11 Ways To Upgrade Your Sloppy Joes

While American cafeteria food often leaves much to be desired, everyone can agree that sloppy joe day was one of the most anticipated. These saucy sandwiches are made with seasoned ground beef piled atop a soft, pillowy roll. They're a delightfully messy and delicious way to fuel up for the day. 

The origins of the sloppy joe are hotly disputed, with some saying the sandwich was loosely based on the recipe for another classic beef sandwich, Iowa's loose meat. Others, meanwhile, claim it's descended from Cuban picadillo, a dish made by cooking ground beef with onion, bell pepper, garlic, tomatoes, raisins, green olives, capers, and spices. Wherever the recipe comes from, it has become a bona fide comfort food classic, beloved by everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Eli Manning.

But while for most, a sloppy joe is a simple creation that relies on little more than a can of Manwich and a roll, there are loads of ways to doctor up this simple sandwich to make it even tastier. Here are some phenomenal ways to make next-level sloppy joes at home.

1. Add some brown sugar or apple to lend sweetness to your sloppy joe

Part of what makes sloppy joes so delicious is the subtle sweetness of the sauce, and that's an element that's important to retain if you're making your own at home. In her old-fashioned sloppy joe recipe, Kristen Carli seasons a base of ketchup with a touch of mustard, a hint of Worcestershire sauce for some umami flair, and a tablespoon of brown sugar, which adds rich, treacly notes to the ensemble.

In Christina Musgrave's sloppy joe recipe, meanwhile, she combines lean ground turkey with a similarly ketchup-based sauce spiked with apple cider vinegar and diced Gala apple for even more sweetness and tang. Gala apples are one of the most common varieties to find in supermarkets. A cross between Kidd's Orange Red and Golden Delicious, Gala apples are known for their crowd-pleasing sweetness that's punchier the fresher they are. In addition to sweetness, the diced Gala apple also contributes some textural variety to the recipe.

2. Spice your sloppy joe up with chile flakes or canned chiles

As a kid food par excellence, sloppy joes tend to skew more sweet than spicy. But if your kids have the palate for it — or if you want to make your sloppy joes a bit more grown-up — a touch of chile can be a welcome addition to your sloppy joes.

Kristen Carli likes adding red chile flakes to her sloppy joe recipe. Classic red chile flakes offer a moderate amount of heat, but you could also go for powerful Carolina Reaper flakes for even more heat. Canned chiles can also add loads of flavor and texture to your sloppy joes. Mild Hatch chiles are perfect for people who don't want their sloppy joes too spicy, while chipotle chiles add some heat and some lovely smokiness. You could also opt for fresh chiles like fruity (and super spicy) habaneros or milder Anaheims.

If your household is divided when it comes to spice tolerance, why not offer chiles as a topping for sloppy joes? Pickled pepperoncini or jalapeño peppers can add some heat and a touch of zing to the sandwich.

3. Sneak extra veggies into your sloppy joes

Parents dealing with pickier eaters would do well to take advantage of the bright, deep flavors of sloppy joes to hide some of their kids' most loathsome dinnertime foes: veggies. Experts say that kids have a hard time with vegetables for a number of reasons. Veggies can be bitter or unfamiliar in flavor and texture, and perhaps more importantly, they lack the predictable consistency of many of the snack foods they love. But veggie aversion doesn't affect kids alone. As of 2013, only 8.9% of adults were meeting the CDC-recommended vegetable intake, and since consuming adequate vegetables is essential for ensuring you're getting all of the right vitamins and minerals, this is something that definitely deserves to be rectified.

Sloppy joe mix is just asking to be doctored up with hidden veggies, and the possibilities are endless. Sweeter veggies like carrots or bell peppers, both of which are rich in beta carotene, marry wonderfully with the sauce, while earthy, meaty mushrooms, rich in zinc, easily fade into the rich flavors of the beef. And any of these options will improve the nutritional benefits of sloppy joes. Beta carotene is a known antioxidant that can help reduce the risk of certain cancers and heart disease, while zinc is an essential mineral that helps promote immune response and thyroid function.

4. Throw in some liquid smoke

If you want more of a BBQ vibe in your sloppy joes, why not add some smokiness in the form of liquid smoke? Liquid smoke is made by burning wood or wood chips — often the same varieties used for smoking meat over a smoker. By trapping particles of smoke in condensers, a smoky liquid comes together. This liquid can be used to impart a smoky aroma in dishes from chili to sauce to soup, to, of course, sloppy joe filling. Some brands add other ingredients like molasses for sweetness or vinegar for tartness — or even food coloring to give it a darker hue — but the best brands are no more and no less than smoke and water.

If you don't have liquid smoke on hand, you can still infuse your sloppy joes with a smoky allure. Consider seasoning your sauce with smoked paprika or even canned chipotle chiles or chipotle flakes to lend it a bit of a kick.

5. Deglaze your sloppy joes with beer

From beef bourguignon to whiskey-infused BBQ sauce, alcohol has more than earned its place in our culinary repertoire. Depending on which alcohol you use, it can add a great variety of different flavors to dishes, and that's particularly true when it comes to categories with a lot of variety, like beer. Depending on your brew of choice, you may infuse your food with the fruity bitterness of an IPA or the rich cocoa notes of a stout. In the case of sloppy joes, you might opt for a simple lager-style beer, with its mild cereal aromas, or something darker and richer like a Belgian trippel.

