Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking Sloppy Joes

Reminiscent of camp nights and weekday teatimes, a sloppy joe is an All-American nostalgic sandwich that's never lost its flavor or favor. Whether you're a fine dining foodie or a home cook who likes to concoct gourmet dishes using ingredients from far and wide, you can still be won over by the delicious simplicity of a sloppy joe. There's something uniquely satisfying and comforting about biting into a soft roll and a barely holding-on meaty, saucy filling. 

On the surface, there is little that is difficult about making sloppy joes, but depending on technique and ingredients, the experience of eating one can vary hugely from bland to brilliant. From getting the sauce just right to creating the correct balance of flavors, there's more to making this sandwich hit right than you might think. Check out these common mistakes everyone makes when cooking sloppy joes to steer your next sandwich-making session right.

Not making the sauce thick enough

One of the key steps that you must get right for a successful sloppy joe is considering the consistency of the sauce. While you don't want it to be so stodgy that you have trouble spooning it into a bun, you don't want it to drip off the bread, either. While you're not going to be eating one of these sloppy sandwiches at a fine dining eatery, that doesn't mean you want to lose the sauce out the sides or for the filling to slide out altogether and leave you with a wet mess of a bun. 

As your beef simmers away, the sauce it's in should thicken up. However, if it needs a little help, add a mixture of equal parts cornstarch and water. Start with a tablespoon of each, but exercise caution and wait before adding more. If you don't have cornstarch, then make a roux with flour by cooking it in a little oil to make a paste, then incorporating it into the sloppy joe sauce. You might also add peanut butter to the filling to thicken it up and enhance the taste, too. And if the mixture is too thick, add water or stock a small amount at a time until it's just right. 

Not adding baking soda to the meat

You've surely used baking soda when making gingerbread cookies or other sweet treats. You might have also used it to make a batter light or to crisp up roast potatoes. But have you ever used it to make a sloppy joe? If not, then you're missing out on a delicious and tender texture. This process is often known as velveting. Simply mix baking soda with your raw meat and leave for 20-25 minutes so that it can work its magic and tenderize the beef.

In terms of ratios, try adding a ½ teaspoon of baking soda to 1¼ pounds of ground beef. As well as adding it to meat, consider sprinkling baking soda onto onions before frying them, which will soften the vegetables and help them meld with the meat more harmoniously.  

For an even softer sloppy joe, combine the ½ teaspoon of baking soda with a tablespoon of water before mixing with the ground beef. This leads to an even more delectable taste and texture.

Not breaking the meat up properly

Once you've tenderized your beef and onions, you'll want to brown them and add sauce to make a sloppy joe. However, even if you get the taste of the meat and the thickness of the sauce just right, you will also want to be sure that all the pieces of ground beef are the same size. If you make the pieces of meat fairly small and consistent, you'll enhance the velvety texture all the more. While a sloppy joe is meant to be rustic and filling, you don't want to be chomping down on large lumps of ground beef. If it doesn't get broken down enough, frying can cause the ground meat to stick together all the more.

Breaking the beef up also means it's easier to eat your sloppy joe. Big pieces of meat are more likely to fall out of the sandwich and not be held in place by the sauce. If you want the filling to stay on a roll, then make sure the meat is broken down to roughly the same size. While you can use a spatula to do this, a potato masher can help keep things even.

Not cooking the beef for long enough

When ground beef reaches 160 degrees Fahrenheit, it's safe to consume, per the USDA. If you're an experienced home cook, then you'll possibly judge this by the look of the meat in the pan, too, as the beef sears and browns and unites with all the other ingredients. This is often the case when making sloppy joes, which typically consist of ground beef and a few extra ingredients in a sauce.

But to create a richer, deeper flavor, go beyond simply turning ground beef from pink to brown. When frying it, try to cook long enough to get a little crisped-up edge to the beef for extra texture and flavor. Consider giving it a bit more time when the sauce joins the party, as you may already know that giving any type of meaty stew a few extra minutes often enhances it. So, even though it doesn't take long to make, let the ingredients come together for a little bit longer.

