I never had meat loaf that much when I was a kid. Whenever my mom tried it it was bland, dry, and forgettable - no one really liked it, even though it turned out a lot like traditional meat loaves often do.
Fast forward to 2008 when I moved to South Korea. I'd since learned to cook on my own but now I had a lot of relearning to do, since the vast majority of South Koreans don't own an oven. They just plain don't need one.
My wife (then girlfriend) sent me a helpful list of food to make on the stove top or in the microwave. One of them caught my eye: A microwave meat loaf recipe from her mother. I tried it, and it was pretty good.
The thing about microwave cooking as a replacement for oven cooking though, is that it never quite turns out as good. So when I got back from Korea a few years later, I used my reunion with conventional ovens to craft the perfect meat loaf.
Better Than Mom's Meat Loaf
For the sauce:
8 oz. tomato sauce (or more, see notes below)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon mustard
1 teaspoon pepper
For the meat:
2 pounds ground beef
1 minced onion
1/4 cup bread crumbs or cracker crumbs
1 teaspoon pepper
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
To make the sauce, just mix together the tomato sauce, brown sugar, mustard, and pepper. Taste testing is the order of the day here - if you like it sweet (like I do) add more brown sugar. If you like it more savory, consider less sugar and maybe some garlic. The sauce is really simple and flexible.
First Note: You'll be adding some of this sauce mixture to the meat. How much you add influences the toughness of the meat when you're done. If you stick with 1/3 cup or 1/2 cup, it should be moist but firm. I like my meat loaf soft enough to melt in your mouth, so I usually add a bit more. I also like having some leftover to use as a dipping sauce for the finished meatloaf, so I end up using more than 8 oz. of tomato sauce to make sure I have extra.
To make the meat mixture, combine beef, minced onion, bread crumbs, and pepper. Next, add 1/3 to 1/2 cup (or more as desired, the more you add, the more the meat loaf will "fall apart" after cooking) of the tomato sauce mixture. In a bit, you'll use more of the sauce to cover the meat.
Second Note: My mother in law told me later that her original recipe called for an egg, which was omitted by accident when the recipe was passed on to me. Using an egg will give you the same moisture with much less tomato sauce, but I like the brown tomato sauce flavor using a lot of it infuses into the meat loaf, so I never replaced the egg and use more sauce, instead.
Now, there are three different ways you can get this meat loaf cooking.
Method 1: The traditional way is to make it into a big old loaf and drop it in a a pan. In my opinion, this is the worst way. It's hard to get a perfectly cooked meatloaf when the sides are burning but the middle isn't done yet.
Method 2: Make four or five "mini meat loaves" and drop them in a 9x13 pan. This helps them cook more evenly and is great for times when you want a presentable looking meal for guests (let's be honest, when you're home cooking for two, you don't always need your meal to be photograph worthy, but it's a nice touch for a dinner party). Bake 40 minutes and you're set.
Method 3: I use this method most of the time, which is to pack the meat into a ring shape and put it in a deep, round glass baking dish. Then you can bake the whole thing without extra work, also for about 40 minutes.
Whatever your desired method, get the meat to the desired shape in the desired cooking dish and lightly cover the meat with the remaining sauce. You don't need to swamp it and you may have leftovers, just make sure the meat is covered. Avoid touching the raw meat to any utensils as you apply it, so you don't contaminate the sauce and can use any extra for dipping later.
Third Note: I have no idea if this happens with traditional meat loaves, but this dish will generate a lot of excess liquid as the meat cooks. Be careful when you pull this out of the oven, and move the meat loaf to a separate serving dish after removing it for best results.
Whew. That was a lot of blogging for what is actually a pretty easy recipe once you get the hang of it. Time to eat!