By America’s Test Kitchen
It’s easy to understand why sloppy Joes are a beloved family favorite. The filling couldn’t be easier to make, and it goes from skillet to table in less than 30 minutes. But there’s also room for improvement - such as the often dry meat, too-sweet sauce and the filling that falls off the bun - that if perfected, would make it more appealing to kids and adults alike.
First, we tackled the meat. We skipped the traditional browning step and mixed 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1 tablespoon water into the beef before cooking. This raises the pH of the meat, resulting in beef that’s juicier and more tender. We also used this technique for the chopped onion in the filling. Just 1/8 teaspoon of baking soda altered the onion’s pH, causing it to rapidly break down so it nearly melted into the sauce.
Next, the sauce. Most sloppy Joe recipes call for lots of ketchup - 1/2 cup to 1 cup - which makes the sandwiches overly sweet. We dropped the ketchup to just 1/3 cup and balanced it out with generous amounts of two umami-rich ingredients: earthy tomato paste and Worcestershire sauce. This took the filling from cloying to savory-sweet.
The beef was moist and tender, and the multidimensional sauce was downright irresistible. Now we just needed to find a way to make the filling stay on the bun. Don’t get us wrong - we like the messy nature of this dish. But if everything tumbles out on the first bite, the sandwich is difficult to enjoy.
The key was using a potato masher to break up the beef in the pan into equal-size pieces and then stirring in a cornstarch slurry. In addition to acting as a thickener, the cornstarch held any separated fat in the sauce, creating a cohesive, silky texture.
We marveled at how these small changes markedly improved the filling. Now what went on the bun, (mostly) stayed on the bun. And good thing, since we didn’t want to lose any of the now-perfect filling and sauce.
Classic Sloppy Joes
2 tablespoons water, divided
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon baking soda, divided
1 pound 85% lean ground beef
1/2 teaspoon plus 1/8 teaspoon table salt, divided
2 teaspoons vegetable oil1/2 onion, chopped fine
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons packed brown sugar, plus extra for seasoning
2 teaspoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/3 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus extra for seasoning
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch4 hamburger buns
1. Combine 1 tablespoon water and 1/2 teaspoon baking soda in a small bowl. In a large bowl, toss beef with baking soda mixture and 1/2 teaspoon salt until thoroughly combined. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion and remaining 1/8 teaspoon baking soda and stir to coat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until onion is softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in sugar, paprika, pepper flakes and remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring constantly, until paprika is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, until paste is rust-colored, 3 to 4 minutes.
3. Add beef and cook, breaking up meat with a wooden spoon, until beef is no longer pink, about 5 minutes. Mash beef with a potato masher until fine-textured, about 1 minute. Add ketchup, vinegar and Worcestershire and stir to combine, scraping up any browned bits.
4. Combine cornstarch and the remaining 1 tablespoon water in small bowl, then pour the cornstarch mixture over the beef and stir to incorporate. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce thickens and coats the beef, about 1 minute. Season with salt, extra sugar, and extra vinegar to taste. Spoon the beef mixture onto buns and serve.
Recipe note: You may substitute 90% lean ground beef in this recipe, but the cooked mixture will be a bit less tender.
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