my kitchen supplies but I'll bet I could find other uses for it, like draining berries.

                    I use a panade, with home made bread. I thought it might be a waste of home made bread but it does make a difference. I also cut it with finely chopped lettuce and/or mushrooms--it's extra moist, makes the meat go further and more veggies in the kids.

                  2. panade and free form here. I made it in a loaf pan for many years before I heard and understood the brilliance of getting the meatloaf out of all that grease and letting the crust form. I love meatloaf.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: laliz

                      I just really like the brown exterior of a free form. What almost ruined me on meatloaf was people that put tomato sauce heaped up on top of the loaf. I really don't care for that and I use ketchup at the table. I like to serve meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a beef mushroom gravy.

                    2. You can't get a good crust on meatloaf if you use a loaf pan...

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: joonjoon

                        You can with the special meat loaf pan I referred to upthread, because the meat does not sit in its juices and there is enough room around the edge to allow browning. Usually I form a football shape before placing it in the pan but even if I solidly pack the insert, there's enough shrinkage for some browning on the sides. Never that unappetizing muddy gray from a regular loaf pan.

                        1. re: greygarious

                          I have seen the pans. I guess it would take some practice to figure out how much meat you need to fill the pan without overfilling. Is yours a 2 pound loaf pan?

                      2. I use the Tyler Florence recipe for "ultimate meat loaf" and G*D Damn its good! Uses a panade and is bacon wrapped! I know, right! So I always do it free form.. I layer the bacon out on plastic wrap then put my loaf in the middle then wrap the bacon in one go. It also uses a 2/3 - 1/3 beef to pork ratio. Anyone I have ever served it to LOVED it and it has changed more than a few minds about meatloaf!

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: Iamclarkman

                          I have seen a lot of recipes for bacon wrapped meatloaf. I bet it is good. On "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives", a diner would roll meatloaf in about a 3 inch cylinder so bacon would wrap completely around it. It didn't take as long to cook either.

                          I can't hardly get ground veal anymore so I use 1/3 ground chuck, 1/3 ground sirloin and 1/3 ground pork.

                          Have you ever used Alton brown's trick? He wraps a drip rack in aluminum foil, puts it on a jelly roll pan. Then he pokes holes in the top layer of foil then he puts the loaf on the foil. The grease runs right down into the foil and is trapped. You just carefully unwrap the foil, take the rack out and fold up the foil and the grease and throw it away.

                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                            that foil trick is brilliant! I'm trying it tonight!!

                        2. I prefer free form because it browns better all over, but you can always make it in your loaf pan and then give it 15-20 minutes in a HOT oven to produce a good crust.

                          1. I’m also a free form panade (though this is the first time I knew the paste was called that, the French have a fancy term for everything the classy b*stards) type myself.

                            On the sauce on top question, since I moved to London I’ve been switched on to Reggae Reggae sauce, a sort of spicy Afro-Caribbean take on brown sauce. It caramelises on the crust and gives it a slight jerk-ish kick that I’ve become a fan of.

                            1. Here is the Williams-Sonoma meatloaf pan that I have...


                              Though I like meatloaf made free-form, I usually use the pan because it makes a denser meatloaf. My husband won't eat it at all, so I make a meatloaf, slice and cool, and then freeze in packets of 2 slices to pull out for my kids to eat during the week. Made in the pan, it's just a little easier to slice without it falling apart.

                              1. Doesn't a standard loaf pan hold about 1 pound of meat? If I am correct, that is a pretty small meatloaf.

                                I usually make a 2 or a 3 pound meatloaf depending on whether I want leftovers.

                                4 Replies
                                1. re: Hank Hanover

                                  Yes, about a pound (and some stuffing, too).

                                  1. re: monavano

                                    So that would be enough for maybe 3 people?

                                    1. re: Hank Hanover

                                      Depends on serving size. I make meatloaf with 1 pound of meat and can get 4-5 servings out of it.

