Sloppy Joes

5 from 4 votes

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The slightly sweet and tangy sauce, the soft buns, the glorious messiness of it—what’s not to love?

Woman holding a Sloppy Joe with onions.

Homemade Sloppy Joes

Every once in a while one or the other of my kids would mention having eaten a sloppy joe for lunch in school, and I was somewhat skeptical about the whole concept: “Really? Did you like it?” The reply? A resounding “YES!” 

Woman holding a Sloppy Joe on a bun with onions.

I’ve always thought that meat loaf didn’t get the respect it deserves, but I harbored a secret disdain for sloppy joes. So, I set about unraveling the mystery appeal of this cafeteria classic, and now I fully understand. The slightly sweet and tangy sauce, the soft buns, the glorious messiness of it—what’s not to love? And what took me so long to get on board?

Why is it Called a Sloppy Joe?

Sloppy Joes were (as the story goes) invented by a man named Joe who was a cook at a restaurant called Angell’s Cafe in Sioux City, Iowa. Loose meat sandwiches were already popular in the American Great Depression 30s, as a way to stretch a small amount of ground beef into a meal that could feed a family. Joe Floyd, however, apparently was the guy who decided to add tomato sauce to the beef, and the Sloppy Joe was born.

In other parts of the country this sandwich may go by different names. In Wisconsin it is called a Spanish Hamburger for some reason, in other places it is known as a tavern, or a hot tamale, and in some places simply a loose meat sandwich (though the sauce may not be the same).

What is In a Sloppy Joe?

Sloppy joes are usually cooked ground beef mixed with onions, ketchup or tomato sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and other seasonings. This recipe also includes some tomato paste for depth, a bit of brown sugar for sweetness, and mustard and a splash of vinegar for tanginess. The seasonings are a blend of chili powder and minced garlic. My family can’t get enough of these.

Sloppy Joe Toppings

I asked my husband what he topped a sloppy joe with when he was a kid, and he said, fairly mulishly, “Nothing.” My kids agree. I did spend a good amount of time thinking about this and discussing it with others, and there are a lot of intriguing options. One bacchanalian individual suggested kielbasa, which I cannot in good conscience recommend. 

How to Top a Sloppy Joe:

Pick and choose your favorite toppings!

  • Pickles
  • Onions: raw, sautéed, pickled, or fried
  • Sliced or grated cheese , such as Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, or Cheddar
  • Coleslaw, such as Spicy Cole Slaw
  • Potato chips
  • Fried egg
Sloppy Joe Recipe

Make Ahead Sloppy Joe Filling

The filling is, in fact, even better when you make it a day or two ahead and reheat it; heat the buns right before you serve. This is a good recipe to remember if you are going to have an onslaught of teenagers coming over. The filling also freezes well for up to 3 months, well sealed.

Homemade Sloppy Joes

Sloppy Joes: The slightly sweet and tangy sauce, the soft buns, the glorious messiness of it—what’s not to love?

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What to Serve with Sloppy Joes:

Sloppy Joes and a few sides are a great way to serve a crowd!

Sloppy Joe mix in a red pan with a handle.

Other Hot Sandwich Recipes:

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5 from 4 votes

Sloppy Joes

The slightly sweet and tangy sauce, the soft buns, the glorious messiness of it—what’s not to love?
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Servings: 8 People
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  • Nonstick cooking spray
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 ½ cups ketchup
  • 1 can (6 ounces) tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard or mustard powder
  • 1 tablespoon light or dark brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • ½ teaspoon kosher salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper , to taste
  • 1 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce (see Note)
  • 1 tablespoon cider vinegar
  • 8 hamburger buns , white or whole wheat (toasted, if desired)

For the Toppings (Optional):

  • Pickles
  • Onions , raw, sautéed, pickled, or fried
  • Sliced or grated cheese , such as Monterey Jack, Pepper Jack, or Cheddar
  • Coleslaw , such as Spicy Cole Slaw
  • Potato chips
  • Fried egg


  • Spray a large skillet with nonstick cooking spray and heat over medium-high heat. Add the beef, and cook, using a spoon to stir and break up the meat into crumbles, until it is browned, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain the beef in a colander.
  • Wipe out the skillet and return it to the burner. Add the olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until the onions are tender, 4 minutes. Add the ketchup, tomato paste, mustard, brown sugar, chili powder, salt, and pepper and stir until well combined. Add the water, Worcestershire sauce, and cider vinegar, then return the beef to the pan. Bring to a simmer, adjust the heat if necessary, and simmer uncovered until the liquid has reduced and thickened into a sauce, about 5 minutes.
  • Place an open bun on each plate, and using a large spoon, scoop some of the beef filling onto the bottom half of each bun. Add toppings, if desired, top with the other half of the bun, and dig in.


Most Worcestershire sauces contain anchovies, and therefore are not vegetarian, but you can find anchovy-free versions. Annie’s and The Wizard’s are two brands, and any Worcestershire labeled kosher will also be vegetarian. You could also substitute 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and 1 tablespoon soy sauce for the 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire.


Calories: 467kcal, Carbohydrates: 42g, Protein: 27g, Fat: 21g, Saturated Fat: 7g, Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g, Monounsaturated Fat: 9g, Trans Fat: 1g, Cholesterol: 77mg, Sodium: 1081mg, Potassium: 822mg, Fiber: 2g, Sugar: 18g, Vitamin A: 635IU, Vitamin C: 9mg, Calcium: 120mg, Iron: 5mg
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About Katie Workman

Katie Workman is a cook, a writer, a mother of two, an activist in hunger issues, and an enthusiastic advocate for family meals, which is the inspiration behind her two beloved cookbooks, Dinner Solved! and The Mom 100 Cookbook.

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