Few foods stir up childhood memories of cozy nights around the dinner table like mouth-watering meat loaf. After all, the comforting classic has been a suppertime standby for decades.

But why do busy cooks consistently turn to meat loaf? The answer is simple. Meat loaf is possibly one of the easiest, heartiest and most versatile main dishes to prepare. It comes together in a snap, its ingredients can be adjusted to suit household tastes and doesn't put a burden on food budgets.

Plus, it can be assembled ahead of time and frozen for later use. Meat loaves can be frozen after baking and reheated on busy nights. Uncooked loaves can also be frozen as long as they're baked within a month.

Mixing a Meat Loaf

Before getting started, consider the main ingredients that you're preparing. Meat loaf recipes most commonly call for ground beef; however, ground sausage, veal, pork, ham and poultry also can be used.

On their own, ground sausage, veal and pork tend to be greasy while ground turkey and chicken can dry out. To help ensure a nicely textured loaf, recipes that require one of these meats usually call for some ground beef as well.

Binding ingredients—items that hold the meat together and keep it firm but soft—are another component to any meat loaf recipe. Traditional meat loaf uses soft or dry bread crumbs, but many feature oatmeal or other grains, crushed crackers, crisp cereals or cooked rice instead.

Eggs are also added to hold the ingredients together and enrich flavor. A liquid such as milk, tomato or Worcestershire sauce, broth or condensed soup may be included to keep the loaf moist while baking.

Almost any herb or spice can be used to season meat loaf, so feel free to get creative when experimenting with a recipe. Try a little cayenne pepper to spice things up, or add some nutmeg and allspice.

Shaping Meat Loaf

When mixing, it's best to stir together all of the ingredients except the meat. Crumble the meat over the combination of eggs, bindings and seasonings, then use your hands to gently mix them. Be sure not to overwork the mixture because that can produce a tough meat loaf.

To cut down on cleanup and prevent messy hands while mixing, put the ingredients in a large resealable bag. Seal the bag and squeeze it just until the ingredients are combined. Transfer mixture to a pan and simply discard the bag-there's no bowl to wash.

After everything is combined, you can shape the meat loaf by hand in a shallow baking pan. If you're having trouble shaping it, moisten your hands with cold water first to prevent the meat mixture from sticking.

Or you can press the meat mixture into a mold or loaf pan. While molds and loaf pans usually yield juicier results, loaves cooked in baking pans brown on three sides rather than just the top. Also, fat tends to run off hand-shaped loaves, since it isn't trapped between the meat mixture and the mold or pan.

Some loaves are baked with a filling such as cheese or rice. In these cases, half of the meat mixture is shaped in a baking pan or pressed into a mold. It is then topped with the filling and the remaining meat, then is ready for baking.

Baking Meat Loaf Basics

When baking a meat loaf, follow the recipe directions carefully, being certain not to overcook. If you're in a hurry reduce the baking time by shaping the meat mixture into several smaller individual-sized loaves. If you try this with your favorite recipe, remember to check for doneness early.

To determine if a loaf is fully baked, insert an instant-read thermometer in its center. If the thermometer reads 160°F, the loaf should be done.

Many meat loaves benefit from the addition of sauce, typically added at the end of baking. Simply top with a little ketchup or chili sauce, or combine these ingredients with a little brown sugar, mustard and seasonings for a more flavorful sauce.

After baking, drain the drippings and let the meat loaf stand for 5 to 10 minutes. Then remove it from the pan and it's ready to serve.

For hundreds of Meat Loaf Recipes, check out the Taste of Home Recipe Finder.