Classic Meatloaf (A Make-It-Your-Own Recipe)

Meatloaf is one of those classic comfort foods that everyone seems to have fond memories of- and yet everyone’s favorite version seems to be a little bit different. The basic “core” recipe is actually pretty simple: combine ground meat, a minced aromatic vegetable or two, some sort of grain-based filler, a little beaten egg to bind everything together, and a few other seasonings. Mix well, shape into a loaf, and bake until it’s cooked through. Seems simple enough, but it seems no two cooks can agree on exactly what goes into the mix. Should a meatloaf be ground beef only, or a blend of different ground meats? Is meatloaf better made with bread crumbs only, or a combination of breadcrumbs and oats? What seasonings are best? Should the finished meatloaf be glazed or unglazed?

My thought on the matter is that it should be entirely up to you as to what ingredients you use. No recipe is going to compare with the memory of your mother or grandmother’s meatloaf, but you can use this recipe as the basis to develop your own special “house” meatloaf recipe. Feel free to adjust the seasonings to your own personal preference, and don’t be afraid to experiment. As a bonus, I’ve included a couple easy recipes for a simple tangy tomato glaze (which you can convert into a sweeter quick barbecue sauce with the addition of sugar) and a mushroom gravy recipe that you can make ahead to serve on top of meatloaf or a side of mashed potatoes.

Equipment:

  • 8″x12″ loaf pan
  • rimmed baking sheet
  • cooking spray for greasing the baking sheet
  • basting brush

Ingredients:

  • 2 lbs. ground meat (see Cook’s Notes, below)
  • 1 cup yellow onion chopped
  • 1 cup panko breadcrumbs (seasoned panko recommended, but plain is fine)
  • ½ cup tomato sauce or ketchup
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. thyme fresh, chopped
  • 1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley fresh, chopped (plus more, for garnish)
  • ¼ cup Parmesan cheese grated
  • 1 tsp. salt (preferably kosher or sea salt)
  • ½ tsp. ground black pepper

For the glaze (optional):

  • 1 tbsp. balsamic glaze
  • 3 tbsp. tomato sauce or ketchup
  • ¼ cup brown sugar (optional)

For the mushroom gravy (optional):

  • 3 tbsp. unsalted butter
  • ¼ cup shallot chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 8 oz. mushrooms, sliced (crimini or white button mushrooms)
  • 1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • ¼ cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups beef stock or broth
  • ¼ tsp. salt (preferably kosher or sea salt)
  • ¼ tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp. flat-leaf parsley fresh, for garnish (optional)

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Spray a lined baking sheet with the cooking spray.

    What’s better than meatloaf? Bacon-wrapped meatloaf! Overlap the slices of bacon to cover the meatloaf, and baste with glaze. Trim the edges, and baste with a little glaze again before transferring to a platter and serving.
  3. In a large bowl, combine ground meat, onion, breadcrumbs, tomato sauce or ketchup, eggs, Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, thyme, parsley, Parmesan, salt, and pepper.

  4. Mix all the ingredients with clean hands until fully mixed.
  5. Rinse a loaf pan (8″ x 4″) with water and then pack the meat mixture into the wet pan.

  6. Invert the pan over the greased baking sheet and gently transfer onto the sheet. (If making bacon-wrapped meatloaf, cover meatloaf with sliced of bacon, over-lapping each slice slightly.)
  7. Bake for 50 minutes.
  8. Meanwhile, mix glaze ingredients. Set aside. (Glaze is optional, but recommended- especially if you’re making bacon-wrapped meatloaf.)
  9. After 50 minutes, remove the meatloaf from the oven, brush the glaze over the top of the loaf, and return to the oven to bake for another 20 minutes. Save some of the sauce for another brushing after the meatloaf has finished cooking. (If you choose to skip the bacon-wrapping and the glaze, your meatloaf may be done at the 50-minute mark. Using an instant-read thermometer, check the internal temperature of the loaf; once the internal temperature reaches 160° F, it’s done.)

Make the mushroom gravy (optional):

  1. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium-high heat.
  2. Add the shallots and cook until soft, about 2 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another 1 minute.
  3. Add the mushrooms and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and have released their liquids, about 8 minutes.
  4. Whisk in the flour and stir to coat. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
  5. Add a little of the stock, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet. Using a whisk, gradually pour in the rest of the stock, whisking to incorporate the browned, floured bits with the liquid and break up any lumps. Slowly simmer and stir until thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes.
  6. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over low heat.

Serve it up!

  • Transfer the meatloaf to a platter; baste meatloaf with the leftover glaze, and let cool 10 minutes. (I find the easiest way to do this is to slide the meatloaf onto a flexible thin plastic cutting board, using a large spatula for additional support; this helps prevent the meatloaf from breaking apart as you transfer it to the platter.)
  • Slice meatloaf. Drizzle gravy over the top, and garnish with chopped parsley, if desired.
  • Serve at once, passing additional gravy at the table.

