These bite-sized, cupcake shaped meatloaf balls from The Meatloaf Bakery are available for mail order.

Americans are eating more meat than ever. From 2014 to 2015, US per capita meat consumption grew 5 percent, the largest increase in the past four decades, according to data from the research and advisory firm Rabobank. The average American now eats approximately 193 lbs. of beef, pork and chicken a year, which equates to more than 3.7 lbs. a week.

A contributing factor to the growth is consumers’ appetite for flavor adventure. Americans are not necessarily grilling more steaks or frying more chicken. They are exploring new formats and recipes, with such applications as ground meats gaining traction.

“This is being driven by the trend in street food,” says Zak Otto, technical R&D manager with the protein division of Wixon Inc., St. Francis, Wisconsin. “Ground meats make the perfect canvas for flavorful ingredients. And, they can be formed into convenient portable foods.”

Think meatballs, mini meatloaves and gyros skewers. Flavorful toppings and creative sides may turn the most basic meat into a culinary journey.

Meatloaf is an under-appreciated food. That is what St. Paul, Minnesota-based Carol Falkowski explained in her new book, “Meatloaf Outside the Pan.”

“Many people have fond memories of eating meatloaf around the family dinner table,” Falkowski says. “It’s a long-standing and immensely popular comfort food. But even though it tastes amazing, it rarely looks amazing. There’s so much you can do with meatloaf to engage a new generation in eating meat by making it a stunning main course.”

Chicago-based Cynthia Kallile knows this well. In 2008, she opened The Meatloaf Bakery, a counter-service café featuring cupcake-shaped meatloaf with all the sides and trimmings in a single-serve portion. This past year, she decided to close the retail business to focus on mail order, which ships half-dozen packs of approximately 7-oz. portions in dry ice to anywhere in the continental US.

Her most successful product is The Mother Loaf, a classic blend of beef, pork and veal with vegetables, seasonings and herbs, all topped with buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. Other favorites include a bacon cheeseburger variety complete with chopped pickles, mustard and a Greek recipe using lamb, feta and olives.

Kallile explains how she is always trying to recreate other foods into a meatloaf.

“I’ll go out for Chinese and the next day be making Chicken Mu Shu meatloaf, including identifiable pieces of chestnuts and topped with rice noodles swirled in plum sauce,” she said.

Holy Moly Chicken Frijole came to fruition after a Southwestern dining experience. It is a blend of chicken, corn kernels, cilantro, bell peppers, black beans and lime juice and topped with fajita-style peppers. Many innovations are detailed in her book, “The Meatloaf Bakery Cookbook.”

Getting granular

Many meatloaf systems readily form the meat into balls. Sauces may add extra flair. Think ground lamb and chicken blended with red bell peppers, diced onion and feta formed into meatballs served over a bed of rice with an oregano-infused olive oil drizzle.

Wixon’s Otto says: “We recreated kefta meatballs using chicken and pork instead of the traditional lamb, which can be cost-prohibitive in the US. A larger grind size provides particle definition, and combined with diced onions and mint leaves, yields a more authentic kefta.”

Chris Hansen, corporate executive chef with OSI Group, Aurora, Illinois, agrees meatballs are a growing trend.

“We’ve created an array of flavored meatballs,” he says. “For example, think Buffalo wing meatball. This is ground chicken loaded with celery, carrots and bits of blue cheese. The glaze is Buffalo style. Think (about) French onion soup, but in a meatball format. We recreate that same caramelized onion and browned, bubbling cheese taste in a meatball format that can be served on a hoagie. It’s the sandwich version of the classic baked crock soup.”

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Meatballs can be made out of beef, pork, or even veal. There is usually a grain component to soften the product and the addition of either milk or eggs to bind them.

The essential extras

Meatloaf and meatballs make sense for today’s consumers, as products may be comforting and at the same time adventurous. They are a multi-ingredient system, and all the ingredients may, and should be simple foods you would find in Grandma’s refrigerator or pantry.

The most basic recipe uses ground beef, often with some ground pork for flavor and maybe ground veal. There is usually a grain component to soften the product and hold moisture, as well as such ingredients as eggs and milk to hold the mixture together.

“Ground veal adds cost, but it’s what makes the system smooth,” Kallile says.

