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Saltines as binder for delicious, back to basics meatloaf

I have tried all the complicated meatloaf versions - Paul Prudhomme's Cajun Meatloaf, Killer Meatloaf, Take No Prisoners Meatloaf, Pretty Good Meatloaf, Cooks Illustrated Meatloaf, and so forth. What all these meatloaves have in common is a long ingredient list which includes lots of different flavors and spicing, and most use breadcrumbs for the binder.

I wanted just the basics this time. No muss, no fuss, just a good, simple loaf like Mom used to make (or would have if there was room in the budget for veal). Last night I made the most delicious meatloaf I've had in years.

Using a pound each of ground beef and ground veal, I added about 3/4 of a sleeve of crushed saltine crackers, two beaten eggs, a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup, one chopped onion, and salt and pepper. That's it. Combined well with my hands, then packed into a loaf pan to bake for an hour and a half (until internal temp reached just past 160 on my analog thermometer).

As an aside, it took me only a half hour from start to meatloaf in the oven to make this, including cleanup. Yaay! Sometimes simpler is better. I was really surprised how good and tasty my basic loaf was, despite the humble list of ingredients.

I've never used Saltine crackers or tomato soup before in meatloaf, and one (or maybe both) made this the fluffiest and most moist meatloaf ever. I'd guess the Saltines are responsible, but won't know unless I try it without the soup. Maybe try saltines as the binder in meatballs? Don't much like the texture that results from breadcrumbs, so why not?

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  1. I use Ritz, because I always have them on hand. Also a bit of oatmeal. When I started doing that, my meatloaf was finally to my liking.

    4 Replies
    1. re: coll

      Ritz crackers might add an interesting flavor, maybe I'll try those next time. I have used oatmeal as binder in the past, and found I don't care for the texture it yields in meatloaf.

      1. re: janniecooks

        I only use 1/4 cup of each, I like my meatloaf to taste like MEAT ;-)

      2. re: coll

        i love ritz crackers and just mentioned them over on the eggplant thread -- as an ingredient in eggplant-cheddar cheese casserole.

        1. re: alkapal

          They have a very buttery flavor. And always on hand for hubby, for crackers and cheese before dinner. That is the only cracker he will eat, so we are always overstocked. If we run out, it's like the end of the world!

      3. I like your creativity! It sort of fits my culinary philosophy which stated is "cook like a peasant, dine like royalty." I belong to the "What if...?" school of cooking specializing in "cuisine impromptu."

        1. Cook's Country had a meatloaf recipe that used what I think was a sleeve of Saltines to 2 lbs of meat. I don't recall the flavor profile that it had. I made it once. I too have returned to making simple meatloaf after a few goes with Prudhomme etc..

          1 Reply
          1. re: King of Northern Blvd

            CI also has a crab cake recipe that uses saltines and I like it.

            For meatloaf, I use whatever I have in the house, crackers, bread crumbs, bread, etc. Making meatloaf is a leftovers type meal for me so I wouldn't shop for special ingredients.

          2. The saltine crackers are the perfect substitute for dried bread crumbs. Both are essentially dried bread. The plus of using saltine crackers is they're seasoned with salt, which will add to the flavour of your dish.


            6 Replies
            1. re: KaryOsmond

              Yeah, I dont really think its was the saltines as they are pretty interchangeable. It was probably the soup.

              Though I did find that the type of bread crumbs you use drastically changes the texture. Tried one meatloaf made with milk-soaked dried bread crumbs and one with milk-soaked fresh bread crumbs. And the ones using dried bread crumbs were noticeably rubbery. I make sure to use fresh bread crumbs because of this.

              In my meatloaf, I use equal parts freshly ground beef and sweet italian sausage (1lb each), a cup of freshly grated pecorino, 2 cups milk soaked bread crumbs and two eggs. Mix that all up, flatten into a rectangle over a mixture of flour and leftover breadcrumbs and fill with a layer of blanched veggies, a layer of cured meats like mortadella or prosciutto, and finally sliced sheep's milk cheese like cascio di roma. Roll it up. Place over a broiler pan filled with a cup of red wine or water, along with rosemary. Drizzled liberally with olive oil. Cook to 160-165 degrees internal. And reduce the pan drippings. Love this meatloaf and it looks beautiful when sliced. The meatloaf mixture is simple but the stuffing kicks it up a notch. And the great part is you can change it up. Sometimes I even add hard boiled eggs in it.