Cook’s Notes:

For this “base” meatloaf recipe, I stuck to a mixture that’s fairly similar to what I use for meatballs, since a meatloaf is kind of like a giant meatball anyways (or maybe meatballs are just tiny versions of meatloaf?).

Some general pointers for this recipe and for experimenting with new ingredients and flavors:

  • For better flavor, I recommend a blend of different kinds of ground meat for your meatloaf. I often use a “meatloaf mix” of equal thirds ground beef, ground veal, and ground pork, but use whatever you like- just don’t go too lean or too fatty. When it comes to meatloaf, you actually need to use ground meat with just a bit of fat in it; a bit of fat will impart more flavor, and it will also help the meatloaf hold together better. For ground beef, I recommend 85% lean beef (usually sold as ground chuck). If you’re using particularly lean or gamey meat (such as bison or venison), you may actually need to add a little beef or pork fat to the mix to help keep your loaf from turning into a pile of dry, crumbled meat. If you’re using an especially fatty type of ground meat (such as sausage), then the rest of your meatloaf mix should come from leaner cuts of meat, otherwise you’ll end up with the opposite problem- a soggy, greasy pile of crumbled meat, due to all the fat that cooks out.
  • I avoided using oats in this recipe, since they seem to result in a moist meatloaf with a crumbly texture that falls apart more easily. But if you like them, feel free to mix in some old-fashioned, rolled oats; you may need to adjust the amount of breadcrumbs and eggs though to make sure the mix holds together properly. You can check this by forming a handful of the mix into a little test meatball- if the ball falls apart in your hand, then you probably need more egg (or perhaps a bit of beef or pork fat, if you used particularly lean meat); if the mix is too wet to shape easily into a ball or won’t hold a shape, then you need to add more breadcrumbs.
  • I just used finely chopped onion for the aromatic portion of this base recipe, but this is really just a starting point. I often add a few cloves of minced garlic to my meatloaf, but you could also use a traditional mirepoix (a blend of finely diced carrots, celery, and onions), a little Cajun trinity (equal parts finely minced onion, celery, and green bell pepper), or even a little minced jalapeno, depending on the sort of flavor profile you’re going for. Experiment, and see what you like best- but try not to alter the basic proportions too much, or you may end up with a meatloaf that falls apart due to the extra liquid that cooks out of the veggies.
  • You can omit the Parmesan altogether or substitute another cheese in this recipe if you like; feel free to experiment here. If you increase the amount of cheese, some of it may bubble out the sides of the meatloaf as it cooks; you can simply trim this away with a sharp knife.
  • Seasoned panko breadcrumbs are great if you have them, but regular breadcrumbs (seasoned or plain) work just fine, too. You can also easily make your own seasoned breadcrumbs by adding some dried spices and seasonings to plain breadcrumbs; there are plenty of easy DIY recipes out there (like this one from Food.com), or you can come up with your own blend.
  • You can cook your meatloaf in a loaf pan if it’s easier; this method tends to produce a very moist meatloaf, since the juices have less opportunity to cook off of the meatloaf. However, this can also result in a soggy meatloaf that falls apart when you try to slice it. I recommend just using the loaf pan to help shape your loaf, but you can cook in the loaf pan if you’re worried that your meatloaf won’t hold its shape on the baking sheet. If you don’t have a loaf pan (or don’t feel like dirtying up extra dishes), you can just shape the loaf by hand on the baking sheet. If you’re concerned about the loaf sticking, or want to make clean-up easier, you can also line the baking sheet with aluminum foil.
  • It’s important to let your meatloaf rest and cool for at least 10 minutes before slicing- if you slice into the loaf before it’s cooled and “set”, it will probably fall apart on you. This is one of the most common causes of sad, crumbly meatloaf (right after the using too much or too little fat, and not using enough binding ingredients like breadcrumbs and eggs).
  • If you’re feeling particularly “extra,” you can wrap your meatloaf in bacon (as shown in the photos); I recommend using thick-sliced center-cut bacon for this, as thinner-cut bacon tends to shrink too much. Bacon-wrapped meatloaf is particularly good if you use the glaze recipe below, but you could also baste it with your favorite barbecue sauce (homemade or store-bought; the choice is up to you). If you want to wrap your meatloaf in bacon, you’ll need to cook it on a baking sheet in order to let the excess bacon grease render off; depending on how fatty your bacon is, this may be quite a bit of grease. If you’re concerned about this, you can drain the grease off of the baking sheet about half-way through cooking (or as needed). I do not recommend cooking bacon-wrapped meatloaf in a loaf pan; the fat from the bacon will soak into the meatloaf below, resulting in a soggy, greasy loaf that will fall apart in the pan.
  • The meatloaf mixture can be made up to 3 or 4 hours before baking.  Keep covered in the refrigerator until ready to bake.
  • The cooked meatloaf will keep in the refrigerator for up to 1 week and freezes beautifully for up to 1 month.
  • The mushroom gravy can be made up to a day in advance. Simply reheat on the stove before serving.

last updated August 17, 2023