Seasoning with salt at the wrong time

While there are an array of different spices and herbs you can add to ground beef, you simply must include salt. Taste a meat stew, casserole, or Bolognese sauce that doesn't have some salt, and you'll find that the taste isn't quite as, well, tasty. However, think about when you add it. 

Don't wait until your ground beef is seared and cooked before sprinkling on a few grains of salt. Instead, add it while the meat is still browning in the pan. Yes, you can flavor food after it's cooked — think of a sprinkle of salt on freshly cooked fries — but if you don't season ground beef while it's cooking, you likely won't get as deep a flavor as possible. 

Get the meat sizzling, then shake on the salt so that it can permeate the beef and bring out the succulent flavor. If you are frying onions before adding the meat, add a little salt to these first and then a little more when the beef is cooking. Don't add salt to raw ground beef as it draws out the juices and can dry out the meat. 

Not making homemade sauce

It's understandable if you want to make a fast weekday dinner with a can of Manwich sloppy joe sauce and ground beef. There's nothing wrong with a shortcut, but if you're using good ground meat, then make an effort to craft a homemade sauce, too. Canned sauces aren't necessarily unhealthy, but they often include ingredients, such as high fructose syrup, that you might not be down with. If you make a sauce from scratch, you can control what goes into the mix. 

It doesn't take a lot of time to make the sauce yourself, either, You can make sloppy joes in 30 minutes without using canned sauce. Combine 8 ounces of tomato sauce with  ½ cup of ketchup, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, and a tablespoon of stone ground mustard. For seasonings, add  ½ teaspoon of onion powder, ground pepper, garlic powder, and ¼ teaspoon kosher salt. Pour this on your nearly-cooked pound of ground beef and aromatics that are already sizzling away in the pan. Continue to cook for another 5 minutes before serving.

Letting one flavor overwhelm the others

The savory taste of beef and the sweetness of the sauce should shine in a sloppy joe. Whatever ingredients you add to the mix, one of the easiest mistakes everyone makes when cooking sloppy joes is to allow one flavor to outshine the rest. If this is an issue, tweak the amount of ketchup and, therefore, the sweetness you add, or choose a particular mustard depending on the piquancy you prefer. Or perhaps a seasoning like paprika will help balance these other ingredients.

Offset sweet elements in your sloppy joe with sour ones such as Worcestershire sauce or red wine vinegar. For an extra kick, elevate the heat with red pepper flakes. And, of course, taking care to balance flavors doesn't mean you can't be creative. Add a flavorful twist to Asian-style sloppy joes with hoisin sauce, soy sauce, or rice wine vinegar. Add earthy nuttiness with sesame oil and a bite of fresh garlic. You might even use ground cinnamon and chili powder for a warm, spicy mix. 

Adding too many aromatics

Less is often more with many recipes, and perhaps never more so than when making a sloppy joe. There aren't any super strict rules when it comes to adding aromatics and seasonings. If, for instance, you want to throw in more vegetables than the traditional onion and bell pepper, that's up to you. It'll certainly make the ground beef go further.

However, if you want a rich beefy taste and almost silky texture, then don't make the mistake of going over the top with the aromatics. First, finely chop the onion so that it almost disappears into the ground beef when it's cooked. You may not want to be crunching down on anything as you bite into that sublimely sloppy sandwich. You might even want to forgo the bell pepper to make the sauce super smooth. If you're worried about flavor, you can always add onion powder and garlic powder to the sauce instead.

Not draining the grease

Since a sloppy joe is hardly haute cuisine, you might think that there's no need to drain off excess grease while cooking. You might even think that it adds to the flavor. However, you could be making a mistake. First, you want to use meat that's around 90% lean. If you haven't got lean meat, then you'll have to remove some of that fat when the beef is cooked, lest your sandwich is swimming in grease that also unpleasantly soaks into the bun. 

Since you may be adding quite a few seasonings to sloppy joes, you don't want too much fat in the way of tasting these flavorful ingredients either. The easiest way to remove grease from a hot pan is with a spoon. Angle the skillet slightly so that the oil runs down to one edge to drain the meat, and carefully spoon out the grease. 

