Classic Meatloaf is classic comfort food. My easy version has a rich tomato topping, flavoured with brown sugar, mustard and a bit of vinegar.
In all my years of sharing recipes, I have yet to share my "family" meatloaf recipe. It doesn't seem very glamorous or exciting, but it's solid comfort food and definitely still comes around on the menu here when the mood strikes.
My version of classic meatloaf is a slightly adapted version of the meatloaf my Mom made growing up. It features a rich tomato topping that is also added to the meatloaf itself, for an extra bit of flavour.
Easy and delicious classic meatloaf is perfect comfort food. Just add mashed potatoes!
My meatloaf recipe is a bit different from my Mom's version in two ways. First, I like a free-form meatloaf, baked on a baking sheet. My Mom preferred a loaf pan. Secondly, I like some tomato paste in my tomato topping, for a richer tomato taste. My Mom is in camp all tomato sauce :) The nice thing is, you can go either way or any variety of ways to make it your own classic meatloaf.
Ingredient Notes for Classic Meatloaf
Ground Beef: There are basically three choices for ground beef here in Canada. Extra lean ground beef has a maximum of 10% fat, Lean ground beef has a maximum of 17% fat and Medium Ground Beef has a maximum of 23% fat. My preference is to use Lean Ground Beef for meatloaf, as it seems to have just enough fat for moistness and flavour, without having so much that the meatloaf is swimming in it :)
Tomato Sauce: The quality of the tomato sauce makes a big difference here, as there is a lot of it in the meatloaf. My Mom always used Hunt's Tomato Sauce, but word on the street is that Hunt's has somewhat recently re-formulated their Tomato Sauce and it's not being well received by many who have used it for years. Or so I hear :) I wandered around the grocery store in search of alternative brands and found a few (check the organic/natural food section!).
As noted in the Cook's Notes, I've made this meatloaf many times with only tomato paste and no tomato sauce. So if you have paste and no sauce, it will work! It's quite rich in tomato taste, but still nice. Likewise, if you have tomato sauce and no paste, just use all sauce and no paste.
Tomato Paste: You will just need a little can of tomato paste here and if you make the recipe as written, you will have leftover tomato paste. You can refrigerate or freeze the extra.
Vinegar: You can use either Cider Vinegar or White Distilled Vinegar here. It's really just a matter of personal taste. The Cider Vinegar brings a little tangier taste to the sauce, while the white vinegar makes it more ketchup-like.
Soda Crackers: Aka "Saltines". The crackers here are used as a bit of a binder to help hold the meatloaf together. I love that there isn't a lot of binder in this meatloaf. I've never been a fan of super stiff, binder-heavy meatloaf. Less binder does make it a little softer, but there is definitely enough to make it sliceable. If for some reason, you want a stiffer meatloaf, increase the crackers a bit.
For a gluten-free version, substitute gluten-free rolled oats for the crackers. Simply process them lightly to break them up a bit and use in the same 1/4 cup quantity as for the crushed crackers.
Cook's Notes for Classic Meatloaf
One thing to note is that the salt on the crackers will add a bit of saltiness to the meatloaf and there is also salt in the tomato sauce. The amount will vary by brand, so it's hard to judge exactly how much extra salt you need to add to the meat. I've settled on 1 tsp, which should be close. If you find your finished meatloaf a touch undersalted, you can always salt the finished meatloaf a bit. Easier to add than take away :)
My adapted meatloaf version developed from the fact that I don't always have canned tomato sauce in my cupboard, but I always have tomato paste. So over the years, I have made this meatloaf using just tomato paste. I kind of loved it, as it's super rich in tomato taste and nice and thick, so you can practically "frost" the meatloaf with it. I suspect it wouldn't be to everyone's taste though, so the recipe here splits the difference. That said, if you're an adventurous type, try it with just tomato paste or a different ratio of sauce to paste and see which you prefer.
Meatloaf done at 160F internal temperature, when tested with an instant read thermometer. Remember that you've added some tomato sauce to the meat, so if you notice it "pink" looking, that may be the reason. If you don't have a thermometer, err on the side of leaving it in the oven longer, as you can't really hurt it.
What to Serve with Classic Meatloaf
I'm not sure there's a side dish more suited to meatloaf than creamy mashed potatoes. Add a vegetable and you're good to go.
Top Tip! Line your baking sheet completely with heavy-duty aluminum foil (or two layers of regular aluminum foil), for super easy clean-up.
- 2 lb lean ground beef
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp fine salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 1/4 cup soda crackers (crushed (Saltines))
- 1/2 cup onion (finely diced)
- 1 cup tomato sauce (canned)
- 1/4 - 1/3 cup tomato paste (1/2 small can-ish)
- 1/4 cup brown sugar (packed)
- 1/4 cup cider or white vinegar
- 1 tsp prepared yellow mustard
- Preheat oven to 350F. Cover a baking sheet with heavy-duty aluminum foil (or two layers of regular aluminum foil). Set aside.
- In a medium bowl, make the sauce by stirring together the sauce ingredients until smooth. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, add the ground beef, egg, salt, pepper, crushed crackers and diced onion. Using a large spoon, stir to combine well. Add about 1/2 of the prepared sauce to the beef mixture. Stir to combine well.
- Drop big spoonfuls of the ground beef mixture into a rough log shape in the centre of the prepared baking pan. Using your hands, shape into a loaf shape about 3 inches high x 3 inches wide x 10-12 inches long. Try to keep the top just a slightly domed/almost flat, so the sauce will stay on the top as it cooks. Start spooning remaining sauce over the top, one small spoonful at a time, along the length of the meatloaf. Some will drip down the sides, but try to keep most of it on top. If a lot runs off onto the pan, spoon it up and put it back on the top.
- Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour, or until the meat registers 160F when tested with an instant read thermometer. Allow to rest several minutes before cutting. Serve garnished with parsley or Parmesan, if desired.