The best meatloaf uses a surprising ingredient

This is my “official” meatloaf recipe, a meaningful designation considering the many variations on the dish I have come up with over the years. Rising above the rest, this is the one I make again and again, the one everyone in my family hopes for when they request meatloaf for dinner. It offers all the homey, familiar, comfort-food appeal you expect, in a way that is refreshingly different and considerably more healthful than a typical recipe, thanks to a few strategic ingredient swaps and additions.

One big difference is the type of meat I use: venison. I started using ground venison one year after my bowhunter husband brought some home, and I was immediately won over by how the lean, rich-tasting meat enhanced the dish. Since then, if venison was unavailable, I used ground bison, which has similar attributes and can be easier to find. Lean ground beef or turkey (I prefer a mix of dark and white meat) works here as well. The key is to use lean meat, as the recipe is designed to be moist and flavorful without relying on beef fat for the job.

Sautéed mushrooms, finely diced so they meld with the ground meat, bring ample moisture, extra savory flavor, and a layer of vegetable nutrition to the mix, as does some finely grated carrot. And quick-cooking oats, a fiber-rich whole grain, instead of the usual breadcrumbs, lock in moisture as they help bind the ingredients together. The oats disappear into the meatloaf as it cooks, so you’d never know they are there.

I season it with layers of savory flavor — onion, garlic, thyme, tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce, each compounding one another — and top with a mustard- and molasses-kissed tomato sauce, which caramelizes to a gorgeous glaze in the oven. It comes out deeply tasty, meaty and tender, yet also lighter than a typical meatloaf, without a trace of greasiness. It’s “officially” the meatloaf of my dreams, made real.

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