Can you cook meat loaf in a slow cooker? You sure can. In fact, it’s one of our favorite ground beef slow-cooker recipes. The combination of lean ground beef, bulk pork sausage, tomato sauce and Worcestershire is incredible.
This recipe lets you make a tender, juicy meat loaf with a smart hands-off cooking method. And since you’ll be lining the cooker with aluminum foil, cleanup is a breeze afterwards. Serve this classic meat loaf for dinner to warm up on a chilly winter day. Don’t forget to save a slice or two to make leftover meat loaf sandwiches.
How long does it take to cook meat loaf in a slow cooker?
How long you should cook a meat loaf largely depends on its size. Our slow-cooker meat loaf recipe uses 2 pounds of meat and cooks for three to four hours on low. The best way to know when your loaf is finished is to check for doneness with a meat thermometer. Remove the meat loaf from the slow cooker when it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F.
Ingredients for Slow-Cooker Meat Loaf
- Ground beef and pork sausage: We generally like to use 80/20 beef for meat loaf, but pork sausage increases the fat content and enhances the overall taste. A mixture of 90% lean ground beef and reduced-fat bulk pork sausage works perfectly here.
- Tomato sauce, ketchup and Worcestershire sauce: These ingredients create a stellar flavor base in this slow-cooker meat loaf recipe. They all add umami-rich flavors and just the right amount of liquid to keep the meat from drying out.
- Eggs: Eggs work as a binding ingredient, holding the loaf together so it won’t fall apart when you slice into it.
- Saltines: Saltines are another binding ingredient. They absorb the moisture from the liquid ingredients and help the loaf retain its shape. We love the slightly salty flavor and subtle crunch of saltines, but you can use any crushed cracker you have on hand.
- Onion: Chopped onion adds flavor to the loaf and keeps it juicy as it cooks. Don’t want picky eaters to notice that this recipe contains veggies? Grate the onions on a box grater or with a food processor so they’ll be too small to detect.
- Meat loaf sauce: We brush the top of the meat loaf with ketchup, brown sugar, ground mustard and ground nutmeg. It turns into a gorgeous, shiny glaze as the loaf cooks.
Step 1: Prepare the slow cooker
Cut three 25×3-inch strips of heavy-duty aluminum foil. Crisscross the strips so they resemble the spokes of a wheel. Place inside a 4- or 5-quart slow cooker with the foil strips running up the cooker sides. Coat the strips with cooking spray.
Editor’s Tip: The foil strips will become “handles” to help remove the meat loaf from the pan after cooking. If this process sounds too complicated, you can instead line the bottom of the slow cooker with foil. Give it a quick spritz with cooking spray to make it nonstick.
Step 2: Mix the meat loaf
In a large bowl, combine the tomato sauce, eggs, ketchup, Worcestershire, onion, saltines, garlic, salt and pepper. Crumble the ground beef and bulk pork sausage over the mixture, and mix lightly but thoroughly (the mixture will be moist). Shape the meat mixture into a loaf. Place the meat loaf on the center of the strips in the slow cooker.
Editor’s Tip: You can make the meat loaf mixture a day in advance. Store it in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. Then when you are ready to bake, shape it, and transfer it to the slow cooker.
Step 3: Make the meat loaf sauce
In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, brown sugar, ground mustard and nutmeg.
Step 4: Slow-cook the meat loaf
Spoon the meat loaf sauce over the loaf. Cover and cook on low for three to four hours, until no pink remains and a thermometer inserted into the thickest portion of the loaf reads 160°. Using the foil strips as handles, remove the meat loaf, and transfer to a platter.
Editor’s Tip: To prevent the slow-cooker meat loaf from falling apart, let it rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing. Resting lets the juices redistribute within the loaf, which helps it stay together.
- Use different meats: There are many ways to make meat loaf, so have some fun with it. Try making your loaf with venison or ground turkey.
- Change the meat loaf sauce: You can infuse this ketchup-based sauce with bold ingredients like hot sauce, horseradish, or miso. Or skip the ketchup, and use bottled barbecue sauce instead.
- Add additional ingredients: Use herbs and spices to turn meat loaf into gyro meat loaf, or add ham to make a meat loaf cordon bleu.
How to Store Slow-Cooker Meat Loaf
Leftover meat loaf is good in the refrigerator for three to four days. Let the loaf cool after cooking. Cut it into individual portions, and store them in a container with a tightly fitted lid. Reheat the leftovers in the microwave until warmed through.
For make-ahead meat loaf, wrap the cooled whole loaf tightly in storage wrap. To reheat, unwrap the loaf, and transfer it to an oven-safe dish. Cook it in a 350° oven until a thermometer inserted in the center reads 165°, about 30 minutes.
How to Freeze Slow-Cooker Meat Loaf
You can freeze the meat loaf before or after cooking it. The raw, unbaked loaf will last up to six months when wrapped tightly and stored in a freezer-safe resealable plastic bag. Thaw the loaf in the refrigerator overnight, then cook it according to the directions above.
Cooked meat loaf is good in the freezer for up to three months. Wrap individual loaf slices with foil, and store them in a freezer-safe resealable plastic bag. To freeze the whole loaf, wrap the cooled loaf in foil. Store it in a freezer-safe resealable plastic bag. Thaw the loaf in the refrigerator overnight before reheating.
Slow-Cooker Meat Loaf Tips
How can you make juicy slow-cooker meat loaf?
We keep our slow-cooker meat loaf juicy by using the proper beef blend, avoiding overmixing the meat, and adding the right amount of moisture. But the ultimate secret to a tender meat loaf is to use a gentle touch when mixing and shaping. Overworked ground meat becomes tough as it cooks, creating a dry, crumbly texture.
Why did the slow-cooker meat loaf fall apart?
Slow-cooker meat loaf can fall apart if it doesn’t have the right binding ingredients, or if you don’t let it rest before slicing. Resting lets the juices redistribute and helps the loaf stay together so it won’t fall apart while slicing. If you still have trouble cutting into the loaf, try using a serrated knife.
Can you make slow-cooker meat loaf in the oven?
Yes, you can make slow-cooker meat loaf in the oven. Bake it in a 350° oven for about one hour, or until a thermometer reads 160° in the center of the loaf.
What do you serve with slow-cooker meat loaf?
Serve slow-cooker meat loaf with your favorite meat loaf sides like baked rolls, mashed potatoes or honey-glazed carrots.