                                      1. re: mpjmph

                                        Me too. In my original post, the meatloaf in question was stuffed with cheese and spinach. That, along with breadcrumbs made the meatloaf stretch to 4-5 servings.

                                2. Where was this thread when I needed it.

                                  Never knew you can do meatloaf free form and ruined an entire batch because I tried stuffing them in tiny up molds which was a disaster! Turned out gray, soggy, inedible and had to be thrown out as even sauteeing the pieces couldn't bring it back.

                                  HOORAY! I'm going to make meatloaf!

                                  5 Replies
                                  1. re: BamiaWruz

                                    When doing a free-form loaf, you get the best results if you place the meat on a broiler pan or some other device to keep it raised off the bottom of the pan so it doesn't get a greasy, soggy bottom from sitting in its own rendered fat and juices. A punctured sheet of tin foil placed on a cooling rack set onto a roasting pan, for example, will also work.

                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      Oh wow, I think I have just the pan for this! How fabulous, going to make it and see how it turns out. Lots of basting, yum!

                                        1. re: BamiaWruz

                                          I have never had to baste my meatloaf. It comes out very moist. Besides basting would wash away my ketchup Worchestershire glaze.

                                    2. This whole thread makes me wonder about meat loaves in a muffin pan...

                                      8 Replies
                                      1. re: Bada Bing

                                        I once did meatballs (shaped with a spring-release ice cream scoop) in a muffin tin. They came out fine, but there was space between the balls and the wells. Packed wells have the same drawback as a packed loaf pan.

                                        1. re: greygarious

                                          Yeah, I myself am a free-form loafer for this very reason--plus I like maximum crust.

                                        2. re: Bada Bing

                                          I made these one time since I thought my kids would like them. They came out just ok, but I never made them again. Not bad, I just like the loaf better.


                                          1. re: valerie

                                            For individual portions, it's better to form round or square patties and cook them on the stove, with medium low heat, which takes about 20 min total (flip only once). There's a nice crust that way, and a great fond to be turned into pan sauce. They are the right shape for leftover sandwiches, and quicker to prepare on a weeknight, not to mention less energy usage and less scrubbing for clean-up. You could do them in the oven too.

                                              1. re: Samuelinthekitchen

                                                This is old territory that's been battled over before - most Americans don't consider it a burger when it has as much fillers as meat loaf mix has, and when it cannot be served pink or red. So no, not burgers. They are called frikadellen in Germany and its neighbors. Head south, they get spherical and become meatballs.

                                                1. re: greygarious

                                                  And head east to Russia and they're kotlyete.

                                            1. re: valerie

                                              Individual loaflets in muffin pan? Yes! My mom makes them and they're damned good. More "edge pieces" that everyone wants, plus the moistness of a loaf pan without the sogginess. Plus the ketchup-to-meat ratio is great since they're wider at the top than at the bottom. (You can tell I've put a lot of thought into this.)

                                          2. I usually make turkey meatloaf and I also make it free form. I use my mother's trick of adding powdered onion soup mix, usually half an envelope so it's not too salty, the onions rehydrate using the meatloaf juices. I have never made a dry meatloaf using her method. I usually add some more onions, celery and/or mushrooms, really whatever I have on hand. The last time I made meatloaf I added shredded zucchini because I had some extra, and I liked the results.

                                            1. MMMM. I love meatloaf. I guess I'll be a home girl forever. I started using ground turkey (dark meat mix) a few years ago, and for me I love that it makes such a lighter meat loaf which I enjoy very much.Like you, I've always used a pyrex loaf dish, My dh though taught me a different way. He has always made it free form & he shapes it differently. He adds carrots,celery and doesn't make a glaze at all. It's delcious.I had a few misfires with the free form style the first few times, I needed to get my timing down and overcooked it a few times.

