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Ground Beef Basics: How to Make Meatballs and Meatloaf

Created January 10, 2017
Ground beef is a versatile, inexpensive and popular meat, and is great for family dinners and quick and easy recipes.
Meatballs in Sauce

Ground beef is a staple in many family favorite dinner recipes, from meatballs and spaghetti, to meatloaf and hamburgers. A source of protein, zinc, iron and B vitamins, use this popular and inexpensive meat to stuff peppers, make meatball hoagies or bake a shepherd’s pie. 

Buying Ground Beef 

Select the one that is best for your recipe, taste buds and budget. Ratio types of ground beef range from 70% to 96% lean (30% to 4% fat). 

Regular ground beef (70% to 77% lean) 

  • Fat adds flavor, so use this type for juicy burgers, chili, tacos and spaghetti sauce. 
  • Regular ground beef is less expensive than ground chuck or sirloin. Ground chuck (78% to 84% lean) 
  • Ideal for meatloaf and meatballs, ground chuck holds its shape during cooking. The cooked meat should be moist, juicy and slightly firm. 

Ground round (85% to 89% lean), sirloin (90% to 92% lean) or lean (93% to 96%+ lean) 

  • Use for low-fat meals or recipes where drippings can’t be drained off, like casseroles or stuffed peppers. 
  • Low-fat meat tends to dry out and is better for sauces. 

Organic — With this most expensive ground beef option, USDA-certified organic cows are fed organic grass and raised on organic land. No antibiotics, synthetic hormones or synthetic pesticides are used in production. 

All natural — The cattle consume natural vegetation feed with no growth hormones, animal by-products, nitrates, preservatives or antibiotics. Grass fed—The cattle are grass fed and raised on pasture, but may not meet other organic standards. Some say this environmentally friendly option tastes better. 

Storing Ground Beef 

  • Store beef 1 to 2 days in the coldest section of the refrigerator. 
  • Freeze beef for 3 to 4 months. Label and date any meat that will not be used within 2 days. If the meat is not pre-packaged, wrap it tightly in cellophane or another moisture-proof material. 
  • Unseasoned meat can be shaped into patties or meatballs. Freeze just until firm, then immediately wrap and freeze completely. 
  • Thaw 24 hours (12 for patties) in the refrigerator. Cook as soon as possible after thawing. 

Mixing Ground Beef for Meatballs and Meat Loaf 

  • Season meat after cooking. Salting the meat before cooking draws out moisture and inhibits browning. 
  • Mix and shape the ground beef gently to keep it from becoming too firm after cooking. 
  • To get rid of excess fat, blot the cooked meat with paper towels. 

Choosing Ground Beef Recipes 

Meat Loaf

  • There’s a meatloaf recipe for every palette. Start with something traditional, like our recipe for Savory Meat Loaf
  • Feeling daring? Use hot salsa to make Spicy Salsa Meat Loaf
  • For a healthier option, try our recipe for Curried Meat Loaf, which is made with oats and low-fat yogurt. 


Caution: It’s risky to eat rare ground beef, so be sure the internal temperature reaches 160°F. Use a thermometer. Ingredients such as onions, celery and bell peppers give the meat a pinker color.

Using Leftovers 

  • Dishes like casseroles, lasagna and spaghetti sauce can be partially cooked and stored in the freezer for 2 to 3 weeks. Follow recipe do-ahead tips. 
  • Avoid heating and re-freezing meat dishes, as it raises the chances of spoiling.