How to choose the classic beef meatloaf recipe that’s best for you

Meatloaf seems like a simple dish, but go looking online for a recipe and you’ll be overwhelmed with options. There are so many “best”, “juiciest” and “tastiest” recipes that choosing the right one for you and your family can be almost impossible. But by understanding how they all differ, you can pick one that suits you perfectly.

Closeup of two different sliced meatloaves, with the text how to choose a classic beef meatloaf recipe that's best for you.

Classic meatloaf recipes are typically all very similar. They use most of the same ingredients and largely identical cooking processes. The devil is in the detail, with different:

  • Ratios of key ingredients.
  • Preparation processes.
  • Cooking methods.

And more. But by knowing what to look for, you can choose a meatloaf recipe that suits what you’ve got in your kitchen cupboard, how much time you have (or are prepared to give) and your family’s tastes.

To help understand how meatloaves differ, I’ve compared twenty-eight popular recipes. Most are for a classic beef meatloaf, with a few more modern variations in the mix to highlight some different aspects of making this family favourite. The recipes I’ve reviewed are listed at the bottom of the page, but my hope is that this overview will help you look at any meatloaf recipe with a sharper eye for finding the best one for you.

Choosing a meatloaf recipe

I’ll cover off a few different topics in detail to help you choose a meatloaf recipe, but if you’d like to jump straight to a particular section, here are the highlights:

Otherwise, read on to get the whole story.

What you need (typical meatloaf ingredients)

Based on these twenty-eight recipes, a classic beef meatloaf needs the following ingredients:

  • Ground beef
  • Breadcrumbs (or another starchy ingredient)
  • Eggs

The beef is obvious, but the other two aren’t in every single recipe by accident. They are fundamental to a moist, stable meatloaf. I’ll explain why a little further on.

There are a few other very common ingredients, which are not necessities, but if left out could leave your meatloaf lacking in taste or texture:

  • Every recipe includes onion.
  • All but four of the recipes include a glaze. Twenty-three of these are based on ketchup.
  • Twenty-three recipes include herbs, especially parsley.
  • Nineteen authors include some garlic in their meatloaf.
  • Half of the recipes include some milk.

Now that we know what’s in a typical meatloaf, let’s look at how the recipes differ.

How meatloaf recipes differ

There are four major ways the recipes differ from one another:

  • Choice and ratios of ingredients.
  • Complexity of preparation and cooking.
  • How the meatloaf is placed in the oven.
  • Texture and taste profile.

Differences in meatloaf ingredients

As I mentioned above, every recipe includes ground beef (or in one case, veal), breadcrumbs (or another starchy-ingredient) and eggs. It would be an exaggeration to say that’s where the similarities end, but beyond this point there’s a lot more variation.

I’ll go through each of the major ingredients in more detail, but before I do, it’s important to understand the risk of making substitutions.

Closeup of a slice of freeform beef meatloaf with a ketchup glaze, and the text do you know how substitutions affect a meatloaf recipe.

The (potentially negative) impact of substitutions

With many dishes, making a fairly fundamental substitution is pretty low risk in terms of the dish turning out well. Replacing the ground beef in a Bolognese sauce with ground pork will change the taste and the texture, but the dish will still work. The meat will cook the same way, and the finished sauce will have a very similar consistency.

With meatloaf, this is not always the case. Some substitutions, like replacing one herb with another, will only change the taste. But others can affect how your meatloaf turns out. Meatloaf needs to come together into a firm but juicy loaf. Some substitutions can leave an otherwise moist meatloaf dry and rubbery. Others can turn a potentially firm meatloaf into a mushy mess.

As a result, it’s important to understand which substitutions are “safe”, and which ones can significantly alter the outcome. Once you know this, you can choose a meatloaf recipe that suits you the best, rather than having to make lots of changes to a different recipe.

All ground beef is not the same

While every recipe includes ground beef, there’s an important difference in the beef that the authors choose – leanness. Not every recipe specifies a particular leanness, but of those that do, there are several different camps:

  • Four authors prefer 80% lean (or as one says, “not lean”) beef.
  • Three suggest 85% lean.
  • Five recommend 90% or leaner.

Beyond the specific recommendations above, four authors specify “lean” beef, and one likes “extra-lean”.

Ground beef leanness labelling

According to the US Department of Agriculture (2019), to be labelled “lean”, ground beef must have less than ten percent fat (91% lean or better). To be labelled “extra-lean”, it must have less than five percent fat (96% lean or better). Regular ground beef will have a lower lean point (lean meat to fat ratio).