              1. re: GOJIRA

                Your complicated meatloaf is exactly what I wished to avoid, and exactly what mine is not. Go ahead and enjoy yours and I'll continue to enjoy my simple version!

                1. re: janniecooks

                  The actual meatloaf part is the simple. I was just suggesting that stuffing meatloaf makes it even better. Its a great way to hide veggies and tastes great. The meatloaf is only mixture of italian sausage, ground beef, eggs, grated pecorino romano, milk, and FRESH bread crumbs (dried may have been your problem). Nothing complicated about it. It actually seems I have the same number of ingredients as yours. Other than salt and pepper, yours has 6 ingredients, and mine has 6 ingredients.

                  I only make the pan sauce as some of us do not like tomato sauce or ketchup on our meatloaf put that is entirely optional. Some of my family actually prefers to have their meatloaf with ketchup.

                  1. re: GOJIRA

                    My grandmother always stuffed her meatloaf with two or three whole hard boiled eggs, it was a family favorite. My husband put a stop to that first time I made it for him, unfortunately ;-)

                    1. re: coll

                      For our Y2k meal (seems a lifetime ago), I made meatloaf w/ ground beef and Jimmie Dean sausages, and then stuffed w/ hard boiled eggs, topped w/ gravy. It was breakfast in dinner, in case the world didn't make the transition to the new century. ;-)

            2. Love it! I believe meatloaf is not a recipe kind of dish - you throw it together and adjust based on what you have on hand. I have used leftover crackers, like oyster crackers you always throw out after chili, goldfish crackers (small kids so these are everywhere in our house), panko crumbs, and old bread. The only filler I really don't like is rice. The we top with ketchup or tomato sauce or marinara or whatever is around. I like the variety!

              1. Sounds terrific - it's on the to make in May list. Married to a Saltines man we always have them - the full salt kind- on hand. Saltine man also likes Campbell's condensed tomato soup. I use the soup to make porcupine meatballs and it makes the dish IMHO.

                1. I like the idea of saltines from a flavor and texture perspective but like most commercial breadcrumbs the standard brand contains partially hydrogenated oil - which has left me usually using a panade of stale, usually homemade, bread for meatloaf, meatballs and patties -but don't always have that on hand - does anyone have a non trans fat laden saltine brand (or bread crumb) to recommend

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: JTPhilly

                    Late July makes a non trans fat saltine ...or use the Alton brown recipe to make your own!!

                    1. re: JTPhilly

                      Yes, the crackers I used contain partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil. I usually avoid any products with hydrogenated fats, and can't recall why exactly I bought saltines a few months ago. But occasional consumption of these crackers in this recipe aren't going to cause me much harm, since packaged or processed foods are rarely included in my diet at all.

                      1. re: janniecooks

                        I agree and if I had on hand I would use them too - but if I was going out to purchase them I would prefer and alternative - it is exactly things like saltines - basic, common, typical that it annoys me persist in containing un-healthful ingredients when there is no need so on principle I do not purchase them - it is frustrating because I do like saltines in soup and as applied here.

                    2. Next time, give a mix of ground beef and pork sausage a try. For a single loaf, I use a pound of beef, about a quarter pound of pork sausage, one egg, a big shot of ketchup, finely chopped onion, salt, pepper and enough finely-crushed saltines to bind. I go easy on the salt since the crackers contain a fair bit.

                      The biggest thing, like any pate, is keeping things cold and mixing quickly and lightly with your hands so as not to heat things up too much.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Anko

                        I've tried italian sausage in the complicated meatloaves before, but not plain pork sausage - I assume you mean like a tube of breakfast pork sausage. That might work well, but I don't like the high fructose corn syrup in most sausages. But I might try ground pork instead of veal - it is a lot cheaper - or a mix of the three ground meats - maybe 50% beef and 25% of each of the other two.

