Given a choice, I’ll take meatloaf over steak every single time. It’s my favorite way to eat ground meat.
Over the years I’ve read (and made) dozens of meatloaf recipes. Most of them are good, and a few are great. One thing that unites my favorite meatloaves is their ease. If you’re looking for a reliably crowd-pleasing meatloaf recipe that you can pull together with a few pounds of ground beef and basic pantry staples, this is your recipe.
What Makes a Great Meatloaf?
Don’t tell the younger version of myself this, but at its heart, meatloaf is simply a less decadent, beefier version of a rustic pork-based country pâté. They both use spiced ground meat and breadcrumbs, eggs, and dairy as a binder. The big difference is that pâté is richer and has a polarizing requirement: liver. I adore both.
My ideal meatloaf is delightfully middle of the road: flavorful but not over-seasoned. It holds its shape when sliced and is neither tough nor squishy nor crumbly. It has a burnished ketchup topping that complements the meatloaf itself instead of overpowering it. And don’t worry: there’s no liver in sight.
The Best Meat for Meatloaf
For cost and quality, I’m for ground beef all the way. Besides, I grew up on all-beef meatloaf, and that’s what I like. Can you use a mix of ground pork and/or ground veal here? By all means, yes. But if you want to try turkey or meatless grounds, which are leaner, I suggest using our Turkey Meatloaf or Vegetarian Meatloaf recipes.
Ground chuck, which is 80 percent lean and 20 percent fat, is my go-to ground beef for a juicy meatloaf. Yes, the fat does render out to some extent, but a long bake time helps prevent that. If you love gravy, you can use the rendered fat in the pan as a base for a quick gravy to serve with this recipe.
Since a lot of folks can only get ground beef in 1-pound increments, I call for 2 pounds in this recipe, leaving no half-pound of beef for you to use up later. Besides, a bigger meatloaf means more leftovers. And meatloaf is all about the joy of leftovers.
Eggs help meatloaf keep its shape. The yolks add a little richness as well.
Starch also binds the meatloaf. We’re using dry breadcrumbs, but you can use crushed crackers, fresh breadcrumbs, well-smashed tortilla chips, or matzo meal. Or try rolled or quick oats (pulse rolled oats in a food processor first).
If you use fresh breadcrumbs or breadcrumbs that are not fine, mix them with the milk first and let them sit for about 10 minutes. This will help prevent big blobs of bread goop in the finished meatloaf.
Trivia time! In classical French cuisine, the mixture of breadcrumbs and milk used to bind a mixture of ground meat is called a panada.
For Juicy Meatloaf, Add Liquid
Adding liquid is the key to a meatloaf that’s moist, not rubbery. This can be milk, water, salsa, stock, tomato juice, or wine (any kind) mixed with water. You can get pretty creative here. Once again, a steady and low bake helps the meatloaf retain this liquid so you’re not digging into a desiccated log of sadness.
Meatloaf is just about the most substitution-friendly dish there is. If you’re missing something or feeling creative, try one of these swaps.
- Ketchup: Use barbecue sauce or steak sauce instead of ketchup.
- Milk: You can sub stock, salsa, tomato juice, or even water for the milk. If using a tomato product, skip the ketchup.
- Worcestershire sauce: Use soy sauce or half the amount of Maggi sauce instead.
- Onion powder: Use the same volume of dried minced onion, but rehydrate it in a little boiling water first. Or grate half a medium onion.
- Garlic powder: Omit it, or grate a garlic clove in the mix.
- Mustard: Use whole-grain or Dijon, prepared horseradish, or 1 teaspoon dry mustard powder in place of the yellow mustard. Hate mustard? Leave it out.
Switch Up the Shape
For this recipe, we’re going with a 9×13-inch pan to hold a freeform loaf. It’s great because you can form a flatter loaf, which bakes faster than a deep loaf packed into a loaf pan. The high sides of the pan, meanwhile, keep all the drippings under control, which won’t happen if you use a rimmed sheet pan.
But one of the best things about meatloaf is that you can form it into whatever size and shape you like. Here are some alternatives, with times as guidelines; always cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the meatloaf registers 160°F.
- 9×5-inch loaf pan: Baking time will be 1 hour or longer.
- Muffin tin meatloaves: Divide the mixture between about 16 greased standard-size muffin tins and bake for 25 minutes; let stand 5 minutes before serving.
- Skillet mini-meatloaves: Make half the recipe and form into 8 patties, then cook (without the ketchup topping) over medium-high heat in a large, lightly greased nonstick skillet. Flip every 3 minutes or so and cook a total of 10 minutes per side.
- Microwave: Pack the meatloaf evenly in a 9-inch glass or ceramic pie plate (The round shape of the pie plate microwaves more evenly) Microwave without the topping on high power for 12 minutes, then add the topping and microwave another 3 to 5 minutes; let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Classic Sides for Meatloaf Night
- Perfect Mashed Potatoes
- Green Beans With Butter and Herbs
- Microwave Steamed Broccoli
- Cauliflower Mashed “Potatoes”
- Glazed Carrots
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Position a rack in the center of the oven.
Mix the meatloaf:
Electric mixer: Combine all of the meatloaf ingredients except the milk in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed just until the ingredients are blended, about 30 seconds. With the mixer running on low speed, gradually pour in the milk. Do not overmix. The meatloaf mix should be slightly sticky.
By hand: Combine all of the ingredients except the milk in a large bowl and mix together with your hands until combined. Then add the milk and work it in until the mixture is homogeneous.
Form the meatloaf:
Turn the meatloaf mixture into an ungreased 9×13-inch pan. With your hands, shape into a 10×5-inch freeform loaf. Evenly spread the ketchup on top (an offset metal spatula is great for this if you have one). If you prefer, you can bake the meatloaf in a 9×5-inch loaf pan (it may take longer to bake).
Bake and rest:
Bake until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of the loaf registers 160°F, about 1 hour and 20 minutes (begin checking after 1 hour).
Let the meatloaf sit for 10 minutes before slicing. If you like, pour off the fat and juices to make a gravy (there will be plenty of fat, but not enough liquid; you’ll need to supplement with stock or milk).
Store or freeze:
Cool leftovers completely, then wrap well in plastic or foil and refrigerate for up to 5 days.
Cooked meatloaf freezes well. Wrap in plastic, then in foil, and freeze for up to 3 months. Thaw overnight in the refrigerator.
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