Meatloaf isn’t the most complicated of recipes. It utilizes a tasty blend of aromatics and spices to augment the taste of whatever meat you make it with. For many cooks, however, meatloaf remains a bit of a mystery.
When you’re making complicated meatloaf (with venison, turkey, pork, or chicken), you’re often adapting a recipe that calls for ground beef.
So how long should you cook it, and what should the internal temperature of the meatloaf get up to?
The answer is depressingly simple. You should cook your meatloaf until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 165. The type of meat you use doesn’t really matter. 165 is the best temperature for pretty much every type of ground meat.
Will This Dry Out My Meatloaf?
There’s not a lot of wiggle room here: it’s a meatloaf. It’s not going to be juicy and succulent if you only cook it to 140. Instead, it’ll be the same meatloaf-ey texture. More importantly, since you’re using ground meats, it’s very important that you cook everything thoroughly.
You can get away with cooking things like steaks to slightly lower temperatures because the outside of the steak (where all the bacteria live) will endure much higher temperatures than the center. When you grind meat, the outside parts end up all over, meaning that you have to be more careful and cook your meats to higher temperatures.
More importantly, however, you’re not grinding up filet mignon to make your meatloaf. Instead, you’re probably using cheap cuts of tough meat in the dish. While lean cuts of meat are more palatable when they’re cooked to lower internal temperatures, tough meat really benefits from a bit of extra cooking.
If you like your ribs barbecued until the meat falls off the bone, you like them cooked to an internal temperature of something like 190 F. At 140 F, ribs are fairly tough and not that fun to eat.
Finally, consider the ingredients in your meatloaf.
You’re mixing ground meat with plenty of stuff that will affect how “juicy” the final product is. If your meatloaf is dry, you may want to simply switch to a different recipe instead of trying to undercook it and risk giving your dinner guests food poisoning.
There are a number of bacteria that tend to inhabit various cuts of meat. Different types of bacteria die at different temperatures. In some cases, meat tends not to harbor certain kinds of bacteria. Whole cow flesh, for whatever reason, is relatively free from most common microscopic baddies. This is why you can get away with cooking steaks to fairly low temperatures and eating them rare.
Pork often is infested with a type of worm called trichinosis. This tiny troublemaker dies at about 137 F, so most cooks recommend cooking whole pork to 140. Again, if you grind the pork, it’s usually a good idea to cook it to at least 165. This is because you’re mixing anything that happened to be on the outside of your pork all throughout the meat as you grind it.
Poultry is far less safe. This is because it’s often riddled with salmonella, which doesn’t die until 160 F. Despite this, most people cook poultry to 170. This is because dark poultry meat is still a bit pinkish at 160. In order to keep your guests comfortable (because they’re not used to seeing pink turkey), it’s a good idea to cook poultry to slightly higher than 160.
This makes 165 the magic number.
It’s high enough to kill salmonella, high enough to take most of the pink out of ground poultry, and it’s high enough to kill most random exterior germs that were mixed in with your ground meat. The FDA recommends that you go a bit higher (175 ish) with some ground meats, but that’ll dry out your meat unnecessarily and isn’t necessary to kill any specific common bacteria.
If you’re really interested in having your meatloaf be extra juicy, you can try shooting for 160 F instead. This should be enough to kill salmonella, although you’re not leaving yourself a lot of wriggle room. I personally shoot for 165, but if I read a temperature of over 160 I’m probably going to just declare my meatloaf done.
165 Leaves My Meatloaf Too Dry!
As I mentioned before, it’s very likely that some amount of blame is due to your meatloaf recipe, not just your cooking temps. Nevertheless, there is one simple trick that you can use to keep your meatloaf a bit juicier.
The trick is simple; when your instant-read thermometer reads 155-160 (not 165!), remove your meatloaf from the oven.
Wait a few minutes, and measure the internal temperature again. In most cases, it’ll get up to 165 (or very, very close). This is because the outside of your meatloaf is warmer than 165. Even after it’s removed from the oven, the outer edges will continue to cook the center. If you wait till your meatloaf hits a full 165 before you pull it out of the oven, it’ll actually cook to an internal temperature closer to 170 or 175 (depending on the size of your meatloaf).
What About A Turkey Meatloaf?
(or pork or venison or chicken or a blend of different ground meats)
165 is a generic temperature that will work for all types of ground meat. No matter what’s in your meatloaf, 165 will kill all common food bacteria. This is a high enough temperature for ground beef, ground turkey, ground venison, ground chicken, and eggs.
How Do I Check The Internal Temperature Of My Meatloaf?
You should have an instant-read thermometer in your kitchen already. They’re incredibly handy tools that are virtually necessary for cooking a variety of meats (and some baked goods). Modern instant-read thermometers are only a few dollars and are very simple to operate. You simply turn them on, stick them in your meatloaf (or steak or whatever) and look at the LCD readout.
You can use a roast thermometer in your meatloaf in a pinch, but that’s not really ideal. Roast thermometers have to be carefully positioned and can take a while to come up to temperature.
This means that you need to stick it in your meatloaf well in advance of when you actually want to check the temperature. With an instant-read thermometer, you can simply poke in your probe and immediately know how close your meatloaf is to being done.
Does Cooking Technique Influence My Meatloaf’s Moistness?
Heat travels from your oven to the air to the outside of your meatloaf to the inside of your meatloaf. It’s a multiple step process. The hotter your oven is, the hotter the outside of your meatloaf gets before the inside is fully cooked.
This means that you’ll get a much juicier meatloaf if you cook it at a lower temperature for a longer time instead of a higher temperature for a shorter time. In other words, don’t set your oven to a temperature above 350 F. Some cooks recommend going as low as 325. You definitely don’t want to use anything above 400.
What About Mixing?
Meatloaf experts claim that the more you mix your meatloaf, the drier it gets. I can’t personally verify this (since I don’t spend a lot of time mixing meatloaf), but I do know that you also want to avoid overmixing with other ground meats.
It certainly makes sense that the same error that makes your burgers fall apart could turn your meatloaf into a dry, unappetizing mess. My personal theory? The fat sticks to your hands (or spoon).
What Ingredients Can I Add To Make My Meatloaf Juicier?
Carrots, onions, garlic, and peppers all release moisture when they’re cooked. This is perfect for keeping your meatloaf nice and juicy.
If you blend in a few of these ingredients, you’ll add lots of savory liquids at critical points in the heating process. The result will be a juicy meatloaf that’s full of flavor.
The Best Way To Cook A Meatloaf
The result of all of this should be a wonderful, succulent meatloaf. In order to cook a meatloaf the right way, be sure to avoid overmixing, use lots of aromatic veggies, and cook it under low heat (325-350 F).
Check the temperature with an instant-read thermometer until it hits an internal temperature of 155 or so, then pull it out of the oven and let it rest for a few minutes. The inside of your meatloaf should continue to cook and hit the magical food safety temperature of 165.
This will kill all common food bacteria and make your meatloaf safe to eat, whether it’s made with chicken, beef, pork, venison, or turkey.