                        1. re: janniecooks

                          The most beef I put in is one third, when I use the "meatloaf mix". I think beef toughens the loaf.

                      2. Both saltine crackers and tomato juice are loaded with sodium. I like to control the salt I put in so I use white bread soaked in milk and some crushed tomatoes.

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: treb

                          There are options here-unsalted top saltines and low sodium tomato juice.
                          V8's version is killer.

                          1. re: treb

                            Yeah, and the ground beef and veal are high in fat. GAACK!

                            I don't buy into the argument that fat is bad for you and I don't buy into the argument that sodium is bad for you. And spread out amongst the many servings, the amount of sodium these ingredients contribute per serving is surely low enough for there to be no worries for those who do accept the argument. But let's do the math and see how much sodium these ingredients contribute per serving.

                            The soup was sized at 10.5 ounces, the nutrition label says there are 480 mg of sodium in one serving. One serving is specified as 1/2 cup condensed, which is four ounces. So I estimate the amount of sodium in one can to be around 1080 mg, far less than the 2300 mg/day RDA. And the 1080 mg must be split by number of servings of the meatloaf, which I estimate at 8 generous servings. That results in sodium per serving attributable to the soup at 135 mg, or about 5.86% of the RDA. Assuming the RDA is indeed a correct amount of sodium needed by the human body (a healthy dose of skepticism is required), it is difficult to see how the soup used in the way I did contributes sodium in any worrisome quantity.

                            Same goes for the crackers. According the nutrition label of the crackers I used, each serving size of 5 crackers has about 135 mg sodium. I used about 27 crackers total, yielding about 729 mg of sodium total. Spread among the 8 generous meatloaf servings, the crackers contribute about 91 mg sodium per serving.

                            So the saltines and the soup combine to contribute, per serving, less than 10% of the RDA for sodium. Is that high? Doesn't seem so to me, even for a reduced sodium diet. But of course I didn't take into account the sodium levels, if any, of the meats, eggs or the one teaspoon of salt I added to the mixture.

                            1. re: janniecooks

                              Nice analysis. I prefer to add salt to a recipe rather than using other salted ingredients but, that's just me.

                          2. my mother always used saltines in her meatloaf when i was a kid. these days I think she uses oatmeal.

                            1. My meatloaf is just 2 lbs ground beef, about 1/2 a sleeve of saltines, one egg, salt, pepper and 1/2 a diced onion.
                              No glaze or topping.

                              5 Replies
                              1. re: AngelaID

                                Maybe the two eggs I used contributed to the fluffy and moist texture. And no glaze or topping on my loaf either. The tomato soup incorporated into the meatloaf did contribute moisture and a very slight, delectable sweetness that I quite liked.

                                1. re: janniecooks

                                  Sometimes I use salsa (kinda like your use of tomato soup)

                                  1. re: LaLa

                                    And I just recently started using jarred tomato sauce, which I keep on hand for emergencies. Half inside, half on top. A lot lighter than the ketchup I used to use.

                                    1. re: coll

                                      I like this too - especially when making turkey loaf which really needs the added flavor - the tomato sauce permeates the meat

                                      also like the salsa idea

                                    2. re: LaLa

                                      i'm going to try that salsa idea. if you have a harris teeter grocery nearby, their house brand salsa is very good and a very good price. it reminds me of the tostitos brand. and don't let me open a jar at the same time i have a bag of multi-grain scoops!

                                2. I have used Saltines as the binder in meatballs and really liked them. Must try it in meatloaf (I usually use milk or cream-soaked fresh breadcrumbs).

                                  1. A further thought on my simple meatloaf re: the pan used for baking. The complicated meatloaf recipes have you shape the mixture into a loaf on a sheet pan for baking. While this method exposes three surfaces to the oven heat, and probably bakes in a bit less time, it also results in the escape of a large quantity of juices and fat from the meatloaf. And the pan is a mess, usually requiring overnight soaking to clean off the hardened, baked on residue.

