Whether cooking them up in a skillet, a slow cooker or making them from scratch, Sloppy Joes are a messy sandwich filling that can sometimes get a little too sloppy. Molasses, tomato paste and ketchup are all ingredients that serve as emulsifiers, helping the meat to bind together. Removing the lid, turning the heat to low and setting on a slow simmer can also help thicken the filling by reduction. If time is short and the gang is hungry, using a reliable thickener, such as flour or cornstarch, will do the trick nicely.
Thickening With Flour
Drain the meat after browning and sauteing any onions or other vegetables. Sprinkle in 2 tablespoons of flour for every 1 pound of meat, set the burner to low heat and stir the flour until all the meat and vegetables are coated. The bits of fat left in the pan after draining will cling to the flour and eliminate any floury taste.
Add the wet ingredients, such as water, Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce or ketchup, as well as any spices. Stir well to combine.
Turn the heat to low and allow the mixture to simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. The filling will begin to thicken within five to 10 minutes. Sloppy Joe filling thickened with flour can be frozen and re-heated again later, though some loss of thickening may occur.
Thickening With Cornstarch
Pour 1 tablespoon cold water into a jar that has a tight-fitting lid. Add to that 1 tablespoon cornstarch. If your sloppy Joe recipe calls for water, subtract the 1 tablespoon of water from what you add, and use the rest when cooking your filling. Use 1 tablespoon of cornstarch -- and 1 tablespoon of water if not already called for in the recipe -- for every 1 pound of meat.
Screw the lid tightly over the jar and shake it vigorously. Make sure there is no residual cornstarch sticking to the sides of the jar. If there is and shaking doesn’t take care of it, open the jar and stir it with a clean fork, scraping along the sides until you can no longer see the white powder. Cover the jar and shake it again until all the lumps are broken and mixture is smooth.
Add the cornstarch mixture after the filling has cooked, pouring out a slow, steady stream with one hand and stirring the sloppy Joe mixture with the other. Stir well to combine, and allow the filling to simmer for one minute, stirring to avoid sticking, until the mixture has thickened. Remove the pan from heat immediately after the mixture has thickened.
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- Flour is the preferred thickener when making sloppy Joes in a slow cooker. Add it with the other ingredients after browning the meat. Drain the fat from the browned meat before adding your thickener, because you won’t be able to separate the fat out afterwards once a thickener has been added.
- Cornstarch is a gluten-free thickener and begins to lose its thickening powers if you leave it on the heat. For best results, add to your dish at the end of cooking and avoid freezing it. Other gluten-free thickening options include tapioca starch, potato starch and arrowroot, the last of which handles freezing and heat better.
For more than 10 years, Carol Butler has run a small, off-grid furniture business with her husband and is a regular contributor to the Edible community of magazines. As staff writer for RichLife Advisors, she covers financial planning and other industry-related topics. She holds a B.F.A. in theater arts.
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