So why do all these numbers matter?

The impact of beef fat content on meatloaf

The fat content of your beef has two important effects on your meatloaf.

First, we all know too much fat is not good for us, but fat content directly influences the taste of the meat. More fat equals more taste.

But the second affect is arguably more important. When it’s cooked, the fat in meat liquifies, and this contributes directly to the moistness of the meatloaf.

Substituting lean meat for regular (and vice versa)

So what happens if the recipe asks for 90% lean beef and you’ve only got 80% lean? It would be easy to think “no problem, my meatloaf will just be juicier. Perfect!”. And while this is true, there’s a risk that something else happens as well.

Meatloaf needs to bind together into a cohesive loaf. This depends on the ratios of solids, liquids and binders in the recipe. So when the author designs their recipe for 90% lean beef, they’ve figured out the right ratios of everything else to produce the ideal texture with that much fat.

Using meat with more fat can throw these ratios out, leaving the finished product more juicy than planned. If it’s too juicy, rather than stay together in nice slices, your meatloaf will fall mushily apart. Probably very tasty, but not the result we want. And very hard to put on a sandwich too!

Similarly, using extra-lean beef in a recipe that calls for 80% lean will throw out the ratios as well. Then you run the risk of your meatloaf being too dry, lacking the moisture the fattier beef would have provided.

Of course you can play with the ratios of other ingredients to compensate for the difference. But given that there are plenty of tried-and-tested recipes that specifically use the meat you have on hand, why not use one of them instead? Choose a meatloaf recipe that uses the beef you have in the fridge, or the beef you prefer to use.

Other meats in a beef meatloaf

Nine recipes further complicate this issue by including more than one type of meat. And four of these go one step further, using three different meats in their meatloaf.

Pork is the most common second meat, typically included for juiciness. It helps with this because ground pork is typically 80% lean or less. So replacing it with another, more lean meat, could cause problems. And none of the authors specify the leanness of their pork, which makes it even harder to substitute.

The third meat is typically veal. Being younger, veal is usually leaner and is added for texture because the meat is more tender. So again, if you didn’t have veal and replaced it with regular ground beef (70-80% lean), you’d be adding significantly more moisture than the recipe intended.

Again, the best approach is to pick a meatloaf recipe that suits the meat you want to use. That way the author’s done all the hard work of getting the moisture content right for you.

But you need fat for a juicy meatloaf!

It’s worth pointing out here that you don’t need fatty ground meat to have moist meatloaf. While quite a few authors protest that this is the only way, almost as many use lean or extra-lean beef and receive great reviews for moist, juicy meatloaf. The right approach is to lock in the juiciness, not just add more. And I’ll explain how to do this a bit further on.


I refer to them as breadcrumbs because most of the recipes use some form of plain dried or freshly made breadcrumbs, but a few use other starchy ingredients to fulfil the same role:

  • Two authors use crushed crackers, either Saltines or Ritz.
  • Another two use rolled or quick oats.
A perfectly loaf-shaped meatloaf with a ketchup glaze, half sliced, on a white plate., plus the text you can replace the breadcrumbs in meatloaf.

Substituting for breadcrumbs

Several readers of these recipes post questions in the comments about replacing the breadcrumbs in their meatloaf with oats, crackers or other ingredients such as rice. And so long as the ingredient contains starch, the answer is generally yes. I’ll explain why it works, and how to substitute in the next section.

Contrary to the belief of a couple of authors and a number of their readers, breadcrumbs are neither a filler nor a binder in meatloaf.

When meat is cooked, the proteins contract. This doesn’t only make them smaller – it also squeezes moisture out of them. And for meat like ground beef, which needs to be cooked to a fairly high internal temperature to be safe to eat, this process can squeeze out too much moisture, leaving the meat dry and tough.

Starch prevents the proteins from contracting too much, allowing them to remain tender, and importantly, retain some moisture.

So as long as you’re adding some form of starch, you’ll achieve the intended effect of adding breadcrumbs. For best results, the starch needs to be mixed thoroughly through the meat mixture, hence the use of breadcrumbs rather than larger chunks of bread. Similarly, larger grained substitutes like oats should be processed or ground to ensure as much starch as possible can interact with the meat proteins.

Enhancing the role of breadcrumbs with a panade

I mentioned earlier that half of the recipes include some milk. While it may seem that this is to add moisture, the true role of milk lies in a cooking technique called a panade.

