This guide to American meatloaf explores the components and cooking methods of meatloaf recipes. If you’re trying to improve an existing recipe you love, or trying to diagnose a meatloaf recipe problem, this guide is for you.
Everyone’s opinion of the perfect meatloaf is different. I could give you my perfect meatloaf recipe, but it will not be perfect to you. Instead, this guide will give you the knowledge you need to make your own perfect meatloaf. We used the techniques in this recipe to improve on Betty Crocker’s popular home-style meatloaf recipe.
What is Meatloaf?
There’s no need to explain what meatloaf is. Breaking down the components of a meatloaf gives an understanding of how a meatloaf recipe can be adjusted to make it better. Meatloaf is composed of:
Usually ground beef and turkey. This makes up the bulk of the meatloaf.
Usually bread and eggs. This creates the meatloaf texture so it isn’t just a giant hamburger.
Usually herbs and aromatic vegetables like onions. This gives the meatloaf it’s smell and taste.
Always salt and pepper but there are many options. This is what transforms a meatloaf from good to great.
Typically a ketchup-based sauce that is sweet and sour. This adds flavor and visual appeal.
|A Cooking Method|
Typically baked in a loaf pan or free form in an oven. This has a big impact on final texture and appearance.
Meatloaf Recipe Ingredients
Meat makes up most of the content of meatloaf so is the most important component. The most common meats used are beef and turkey, but any raw, ground meat can be used. The most important considerations when selecting which meat(s) to use are overall flavor, fat content and gelatin content. For example…
- Beef brings a strong, consistent flavor
- Pork, chicken and turkey bring a lighter flavor
- Lamb brings a gamey flavor
- Veal brings gelatin
The reason a meatloaf recipe calls for a mix of meats is to balance flavor, fat and gelatin, which results in a great overall result.
A meatloaf should have a minimum of 10% fat. 20% is the optimal amount of fat for a typical meatloaf recipe.
20% is the optimal amount of fat for a typical meatloaf recipe
Ground beef and turkey usually have the lean/fat percentages on the package. Most ground pork is 80/20 even if it’s not labeled. Turkey and chicken usually come in 99% lean and 80% lean. We think that 80% is the best for meatloaf. Using 99% without adding something else with high fat will result in a fairly dry and flavorless meatloaf.
Don’t worry too much about getting the fat content exact. Different meatloaf cooking methods can be used to control the fat so you don’t end up with a meatloaf that’s too greasy or too dry.
Using raw sausages is a great way to add an interesting flavor to a meatloaf. In fact, my ultimate meatloaf recipe uses breakfast sausage combined with beef. Sausages usually contain 30-40% fat, so it’s best to combine them with a slightly leaner meat to balance the total fat content of the meatloaf. Even if the overall amount of fat ends up on the higher side, there are ways to control the final greasiness using the upside down loaf cooking method.
To use sausages in casings, first remove the casings by cutting down the side of each sausage with a kitchen knife. Then simply mix into your meatloaf as you would do any bulk ground meat.
Pre-cooked meats don’t work nearly as well as raw because they don’t bring any binding power to the meatloaf. It’s possible to use precooked meat by chopping it very finely and using a small amount compared with the ground meat components. This could work with salami, spam or andouille but I would keep it to less than 20% of the overall mix (for example: 2 lbs ground beef, 1/2 lb cooked sausage).
It’s nearly impossible to create a guide to anything without talking about bacon.
You can incorporate raw bacon into your meatloaf mix to boost the flavor. Chop the bacon finely before you mix into your meatloaf. I would only use about 1/4 lb of bacon per pound of other ground meat, unless you really want it to taste like bacon. If you do use more bacon, keep in mind that bacon is about 50% fat so you’ll want to combine it with a leaner ground meat.
You can wrap bacon around your meatloaf for an interesting crust. If you’re using either loaf pan methods you can first line the pan with bacon before adding the meatloaf mix. If you’re baking with a free form loaf, you can simply lay strips of bacon over the meatloaf before baking. In both cases, you’ll want to increase the oven temperature to at least 400 degrees for the bacon to render off fat and brown.
Gelatin, A Secret Weapon
Gelatin is the reason many Italian meatball recipes combine beef, pork and veal. Gelatin is responsible for that “lip-smacking” flavor you get from pork ribs, pulled pork shoulder, and a great soup. It also makes a meatloaf extra delicious!
