Meatloaf is such an American classic that you would think there would be a settled, go-to recipe. Not so.

Meatloaf ranked in the top five online recipe searches last year; it was second on Google and fourth on Yahoo. The relentless pursuit of a better meatloaf doesn’t surprise cookbook author and North Carolina native James Villas.

“People just don’t understand meatloaf. They really think it’s throwing a lot of garbage together,” says Villas, who offers seven recipes for meatloaf in his new cookbook, “From the Ground Up.” “You have to take it seriously. There’s a whole philosophy behind meatloaf.”

There are many divides in the meatloaf debate: Free-form or loaf pan? Beef, pork, veal or poultry? In what combination? Coarse ground or finely ground? Ketchup glaze or not? Gravy or no gravy? Bacon or no bacon? (Well, nobody really debates that last one.)

The most amazing thing about meatloaf may be that it’s so forgiving. No matter what choices you make on the meatloaf decision tree, you can end up with an excellent result. My go-to recipe came from Cooking Light magazine: It’s a sun-dried tomato and turkey meatloaf served with a red currant and red wine sauce that bakes in a loaf pan. It’s not particularly crusty, but the taste is excellent, and the recipe makes one for now and another for later.

Over the past few years, meatloaf has made its way out of the diner, where it has long been a staple. There are excellent restaurant versions: bacon-wrapped thin squares of meatloaf at Lucky 32 in Cary and the smoky slab of meatloaf that is finished on the wood-fired grill at 18 Seaboard in Raleigh.

While their meatloaf methods differ, our experts agreed on a few key points.

First, use panko bread crumbs. These Japanese bread crumbs are fluffier and coarser than the sandy version typically used, which can produce a mushy meatloaf. “Don’t substitute Progresso for panko,” says chef Jay Pierce of Cary’s Lucky 32. “It’s not as densely packed.”

Second, make your meatloaf a day ahead. This trick is used in restaurant kitchens because the dinner rush is easier if some dishes are made ahead of time. But there is logic to the technique, as 18 Seaboard chef and owner Jason Smith explains: “It tastes better the next day.”

And it’s easier to slice, which leads to the third tip: For a nice crust, grill or saute slices of meatloaf.

With these techniques, your meatloaf may become as popular as it is at 18 Seaboard, where it makes up 15 percent of sales during lunch, the only time it’s on the menu. Smith says, “People compliment us all the time, from little old ladies who make it at home to the man who eats at Herons (a five-diamond restaurant in Cary) on an expense account.”

A Few more meatloaf tips

Here is some more advice from our experts:

Do not overmix your meatloaf or it will turn out like a brick. Mix using your hands until the ingredients are just combined.

A free-form meatloaf allows you to develop a crust on the outside, but it can dry out. Consider this trick: lay slices of bacon on top to baste the meatloaf while cooking but remove 15 minutes before finished to then develop crust.

If you bake your meatloaf in a loaf pan, which ensures a moist loaf, consider draining the fat 15 minutes before the end of the cooking time to develop a crisp top. This method is best served by cooking ahead, which makes slicing the meatloaf easier. If you cut into a loaf-pan-baked meatloaf while it is still hot, it will fall apart.

Before you place form the meatloaf or place in the loaf pan, make a test patty and cook it to test for seasoning.

Sources: Chef Fran Scibelli of Fran’s Filling Station in Charlotte, chef Lori Pearson of Savor Cafe in Charlotte, Chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 in Cary and Greensboro, Chef Jason Smith of 18 Seaboard Raleigh and cookbook author James Villas.

Sundried Tomato Turkey Meatloaf

Yield: 2 meatloaves, 5 servings each

I found this recipe in Cooking Light magazine several years ago. It makes one loaf to enjoy now and one to stash in the freezer. While the red currant wine sauce may seem superfluous, I think it is essential to the taste of the dish.

1/3 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)

3 slices bread

1 medium onion

4 cloves garlic

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese

½ cup thinly sliced basil

¼ cup chopped parsley

2 ½ pounds ground turkey

2 eggs

½ cup red currant jelly

¼ cup dry red wine

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

Place sun-dried tomatoes in a bowl. Cover with boiling water. Let sit for 5 to 8 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Coat two metal loaf pans with cooking spray.

Place bread in food processor and mince until fine. Place bread crumbs in a large bowl and set aside.

Mince onion and garlic in food processor and add to bread crumbs. Drain tomatoes and slice. Then add tomatoes, cheese, basil, parsley, turkey and eggs to the bread crumb mixture. Mix together using hands.

Divide meatloaf mixture in two and place in pans. Smooth out the top. To freeze, wrap with plastic wrap, removing as much air as possible and then wrap with heavy duty foil and freeze. Or bake at 400 degrees for 55 minutes or until the internal temperature is 160 degrees.

Combine red currant jelly, wine and flour in small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 5 minutes until jelly melts.

