How to make your meatloaf taste like a Southern chef's

These two really easy tips will make the comfort food classic even more flavorful and tender

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published April 30, 2023 2:01PM (EDT)

Plate of mashed potatoes with green beans and meat loaf (Getty Images/Westend61)
Plate of mashed potatoes with green beans and meat loaf (Getty Images/Westend61)

Chef Kenny Gilbert, who was a contestant on the seventh season of "Top Chef" and owns the award-winning Florida restaurant Silkie's Chicken and Champagne Bar, is passionate enough about good meatloaf that his new cookbook, "Southern Cooking, Global Flavors," has an entire chapter dedicated to the dish. 

You might be wondering how many variations of meatloaf there could be, but Gilbert definitely flexed his creative muscles, presenting meals like shawarma-spiced lamb meatloaf with feta mashed potatoes, Italian meatloaf with white truffle and mascarpone mashed potatoes, and a more classically American bacon-wrapped meatloaf glazed with chipotle ketchup

  "I wanted to be able to share my experiences through common foods people can relate to," Gilbert said in a recent Salon Talks. "If I'm talking to one of my best friends who's Italian and we're talking food, and I want to cook for him, I want him to have something that's like that warm hug from grandma — but his grandma." 

But regardless of how Gilbert ultimately dresses up the meatloaf, he employs two techniques to ensure that both the flavor and texture are on-point As a bonus, they are both really simple to execute and actually work (trust me, I made the best meatloaf of my adult life just a few days after receiving a copy of Gilbert's book.) Keep these in mind the next time you want to make the comfort food classic

Check the fat content of your meat 

"Great flavor and moisture are what make a meatloaf outstanding," Gilbert wrote in his cookbook. "You can use many different types of meat, but the protein-to-fat ratio is important to keep it tender and delicious." 

Next time you grab meat to turn into meatloaf, check the fat content on the package or ask your butcher for details. 

"I like an 80% protein to 20% fat ratio, and ground chuck is my preferred meat," Gilbert said. "It comes from the shoulder of the cow, so it contains more fat." This applies to ground chicken, ground turkey, pork and lamb, as well. 

Reach for the blender 

"Most classic meatloaf is like my mom's recipe, where the onions and peppers are chopped and folded into the meat," Gilbert wrote. "Each bite contains a little piece of diced vegetable. I do meatloaf a little differently." 

In our conversation, Gilbert expanded on this. 

"When this meatloaf is baked off, and you put a glaze of ketchup on it and you slice it, then you see these chunks of peppers and onions in there," he said. "I never really liked that. I felt like I was being cheated with the vegetables throughout the bite. So I said, 'Well, why not take these vegetables and puree it up and then fold it in?' That way every bite, I'm getting equally-balanced flavors with purpose. If I wanted to put celery and garlic, and so on, so forth in there, then I want to taste it through every bite with the meat versus having hints of different chunks." 

Southern Cooking Global FlavorsSouthern Cooking Global Flavors (Photo by Kristen Penoyer)So, next time you make meatloaf, grab the food processor or blender and add your vegetables to it, along with any eggs and breadcrumbs you plan on using. You'll end up with this really fragrant, flavorful paste that you can knead, either by hand or using a stand mixer, into your ground meat. I've written before about how having a good, cheap food processor can actually enhance weeknight cooking, while also taking some of the burden out of prep work; that proved true in Gilbert's restaurant kitchens as well.  

"In a restaurant setting, when you're cutting up a bunch of vegetables, it's a lot faster also for me to take my trinity — my pepper, celery, and onions — puree that with some garlic and some herbs, have that base, and then say, 'Okay, cool,' I need to have eggs in here too," he said. "I got to puree all that up together and then add it in. And I'm not having to sit there and slice and dice all these vegetables up. I can cut it up in bigger chunks, wash the vegetable really nice, puree it up, and then add it." 


By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Cooking Kenny Gilbert Meatloaf Southern