A tender and meaty—not dense and pasty—loaf
Additional ingredients that complement the turkey’s flavor
Juices that are rich in flavor and texture
Flavorful but not overwhelming glaze that stays put
Swapping ground turkey for the usual ground beef and pork mixture can give meatloaf a lighter flavor profile that makes it more summertime-friendly. But simply substituting turkey for the beef and pork in the typical recipe, which calls for little more than the ground meat, an egg binder, and a tenderizer in the form of a panade (a mixture of bread crumbs and milk), results in a loaf that cooks up pasty and bland. Rather than solve these issues, most recipes try to merely distract from the problems by adding a thick glaze or folding in lots of vegetables or spices. Surely I could do better. I hoped to turn out a juicy, tender turkey meatloaf with complementary additions that highlighted the turkey’s mild, meaty flavor instead of overshadowing it.
Time to Open Up
Here’s the main problem: Compared with beef or pork, turkey becomes very soft, with a slightly pasty consistency, when ground. This translates to a meatloaf that can’t hold its shape and has a compact, mushy texture. Grinding the turkey myself would help since I could grind it more coarsely, but this was more trouble than I wanted. I’d need to find a way to improve the preground stuff. I knew that 99 percent lean ground turkey was a nonstarter; the greater amount of fat in 85 percent lean turkey would provide more flavor and help keep the meatloaf from being too dry.
My first move was to drop the panade. It might often be the key to a moist and tender traditional meatloaf, but in this case the wet bits of bread throughout were exacerbating the pasty, dense consistency. Instead, I needed to add a more resilient ingredient, something that would lend some texture and break up the finely ground meat to make the loaf less dense. I baked up an assortment of meatloaves that contained just turkey, egg, salt, and pepper, along with one of several possible texturizers.
Tasters rejected ground nuts (too crunchy), bulgur and couscous (too wheaty), and pieces of turkey sausage (too springy). There was just one ingredient that they liked: quick oats. The flakes were the perfect size to break up the meat without calling too much attention to themselves, and they retained just the right amount of bite (sturdier rolled oats also worked if I chopped them finely).
Oats were in, but now I had a new problem: The loaf seemed wet; some tasters described it as almost watery. I realized I had stumbled upon another difference between turkey and beef/pork meatloaf: the meat’s juices. While the juices in a traditional meatloaf have richness and viscosity from the fat and gelatin naturally found in ground beef and pork, turkey has less of both of these, and so its juices are thin in flavor and consistency. This was not as noticeable in a loaf made with a panade, as the bread soaked up almost all the juices. But the oats didn’t soak up the juices as thoroughly; plus, they created a more open texture, with gaps where the juices could pool. The result: The shortcomings in the turkey’s juices were now much more noticeable. I’d have to figure out a way to give them more flavor and body.
The surest way to add more flavor would be to add fat. But I wouldn’t want to add much since I was aiming for a lighter dish. Happily, just 3 tablespoons of melted butter mixed into the ground turkey made a big difference. As a bonus, the melted butter firmed up when mixed into the cold ground turkey, giving the mixture some structure that made it easier to shape. I also added grated Parmesan, and instead of using whole eggs as a binder, I used just the less watery yolks. These changes made the whole loaf taste richer, juices included.
Now what about bumping up the turkey juices’ viscosity? I considered adding gelatin but instead turned to cornstarch, an ingredient home cooks are more likely to keep on hand. I settled on 2 teaspoons, which I added to the oats, salt, and pepper in a small bowl before combining the mixture with the turkey.
I set my loaf on an aluminum foil–lined cooling rack set in a rimmed baking sheet, our go-to setup for meatloaf, and popped it into the oven. I now had an impressively tender, juicy turkey meatloaf with a texture that rivaled that of the classic beef and pork version.
Firming Up Ground Turkey
Compared with ground beef and pork, ground turkey can cook up pasty, even mushy, and its juices are more watery and thin. Why the difference? Poultry has less fat than most ground red meat, of course, but it also has less connective tissue. Connective tissue provides support and texture to meat, so with less of it, meat becomes mushy and compact when cooked. Also, less-fatty poultry juices lack the unctuous viscosity of red meat juices.
To address these issues, we turned to three pantry ingredients: oats, which we mixed into the turkey to help give the loaf more structure and make it less dense, and cornstarch and butter, which added appealing body to the juices.
Next, I focused on adding some complementary supporting flavors. To start, I sautéed onions gently in the melted butter until soft. To save time, I turned to a test kitchen trick to speed up their breakdown: adding a pinch of baking soda. Onion cell walls will break down more readily in an alkaline environment, so rather than the onion taking 15 minutes to soften, it took just 5 minutes. To further round out the flavor, I added garlic, thyme, and some tangy-savory Worcestershire sauce. Dijon mustard lent additional punch, and parsley contributed freshness. After letting this mixture cool slightly, I added the oat mixture, Parmesan, egg yolks, and ground turkey; shaped the loaf; and baked as before.
The flavor was leagues better than that of any turkey meatloaf I’d ever had. My only complaint was that it seemed a bit too plain. Though not always a must for traditional meatloaf, a glaze seemed in order here—not only to bump up its looks but also to add another layer of flavor. I whisked together ketchup, brown sugar, cider vinegar, and hot sauce. Cooking the mixture for 5 minutes reduced it to the right consistency. To ensure that the glaze stayed put, I turned to a two-step technique we’ve used in the past. I applied half the glaze to the loaf before popping it into the oven. After 40 minutes, at which point the glaze had become firm and tacky, I brushed on another coat.
By the time the meatloaf reached 160 degrees, the glaze was starting to brown in spots and the meatloaf looked and smelled great. In fact, my tasters’ only request was that I come up with another glaze option to give the dish some variety. For a lighter, brighter flavor, I warmed some apricot preserves until fluid, strained them, and combined them with ketchup and Dijon mustard. The preserves helped thicken the glaze, so I didn’t even have to reduce it before applying it to the meatloaf. My turkey meatloaf might be perfect warmer-weather fare, but it’s so good that I’ll be making it year-round.
A Setup for Better Meatloaf
Many recipes call for cooking meatloaf in a loaf pan, but we found that this method causes the meat to steam and stew in its own juices. We take a different approach.