That said, a word of warning: While most say that cooking causes all of the alcohol to burn off, this isn't quite true. It begins to evaporate at 173 degrees Fahrenheit, but according to Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, some alcohol will always remain. The higher the temperature and the longer you cook it, the less boozy the dish will be, and especially when it comes to beer, much of which is fairly low in alcohol, this won't be enough to cause intoxication. That said, it is worth noting if there will be children or people who cannot consume alcohol for health reasons digging into the dish.

6. Add salsa to the mix

Many sloppy joe sauces are fairly smooth, with the meat providing most of the texture, but some do also capitalize on the added toothsome quality of, for example, the aforementioned hidden veggies or aromatic garlic and onion. That said, you don't have to get chopping if you want a bit more bite in your sandwich.

Store-bought salsa is delicious on its own, but it's also a phenomenal shortcut for adding tomatoes, onions, chiles, and more to your sloppy joes. And since there are so many varieties of salsa to choose from, the sky truly is the limit. You can of course choose the heat level of your salsa, and you can also pick one that features extra ingredients, like earthy black beans, sweet peach, or even bits of corn for added texture. And if you're looking to reduce food waste, a fresh pico de gallo that's been sitting in the fridge for a few days can easily be given a new lease on life with this trick.

7. Use canned soup as a base for your sloppy joe sauce

Manwich is the most iconic sloppy joe sauce, with its time-tested blend of tomato, peppers, vinegar, spices, and more. But if your pantry is sadly Manwich-less, never fear: Canned tomato soup can be the ideal stand-in for sloppy joe sauce, adding a rich tomato flavor and a touch of creaminess to the mix. Campbell's recommends doctoring the soup slightly with brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and garlic powder to best achieve that familiar flavor.

But this sloppy joe trick doesn't need to stop at soup. Since Campbell's goes so well with a grilled cheese, this base could be the ideal vehicle for a bit of a mashup. A sloppy joe grilled cheese is a delicious play on the classic that's fun and easy to make at home. Cheddar cheese would add a bit of tang, while American cheese melts into gooey perfection.

8. Start your sloppy joe with lentils for a vegan alternative

The rise of plant-based diets can be attributed to a number of factors. For some, it's all down to the proven health benefits. A 2018 BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care report found that plant-based diets could help improve the symptoms of people with type 2 diabetes, and a 2021 review in Cardiovascular Research found that whole food plant-based diets could potentially help lower the risk of heart disease. Others choose a plant-based diet for ethical reasons, while still others are motivated by the environmental benefits, which are especially relevant when it comes to beef, which has the biggest carbon footprint of any protein source. Some, meanwhile, just prefer the flavors of plant-based protein sources.

Whatever the motivation, following a plant-based diet doesn't preclude you from enjoying sloppy joes in the slightest. Red lentils make a wonderful protein-rich base for homemade vegan sloppy joes, which can be seasoned and spiced as you see fit. The texture of the lentils is a good stand-in for ground beef, and the flavor, while not the same as meat, is savory and rich in its own way.

9. Use leaner chicken or turkey to make a sloppy jane

Using lentils isn't the only way that you can lighten up the traditional beef-based sloppy joe. A sloppy jane is a version of the classic sandwich that sees the ground beef swapped out for ground turkey. 

Ground turkey is typically leaner than ground beef, though this doesn't always need to be the case. When ground beef and ground turkey with similar fat contents are compared, turkey is slightly lower in essential vitamins and minerals. That said, turkey is far more sustainable than beef and boasts a milder, lighter flavor that can play well with a more delicate sauce.

Turkey isn't the only poultry that can provide a serious upgrade for your sloppy joes. Much like ground turkey, ground chicken is leaner and lighter in flavor than ground beef. You can even take advantage of leftover shredded chicken, such as rotisserie chicken, to make the perfect sloppy joe that comes together even more quickly.

10. Use baking soda to velvet the meat for your sloppy joes

If you want to make your sloppy joes even more tender, consider taking a page out of the recipe book of your favorite Chinese restaurant. Velveting is a technique whereby you add baking soda to raw meat. The alkaline powers of the baking soda tenderize the meat, lending it a much softer texture. You can also carry out a similar process with cornstarch, which has the added benefit of creating a slightly thicker sauce.

To velvet your sloppy joe filling, all you need to do is combine about 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda with 1 1/4 pounds of ground beef. Leave it to sit for 20 to 25 minutes before cooking it off as usual. If you like, you can combine the baking soda with a bit of water for extra tenderizing action. Either way, the resulting ground beef will be velvety soft and tender — the perfect base for your sloppy joe recipe.

11. Swap out the bun

The most typical vehicle for a sloppy joe is a hamburger bun, and especially when toasted, the classic affords the ideal balance of structural integrity and a slightly softer bite that ensures the sloppy sandwich truly lives up to its name. That said, hamburger buns are far from the only way you can serve this seasoned meat mix.

Slider buns are a great alternative if you want a slightly smaller sandwich, while a hoagie roll turns the sloppy joe into a far more consequential endeavor. A flour tortilla transforms the sloppy joe into a fun play on a burrito, while a homemade brioche bun classes the classic up just a tad. And that's just the beginning! Spread sloppy joe filling on pizza dough before baking it for a delicious mashup dish, or for a gluten-free play on the sloppy joe, use the mix as a topping for French fries or a filling for a baked potato. If you let your imagination be your guide, the variations are nearly unlimited.