Mom’s Meatloaf with a Side of Kitchen Wisdom

Last night, I made five pounds of meatloaf. I’m hoping this will last for two dinners in our family of five, although if we have meatloaf sandwiches at lunch – probably not. This recipe is so popular around here that my husband claimed he married me for my ability to make it. Well, some marriages have been built on less . . .

In the 1960s through early 1980s, my talented mom won or placed in a multitude of local and national cooking contests including two stints as a Pillsbury Bake-off Finalist. One of her best and most enduring recipes is Dilly of a Meatloaf, fondly and everlastingly referred to by the family as Mom’s $500 Meatloaf (the amount she won for creating it). Mom’s kitchen abilities were legendary, and time spent cooking with her was pretty awesome. Since she usually lived nearby, we spent many hours over the years sharing laughter and life while preparing meals for loved ones. 

Mom’s recipe (below) tells just a small part of the story of actually making it. If you have a favorite recipe, I am sure you have some little tips learned from experience that never made it into print. The same is true here. I learned to make this and many other recipes at Mom’s side and my memory has mixed together the recipes with her thoughtful kitchen wisdom. So, just for the moment, pretend you are here making this ultimate comfort food and sharing these thoughts with us – 

1. There is grace. While it is important to come pretty close to the original requirements of this recipe, the measurements don’t have to be precise. Meatloaf is not soufflé! It’s simple, everyday food – glorified hamburger. There is a place for order and precision, but perhaps not right now. This is relaxing comfort food so it should be relaxing and comfortable to make. Enjoy the process.

2. Consider what you are putting into it. Many years ago a lady I know tried this recipe and, rather disgruntled, called to say she did not understand how it won a contest when it didn’t taste good. When I gently asked about her cooking prep, she admitted making it with turkey burger instead of beef, leaving out the eggs and stuffing mix, substituting for the chili sauce, and changing the quantity of onion. We definitely understand the need for food substitutions in our family, so I get it! Recipes, like life, will frequently need to deviate from the original plan and change can often be quite beneficial. But if you decide to change things up, brace yourself for an unexpected outcome and just own it, whether good or bad. If you made the decision, then the blame or credit is yours. And this topic leads us to . . .

3. Balance. In case you were wondering, the changes listed above can actually work, but further adjustments for taste and texture must be made to achieve a tasty, balanced outcome. Mom and I used to laugh about how very seldom either of us actually followed a recipe as written, and we both think the need or desire to sub out ingredients probably made us better, more creative cooks – but we were careful to balance dry and wet ingredients and tried to be thoughtful about seasonings. Maintaining balance can be a delicate task, but leads to a much more satisfactory result.

4. A little fat in your life is a good thing. If  the meat is too lean, the result will be dry; if it is too fatty, the result will be mushy. To make things come out just right, consider how much fat vs. lean is best for you.

5. Go all in – measure and dump all the ingredients in the bowl before mixing. There are times you have to throw all you’ve got in the pot and hope for the best.

6. Be willing to get those fingers gooey! When my mom made meatloaf, she cheerfully mixed up that mushy pile of raw ingredients with her bare hands and I do, too. She said some things don’t come out quite right unless you are willing to get your hands dirty. So scrub up and dive in!

7. In the recipe, you will see that you need to stop in the middle of cooking to add the sauce on top. Before you sauce it up, take a moment to tilt the pan gently and drain off the excess fat that has already cooked out. You will need to drain it again at the end, but it helps if you get rid of what is unnecessary along the way.

8. If you are using deep loaf pans like I do, check the center of the meatloaf before you shut off the oven, just in case the meat isn’t done. Bear in mind that some things take longer than anticipated! I learned from my mom to stick a large spoon or metal spatula right in the middle and draw out a little meat to verify doneness. You might end up with a funky-looking hole in the middle, but you don’t want to bring an unfinished product to the table just because you neglected to check. Finishing well is much more important than looking pretty.

9. Serve your meatloaf with whatever side dishes you prefer, and enjoy without guilt! There are enough things in life to cause discomfort – meatloaf shouldn’t be one of them.

My awesome mom went home to the Lord in 2018 and the many times we shared laughter and lives while cooking side-by-side are some of my sweetest memories. This is the first time I have made the meatloaf since she passed and I wanted to share the moment. I think she would be pleased.

LaVerne’s $500 Meatloaf


Prep Time: Approx. 15-20 minutes

Cook Time: Approx. 60-75 minutes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Mix together:
2    lbs ground beef (we like an 85/15 meat/fat ratio – add a little water if you use leaner meat or turkey burger)
1    6-8 oz pkg of cornbread stuffing, including spices (we use gluten-free)
2    eggs
1/2 cup bottled chili sauce (sweet chili sauce, NOT hot – usually stocked near the ketchup)
1/3 cup finely diced dill pickle
1/4 cup dill pickle brine/juice from the pickle jar
1    cup finely chopped onion
1    tsp salt
1 tsp garlic salt

Place in a 2-quart loaf pan or casserole dish and bake at 350 degrees. Meanwhile, mix the following sauce:
1/2 cup bottled chili sauce
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp dill pickle brine/juice
(You may wish to double this amount if using a wide, flat casserole dish.)

Remove meatloaf from oven after the first 30 minutes, drain any excess fat, and spread the sauce over the top. Return to oven and bake for 30 more minutes or until done. Depending on your oven and the size of your pan (especially if you use a loaf pan rather than a shallow casserole dish), cooking time may extend another 10 to 15 minutes. If you double or triple the recipe and are using loaf pans, count on additional time. Remember to check for doneness before serving.

Enjoy!

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