There are two schools of meatloaf-making: One gives thumbs-up to baking in a loaf pan; one pats out the loaf free-form on a baking sheet. Partisans of free-form meatloaf prefer it because they like the all-over crust that forms in the oven. "If you use enough breadcrumbs, your meatloaf will stay juicy and flavorful as the breadcrumbs will absorb the juices/fat," says Norm Man. "When doing a free-form loaf, you get the best results if you place the meat on a broiler pan or some other device to keep it raised off the bottom of the pan so it doesn't get a greasy, soggy bottom from sitting in its own rendered fat and juices," recommends greygarious.
"I don't like the loaf pan because it makes for gray meatloaf," says Hank Hanover. greygarious has a special meatloaf pan with a perforated insert that allows the juices to drain so the meat isn't sitting in them. "The meat shrinks away from the sides enough to brown the sides, too, yet yields a moister loaf than free-form, which I did for ages before getting the special pan on a whim," she says.
Hounds generally agree that breadcrumbs or a panade of bread soaked in milk is essential to a moist and nondense meatloaf, but moisture can also come from vegetables. "If you don't want to use a breadcrumb mixture, minced mushrooms (use a food processor!) makes incredibly moist meatloaf," says TorontoJo.
Discuss: Meatloaf–Free–Form Or Loaf Pan?