                                              So my few changes have been to use turkey and to add a little chopped carrot which gives it a nice sweetness. onions, and bell pepper chopped on the small side, and also chicken broth to the meat mix and bread crumbs. I've found making it this way the meatloaf is moist. It cooks in iess time but you must keep an eye on it. The upside is that the loaf doesn't sit in its own grease. Take it out of the oven when the meatloaf is pink, tent it, and be sure to let it rest a bit. This is necessary so that you can slice it nicely later without it falling apart. Honestly, I love it made both ways. I stilI make a killer glaze, I have to have that!. I agree making it free form in a larger baking dish, and not so thick or in the loaf dish allows that fat to leave the meatloaf.

                                              There are so many ways we all love meatloaf prepared and eaten and what I'm interested in are those ways! What I would like to know is this;
                                              Are you a ketchup or brown gravy person?
                                              Must you have peas, corn, green beans or somethng else?
                                              Mashed potatoes or scallops? (My mom always made scalloped potatoes)
                                              These details are passed down from generation to generation within our families.
                                              The one thing that's really important is that I do love a slightly sweet ketchup glaze mix I make, and I also want a nice brown gravy on the side. Mashed potatoes are a must, and sweet white baby corn or petite peas.

                                              There are just some things in life that you can't mess with and meatloaf is one of them!

                                              7 Replies
                                              1. re: chef chicklet

                                                My favorite meatloaf meal has GOT to have mashed taters and green peas. Ketchup on the side, of course.

                                                1. re: chef chicklet

                                                  Chef Chicklet.. Sides for us are mashed potatoes with crater gravy. Once in a blue moon we'll have roast potatoes instead of mashed. Veggies are usually steamed broccoli, cauliflower or carrots tossed in a smidge of butter with chopped scallions & chopped basil or mint.

                                                  Never ketchup. Too sweet.. I'll chose HP sauce over ketchup anytime. Its quite lovely on a cold meatloaf sandwich!

                                                  1. re: chef chicklet

                                                    I loved mashed potatoes, but would do scalloped if I had the time.
                                                    Brown gravy-yes, I love it, but seem to have to resort to a good jarred variety when I want it. Boston Market's is quite good. I think it gives the "diner blue plate special feel".

                                                    1. re: monavano

                                                      For gravy try "better than bouillon" beef base. Make a broth with it. Mix it into your roux. If you like you can add some sauteed or hydrated mushrooms, maybe a glurg of red wine and or a teaspoon of dijon mustard. If u can add a little gelatinous chicken stock for mouth feel.

                                                      It will be better than the jarred stuff or the seasoning packets.

                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                        BTB's site, www.superiortouch.com, includes bases I have not seen in supermarkets, including au jus and mushroom. They also have gravy bases, and sell online.

                                                        1. re: greygarious

                                                          I can get the "Better than Bouillon" from my grocery store which is why I use it.

                                                          There is a super big version of my grocery store chain closer to downtown. I can get all the bases there. I go there every once in a while when I need something specialized.


                                                    2. re: chef chicklet

                                                      I'm not a ketchup person at all. Blech! I actually prefer to top my (free formed) meatloaf with BBQ sauce. Mmmm.
                                                      Gravy would be my next favorite if I have it on hand or feel like making it.

                                                      Mash potatoes are usually my starchy side, but I've been known to have roasted potatoes or potato salad.

                                                      My veg is just whatever is in season!

                                                    3. I usually don't use a timer to determine doneness. I use a temperature probe. I take it out at 165 degrees F.

                                                      I sweat the chopped onions and red bell peppers because Cook's Illustrated recommends it. They indicated that the meatloaf didn't get hot enough to ensure the vegetables got done. I really don't like my cooked vegetables al dente. I like them just soft.

                                                      Greygarious has indicated he doesn't have a problem with it so I may be over processing mine.

