Cracker Barrel copycat meatloaf that's perfect for dinner tonight

Give us an excuse to visit Cracker Barrel, and we won't say no. Their Southern menu is filled with warm and comforting options, and the decor at each location makes you feel like you're home. One of the things this comfort-food chain is most famous for is their meatloaf, a dish that can sell out quickly if you don't dine early enough. Cracker Barrel's meatloaf tastes like the real deal, and they bake it fresh in house every day.

It's meaty, juicy, and their ketchup topping is perfect. It gets thick and sticky as it bakes, creating a sweet-and-sour coating that perfectly complements the savory meat. If they run out the next time you go out to eat, never fear: This entree is also super easy to make at home. Our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe tastes almost exactly like the restaurant's. As a bonus, it's much more friendly on your budget, too. So what are you waiting for? Let's dive in!

Gather the ingredients for this Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Our first step with any copycat recipe is to go straight to the source. Although few restaurants ever give their exact recipe, many will include the ingredients. Unfortunately, we had no such luck with Cracker Barrel, but we did find some clues to help us fill in the blanks. 

Previously, the restaurant's website stated that their special recipe contains tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, so we added those ingredients to the list. From their allergen guide, we found out the meatloaf contains eggs, soy, wheat, and gluten, prompting us to add eggs and breadcrumbs.

From there, the only items left to add were ground beef, ketchup, salt, and pepper. Some online copycat recipes also add cheddar cheese to the list of ingredients. While that sounds absolutely delicious, it's not technically accurate. Remember that the allergen statement? It didn't contain dairy, which is also how we knew to use dairy-free breadcrumbs instead of using leftover buttermilk biscuits.

You'll find the full list of ingredients, including step-by-step directions, at the end of this article.

What type of meat do you use for a Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe?

These days, we have so many choices for buying ground beef at the grocery store. Sometimes, pre-packed ground beef comes labeled as ground chuck, ground round, or ground sirloin. Other times, it lists a lean meat to fat ratio, like 80/20 or 90/10. Which one should you choose when making meatloaf?

In our research, we've found that the most flavorful meatloaf is made with ground beef that contains at least 20 percent fat content. That will either be the beef labeled as 80/20 or the packaged ground chuck. If you skimp on the fat, using a ground sirloin with only 10 percent fat, your meatloaf will turn out dry instead of juicy and moist.

When it comes to grain-finished or grass-fed beef, that choice is up to you. The only thing we know for sure about Cracker Barrel's beef is that it's sourced domestically and they give preference to suppliers that meet or exceed the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's animal welfare standards. We chose organic grass-fed beef when making our test batch, and it tasted pretty fantastic.

Choosing the right type of breadcrumbs for your Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Ever wonder why meatloaf and meatball recipes always contain breadcrumbs and eggs? These ingredients work together to create a binder that holds the meat and vegetables together in suspension. Without them, the meatloaf would become crumbly as it cooked, and it would fall apart as soon as you took it out of the pan. There are a variety of different types of breadcrumbs that work well as a binder (including sandwich bread), but we chose Ritz crackers for our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe.

When we were researching this recipe, we found several copycat recipes that called for using biscuits. We knew that wasn't the right choice, though, because Cracker Barrel's biscuits contain milk, an ingredient that's not on the allergen guide for their meatloaf. Ritz crackers taste buttery and rich, but they're dairy-free, so they were our natural choice. You could certainly swap-in a different type of cracker, use regular breadcrumbs, or crush up some leftover croutons if you prefer. But, for the most authentic flavor, we recommend using a butter-flavored cracker like Ritz.

Green bell pepper is the secret ingredient in our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Green bell peppers are crisp and crunchy, and they have an aromatic, slightly bitter flavor. Some people (like celebrity chef Aaron Sanchez) despise green peppers. If you're also a green pepper hater, feel free to leave the bell pepper out of this recipe. That said, it is the secret ingredient that gives Cracker Barrel meatloaf its characteristic flavor.

It's important to note that green pepper is stronger than red or yellow bell peppers because they're actually unripe. You definitely don't want to use too much of it, or its flavor can overpower the other flavors in the meatloaf. The peppers also won't soften and cook through if they're chopped into too large pieces, so taking care with your knife work is key in this step, too. We found that one cup of finely diced bell pepper — one small bell pepper, or half a large bell pepper — was just about perfect.

Mix the ingredients together to start your Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Now that we've examined all the ingredients for our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe, it's time to get cooking. The process is extremely simple and straightforward, so you can easily make this recipe for a weeknight meal. We start by placing almost all the ingredients in a large bowl — the ground beef, onion, pepper, eggs, kosher salt, black pepper, drained diced tomatoes, and crushed crackers. Basically, everything except the ketchup.

You can use a large wooden spoon or the paddle attachment of a stand mixer to mix everything together, but we actually prefer using our hands. It gets a little messy, but it's the best way to know when the ingredients are properly mixed. You want to work the meat mixture enough so it won't become crumbly as it cooks, but not so much that it becomes dense and tough. When the mixture is well combined, wash your hands and get ready to form the loaf.