There’s an easy way to boost the gelatin content of your meatloaf by simply adding powdered gelatin. You can buy gelatin in the baking section of every supermarket or on Amazon. I don’t make a meatloaf without it.
Gelatin should be added to your liquid ingredients and heated on the stove or in the microwave until the gelatin dissolves.
The Fillers and Binders
Fillers and binders are mentioned in one section because they work together to create the texture of the meatloaf.
Bread, breadcrumbs and oatmeal combined with a liquid like milk, water or stock are common fillers in meatloaf. Fillers are essential as they give meatloaf it’s tender, moist texture. Without a filler, a meatloaf would have the firm, tough texture of hamburger. But, use too much filler and your meatloaf will lose it’s meaty flavor and fall apart. That’s where the binder comes in.
Eggs are the binder most commonly found in a meatloaf recipe. They are certainly optional, though. The more filler you use, the more likely you are to need the binding power of eggs.
Your overall quantity of binder should be no more than 1 cup per pound of ground meat. And, for that much filler, you need two eggs.
To get the moisture level of your binder just right, mix your binder base with your liquid ingredients. It should be the consistency of a paste. Your overall quantity of binder should be no more than 1 cup per pound of ground meat. And, for that much filler, you need two eggs. If you cut the binder in half, you may only need one egg.
Arromatics are the second most important flavor component after the meat. Without enough aromatics your meatloaf will just taste like meat. Too much and you’ll cover up the flavor of the meat.
Dried herbs are great in meatloaf because you don’t need to worry about impacting the texture of the meatloaf. A small amount of herbs can have a big impact so go sparingly. 1-2 tsp of dried herbs per pound of meat is a good place to start. Here are a few flavor ideas:
- Southwest – chile powder and cumin
- Mexican – chile and oregano
- Spanish – smoked paprika and garlic
- Italian – basil, oregano and marjoram
- Cajun – garlic, onion, thyme and cayenne pepper
- Classic American – thyme and sage
Onion and garlic powder will also pair with just about anything so are great additions.
Aromatic fresh vegetables like onions and bell peppers are great additions but can have an impact on texture. Too much or too large of pieces added to a meatloaf can make it hard to cut and fall apart easily. It’s also important that the vegetables have a chance to soften fully or else you’ll end up with crunchy meatloaf. Here are the best ways to incorporate raw aromatics:
- Chop them as fine as you can. A food processor is great for this.
- Pre-cook them with a small amount of oil to soften them before adding.
- Keep the amount of aromatics to less than 1/2 cup per pound of meat.
- Add an extra egg if you’re using more than 1/2 cup.
- If the vegetables have a high moisture content like mushrooms or spinach, pre-cook them or reduce the amount of liquid used in your binder.
Any of all of the above will keep your meatloaf from falling apart.
The Umami Components
This is the most interesting part of creating a great meatloaf. The umami ingredients are those that you typically can’t identify in foods but make things extra delicious. The technical term for what actually enhances the flavor are glutamates.
A small amount of these goes a long way. If you can identify the flavor of the ingredient, you probably used too much. Dry ingredients like mushroom or stock powder can be added without worrying about affecting texture. Wet ingredients should be combined with your binder liquids, or cooked with your aromatic vegetables to keep the moisture content under control. Also keep in mind that many of these ingredients have lots of salt added, so adjust the overall salt content accordingly.
Here are some of my favorite umami ingredients to use in meatloaf:
- Soy sauce brings a deep, dark richness
- Fish sauce (Thai or Vietnamese) enhances meatiness the same way that anchovies do in Italian tomato meat sauces
- Mushroom powder is less common but brings a deep savoriness
- Stock powder usually has both meat flavor and MSG
- Worchestershire brings a deep, dark richness similar to soy sauce
- MSG is sold under the brand Accent
- Cheese, especially parmesan and romano bring a funky savoriness
The salt content varies with these ingredients. As a guide, you should keep the total of these additions to under 2 tbsp per pound of meat unless you’re sure the recipe can handle the additional salt. Otherwise, you can mix and match these in any order since you shouldn’t be able to identify their flavors in the final meatloaf. I probably wouldn’t go with a full tablespoon of fish sauce, though. That one is powerful.
Glaze on meatloaf is optional, but not really. The sweet and tangy glaze called for in most recipes looks great and provides a nice contrast with the meaty and savory meatloaf. The glaze could be as simple as ketchup. But most recipes call for a ketchup base with added sugar and vinegar to increase the sweet and sour flavors.
