Reload was recorded at The Plant, a wood-panelled studio in Sausalito, California. The ringmaster for the session was Bob Rock, who produced Metallica's previous two albums. The album artwork displays a photo by Andres Serrano, titled "Piss and Blood XXVI". The original idea was to release Load and Reload as a double album. However, with problems recording so many songs at one time, the band decided that half of the songs were to be released and the band would continue to work on the remaining songs and release them the following year. Speaking about the recording sessions in an interview for Guitar World, guitarist Kirk Hammett stated that "We were gonna do them both as a double album, but we didn't want to spend that long in the studio. Also, if we did a double album, it would have been a lot more material for people to digest, and some of it might have gotten lost in the shuffle." It was the final Metallica studio album to feature bassist Jason Newsted, though it was not his last release with the band.
This was the second album to feature most songs in E♭ tuning, with "Bad Seed" being played in D♭ tuning and "Devil's Dance" in D tuning. D tuning was earlier used for "The Thing That Should Not Be" on Master of Puppets, "Sad but True" on Metallica and later used for "Sabbra Cadabra", and "Whiskey in the Jar" from Garage Inc. Six songs from the album have been played live, including "Fuel", "The Memory Remains", "Devil's Dance", "The Unforgiven II", "Carpe Diem Baby", and "Low Man's Lyric". There were occasional jam sessions of songs such as "Better Than You", "Bad Seed", and "Fixxxer". "Carpe Diem Baby" premiered at Metallica's 30th anniversary concert in 2011. Songs that have not been played live in their entirety are "Better than You", "Slither", "Bad Seed", "Where the Wild Things Are", "Prince Charming", "Attitude", and "Fixxxer".