Why bother with burgers when you can have sloppy joe sliders?

Break free of the school cafeteria with this easy dinner

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published June 9, 2021 10:00AM (EDT)
Sloppy Joe's (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Sloppy Joe's (Mary Elizabeth Williams)

Unpopular opinion: Burgers are overrated. If you're making more than one, you're going to be working with differing tastes and imperatives, and that's just a recipe for disappointment. Making them for a crowd takes what feels like forever. And while eating a juicy, perfectly cooked hamburger can be a transcendent experience, how many of those experiences does one really get per summer?

Allow me, then, to make the case for sloppy joe's. When was the last time you had one? My goodness, they're delicious. They are also super easy to customize, quick to make and, as the name suggests, offer a welcome, almost wholesome casualness. If your ideas of sloppy joes are still tied to school cafeterias and Adam Sandler movies, it's time you grabbed a big pile of napkins and rethought tonight's dinner.

The origins of the sloppy are not entirely clear. Some say it's a Cuban invention, a riff on ropa vieja. Others say it was born in Sioux City, Iowa in the early 20th century, when an enterprising restaurant cook added tomato sauce to the classic — and unfortunately named — loose meat sandwich. Decades later, the sloppy joe gained a new level of popularity with the introduction of the Manwich, a canned sauce that streamlined the cooking process. It also tweaked the flavor of the dish, thanks to the generous addition of corn syrup.

I didn't grow up in a sloppy joe home. My grandmother was in charge of the meals, and while she admirably knocked out home cooked dinners seven days a week, she never considered "fun" an option in either the preparation or the consumption of food. My Aunt Peggy, on the other hand, had three sons, treated potato chips as a legitimate side dish and made Manwich-based sloppy joes regularly. Obviously, her house, with its freezer full of Otter Pops, was my favorite dining destination.

When my own kids were little, I read a Rachael Ray recipe for sloppy joes that immediately tugged at a deep, nostalgic place in my stomach. It was the mention of brown sugar that grabbed me. Maybe sloppies didn't always have a kinship to barbecue, but modern generations have been raised with the expectation of that Manwich kick of sweetness. I have been making mine that way for my family for years now, and I have never once declared a sloppy joe night and not been met with unanimous joy. It's basically meat sauce on a bun but with sugar; what's not to love?

In his gorgeous "New York Times Cooking No-Recipe Recipes" cookbook, Sam Sifton makes his with jalapeños and hot sauce; I make mine with a smoky pinch of chipotle powder and serve them on soft, buttery Parker House rolls. They're great cooked with a spoonful of tapenade or diced mushrooms, and if you have any bacon fat in the fridge, swirl in a dollop at the end for an unbelievable flavor boost. Use your imagination to personalize yours — but you definitely can't miss with a side of potato chips.

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Recipe: Sloppy Joe Sliders

Inspired by Rachael Ray and Sam Sifton

Serves 4, generously

Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 pound of the ground meat of your choice (Beef is the classic but I like pork.)
  • 1/2 yellow onion, chopped (You can substitute your favorite allium, or use a mix of different kinds.)
  • 1 carrot, grated
  • 1 stalk of celery, grated (You can buy all your vegetables precut, and even just get precut mirepoix mix and call it a day.)
  • Minced garlic if you feel like it
  • 1 15 ounce can of pureed tomatoes or 2 cups of your preferred tomato sauce 
  • 1 tablespoon of brown sugar (You can swap in whatever you've got on hand here — I've used honey and maple syrup in the past.)
  • Roughly one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce, to taste
  • Optional: 1 tablespoon of tomato paste
  • A few pinches of spices you like — chipotle powder, cumin, Chinese five spice powder, etc.
  • Sea salt to taste, and a big grind of black pepper

Directions:

  1. Heat a heavy bottomed pan over medium heat and add a few glugs of oil.
  2. Add your vegetables and cook a few minutes, until softened.
  3. Add your meat, breaking it up with a wooden spoon and cook until it's nicely browned, about five minutes.
  4. Add your tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, spices, tomato paste if using, and salt and pepper. Cook until everything is bubbling and thickened, a few minutes more. When you're getting close, give it a taste — it may need more salt, more sugar, or a splash of vinegar to balance out the flavors. 
  5. Serve on split Parker House rolls or hamburger buns, preferably with popsicles for dessert.

Make it vegan! You can easily swap in your favorite ground beef substitute here, but I think it's better to use drained, lightly smashed black beans.

More Quick & Dirty: 


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Easy Cooking Quick & Dirty Recipe Sloppy Joes