Ketchup makes a great base for a glaze because it already has sweet and sour flavors. Barbeque sauce or Chinese sweet and sour sauce would also be great starting points. You can add any of the dry aromatics or umami ingredients mentioned above to boost the flavor of your glaze.
The most important thing to keep in mind when making up your own glaze recipe is to make sure it’s thick enough to stay on the meatloaf while baking. If after adding your flavor components the glaze is too thin, you can simply simmer it in a sauce pot on the stove until it reduces to the right thickness. The ideal thickness is the same as ketchup straight from the bottle.
A good base to start with for a 1 lb meatloaf is 1/2 cup of ketchup, 1 tablespoon of brown sugar and 2 teaspoon of vinegar. If you make a meatloaf double the size, you won’t need double glaze. I wouldn’t make more than 1 cup of glaze for any size meatloaf.
We’ll talk about when and how to glaze the meatloaf in the cooking methods section below.
If you’re not a fan of the sticky sweet and sour glazes that many meatloaf recipes call for, you have lots of options.
You can go for a well-browned meatloaf crust and serve with a side sauce, like ketchup or barbeque sauce. You can also use the drippings from the meatloaf to make a traditional brown gravy.
Meatloaf Recipe Considerations
Now that you’ve got your ingredients together, here are some additional points to keep in mind.
The ratios of the major components is important. As you vary the ingredients try to keep the basic ratio of meat to filler/binder to aromatics the same or else you may not be happy with the final taste and texture.
Moisture has an impact on how juicy the final product is, but also how well it holds together. A common mistake is adding too many wet ingredients and not adjusting the amount of liquid added to the binder. A good trick to ensure you never use too much liquid is to measure out any liquid aromatic or umami ingredients into a measuring cup and then top it off with your filler liquid ingredients so the total amount of liquid is consistent.
For example, if you intend to add 1/2 cup of milk to breadcrumbs as your filler, measure your umami liquids into a 1/2 cup measure. Then add milk until the 1/2 cup is full. Now you can add it to your breadcrumbs.
Mixing and forming
How you mix and form your meatloaf can have a significant impact on it’s texture.
The more you mix the meatloaf mixture, the better it will hold together. But it can also get tough from over mixing. It’s hard to say how much because it depends on how much filler you have. Generally, if you add a lot of filler, you can mix, and should mix the meatloaf more. If your meatloaf is low on fillers, you should be more careful not to over mix it. A good rule of thumb is to mix the meatloaf gently just until everything seems evenly incorporated. There is no need to mix further.
Packing the meatloaf mix into a loaf pan tightly can also make a meatloaf tough. Same as with mixing, the more fillers the less you need to worry about this.
One of the most common problems on not just meatloaf, but any home recipe is not using enough salt. This is what pro chefs refer to as under-seasoned.
The best way to get the salt content right is to cook a small amount of your meatloaf mixture just after mixing so you can taste it and decide if it needs more salt. You can pan fry a spoonful, but I often microwave a spoonful on a plate for 30 seconds. Definitely don’t taste the raw mix, although I’ve seen Italian grandmas do this when making meatballs. Yikes!
Meatloaf Cooking Methods
There are quite a few different ways to cook a meatloaf. Most meatloaf recipes call for a 350-400 degree oven. I usually recommend 375 because it allows for better browning and setting of the glaze. At high temperatures above 400 you have to be more cautious of overcooking, which can result in a dry and crumbly meatloaf or burned glaze.
If you’re already cooking something in the oven in the 325-425 range you can simply adjust the cooking time of the meatloaf to compensate.
I highly recommend using a meat thermometer to check the temperature of the meatloaf periodically. This will ensure it’s cooked thoroughly and prevent overcooking. I consider 150 degrees perfect, but some people like to wait until 160.
The classic loaf pan
Baking meatloaf in a bread loaf pan is one of the most common methods. I generally don’t recommend this because the meatloaf fat and juices have no way to escape. This causes the meatloaf to simmer in it’s own liquids which can result in a greasy final meatloaf. Another issue that there is only the very top to glaze.
One exception to this is for a very lean meatloaf such as using lean ground turkey or chicken. In this case, the loaf pan holds in the juices to keep the final meatloaf more juicy.
If you like this method and cook meatloaf often, you can buy special meatloaf pans designed to drain off the excess fat and juices during cooking. We love this pan from Wilton.
Another common fix for this is adding slices of bread to the bottom of the loaf pan before baking. It does help, but we don’t like this because it wastes bread and still may not soak up enough of the liquids.
