There's not much you can do to make sloppy joes less sloppy — sorry for destroying all your nice napkins, mom — but there's a whole lot you can do to make them more delicious.
If you're looking to upgrade your joe, start with the beef: Avoid the temptation of the cheap ground chuck (no, you can't cover up the mediocre flavor with spices). Look for something worthy of a hamburger, with about 20 percent fat.
"It's like cooking with wine," says chef Jonathan Schnipper, co-founder of Schnipper’s Quality Kitchen in New York City. Pick a good-quality wine, and your sauce will thank you; top-grade beef will give your sloppy joes a well-deserved kick in the pants.
"It's a relatively simple recipe," Schnipper says. "Don't skimp on the beef."
Throw that beef in a nonstick skillet over medium heat to render the fat, no oil or water required. The beef will go back on the stove later, so keep a careful eye on the stove and make sure not to brown it — just cook out the pink, otherwise the meat will "be tough and not come out right," Schnipper says. Move the beef to a colander to drain, reserving a little bit of the beef fat.
In the same pan, start building your sloppy joe base: Diced onions and red and green pepper, with a little bit of garlic — chopped finely, almost like a paste — thrown in for good measure.
Most recipes ask you to cook the onions until they're clear, but Schnipper goes further: "I like to break them down a bit," he says, cooking them over medium heat for about 10 minutes until they're soft. Not cooking your vegetables enough is his number two pet peeve (number one: browning the beef) — not doing so means the onions and peppers won’t soften enough to make a perfectly mushy sloppy joe filling.
Back in goes the beef — and everything else. Schnipper adds black and red pepper, paprika, diced tomatoes and tomato paste, and a healthy dash of Worcestershire sauce to give it that tang, but you can experiment with your own mix of spices. Stir it all together and wait.
And wait. And wait. "You know how in Italy, the old grandmas put their meat sauces on the lowest temperature they can and simmer all day?" Schnipper asks. Same goes for sloppy joes: The longer, the better. At the restaurant, he cooks them for two hours, but if he had the time, he’d let them go for four or even six.
Don’t even consider covering them. You need your meat sauce to thicken up considerably, which means you'll need to sweat off some of that excess liquid — leaving on the lid will result in a thin, soupy mixture.
At the end, add a cup of your favorite ketchup — try to pick one without too much added sugar to avoid your dinner veering too close to dessert — and continue to cook for another five or ten minutes.
And then wait again. "It will always taste better the next day," Schnipper says. Sure, you can eat it immediately, but it's ten times better if you make it in advance. To quickly chill your sloppy joe mixture, he recommends putting your pot in a large, metal mixing bowl, adding ice and water around the edges, and — once cooled — sticking the whole pot in the refrigerator. When you're ready to reheat, just stick it back on the stove.
What you do with your sloppy joes are endless: Glop it between two toasted buns and eat, accepting as fact the mess you're about to make. Or put it on french fries (add cheese curds for a stellar sloppy joe poutine). Or — and this is Schnipper's favorite application — mix it up with some homemade mac and cheese for a totally indulgent dinner.
Just don't forget the napkins.
Schnippers Sloppy Joe Recipe
- 4 lbs quality ground beef
- 4 cups finely diced Spanish onion
- 1 ½ cups diced red pepper
- 1 ½ cups diced green pepper
- 1 tbsp very finely chopped garlic
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- ½ tsp ground black pepper
- ¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
- 1 tbsp sweet paprika
- 2 cups canned diced tomatoes with their juices
- 2 tbsp Worcestershire
- ½ cup tomato paste
- 1 cup ketchup
- Add beef to a large nonstick pot like a dutch oven. Make sure to pick a pot that will comfortably hold all ingredients.
- Put heat to medium and add beef, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Break beef up so no large pieces remain. Cook until beef has no more pink but do NOT brown.
- Remove beef from pot and transfer to a colander to drain.
- Pour off all but a few tablespoons of the rendered beef fat. Add onions and diced peppers and cook over medium heat stirring often. Cook for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and cooked through.
- Add garlic and mix well. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add beef back to the pot and mix very well. Add all other ingredients except for the ketchup. Stir very well.
- Bring to a slow simmer but do not cover. Cook at a simmer for about 2 hours. The sloppy joe should seem rather thick by the end, similar to a meat sauce.
- Add ketchup and cook for 10 minutes more. If it seems too thin, increase heat slightly and cook until it is desired consistency. If too thick, add a drop of water or chicken broth. It needs to be thick enough to sit on a bun.
- Taste for salt and pepper.
NOTE: Sloppy Joe can be eaten right away. However, you will be greatly rewarded by making this one day ahead.