Other grains are worth trying. Gluten free is possible with rice, as well as with some ancient grains. There is no reason why such grains as amaranth, buckwheat, bulgur, kamut, quinoa and others cannot substitute for traditional bread or cracker crumbs. The ingredients provide whole-grain nutrition, with each grain delivering unique flavors and textures. Even ground nuts and seeds may add to the adventure.

“Chia seeds are a great addition,” Otto says. “You should hydrate them before addition to the ground meat matrix. If you hydrate them in a flavorful solution, you can bring that flavor into the system. Chia seeds hold a lot of moisture and create a gel that delivers a great mouthfeel. They are also a source of protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.”

Pureed fruits and vegetables may assist with keeping the meat system moist, while at the same time improving the nutrition profile. The fruits are typically fat free and may be used to improve the texture of lower-fat ground meats. Fruits often contribute some fiber, too. Some may contain antioxidants or natural acids that assist with slowing oxidation and improving product shelf life.

Knouse Foodservice, Peach Glen, Pennsylvania, developed a recipe using unsweetened apple sauce. To create the base, for every 6 lbs. of ground meat, add two cups of unsweetened apple sauce, eight eggs, a cup of minced onions and four cups of bread crumbs. Then add desired seasonings, such as an Italian blend, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, etc.

Another option is dried plum ingredients, which are naturally high in antioxidants and have been shown to lower the incidence of warmed-over flavor. At the same time, for many applications, the deep brown color of dried plum product may replace the need for caramel coloring in commercially prepared products.

“We offer fresh plum concentrate, and dried plum powder and puree for yield enhancement,” says Rick Perez, research and development chef and spokesman for Sunsweet Growers Inc., Walnut Creek, California. “These products contain naturally high levels of sorbitol (about 15 percent) and fiber. Sorbitol attracts moisture while fiber absorbs moisture and holds it in place.”

Pureed fruits and vegetables added to the meat mixture keep the system moist while adding unique flavor and even color. “This is especially true with poultry-based products, which tend to dry out,” Falkowski says.

Meat options are another way to differentiate. There is organic, grass-fed, free-range and more. Keeping in mind a growing number of today’s consumers like to know where their food comes from, telling a story about the meat and all of its certifications adds value.

“You can vary the grind size of the meat to create different textures,” Hansen says. “And by using multi-species meat you add complexity to the finished product.”

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The Meatball Shop in New York city offers a mix-and-match menu of meatballs, sauces and sides.

Meatball innovation

Though meat is important to meatloaf and meatballs, it’s the other ingredients that go into the mixture that make a complex flavor and texture that differentiates one product from the next, according to Daniel Sharp, executive chef, The Meatball Shop, New York City. The six-store concept featuring a mix-and-match menu of meatballs, sauces and sides started a trend that is growing across the country.

“Simple cooking is my food philosophy and you can’t get simpler than a meatball,” says Daniel Holzman, co-owner and chef. “Some say we created a new dining category when we made meatballs the star of the plate. Well, based on our research, no meatball-centric restaurants existed before our original shop debuted in 2010. The mix-and-match factor of our menu really resonates with our millennial customers. They can customize their meal and get it exactly how they want it, just like how they live the rest of their lives.”

The Meatball Shop offers a range of products, including classic beef, spicy pork, chicken, veggie and rotating specials. They are served with choice of sauce, in a bowl, on a bun or with grains or vegetables. There is also a mini Buffalo chicken ball side that comes with blue cheese dipping sauce.

Holzman explains how his restaurants work with Heritage Food USA, a farm-to-table on-line butcher based in Brooklyn that is dedicated to supporting family farmers raising livestock on pasture with old-school genetics. “We believe good, clean, humanely sourced meat is the key to a great meatball,” he said. “And because we use ground meat, we can use the extra trim that normally gets wasted in the butchery process creating much less waste and allowing us to use high-quality cuts of meat.”

The specials may be a spin on the meat, such as bison, turkey or rabbit, or more complex. For example, this autumn, Holzman created a duck and fois gras meatball served with roasted apples and endive. There is a Reuben ball made with corned beef and topped with sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing.

“The ground and formed category is such an amazing place to play in these days,” Hansen says. “There are endless combinations and it’s an easy way to differentiate in the marketplace.”