                                                      BBQ sauce in the meatloaf sounds interesting and while I have never tried it, mexican meatloaf sounds good.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                        My meatloafs have improved a lot since I started going freeform and using the Cook's Illustrated recipe. I use the one from the original "The Best Recipe" (because it allows oatmeal as one option in the panade, and I'd grown up with the Quaker Oats meatloaf recipe), but use straight ground beef (the leanest I can afford, but not super-lean) instead of the meatloaf mixture, and skip the bacon wrap. The glaze (basically a very simple homemade barbecue-sauce type in this recipe) gets applied half just before the meatloaf goes into the oven and half after the first 45 minutes, and tastes superb; plus, my meatloaf never (well, hardly ever) falls apart when being sliced now. My teenage kids love this meatloaf (especially my youngest, who wouldn't touch loaf-pan meatloaf); my spouse, though, is now tiring of meatloaf (Rats!).

                                                        1. re: CatherineMcClarey

                                                          Yep, I use the recipe from The Best Recipe. I do the bacon wrapping and the glaze and this meatloaf is great! Have to admit that I've never made a different recipe, so can't compare, but guess that says something in and of itself :-)

                                                      2. Freeform, always! Mushrooms, onions and panade inside, lots of bacon wrapped around the outside. Marvelous, and never dry.

                                                        1. Only freeform here.. Panade, V8 juice, pre sauteed onions & peppers, diced cheddar, fresh herbs, bacon slices, for good old regular meatloaf.. If Italian meatloaf, prosciutto, tomato slice, grated mozza, chopped fresh herb, topping. If Greek meatloaf, tomato, chopped mint, feta cheese topping. Yum!

                                                          2 Replies
                                                            1. re: monavano

                                                              I have heard of but never tried this recipe for smoked meatloaf. http://www.smoker-cooking.com/smoked-...

                                                              I'm sure you could use your favorite recipe and then smoke it at 250 degrees F for 3-4 hours or until it reached 160 degrees. You might want to glaze it with bbq sauce.

                                                              The idea of a smoked meatloaf sounds really good.

                                                          1. I am a free form man but I have been kicking around the idea of individual loaves. I usually cook for 3 adults. The advantage would be no slicing. They would still fit on the same tray (jelly roll pan with foil wrapped drip rack).

                                                            1 Reply
                                                            1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                              The only problem I see with that is that the interior will heat up a lot faster than with a larger loaf. So it could easily overcook by the time you get the exterior as crusty as you want it to be. You might be able to control it by playing around with the heat. I recall a recipe for individual loaves in Cook's Illustrated, but not their technique. I prefer the stovetop approach of frikadellen. Because the outside of the patties is cooking in fat (a little oil in the pan to start, plus what is rendered), it browns faster than in the oven.

                                                            2. How about a compromise? I used to always do freeform for the lovely brown crust. More recently I've been roasting them in an attractive oval ceramic casserole for about 15 minutes or until the meatloaf has some structure and begins to pull away from the sides. Then I turn it out into a roasting pan and let the sides caramelize. I do it for the crust but I also prefer that the fat and extra proteins drain away.

                                                              I use a combo of flaxseed meal and rolled oats instead of bread crumbs as a binder.

                                                              For the glaze I use equal parts of ketchup, grainy mustard and chutney. I don't put it on until the top has a nice crust.

                                                              Mmmmm! Guess what's for dinner tonight at my house? ;>

                                                              1 Reply
                                                              1. re: rainey

                                                                I glaze with a similar recipe. Usually ketchup, cumin, chili powder, cider vinegar and brown sugar.

                                                              2. I or I should say we eat them both ways. My husband makes the free form version and its very good. Personally, I like the loaf to so I can make gravy and I love the ketchup glaze thing. Then I make a brown gravy, super creamy mashed potatoes and petite pois. Its a comfort food thing.
                                                                I make the same meatloaf my mom made, but she would always have au gratin potatoes were her meatloaf meal (and creamed petite pois).

                                                                1. I had posted earlier that I was considering making individual free form loaves. Well, I got around to it. It turned out pretty well. The last time I had made a meatloaf, I had made a big batch of the precooked meatloaf using 2 lbs ground chuck 2 lbs ground sirloin and 2 lbs ground pork. I cut the mix into 3 equal batches of about 2.5 pounds each (with the fillings). I froze two and cooked the other one.

