Smoky Sloppy Joes, A Grilled Tribute To Lunch Ladies Everywhere

Hitting the grill with the ground beef is the secret to over-the-top sloppy joes.

The best thing the cafeteria ladies ever made were the Sloppy Joes, and don't tell my Mom, but her version never lived up to the competition. Years later, thinking about it, I realized that their secret was that they must have laced it with BBQ sauce. So I put on my net cap and took the idea a few steps beyond. I give it the outdoor flavor by smoking the meat on the grill, mixing in bacon, cooking things in bacon fat, giving it a hit of smoky chipotle, and then smoky Kansas City style barbecue sauce, preferably one with a little liquid smoke in it. Try this flavorful homemade sloppy joes recipe and you'll never go back. Oh, and it ain't bad on spaghetti.

Where did Sloppy Joes come from? Some slob named Joe? Well minced meat, hash, and chopped meat sandwiches go back centuries, but the ground beef version probably had its roots in the "loose meat sandwich" created by Floyd Angell, the founder of Maid-Rite restaurants, in Muscatine, Iowa in 1926. Click here to see a list of Maid-Rites. Loose meat sandwiches, usually just ground beef and onions browned in a pan, are still popular around Iowa. A 1950 recipe for Sloppy Joes from Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Gazette on the includes celery, mushrooms, MSG, and tapioca for thickening. 

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Try this flavorful homemade sloppy joes recipe and you'll never go back.

Course. Lunch. Dinner. Entree. Sandwich.

Cuisine. American.

Makes. 5 sandwiches

Takes. about 2 hours


2 strips of bacon

1 large onion, peeled and chopped

1 medium carrot, peeled and chopped

1 sweet red bell pepper, seeded, stemmed, and chopped

2 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced

1/2 teaspoon ancho powder or American chili powder

1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder or hot sauce

1/4 teaspoon Morton's coarse kosher salt (read more about the science of salt here)

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1/2 cup smoky Kansas City style barbecue sauce

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

2 pounds lean ground beef or ground meat blend

5 rolls

About the meat. You can use all beef or a blend of beef and other meats or whatever meat you like. Get lean meat because you are not going to get a chance to render the fat in the pan like conventional recipes.

Optional add-ins. A lot of the outcome depends on your choice of barbecue sauce. Want to make it goopier? Add more sauce and cook it down more. Sweeter? A tablespoon of molasses or dark brown sugar or maple syrup. If it needs zing, add a splash of vinegar.

Finishing touches. Want to take this dish to the moon? Toast the buns and then top the meat with caramelized onions, pickle slices, pickled onions, or even Cowboy Candy for a real treat.


1) Cook. Make 1/2" thick hamburger patties from the meat and put them on a grill in indirect heat with lots of smoke or on put them on a smoker. Shoot for about 225°F and let them smoke for about 30 minutes. This should give the meat a nice smoky flavor but not cook them all the way through. We don't want to dry out the meat. Remove from the smoke.

2) In a frying pan over medium heat, cook the bacon until it gets to the texture you like. Remove it and drain on paper towels. When it is cool, chop it into bits.

3) Set aside some of the chopped onion to be used as a raw onion topping for the sandwiches. Add the rest to the pan with the carrot and bell pepper. When the onions are translucent add the garlic, ancho powder, chipotle powder, salt and black pepper, stir and cook for about 2 minutes. Add the barbecue sauce and Worcestershire and let it simmer and thicken a bit. Then add the bacon and the smoked meat and simmer about 15 minutes, just enough to cook the meat through and coat it with sauce.

4) Serve. When it is the right thickness, taste, adjust any of the ingredients to your preference, and make your sandwiches. Give them a few minutes to cool. Sloppy Joes are molten hot out of the pan! Wear a bib.

"(The) Sloppy Joe mixture for the sandwiches is made ahead of time. Have lots of potato chips, hardcooked eggs and marshmallows to toast over the coals of a bonfire."Naomi Deebel, Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 26, 1950

Meathead Goldwyn

Meathead is the founder and publisher of, and is also known as the site's Hedonism Evangelist and BBQ Whisperer. He is also the author of "Meathead, The Science of Great Barbecue and Grilling", a New York Times Best Seller and named one of the "100 Best Cookbooks of All Time" by Southern Living.




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