A panade is a mixture of a starch (like in breadcrumbs) and a liquid. By mixing the starch with a liquid, it forms a paste that more effectively coats the proteins in the meat. This enhances the effect of preventing too much contraction and moisture loss.

For this effect to work properly, the breadcrumbs and milk should be soaked and mixed together before being added to the meat. This ensures all of the starch has the chance to become part of the paste. Several of the authors who use milk don’t do this preliminary step. These recipes will still benefit from some of the effect of a panade, but not as much as they would if they’d made the paste first.

From a substitution point of view, the liquid doesn’t have to be milk. One author uses water, and you can use a number of other liquids like stock or yogurt. I often use a panade of fresh bread and Greek yogurt in meatballs and it keeps them wonderfully moist, as well as giving a little tart tang to their flavour.

If you’re interested in learning more, Jessica Gavin goes into some detail about how a panade works on her site.

It’s worth noting that milk can play another role, albeit minor. Milk contains a bit of lactic acid which can help to tenderise the meat. Dairy products with more lactic acid, like buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt will be more effective in this regard.

Bringing it all together with eggs

All twenty-eight recipes contain eggs because of the important role they play in binding the ingredients together. We want enough eggs to hold the loaf together, but not leave an eggy taste or custardy texture.

And the variation here comes down to how many eggs the authors use. Different meatloaves will require different amounts of binder based on the other ingredients. Factors like the leanness of the meat, the addition of vegetables (how much and how big the pieces are), and more will all influence the amount of binder required to help the meatloaf hang together.

While every recipe contains either one or two eggs, a better measurement is the number of eggs per pound of meat. This is only a rough guide because of the factors I’ve just mentioned, but otherwise there are so many variables we’d need to compare several hundred recipes to really figure out what’s going on.

The recipes range from using a half-an-egg per pound of meat to two eggs per pound of meat. While this certainly demonstrates the variability, it doesn’t help decide what’s the most common approach.

Fortunately, there is a common approach, with just over half the recipes using one egg per pound of meat. And almost every recipe is in the range of three-quarters of an egg to one-and-quarter eggs per pound. So even though there is variability, almost every author finds that close to one egg per pound of meat does a good job of holding their meatloaf together.

Making meatloaf without eggs

These recipes have all been designed to use eggs. If you don’t have any eggs or can’t eat them, there are some possible substitutes for eggs as a binder, like flaxseed meal, chia seeds or gelatin, but these ingredients bind differently so you’ll have to experiment with them.

And if you’d like to add more egg, keep in mind that the amount of egg also influences cooking time, but we’ll come to this a little further on.

Onions, garlic, and herbs

Other than hugely increasing the amount of any of these ingredients, how you prepare them is the main variation that could affect your meatloaf. And there are two aspects of preparation to consider – how big the pieces are, and whether or not you cook them first.

There are two main ways the authors prepare their onions – either finely chopped, or grated. The pieces are smaller and finer when grated, and also release a lot more liquid. There are a few ways changing things could affect your meatloaf:

  • If you leave your onion pieces very large, they could contribute to the meatloaf crumbling.
  • If you chop your onion when the author intended them to be grated, you will miss out on the liquid the grated onions provide. As an example of how much they produce, one author uses the liquid from grating the onions to make a panade.
  • Conversely, if you grate your onions when they’re meant to be chopped, you could introduce too much liquid into the mix.

The main reason to alter the way you cut your onions is usually to do with texture (as anyone with picky little eaters definitely knows). But as you can see, it can have other unintended effects. They’re probably minor, but if you make several other substitutions and changes as well, they’ll start to add up.

So if you’re trying to decide between two otherwise very similar meatloaf recipes, pick the one that cuts the onions they way you like them (or more likely, the way the kids like them).

Pre-cooking your onions

The other thing to note with onions is the fact that twelve recipes direct you to sauté them before adding them to the meat mixture. This not only softens their texture, but enhances their sweetness too.

Choosing to do this for a recipe that doesn’t probably won’t dramatically change anything, but keep in mind that cooked onions will have lost much of their water, and will be smaller. Also, they won’t need to cook in the oven.

Again, none of these are likely to be big effects, but understanding each change you make will help you choose the right recipe.

Other ingredients in meatloaf

A number of the recipes include other ingredients for taste, texture or both. Many of these can also change the outcome if they’re left out, or if they’re added to recipes they weren’t intended for.