Why we're not using a loaf pan for our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Most meatloaf recipes call for a loaf pan for baking the mixture. If you're unsure about our free-formed loaf method, feel free to press the meatloaf mixture into a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan. The recipe will still taste great, but you'll be missing something that gives Cracker Barrel meatloaf its amazing texture: crispy edges.

When meatloaf cooks in a loaf pan, it rests in the moisture that comes out when the meat is exposed to heat. That creates steam and prevents all the edges from browning, so the top is the only area that's exposed to the dry heat. When you form the beef mixture into a large loaf on an aluminum foil or parchment paper-lined baking sheet, the liquid can drain onto the sheet and all the edges are exposed to dry heat. And don't worry about the meatloaf falling apart without a pan's structural support. If you packed the mixture together tightly enough as you form the loaf, it will hold together just fine as it bakes.

Form the loaf and bake your Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

Whether you're using a loaf pan or using our free-formed loaf method, you'll want to start the baking process by preheating the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooks Illustrated advises to always start with a preheated oven. Placing the meatloaf in the oven before it's fully preheated can cause it to burn on the top before it cooks through to the center.

When you're ready, line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Grab your meatloaf mixture and form a tight ball with your hands. Really pack it in as tightly as you can to prevent air pockets that can make the meatloaf crumbly. When you have formed a large ball, place it on the center of the prepared baking sheet. Press the top down and pinch in the sides, forming a large loaf. Pat down the top and sides until you create a uniform shape. When you're happy with the results, pop it in the oven and bake it for 30 minutes.

Add a layer of ketchup to finish up this Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe

After 30 minutes, it's time to add the sweet and sour glaze. Some people fancy up the ketchup topping by adding brown sugar and mustard. You can certainly do that, but our plain-old ketchup meatloaf tasted the closest to Cracker Barrel's version, so we're keeping it simple. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and spread the ketchup over the top and sides using a pastry brush. Make sure the entire top is covered before placing the meatloaf back into the oven.

Bake the meatloaf for another 30 minutes, until the center reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit. We find that using an instant-read meat thermometer is the easiest way to know for sure when the meatloaf is finished cooking. If you undercook it, it will be pink and unappetizing in the middle. Overcook it, on the other hand, and it will taste dry and can crumble as you slice it.

When it's finished cooking, resist the urge to slice into it and let it rest for at least 10 minutes. This allows the juices to redistribute within the meatloaf instead of spilling out onto the cutting board.

How close did we get to the original Cracker Barrel meatloaf?

This is one of those copycat recipes that we absolutely nailed! We were pretty amazed at how simple the recipe is. It doesn't have any spices other than salt and pepper, and it contains fewer than ten ingredients. We expected it to taste a little on the bland side, but it was full of flavor from the onions and green bell peppers. The Ritz crackers added a slightly buttery flavor, and the plain ketchup topping was perfectly sweet and tangy.

The only thing we really missed out on by making Cracker Barrel meatloaf at home was the experience. And, the sides — we were definitely missing their creamy mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, and famous buttermilk biscuits as we enjoyed this meatloaf. But, we didn't have to worry about missing out on meatloaf because they ran out, and this recipe made plenty of leftovers. Meatloaf sandwiches for lunch, anyone?

Cracker Barrel copycat meatloaf that's perfect for dinner tonight
4.6 from 22 ratings
Cracker Barrel's meatloaf tastes like the real deal, and they bake it fresh in house every day. Our Cracker Barrel meatloaf copycat recipe tastes almost exactly like the restaurant's. As a bonus, it's much more friendly on your budget, too. So what are you waiting for? Let's dive in!
Prep Time
15
minutes
Cook Time
1
hour
Servings
8
servings
cracker barrel meatloaf copycat recipe steps
Ready in 1.25 hours
Ingredients
  • 2 lbs of 80/20 ground beef
  • 1 large yellow onion, finely diced
  • 1 cup green bell pepper, finely diced
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes, drained
  • ½ cup crushed Ritz crackers
  • ½ cup ketchup
Directions
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil and set aside.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the ground beef, onion, pepper, eggs, kosher salt, black pepper, drained diced tomatoes, and crushed crackers. Using your hands or a large wooden spoon, mix the ingredients until they're well combined but not overmixed.
  3. Pick up the beef mixture with your hands and form it into a large, tight ball. Transfer the beef ball to the prepared baking sheet. Press down on the top and pinch in the sides to form it into a large loaf. Pat down the top and sides until it's a uniform shape.
  4. Bake the meatloaf for 30 minutes. Remove the meatloaf from the oven and spread the ketchup over the top and sides using a pastry brush. Bake for an additional 30 minutes, until the center reaches 165 degrees Fahrenheit.
  5. Let the meatloaf stand for 10 minutes before slicing.
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