Few debates have polarized the food world for as long and with such intensity as those over the proper delineations between meatloaf and Salisbury steak. Both are American staples and much beloved -- and often maligned. Both are made primarily of ground beef, seasonings and other ingredients. The differences between the two are subtle.
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Composition and Texture
There are no hard and fast rules about what makes a meatloaf versus what makes a Salisbury steak, but a clue to the differences between the two lies in the names. Meatloaf is, by definition, a loaf of meat. Generally, meatloaf will be smooth in texture and shaped, often in a mold, in a specific way for cooking. Salisbury steak, on the other hand, is usually more like a hamburger patty -- roundish and flat. The grain of Salisbury steak is generally more rustic than that of a meatloaf.
The Salisbury steak differs in no real discernible way from a hamburger patty, except that Salisbury steak is served without a bun and trimmings and may be a bit larger than the average patty. The flat, round nature of Salisbury steak lends itself to pan-frying or grilling, above the oven. Meatloaf, on the other hand, is generally formed into a mold and baked or broiled inside the oven.
One of the most distinct difference between meatloaf and Salisbury steak is in the saucing of each dish. Salisbury steak is traditionally served smothered in a brown mushroom gravy. Meatloaf exhibits a bit more variety. Generally, it's served with a tomato-sauce -- usually ketchup -- based glaze. Meatloaf may be served with other types of sauces, including brown gravy, but Salisbury steak is traditionally a one-sauce kind of dish.
Meatloaf, like other great culinary traditions, evolved in the days before refrigeration when, to make the most of every morsel, leftover bits of cooked or uncooked meat would be bound together with bread crumbs and eggs and cooked up to produce another meal. Salisbury steak, as we know it today, was made popular by dietitian Dr. James Henry Salisbury in the 19th century. Salisbury promoted a high-protein diet that included plenty of water and up to three servings of Salisbury steak a day.