Meat loaf is one of those timeless comfort classics that never seems to get old. There are countless ways to make meat loaf, but we find ourselves returning to this tried-and-true, traditional meat loaf recipe. It has just the right combination of savory spices and subtle sweetness, filling us with warming, nostalgic vibes with every bite.
The best part about this meat loaf recipe is that it's so easy to make. Learning how to make meat loaf comes down to using the right meat and adding a few binding ingredients. These elements work together to keep the meat tender and ensure the loaf is neither too loose nor too dense. The result is a crowd-pleaser, whether it’s served with mashed potatoes and buttery homemade rolls for dinner or sandwiched between two pieces of bread for lunch.
Meat Loaf Ingredients
- Ground beef: Ground beef is the star of the show in this recipe, so the quality definitely matters. Grocery store beef will work just fine, but beef from a good butcher or meat market will taste even better. If you can only buy beef in 1-pound increments, use the extra 1/2 pound in other recipes with ground beef.
- Milk and eggs: The combination of milk and eggs work together as binding ingredients to hold things together in the loaf. This is vital to creating a meat loaf that won’t fall apart as you slice it. If you don’t have milk on hand, try substituting chicken, beef or vegetable broth.
- Saltines: Saltines are another binding ingredient. They absorb moisture from the liquid ingredients and help the meat loaf retain its shape. Some recipes use sliced bread or seasoned bread crumbs as a binder, but we love the crackers' slightly salty flavor and subtle crunch. Other crushed crackers should work just fine, so use what you have in the pantry (butter- or cheese-flavored crackers could add a fun flavor to the loaf).
- Onion: Onions contain over 80% water, and they release that moisture as the meat loaf cooks to keep it juicy. Keep in mind that the onion’s flavor is affected by how large it’s chopped. Use finely diced or grated onions if you don’t want them to be noticeable.
- Ketchup: This sweet-and-tangy condiment is the basis of our meat loaf sauce. We add Worcestershire to boost the savory vibes and brown sugar to help with caramelization. Some ketchup brands are sweeter than others, so feel free to reduce the amount of brown sugar depending on your preferences.
What kind of meat is best for meat loaf?
The best meat loaf recipe uses ground meat with a higher fat content, such as 80/20 ground beef. The ratio of lean meat to fat in ground beef affects the meat loaf’s overall moisture content, and the fat also adds flavor. If you want to stick with 90% lean beef, add these qualities another way by creating a mixture with other meats, such as ground pork, veal or sausage. You could also substitute ground chicken or turkey for a healthy change, but your meat loaf may not be as moist without the higher-fat meats.
Step 1: Prepare the meat loaf
Preheat the oven to 350°F. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, milk, crushed saltines, chopped onion, salt, rubbed sage and a dash of black pepper.
Step 2: Assemble the meat loaf
Break up the ground beef with your hands, adding it to the liquid ingredients in small chunks to make it easier to combine without overmixing. Gently massage the meat into the liquid until it’s well combined, mixing lightly but thoroughly.
Step 3: Prepare the meat loaf sauce
In a small bowl, combine the ketchup, brown sugar and Worcestershire, whisking until the sugar is dissolved. Reserve 1/2 cup of the sauce (for serving).
Step 4: Shape and sauce the meat loaf
Transfer the beef mixture to an ungreased 15x10x1-inch baking pan, and shape it into an 8x4-inch loaf. Pour the remaining sauce on top of the loaf, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula or the back of a spoon.
Editor’s Tip: Using a baking sheet gives the meat loaf a rustic look and ensures the edges turn out crispy. If you use a loaf pan instead, baking times may vary, and the pan will trap moisture inside, steaming the loaf instead of crisping it up.
Step 5: Bake the meat loaf
Bake the meat loaf for 60 to 65 minutes, until a thermometer inserted into the middle of the loaf reads 160°. Let the meat loaf rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing. Serve the meat loaf with the reserved sauce.
Editor’s Tip: Don’t skip the resting step! Resting allows the juices to redistribute and helps the loaf stay together so it won’t fall apart while slicing. Try using a serrated knife if you’re having trouble cutting the loaf without squishing it.
Meat Loaf Variations
- Skip the oven: Using a smoker to cook meat loaf is a great way to infuse every bite with a smoky flavor. Making meat loaf in the slow cooker is another hands-off approach.
- Change the meat loaf sauce: Try adding spicy, tangy or savory ingredients to the ketchup. Vinegar, hot sauce, mustard, horseradish, soy sauce or miso paste are all great options.
- Experiment with seasonings: You can add all kinds of flavors to the beef mixture. Some of our favorite additions are garlic, chili powder or a splash of umami-rich tomato sauce. You can also add vegetables, from chopped mushrooms and bell peppers to grated carrot and zucchini. Keep in mind that larger-cut vegetables will be more noticeable in flavor and texture, so keep things small if you’re sneaking veggies into a picky eater’s diet.
- Add cheese: We love cheeseburger meat loaf and other stuffed meat loaf recipes.
How to Store Meat Loaf
Leftover meat loaf is good in the refrigerator for three to four days. Wrap the meat loaf whole if you plan to reheat it all at once. Otherwise, cut it into individual portions, and store it in a container with a tightly fitted lid.
How to Freeze Meat Loaf
You can freeze the meat loaf before or after cooking it. Raw meat loaf lasts up to six months when wrapped whole and stored in a freezer-safe resealable bag. Thaw the meat loaf in the refrigerator overnight, or cook it from frozen (remember that it will take almost twice as long to cook from frozen).
Cooked meat loaf is best when frozen in slices so it’s easier to portion. Wrap the slices, and store them in a freezer-safe bag; they should be good in the freezer for about three months.
Meat Loaf Tips
What can you do with leftover meat loaf?
Our favorite way to use leftover meat loaf is to make sandwiches. Gently fry the leftover slices in a skillet to give them a crisp edge. Then, layer them between thick slices of bread with your favorite burger toppings. Thinner slices make an excellent filling for meat loaf gyros. If you’re ready to think outside the slice, chop up the meat loaf and make chili, use it as a topping for pizza, turn it into tacos, or use it in pasta dishes like beef Bolognese.
How do you make juicy meat loaf?
We use a combination of crushed saltines, milk and eggs to ensure our meat loaf turns out juicy. You could substitute broth or use bread crumbs instead, but the goal is to add dry and wet ingredients to the ground beef. The saltines absorb moisture, which is released as the loaf cooks to prevent it from drying out. Another key to making juicy meat loaf is letting the loaf rest. Slicing it too soon will release the juices from inside instead of allowing them to redistribute within the loaf.
What else can you use as a topping for meat loaf?
Ketchup is part of most traditional meat loaf recipes, but barbecue sauce or pesto works well as a substitute. Sliced cheddar also makes a cozy topping—just place it on top in the last few minutes of baking. You can also try topping your meat loaf with strips of bacon, like we do in our bacon-topped meat loaf recipe.
What is the secret to tender meat loaf?
The best way to create 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. It is also important to combine the cracker or bread crumbs with a liquid before adding them to the meat. That allows them to retain moisture until the ideal time in the cooking process.