The free formed loaf
Baking a meatloaf in a free form loaf shape requires only a baking sheet, which nearly everyone has. It allows the juices and excess fat to run off properly. It also allows for browning all over and more surface to glaze. This is one of the best methods. The only downside of this method is that a meatloaf with a lot of filler will often spread out before the shape has set. The result is a rather flat meatloaf that will still taste just as good.
The upside down loaf
This is the method I use every time I make a meatloaf. It starts by adding the meatloaf mixture to a standard bread loaf pan. The pan is then turned upside down onto a foil-lined baking sheet. Don’t remove the loaf pan! The meatloaf is then baked with the loaf pan in place until the shape is set, which is about 30 minutes. The loaf pan is then carefully removed so the meatloaf can then be glazed and browned.
This method has the advantages of both methods above. The only downside is that the loaf pan can be a bit tricky to remove while it’s hot. I usually have a hot pad in one hand and a butter knife in the other to pry the loaf pan up a bit before trying to remove it with the hot pad. Be careful!
The fast and flat meatloaf
If you’re short on time or really enjoy a lot of crust or glaze on your meatloaf, this method is great. Simply spread your meatloaf mix flat across a nonstick or parchment-lined baking sheet. The meatloaf will cook in only 20 minutes at 375 degrees and the entire top surface will either brown or be covered with glaze depending on which you like. You’ll need a recipe that uses about three pounds of meat in order to cover a standard baking sheet. If you want to make a smaller meatloaf, you can spread it to cover only part of the baking sheet. The ideal thickness for the meatloaf is 3/4 to 1 inch.
The individual meatloaf
You can make personal-sized meatloafs in a muffin tin or using cupcake wrappers. You’ll need to shorten the cooking time by about half since they cook much faster.
The patty meatloaf
Sometimes when I don’t feel like turning the oven on, I shape meatloaf into individual burgers and cook them in a skillet. The added benefit is great browning, but your glaze will have to go on after they’re done. It will be more like a sauce since it won’t be set like a glaze.
Always bake uncovered
There is rarely a need to cover a meatloaf during baking. If your meatloaf is coming out dry, it’s probably because there isn’t enough fat in the meat, or you didn’t add enough liquids. It’s best to correct those two things and always bake your meatloaf uncovered.
Creative Meatloaf Ideas
A meatloaf mix can be used in many ways besides simply making a standard meatloaf. You can substitute meatloaf mix for ground meat in just about any recipe where the meat is meant to stay together in one piece, like meatballs, dumplings, empanadas, etc…
If you like the convenience and cost of meatloaf but are tired of standard meatloaf, try some of these ideas. For any of these recipes, you should be able to use a meatloaf recipe you already love and simply follow the technique for assembly.
- Meatloaf meatballs – The sauce could be anything from sweet and sour to a meaty gravy
- Meatloaf shepherd’s pie – Meatloaf pressed in a pie pan covered with mashed potatoes
- Meatloaf stuffed peppers – Just like stuffed peppers, but with meatloaf inside
- Meatloaf stuffed zucchini – One more way to get your kids to eat vegetables
- Meatloaf Wellington – When you want to dress up meatloaf for a special occasion
I hope you found this guide useful. Thinking about meatloaf broken down into these components has allowed me to perfect my own meatloaf recipe and come up with countless ideas to try when I feel like something new.
Here’s a final Idea for while you’re trying to create your own perfect meatloaf recipe. Mix up two batches of meatloaf mix with different flavor combinations. Write them down. Then bake the mix in colored cupcake wrappers, keeping track of which is which. Then give your family one of each and see which one they like better. They’ll help you perfect the recipe and you’ll all have fun debating which one is best!
I prefer loaf pans with a wide flange since I like to use the upside down baking method. The flange makes it easier to remove the loaf pan halfway through cooking. I haven’t tried the silicone pans yet, but they seem like a good option. Most metal pans are non-stick, but meatloaf doesn’t usually stick that badly to a pan unless it’s overcooked or the temperature is too high.
Regardless of which method you use, you’ll want to bake on a baking sheet. Even if you’re using a loaf pan, you’ll want to baking sheet to catch any juices that bubble over the side of the loaf pan. Any baking sheet with edges is fine. Stay away from the all flat cookie sheets as they won’t hold on to any juices that leak out.
I like to line my baking sheet with foil to make clean up easier. If you have a problem with your meatloaf sticking to the baking sheet or foil, try baking on a sheet of parchment paper or silicone baking mat.