Of the many meatloaf recipes out there, is there a single best one? Maybe, somewhere. But considering how meatloaf is the kind of dish that many home cooks like to put their own signature spin on—perhaps including a mystical secret ingredient—you’d be hard-pressed to find a version that every meatloaf lover agrees is number one. Simply put, there are a lot of really great meatloaf recipes in the world. Some are dead simple, while some are labors of love that take all day. Some are exceedingly traditional; others are a little more adventurous.
But all winning meatloaf recipes have one important thing in common: technique, baby. There are a few simple but essential things that every recipe needs in order to achieve true meatloaf greatness, taste- and texture-wise. And once you get those basic elements down—with the help of some expert tips and a little practice using excellent recipes—you’ll be free to riff to your heart’s content, while knowing that whatever comes out of the oven will taste really, really good.
We chatted with a few cooking pros to get answers to some of the most common meatloaf cooking questions (plus their favorite tricks), and rounded up a varied handful of scrumptious meatloaf recipes to get you started. Consider this Meatloaf 101.
Is ground beef the best meat for meatloaf?
First and foremost: Yes, ground beef is definitely your pick for a traditional meatloaf recipe. (In order to get maximum flavor and richness, skip the lean stuff in favor of something with more fat—think 80-20.)
If you’re set on mixing up your meat, though, you’ve got plenty of options—although most cooks will still recommend relying partially on the classic beef. Marisel Salazar, a professional recipe developer and food writer based in New York City, tells SELF she likes to combine ground beef with other kinds of ground meat, like pork, veal, or lamb. But if your heart is set on using another kind of meat, like turkey, go for it! (We can’t imagine that not tasting good.) And if you really want to go all out with the base for your homemade meatloaf, you can always go the DIY route—here’s how to grind meat yourself.
Supplementing your ground beef with vegetables (gasp!) is another novel option, especially if you’re looking to make a meatloaf with, well, a little less meat. Matt Bolus, executive chef at The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, tells SELF that he’ll add in chopped, sautéed mushrooms (a top-notch meat alternative) for some meaty veggie goodness, or dried mushroom powder for extra umami flavor.
What is the best filler for meatloaf?
No need to get fancy here: Plain old bread crumbs work extremely well.
“Bread crumbs are the best filler for meatloaf,” Salazar says. Dry bread crumbs work with your other liquid binding ingredients (like milk and egg—more on those in a minute) to help hold your loaf together and give it a crumbly, tender texture. Plain bread crumbs (including white and whole wheat) have a nice starchy, neutral taste that won’t overpower what you’ve got going on with the ground beef, Salazar says, especially if you’re going to mix it up when it comes to the spices and herbs. But you can absolutely go for Italian-style bread crumbs if you’re following a pretty standard recipe and looking for an extra-herby oomph.
Don’t have any bread crumbs on hand? Make your own by blitzing stale bread in the food processor. Or you could try crushed-up cracker crumbs, Meggan Hill, executive chef and head of the Culinary Hill Test Kitchen in Los Angeles, tells SELF.
Why do you put milk in meatloaf?
Milk brings moisture and richness to meatloaf, making it your BFF for fighting dryness and achieving a tender texture.
To make the most of the dairy, allow the bread crumbs to soak in the milk for a few minutes before adding your binder mixture to the meat. “Use the milk to hydrate the bread crumbs, which will give the meatloaf a juicy texture,” Bolus says. The combo forms a panade—chefspeak for a mix of liquid and starch—which is a great technique for keeping ground-meat-based recipes like meatloaf and meatballs tender, Hill says. (Many recipes will also have you first whisk the eggs into the milk to form the liquid component of your panade.)
By the way, if you’re out of milk or want to experiment with another kind of liquid, heavy cream and buttermilk both work great, according to Salazar and Hill, as will beef or chicken stock.
Should I put an egg in my meatloaf?
Yes, eggs are a must for a mouthwatering meatloaf that also holds its shape.
Eggs help make every bite taste good. But more important, they act as a glue to help hold the whole loaf together. “Egg yolks add moisture and flavor, while the whites add structure and binding to the loaf,” Hill explains. In other words, if you don’t want your loaf to crumble apart when you cut a slice or take a bite, don’t skip the eggs.
How do you keep meatloaf moist when cooking?
Using moisture-retaining ingredients and cooking your meatloaf at the right temperature will keep your meatloaf from drying out.
Again, milk and eggs are essential for moist meatloaf, especially when you soak the bread crumbs in a milk and egg panade for a bit prior to combining with the meat.
Also, resist the urge to crank up the oven too much. The ideal meatloaf temp is between 350°F and 375°F, say Salazar and Hill. And as for how long to cook meatloaf, a standard-sized two-pound loaf generally needs about an hour in the oven (though this will vary slightly by recipe). “This lower, slower cooking time will ensure maximum moisture while making sure the meat is thoroughly cooked,” Salazar explains. (Thoroughly cooked, FYI, technically means that a meat thermometer inserted into the center of a ground beef, pork, veal, or lamb loaf reads 160°F, according to the Food and Drug Administration. For turkey or chicken, you want 165°F.)
One more tip for max moisture: Resist the urge to dig into your meatloaf the second you pull it out of the oven. Letting it rest for 10 to 15 minutes before slicing will help to redistribute the meat’s juices, locking in the moisture, Salazar says.
Do you cook meatloaf covered or uncovered?
All of our kitchen pros say uncovered is the way to go. Covering meatloaf while baking prevents the formation of that all-important crusty and caramelized top.
When it comes to baking your loaf, you also might be wondering when the best time is to add the glaze traditionally called for in many meatloaf recipes. Generally speaking, your meatloaf should spend most of its time in the oven (think 40 to 45 minutes) uncovered and unglazed, in order to get loads of delicious crustiness on the top of the loaf itself. Then you can add the glaze toward the end of cooking, giving that top layer a few minutes to get an extra caramelized finish, says Bolus.