There are a number of liquid (or at least runny) ingredients used. These can make a meatloaf too dry if they’re left out, or too wet if they’re added in:

  • Sixteen authors add some Worcestershire sauce to their mixture for an umami hit.
  • Ten recipes include ketchup (in the meat, not just the glaze).
  • A few authors add a little chicken stock or broth.
  • A few include some tomato paste/puree, prepared mustard, or both.
  • A couple of unique inclusions appear, like cider vinegar (again, in the meat), soy sauce and buttermilk.

Five recipes add some cheese to the mixture as well. Like the fat in the meat, this will melt and add juiciness to the meatloaf. This may need to be allowed for if you exclude it, or if you add cheese to another recipe.

Several recipes also include additional chopped or grated vegetables. To accompany the onions, other classic aromatics like carrot, celery and bell peppers (capsicum) appear a few times. Like chopped onions, these additions will add moisture and bulk to these meatloaves, so excluding them (or adding them to recipes that don’t include them) will have some impact on both texture and how well the meatloaf binds together.

Finally, a few recipes use small amounts of some dry spices such as paprika, cayenne or mustard powder. Substituting any of these should really only impact the taste, so choose whatever your family prefers.

Differing levels of complexity

Another significant way in which these recipes vary is in how complex the preparation and cooking methods are.

Many of the recipes are for a quick and easy classic meatloaf. These typically have only the mandatory ingredients plus a few more, are simple to prepare and use a straightforward cooking method.

But several are a little more complicated, introducing additional flavours and multi-step cooking. And one is highly complex, with one reader swearing by the recipe but also commenting it typically takes three-and-a-half hours total time!

All recipes, whether printed in hard cover books written by famous chefs, or posted online by avid amateur cooks, are notoriously unreliable when it comes to the total time listed at the top of the recipe. So when you’re choosing a recipe for meatloaf, read it through carefully, because for a simple dish there’s a LOT of variation in the time required.

Quick & easy meatloaf recipes

The simplest recipes contain the fewest possible steps to getting your meatloaf into the oven, and the easiest approach once it’s in. If this is what you’re looking for, there are a number of choices here. Typical “shortcuts” or simplifications include:

  • Using just the “classic” ingredients, or only one or two more.
  • Using store-bought breadcrumbs.
  • Onions and other vegetables are not pre-cooked.
  • Milk, where used, is mixed in with everything else, rather than being pre-mixed with the breadcrumbs.
  • The glaze is simply mixed together in a bowl, or is just ketchup on it’s own.

Just over a third of the recipes fit this description. They mix all the ingredients together, place the mixture in a loaf tin or shape it into a loaf on a tray, add the glaze, and bake. A few apply a second glaze towards the end, and then you’re done. For a quick and easy weeknight meal, when you’ve got limited time, look for a recipe like this.

Meatloaf recipes with a little more oomph

Almost half of the recipes are very similar to those in the quick and easy group, but use a few more ingredients or take one or two additional steps in order to give the finished result a little more flavour or a slightly different texture. The differences in approach here are things like:

  • More than one type of meat is used.
  • Breadcrumbs are made from fresh or dried bread.
  • Milk and breadcrumbs (or oats or crackers) are formed into a panade before being mixed through the meat.
  • Vegetables are sautéed before being added, and sometimes mixed with Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and more in the frying pan.
  • The glaze ingredients are heated in a small pot to combine and reduce them.

None of the recipes takes all of these additional steps, but most take more than one. And while none of them are difficult, they add time, making the total cooking time a bit longer, and maybe dirtying another pan, pot or both.

The authors don’t add these steps for the love of cooking though. They’re intended to enhance flavours, or soften textures, and more. And that’s not to say the quick and easy recipes can’t produce a good meatloaf either. These recipes just go that little bit further.

“Gourmet” and unusual meatloaf recipes

Four of the recipes are quite different from the others. They’re still recognisable as a classic beef meatloaf, but they have more ingredients, more steps and in some cases more complicated procedures. Although I’m not sure you could ever call meatloaf “gourmet”, these recipes take significant steps in that direction, adding subtle flavour tweaks, unusual texture enhancers and more.

If you’ve got time to spare, want to try significantly upping your meatloaf game, or simply love a lengthy, involved cooking process, look for recipes like these. They typically have much longer ingredient lists, many more steps to the recipe and longer total cooking times.

