“Dude. Seriously? Don’t even try it. Just buy the can.”

My sister was less than enthusiastic when I told her I was working on a recipe for homemade Sloppy Joes. She’d tried a few copycat recipes for the canned mix. And really, really hated them.

So, I looked up the ones she’d tried, jotted down some notes and decided on a few things. Namely, I didn’t want green or red peppers in my sloppy joes. It’s a texture thing. And I didn’t want to replace the canned mix with ketchup. I know that not all ketchups are created equally, but the one in my fridge contains high fructose corn syrup and other amazing feats of science. So does my favorite canned sloppy joe mix. Why trade one for the other? For me, the point of making sloppy joes from scratch was to avoid any man-made nutritional grenades.

(Butter and brown sugar don’t count, because they are surely of The Lord. Testify!)

Now, replacing ketchup is tough, because when you think of the taste of ketchup, your first reaction is that it’s sweet and tomatoey. No problem, right? But actually, different ketchups can have very unique flavor profiles. For example, according to Malcolm Gladwell’s brilliant piece, “The Kitchen Conundrum,” Heinz ketchup delivers all five fundamental tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. If you’re replacing Heinz ketchup in a recipe, tomato sauce and sugar won’t cut it. You’ve got to replace all five tastes.

This led to some serious tinkering.

First, I sautéed some onion with a little salt until the bits were nice and soft. Then I added garlic and chili powder to the pan, cooked them with the onion for a few seconds, and added the beef. I chose ground sirloin because of the low fat content, which meant I wouldn’t have to drain the meat. Better nutrition through laziness.

Then the tinkering began.

I originally added most of the flavorings directly to the pan, so that I could taste and adjust, but it would be way more efficient to combine them in a bowl while your meat is cooking – or even sooner. Maybe give them time to meld and mellow in the fridge. Anyway, this is the combination that worked for me: tomato sauce, water, dark brown sugar, red wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce (umami!), yellow mustard and crushed red pepper flakes. Add this mixture to the meat, stir in a few spoonfuls of tomato paste, and you’ve got it. The sloppy joe mix will smell (and taste) pretty tangy at first, but the flavors mellow with time. I tested one freshly cooked sloppy joe this afternoon and ate another for dinner, and the older, wiser one was much better.

I also recommend buttering and toasting your hamburger buns for these sandwiches. The last time Jeff and I were at Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint, we scored some whole hog sandwiches on buttered, toasted buns, and we agreed that those were the best pork barbecue sandwiches we’d ever had. In our lives. And we are not rookies. So, what I’ve learned is that buttery, toasted buns are awesome. They stand up to moist, juicy sandwich fillings without falling apart, and those crisp edges add a nice crunch. Also, there’s the butter. You wouldn’t think you could possibly notice a little butter in the midst of all these flavors, but it’s like the arrival of Santa Claus at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Even through the floats and the clowns and the confetti, you can’t miss it.

Will my sister like these sloppy joes? I’d have better luck guessing how many angels can limbo on the head of a pin. But she did inspire me to come up with this recipe. I probably owe her a can of Manwich.

Sloppy Joes

From Rebecca Crump (EzraPoundCake.com)

For the best flavor, make the tomato sauce ahead of time, and store it in the refrigerator for at least an hour so the flavors can meld together.

Serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1/2 medium onion, chopped finely
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons chili powder
  • 1 pound ground sirloin
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    Tomato Sauce:

  • 1 15-ounce can tomato sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 4 hamburger buns
  • Butter, for spreading on hamburger buns
  1. In a large skillet, heat the oil to medium-high. Add onion and salt, lower heat to medium, and sauté until the onion is soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and chili powder, and cook for about 30 seconds.
  3. Add beef, and cook for about 3 minutes, breaking it up as you stir. (The meat will still be a little pink when you move on to step 5. Don’t worry. It will keep cooking as it simmers in the tomato sauce.)
  4. In the meantime, grab a medium bowl, and combine the tomato sauce, water, brown sugar, red wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce, yellow mustard and red pepper flakes.
  5. Add the tomato mixture to the beef. Stir in the tomato paste. Simmer for at least 10 minutes, or until the mixture reaches your desired consistency. (If it seems a little “wet,” just keep simmering.)
  6. To Prep the Hamburger Buns: Warm a skillet over medium heat. Butter the insides of the buns, and place them butter-side down in the skillet. Toast.
  7. Taste the Sloppy Joe mixture, and adjust the seasonings. Sandwich the mixture in the hamburger buns, and serve.