Lucky 32’s Meatloaf

Yield: 8 servings

4 tablespoons butter

¾ cup chopped yellow onion

½ cup finely chopped celery with stems and leaves

2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic

½ cup diced green bell pepper

¼ cup chopped green onion

2 eggs

½ cup half-and-half

½ pound ground pork

1 ½ pounds ground chuck

1 teaspoon Tabasco

1 tablespoon Worcestershire

1 teaspoon ground mustard

¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon fresh thyme

1 ½ teaspoons salt or to taste

¾ teaspoon black pepper or to taste

1 cup panko bread crumbs

12 slices bacon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Melt butter in skillet over medium-high heat and saute onions until golden. Add celery, garlic and bell pepper and saute until tender. Spread vegetables out on a cookie sheet to cool and allow some moisture to evaporate.

Combine eggs and half-and-half in a large bowl. Mix until combined. Add sauteed vegetables, pork, beef, Tabasco, Worcestershire, mustard, cayenne pepper, thyme, salt and black pepper. Mix well. Work bread crumbs into meat mixture by hand and set aside.

Line a loaf pan with 12 bacon strips, six on each side, so that the bacon will wrap the meat loaf. Place a strip at the joint where the bottom meets the side of the pan and bring the strip up the side of the pan and allow the excess to fold over the outside of the pan. Continue in this manner alternating from side to side . When bacon is all laid out, place meat mixture in pan. Fold the bacon strips over the top of the loaf, completely wrapping loaf with bacon.

Place meatloaf in oven and bake until thermometer inserted in the center reads 160 degrees.

American Meatloaf Deluxe

Yield:10-12 servings

If you don’t want to eat veal, you can replace it with pork or half pork, half beef. From “From the Ground Up: Hundreds of Amazing Recipes From Around the World for Ground Meats, including Beef, Chicken, Pork Seafood and More,” by James Villas (Wiley, 2011).

5 tablespoons butter, divided use

½ pound large mushrooms, stems finely chopped and caps reserved

1 large onion, diced

½ medium green pepper, seeded and diced

2 celery ribs, diced

3 garlic cloves, minced

½ teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled

½ teaspoon dried rosemary, crumbled

1 pound ground beef round or rump

1 pound ground pork

1 pound ground veal

½ pound bulk pork sausage

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

½ cup ketchup

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 large eggs, beaten

1 cup fresh bread crumbs, soaked in ½ cup heavy cream

3 slices bacon

Pimento-stuffed green olives, cut in half

Melt three tablespoons butter in medium skillet over moderate heat. Add mushroom stems, stir for about 5 minutes until most of their liquid has evaporated. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, thyme and rosemary; reduce the heat to low and simmer for about 15 minutes until the vegetables are soft and the liquid has evaporated.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place ground beef, pork, veal and sausage in a large bowl. Add cooked vegetables and mix lightly. Add mustard, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt, pepper, eggs and bread crumbs soaked in heavy cream. Mix with your hands until thoroughly blended. Shape the mixture into a firm oval loaf and place in a shallow baking dish or gratin dish. Drape the bacon over top, and bake 1 hour in the upper third of the oven. Remove bacon strips and continue baking 15 to 20 minutes longer, depending upon how thick the loaf is and how crusty you want the exterior.

Melt remaining two tablespoons butter in a small skillet over moderate heat before meatloaf is removed from the oven. Add the reserved mushroom caps and stir until nicely glazed, about 2 minutes. Transfer the meatloaf to a large, heated platter, arrange olives on top and garnish the edges with mushroom caps.

Savor Cafe’s Meatloaf with Sriracha Barbecue Sauce

Yield:2 three-pound loaves, 6-8 servings each

Savor Cafe chef and co-owner Lori Pearson says she make the meatloaf a day ahead and then heats slices on a gas grill before serving.

2 tablespoons olive oil or bacon fat

1 green bell pepper, diced

½ red bell pepper, diced

½ large yellow onion, diced

6 eggs

¼ cup spicy Dijon mustard

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons black pepper

2 cups panko bread crumbs

5 pounds ground sirloin

Sriracha Barbecue Sauce (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat olive oil or bacon fat in a large skillet over moderate heat. Saute peppers and onion until tender. Set aside. Let cool.

Whisk together eggs, mustard, salt and pepper in large bowl. Once vegetables are cool, add to eggs. Add bread crumbs. Let sit 10 minutes.

Addground beef and lightly knead with hands until thoroughly mixed. Mold meatloaves into rounded ovals in baking dishes. Bake for 50 minutes, rotating dishes in oven after 25 minutes. As meatloaves bake, make Sriracha Barbecue Sauce (recipe below.)

Slice meatloaf and serve immediately. Or make meatloaf a day ahead, slice and grill to reheat.

Sriracha Barbecue Sauce

From chef and owner Lori Pearson of Savor Cafe in Charlotte. Sriracha is an Asian hot sauce widely available in supermarkets.

½ onion, cut into chunks

½ red pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

½ green pepper, seeded and cut into chunks

1 cup spicy barbecue sauce

¼ cup ketchup

2 tablespoons Sriracha sauce

Place onion and peppers in a food processor and chop until finely diced. Add barbecue sauce, ketchup and Sriracha sauce and whip together until combined. Serve with Savor Cafe’s meatloaf.