Not considering alternatives to ground beef

It's not that it's a mistake to make sloppy joes using good quality lean ground beef. However, it's a good idea to consider using other ingredients. Taking a classic recipe and adapting it can widen your recipe repertoire while accommodating different food preferences and dietary requirements of others. For meat-free days or vegetarian diners, try vegan sloppy joes made with red lentils, onion, red bell pepper, and garlic. For the sauce, look for a vegan Worcestershire, too. A thick slice of red onion on a toasted hamburger bun finishes this hot sandwich off perfectly.

For a lighter meat taste with fruity notes, what about making tangy turkey and apple sloppy joes? The fruit not only brings sweetness but also a tart acidity and a bit of texture. First, you'll want to sautée ground turkey for 10 minutes so it's browned and cooked through. Then, add the apple to the sauce ingredients along with apple cider vinegar. After loading up the buns, serve this take on sloppy joes with sweet potato fries and a side of crunchy, creamy coleslaw. And don't forget about sloppy ottos, which can be made with either ground pork or beef with sauerkraut added to the mix and a bit of sour cream on top.

Never adding toppings

Sometimes, the most delicious retro dishes are the simplest ones, like sloppy joes. But why not enhance them? There is a whole world of extra flavor that you can add to these classic sandwiches that just cannot be ignored. 

Because the sauce and beef mixture can get sweet, try a topping that lends heat and smoky flavor to the sandwich, like roasted Hatch green chilis. What about garnishing with lime or sweet pickles, too? Meanwhile, a slaw or even a sprinkle of shredded cabbage gives sloppy joes a crunchy contrast.

Then, of course, there's cheese. Is there anything that doesn't taste good with melted cheese? To make tasty grilled cheese sloppy joes, bake frozen garlic Texas toast and then add to a skillet with melted butter. Place two slices of cheese on top of each piece of toast, add a spoonful of sloppy joe filling, and top with another slice of garlic bread. Cover the pan and cook the cheesy sloppy joe sandwiches for a few minutes on either side. Or cook them as open sandwiches in the oven with garlic bread, the meaty mixture, and shredded cheese on top.

Not toasting the bread

There are plenty of sloppy joe recipes that don't direct you to toast the bread. However, that doesn't mean you can't take on a bit of initiative and pop the buns under the broiler or in a toaster. While some may vow that the texture of a soft roll and ground beef in a velvety sauce is the best, adding a little crunchiness is satisfying to many other diners.

Toasting serves a practical purpose as well. Consider the fact that sloppy joes are, well, sloppy and can quickly turn into a soggy mess. By toasting the bread, you create a crispy barrier that allows you to chow down while helping contain the filling. 

To get a lovely taste and golden hue, butter buns before you toast them. Only do this if you're popping them under a broiler or using a toaster oven, and remember to butter only the cut sides so the roll stays soft. If you love the crispy difference, then opt for an open sandwich by simply spooning the sloppy joe meaty sauce over thick slices of toasted bread.  For a crunchy sloppy joe toast, add the mixture to split baguettes that have been toasted on one side. Add fresh mozzarella on top of the meat and broil to further toast the cheesy topping.

Only ever creating a sandwich

Sloppy joes have been a tradition for so long that you may consider only ever eating one in sandwich form. However, there are many other ways you can enjoy sloppy joe filling than on a bun. Since the mixture is pretty much a ground beef stew, why not turn it into a sloppy joe casserole? You don't have to change up the ingredients much, either. Make the sauce on the stovetop and stir in cooked pasta. Pour into a casserole dish, top with shredded cheese and hamburger buns, and bake in the oven.  You can always add more veggies if you like, leave out the pasta, and add a different topping, such as cheesy tater tots. 

Sloppy joe meat is also a delicious topping to cheesy fries, especially waffle ones that can grip the sauce all the better. Or you can create sloppy joe nachos. Add the filling to crescent roll dough and bake in the oven for a meaty pastry. You've heard of a chili dog, right? What about a sloppy joe dog? You can also add a spoonful to a baked potato. And Bolognese pizza is so spectacular that there's no reason that a sloppy joe addition there couldn't work, too.