                                                                  This time, I took one of the frozen mixes out and after thawing it made 3 equal loaves. I used my ketchup/worchestershire sauce glaze. It took about an hour to reach 165 degrees F in a 350 degree oven.

                                                                  There were some advantages. Quicker cooking time and no slicing.

                                                                  2 Replies
                                                                  1. re: Hank Hanover

                                                                    You are saying that you made "individual" loaves weighing over 13 ounces each before cooking? That's a Paul Bunyan-sized portion! I'd consider that to be 3 servings.

                                                                    1. re: greygarious

                                                                      Yeah pretty much. Ok, so we didn't want dessert.

                                                                  2. I like free form. I set it on a cooking rack in a baking pan so that the grease drains away. Love that crispy brown outside edge!!!!

                                                                    I made mini meatloaves in muffin tins once and couldn't stand the greasiness.

                                                                    1. We do freeform (more crust) and I usually make each loaf about 1lb, which means multiple loaves per batch of meatloaf. The small loaves cook faster and yield more ends!

                                                                      Re. BBQ sauce - we have made these "meatloaf muffins" that include BBQ sauce and salsa. They're tasty, but drain the salsa before you add it or else the muffins will not hold together. http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/ra...

                                                                      1. My answer is YES!?! Will often use glass loaf pan till set a bit, then onto baking sheet or other flat baking dish. You and left meatloaf out of loaf pan with 1-2 spatulas and leave excess grease behind. I like loaf shape cuz slices fit bread better for sandwiches later.

                                                                        1. Freeform and bread crumbs. I mimicked RAO's meatball idea of adding water until you feel you got a bit of a loose texture. It always comes out crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. If you're a mushroom fan I highly recommend browning minced mushrooms and adding it to the mix.

                                                                          1. I do free form - I like the extra crust area

                                                                            1. I’m looking forward to trying the pate-style meat loaf in Ruhlman’s Twenty, baked in a water bath. Not gonna please the dark-crust-lovers here, tho.

                                                                              Anyone tried it?

                                                                              1. I use either a loaf pan or my slow cooker! Either way it's really tasty...now I'm hungry.

                                                                                1. The best meatloaf may be cooked in a throw away tin foil loaf pan cooked in the center of a Weber charcoal grill with an indirect fire (coals around perimeter only). Poke some drip holes in the pan if desired, and place a tin foil pie pan underneath to catch drippings.

                                                                                  1. I've done it both ways and always come back to the glass loaf pan. I don't understand about anyone's basting it, since mine throws so much juice I need to suck'em out with the bulb baster once or twice, but it's still nice and moist. I'm not all hot for an all-over crust, and its primary purpose is to provide me with sandwiches anyway, so I don't care what color it is. And since I'm now the sole carnivore around here, I'm the only one I have to please!

                                                                                    Two or more kinds of meat, egg, ketchup (only time I ever use that!), onion, celery, maybe chopped poblano strips (bought pre-roasted and frozen), and cracker crumbs, plus S&P and whatever herbs I want, usually just thyme. Initial mix with a fork, then go to work with the hands until it feels right. Need to make one pretty soon now …

                                                                                    1. Not a fan of the crust (although I've come up with one that I like) but I haven't had the juices or fat drip out of my meatloaf. Panko is so dry I think it absorbs all that goodness.

                                                                                      1. I cook meatloaf in a pan, and it's always tender and lovely. My recipe is mom's, and it is a pound of hamburger or lambburger, a roughly chopped onion, two slices of sandwich bread cubed, a small handful of oatmeal, about 1/3 c instant oatmeal, one egg, and a glug or two of worchestershire sauce. Plus a scant bit of salt, 1/4 t or so, and pepper.

                                                                                        The top must be coated with more ketchup :) Bake for an hour. The bigger onion pieces still have a little crunch. I