When my kids were little, making Sloppy Joes was a win-win situation. They loved eating them, and I loved sneaking bites off their plates. Eating a full portion of the filling, however, was off the table, since it was one‑dimensional and cloyingly sweet.
That said, those few bites were such a guilty pleasure that I’ve often wondered if I could give the sandwich an overhaul so that it could satisfy adults and kids alike. After all, the filling couldn’t be any easier to make: Just sauté some chopped onion (and sometimes celery, carrot, and bell pepper) in a skillet before adding ground beef to brown, and then finish with a ketchup-based sauce. And who knows? Maybe techniques that we normally apply to highbrow foods would come in handy here, too.
It’s no wonder that the sauce for Sloppy Joe filling is often candy‑sweet, since it contains anywhere from 1/2 cup to 1 cup of ketchup (and sometimes brown sugar, too). But the sweet sauce isn’t the only problem: The ground beef typically turns out pebbly and dry once cooked. Before working toward a recipe for a less saccharine sauce, I had a question about how to treat the beef: Should I skip the browning step, which I suspected caused the undesirable texture? To find out, I mixed up a rudimentary sauce in a skillet before adding a pound of 85 percent lean ground beef to simmer. Once the meat had lost its pink color, I loaded some of the filling onto a bun and dug in.
The meat in this batch, while not particularly moist, was at least relatively tender—and given the bold sauce, I didn’t miss any of the beefiness that I’d sacrificed by skipping browning. (What’s more, this easy recipe had just gotten even easier.) But I didn’t stop there: The test kitchen has found that mixing a solution of baking soda and water into ground beef raises the pH of the meat, making it more difficult for the proteins to bond excessively. Sure enough, just 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda tossed with 1 tablespoon of water made the beef juicier and more tender.
So tender, in fact, that the aromatics I had been experimenting with now seemed obtrusive. Finely chopped onion was a must (it’s one of the defining elements of a Sloppy Joe), but the celery, carrot, and bell pepper made the sandwiches taste too vegetal and added a distracting crunch. And yet, even after I’d eliminated all but the onion, the texture of the filling was still compromised, as the total cooking time was so short that the onion bits never had time to fully soften. The fix? Baking soda once again. Just 1/8 teaspoon altered the onion’s pH, causing it to rapidly break down so it nearly melted into the sauce.
Speaking of the sauce, I knew that ketchup’s primary contribution was intense sweetness, so I experimented with replacing it with a less-sugary tomato product—sauce, puree, crushed, or paste—that I lightly sweetened myself with honey, molasses, corn syrup, or brown sugar. But there’s a good reason ketchup is such a phenomenally popular condiment: It’s packed with umami, bright with acidity, and well seasoned with salt. There was simply no replacing it. The key was to use ketchup only as an accent and to anchor the sauce with tomato paste. Just 1/3 cup of ketchup (along with 2 teaspoons of brown sugar for its molasses‑y notes) was brought into line by 1/4 cup of savory tomato paste. Another umami heavy hitter, Worcestershire sauce, also kept the ketchup’s sweetness in check. Finally, to give the sauce more personality, I layered in red pepper flakes for heat, minced garlic for zing, red wine vinegar for extra tang, and paprika for earthy depth.
The beef was moist and tender, and the multidimensional sauce was downright irresistible. But just one thing was still bugging me: The filling was still a little too sloppy. Don’t get me wrong—I like the messy nature of this dish. But if everything tumbles out on the first bite, the sandwich is difficult to enjoy.
Up to this point, I had been breaking up the beef into random-size clumps with a wooden spoon as the sauce bubbled around it. I wondered if the filling would stay put on the bun better if I eliminated the larger pieces of beef. To find out, I used a potato masher to break up the beef in the pan until it achieved a fine, uniform texture. I also stirred in a cornstarch slurry. In addition to acting as a thickener, the cornstarch would hold any separated fat in the sauce, creating a cohesive, silky texture. I marveled at how these small changes markedly improved the filling. Now what went on the bun, (mostly) stayed on the bun.
Now that I have a recipe for just-sloppy-enough Sloppy Joes with tender, moist meat and a lightly sweetened sauce, I’ll certainly be needing my own full portion.