Meatloaf is seen by many as the quintessential American comfort food. Rising to prominence in the mid-1950s, the selection of seasonings for it was originally (like most dishes at the time) very basic. These days, the American palate has broadened somewhat and the flavors of meatloaf have become more complex.
When making meatloaf it is important to remember that there is more to the flavor profile than how well it is seasoned. Texture and moisture both play a major role in the final results, which means that cooking time and method are also important. Consider the fact that you can cook meatloaf in an oven or on the grill and opt for longer lower temperatures or for shorter moderate temperatures. All that said, here is a look at the best seasonings to get (or improve on) the classic meatloaf flavor:
Worcestershire sauce is the classic meatloaf seasoning. It provides the background note against which all of the other flavors in meatloaf get displayed. Its umami notes will help to bring out the savory qualities of the dish and its tartness complements the sweetness of other ingredients like ketchup. It also helps to add moisture to the meatloaf thus fighting against the main enemy of good meatloaf: dryness.
While you can certainly use English mustard or some other form of dry mustard, the preferred option for American meatloaf is prepared mustard. It adds tanginess both from its vinegar and from the mustard spice itself. What’s more, prepared mustard will also add moisture.
Like Worcestershire sauce, ketchup is a classic meatloaf seasoning. It can be added to the meatloaf mix or used as a glaze for the meatloaf’s exterior. Some recipes may have it added to both. In either case, it brings moisture and a complementary sweetness to the dish that offsets the savory qualities of the other ingredients. When used as a glaze, it will enhance the appearance of your meatloaf by giving it an appetizing dark red sheen.
In lieu of ketchup, some recipes will require a barbecue sauce that has a ketchup base. Barbecue sauce can have all of the above ingredients along with liquid smoke and molasses. The smoky, deeper notes of barbecue sauce work well in a meatloaf and can help it to stand out from the more traditional ketchup version.
Onion is more than just the universal savory seasoning. In meatloaf, it can be yet another source of moisture if you opt for grated onion over onion powder. Of course, it also brings a sweetness once cooked. That sweetness enhances the different umami notes in the standard meatloaf recipe.
Garlic’s sulfurous pungency perfectly complements most meat dishes and is the perfect addition to meatloaf. It can be added in dry or fresh form. Garlic powder may be a better option since it will be more easily distributed throughout the ground meat and fresh garlic does not add much in the way of moisture.
For some herbal flavor in your meatloaf, you will not be able to do better than oregano. Oregano brings a woodsy savory quality to meatloaf that will complement both the beef and the tomato aspects of the ketchup. Dried oregano is the preferred option version of the herb for this application and mixes in easily. In addition, it is long-lasting so that its flavors will not diminish when you take your meatloaf out of the oven or off the grill.