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Want to make meatloaf that's really good? Here's the 1 thing to avoid

Eschewed as mystery meat, banished to food leftover purgatory and the scourge of school-age children at cafeterias everywhere, meatloaf gets a bad rap. I get it. Here's the thing: meatloaf can be SO much more than a lump of ground beef heaved into a pan. I'm a private chef and a request from clients for the American classic gets me as excited as a chef-nerd can be, not only because I love making comfort food, but also because I love taking the 'loaf to the next level. Here are 9 tips for perfect meatloaf every time, plus a bacon-wrapped meatloaf for upping your loafin' skills.

1. Allow yourself to use high-fat meat

The leaner the meat, the dryer and grainier the loaf. If you're just using beef, always use a higher-fat cut, at least 15%. If you're using a leaner beef or turkey, consider mixing in some ground pork and/or veal in order to achieve a moist, tender meatloaf. Chopping up bacon and adding it to the mix is always a great way to add fat. Oh, and covering it in bacon never hurts, either. More about that below.

2. Add moisture at every step

Don't skip on the egg, ketchup, tomato paste, mustard, Worcestershire, barbeque sauce, or some combination of wet seasoning. They don't just add flavor and texture, they help make the meat super juicy.

3. Use soaked crustless bread

If I'm making a beef, pork and/or veal meatloaf, I soak the bread in milk. For a ground turkey loaf, which needs a boost of fat, I'll soak the bread in cream. Lactose-intolerant? Kosher? No problem! I soak the bread in stock and it turns out great. Here's the method I use to judge if the mixture is moist enough: if it sticks to the bowl, it needs some more liquid. Add it one tablespoon at a time until it doesn't stick to the bowl. Above all else, don't use packaged breadcrumbs.

RELATED: How to make perfect meatballs

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Valerie Bertinelli makes turkey meatloaf, Brussels sprouts

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Valerie Bertinelli makes turkey meatloaf, Brussels sprouts

Play Video - 4:47

4. Sautéed veggies are key

This one extra step makes a HUGE difference. Sautéed veggies add flavor, texture and moisture. Cook 'em, let 'em cool and then get chopping. If you hate chopping by hand, throw them in the food processor to save prep time. I usually chop the carrots first and then add the softer onions and celery. Pressing buttons is fun, but be careful not to over-process them.

5. Stop playing patty cake with your meat

Over mixing will make a meatloaf dry and dense. I like to start by stirring the wet ingredients together. Then I add the sautéed veggies or mirepoix (a fancy French word for carrots, celery, onion). Now, before you start mixing in there like a mad man, just STOP. Fold the mirepoix only once into the meat, keeping it loose and light-handed. It may seem like the loaf isn't compact enough, but don't worry, it will firm up quickly in the oven—chef's promise.

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These 2 chefs fell in love over meatloaf

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These 2 chefs fell in love over meatloaf

Play Video - 4:16

6. Taste-test your meat mixture

No, we're not talking about eating raw meat here. Since the only thing worse than a dry meatloaf is a bland one, I highly recommend taking a moment to fry up just a tiny bit of your mixture to check it for seasoning. Then you'll know if you need to pump up the spice or add some herbs. It's better to know now before it's too late to correct the seasoning.

7. Give the meatloaf space in the pan

There's something satisfying about filling a baking pan to the edges with meat goo, I get it. Here's the thing: if you bake your meatloaf in a loaf pan, you'll end up with a meat brick. When choosing a baking pan, avoid a small loaf pan or baking dish. A tight fit means that the loaf will steam—think school cafeteria meatloaf. Instead, use a sheet pan or a large baking dish and leave some breathing room. I like to make a few small loaves. You get more of the "fun," i.e. the browned and glazed crust that forms, and it makes it easy to freeze and store one or two. If you plan on making extra for sandwiches, the extra, unsliced one will stay nice and moist, too.

Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf
Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf
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8. Glaze it up

Even if you're using the most amazing high-quality meat in the world, you're going to want to jazz up the top of the meatloaf. Straight ketchup works in a pinch, but chili and BBQ sauces are also great alternatives. I like to spike ketchup with chili powder, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar and dark brown sugar before I smear it on. Take things up a notch by layering on strips of bacon.

9. Let it rest

Just like a roast, it's important to let your meatloaf rest for at least 10 minutes (tented with foil to keep it hot) before slicing. It helps the loaf set up for easier slicing and most importantly, it locks in those luscious, precious juices.

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