                                    I was hesitant to cook the meatloaf in a loaf pan, having used a sheet pan for a long time--worried that the juices and fat that escape during cooking would overflow the loaf pan. So I put the loaf pan on a quarter sheet pan just in case.

                                    Surprise! There was no overflow. The meatloaf exuded very little in the form of meat juices, and just a bit of fat remained on the pan. I suppose some might recoil in horror at the fats, etc. reabsorbed into the resultant meatloaf, but I was delighted at the easy clean up and suspect that using a loaf pan might also have been a contributing factor to the moistness of my meatloaf. Any thoughts on this theory?

                                    6 Replies
                                    1. re: janniecooks

                                      I always used a loaf pan, as my Mom and grandmother did. Then one day I tried it on a sheet pan and would never go back. My meatloaf is soft enough without all the extra fat, and I do like maximum surface browning. Not saying I'm right or wrong, it's just a preference.

                                      1. re: janniecooks

                                        I dont like loaf pans either. But if it works for you, thats great. I prefer the crisp outer surface rather than letting my meatloaf steam in its own juices.

                                        I have a theory why your meatloaf has failed when there were longer ingredient lists though. Could you be over mixing? That tends to lead to drier,tougher meatloaf. It works the same way with burgers. I get perfectly moist meatloaf every time and there is no need for a loaf pan. You suspected it to be your saltines, but those work the same way as a dried bread crumbs. I suspect you'll get similar results should you have used dried breadcrumbs in place of the saltines. So overworking the meat sounds to be the likely culprit. Less ingredients to mix=less chance of overmixing. Dont just dismiss recipes as being bad just because they have more ingredients. Its a silly thing to do and will only limit yourself from all of the great recipes out there. Always try a recipe twice. And always assess what went wrong and what you could have done differently. I actually hated my meatloaf the first time I made it.

                                        1. re: GOJIRA

                                          I never experienced failure when making more complicated meatloaves. They succeeded, they were just too much work: took too long to prepare, used too many ingredients, utensils, prep bowls, all of which had to then be cleaned up. And all those extra flavor ingredients and spices! That's why I wished for a simpler loaf - wanted to rediscover what ever was wrong with basic meatloaf in the first place that people had to spice it up. And while maybe I'll make PP's Cajun Meatloaf sometime in the future, there's a lot to be said for my new favorite: one bowl, one cutting board, one knife.

                                          1. re: janniecooks

                                            I dont think people really found anything wrong with the basic meatloaf. Variety is the spice of life. I would get too bored using the same recipe over and over. Its nice to excite and try something new.

                                            That being said, im not saying you cant elicit great flavors from the simplest of recipes. Oftentimes the best dishes come from the least complex of recipes. After much hesitation, you convinced me to take another look at Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts). The fact that most of the recipes contain 3 or 4 ingredients scared me off. But im giving it a try, which is a departure from the Thomas Kellerisque fussy recipes im used to.

                                        2. re: janniecooks

                                          i have to admit that i bought one of those special meat loaf pans that elevate the loaf about ½ inch above the bottom (on a lift out tray within the pan), for fat to drain. i have never used it.

                                          1. re: alkapal

                                            I use mine religiously. The loaf shrinks from the sides a bit so they get SOME browning, though not nearly as much as the top. It's simple to get the fond off to make gravy. Remove the cooked meat, add boiling water to loosen the fond from the pan and insert, then boil it down in a saucepan, with beef base, onions, red wine, and whatever else you like for sauce..

                                        3. I use the recipe on the Quaker oatmeal box. Delish! And makes great sandwiches the next day.

                                          1. Back in junior high cooking class in the (ahem) late 60s, we made meatballs with crushed saltines in them. I still make my meatballs that way.
                                            For Meatloaf, I use breadcrumbs. I guess I don't want it to taste like meatballs.

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. re: kitchengardengal

                                              That IS an issue. Meatballs and meatloaf need to be flavored very differently, or else why bother with both? I made that mistake in the beginning myself.