Different ways of cooking meatloaf

The authors choose one of two quite different approaches to how they actually put their meatloaf in the oven. Understanding how they differ will help you choose the approach that’s best for you.

Baking meatloaf in a loaf tin

Being meatloaf, it is traditionally cooked in a loaf pan. And half of the authors take this approach, mostly using a 9 x 5 inch loaf pan (23 x 13 cm). A few use a slightly smaller 8 x 4 inch pan (20 x 10 cm).

Done this way, your meatloaf will have a consistent shape and, depending on the amount of meat mixture, will be quite thick. The pan also does a good job of keeping the glaze neatly on top of the meat. Not to mention that fact that leftover slices of this type of meatloaf are an almost perfect fit for sandwich bread.

In a meatloaf pan however, it is only the top surface of your meatloaf that is exposed to the hot dry air of the oven for good browning. And if that’s covered in glaze, none of the meatloaf is exposed directly to the oven air.

Baking meatloaf on a sheet pan or baking tray

The other half of the recipes take quite a different approach. They have you shape your meat mixture into a loaf and place it on a large sheet pan/baking tray or in a deeper baking or roasting pan. A few of the recipes guide you to use your loaf pan to shape your meatloaf, then invert it out of the pan onto the sheet pan.

Most of the authors that use this approach like it because much more of the meatloaf is exposed to the oven air. This means they get more browning, which creates additional flavour and a crispier exterior.

The other advantage that several authors mention is that the fat escaping the meat can run off freely. In a loaf pan, your meatloaf will sit in this fat the whole time it’s in the oven. While this is great for flavour, it’s not so great from a health perspective, plus it tends to make the bottom of the meatloaf soft and soggy.

Because the sheet pan or tray approach is freeform, these meatloaves have a less consistent shape, and tend to flatten out a little, although some authors take additional steps to minimise this. The glaze is also more likely to run down the sides and onto the tray rather than stay neatly on top of the meat.

The upside of this non-traditional shape is that these meatloaves tend to cook a little faster, especially the flatter ones. 

Different tastes and textures

Some of the things we’ve already discussed will also have a significant impact on the taste, and more often the texture, of the meatloaf.

Meatloaf texture variations to consider

Several different choices the authors make will impact the texture of the cooked meat mixture:

  • Cutting vegetables vs grating them.
  • Pre-cooking vegetables vs adding them raw.
  • Amount of vegetable added relative to the amount of meat.
  • Including cheese in the mixture.

If you choose a meatloaf recipe that meets your family’s needs on these fronts, you’re less likely to need to make any substitutions.

Meatloaf taste variations

There are even more taste variations to consider:

  • What type of vegetables are included.
  • Which herbs are used.
  • Which sauces or condiments are added, and how much.
  • Again, the inclusion (or not) of cheese.
  • Any spices the author adds.

Some of these, like herbs or spices, won’t have any impact if you add more or leave them out. But as we’ve seen above, some (like chunky vegetables) certainly will have an impact. So try to choose a meatloaf recipe with the closest flavour profile match to your family’s preferences.

Seems obvious…

I realise that much of this advice is so obvious that you may be thinking “well duh, of course!”. But many of these recipes have comments from readers who have made two, three or more substitutions, often followed by the question – “do you think this is why mine didn’t work?”.

If they’d chosen the right recipe (for them) in the first place, they may not have had any problems at all.

Choosing the best meatloaf recipe for you

While the internet provides a wealth of wonderful recipes, sometimes there are just too many! And with many authors labelling theirs the best, it’s hard to know how to choose. So, rather than picking the one with the nicest photo, make sure you consider a couple of different things as you decide:

  • Choose a recipe that suits how much time you have (and how much you enjoy cooking) so that you don’t have to cut any corners. There are plenty of good quick and easy recipes, and plenty more good “advanced” ones.
  • Choose a recipe that you won’t need to make many (or better yet any) substitutions with. Take into account what you have in the cupboard, and what your family likes, then choose a recipe you can cook exactly as the author intended.

Hopefully this review will help you choose from amongst these recipes, or the thousands more out there, the next time you want to make a classic beef meatloaf. By choosing the right recipe for you, you’re more likely to have great results and happy eaters!

Either way, I’d love to hear what you think. Please drop a comment at the bottom of the page, and let me know if this helped, if you’ve learned anything new, or if I’ve missed anything.

Meatloaf recipes included in this review

Quick and easy meatloaf recipes

More involved meatloaf recipes

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