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How to Enhance Canned Sloppy Joe Sauce

On a bustling weeknight, when time is precious and hunger strikes with a vengeance, reaching for a familiar can of Sloppy Joe sauce seems like a godsend. After all, it promises a quick and easy solution to satisfy cravings and fill bellies. Yet, as you stand in your kitchen, spoon in hand, staring at the can in your grasp, you have a thought: What if there were a way to elevate this humble staple, to transform it from a mediocre meal into a delightful dinner?

Well, you’re on the right track. And the good news is that the solution doesn’t require you to throw out the canned Sloppy Joe sauce with the bathwater. Indeed, the key to unlocking a world of savory satisfaction lies in simple additions that require little more effort than a quick stir or sprinkle. Imagine the fiery embrace of gochujang, the earthy sweetness of maple syrup, or the depth of umami offered by Worcestershire sauce. These are just a few tastes of the possibilities that await you. Keep reading to discover all of the ingredients that will take your Sloppy Joe sauce to the next level.

Salsa brings a spicy twist

fresh salsa surrounded by vegetables

Enhancing canned Sloppy Joe sauce is as simple as stirring in a couple of tablespoons of your favorite salsa. Salsa seamlessly complements Sloppy Joe sauce for a couple of reasons. First, both are tomato-based sauces, ensuring a harmonious blend of flavors. At the same time, salsa’s spicy and acidic undertones counterbalance the sweetness of the high fructose corn syrup and sugar found in canned Sloppy Joe sauce. The result is a more balanced flavor profile.

But the benefits of adding salsa to Sloppy Joe sauce don’t end there. The type of salsa you choose will significantly influence the overall flavor of your dish, as salsa can give Sloppy Joes a spicy twist. For example, if you’re a fan of smoky flavors, chipotle salsa provides the perfect amount of depth and complexity. Similarly, for those who enjoy a bit of heat, bold varieties like ghost pepper salsa add an unexpected kick to the sandwich. On the other hand, if you’re looking to introduce a burst of lightness to this traditionally heavy sandwich, opting for a fresh salsa such as pico de gallo or salsa roja works wonders. 

Try gochujang for Korean-inspired Sloppy Joes

red pepper paste in bowl

Every cuisine has its go-to ingredients. Soy sauce anchors Chinese dishes, olive oil is a cornerstone of Italian cooking, and beans are a ubiquitous feature in Brazilian cuisine. In Korean culinary tradition, gochujang — a fermented chili pepper paste with spicy, sweet, and savory undertones — holds a similar status. While it might seem unconventional to incorporate this quintessentially Korean ingredient into Sloppy Joes, the marriage of these seemingly disparate flavors is a stroke of genius.

For starters, both gochujang and Sloppy Joe sauce boast a wealth of umami richness. Gochujang derives its umami depth from fermented soybeans and glutinous rice, while Sloppy Joe sauce gains its umami from tomato puree. This shared umami quality allows the flavors to intermingle, resulting in a more satisfying taste. Additionally, gochujang injects a fiery kick into canned Sloppy Joe sauce, elevating its overall spiciness and adding another layer of complexity. 

The umami and spicy nuances of gochujang help counterbalance the excessive sweetness of Sloppy Joe sauce, thereby creating a more nuanced flavor profile. However, when incorporating gochujang into Sloppy Joe sauce, moderation is key. Depending on your heat tolerance, a tablespoon or two can suffice to transform your Sloppy Joe experience. For that reason, it’s wise to start with a modest amount, then taste it, and adjust accordingly.

Experiment with Worcestershire sauce

Worcestershire sauce poured over spoon

Made with vinegar, molasses, spices, anchovy, and tamarind extract, Worcestershire sauce was born from a funky failure to become the perfect blend of umami, savory, sweet, and salty flavors. Its versatility extends far beyond marinades, soups, burgers, and eggs; it’s a staple in homemade Sloppy Joe sauce recipes as well. It’s only natural, then, to harness its flavor prowess to enhance store-bought sauce.

Incorporating this multifaceted ingredient into your canned Sloppy Joe sauce introduces a burst of umami, thanks to the anchovies. Simultaneously, the tangy essence of vinegar artfully balances out the sweetness from the high fructose corn syrup and sugar found in store-bought Sloppy Joe sauces. Moreover, this vinegar element cuts through the richness of the meat and tomato, ensuring your Sloppy Joes remain delightfully lively. 

The only caveat is to avoid adding too much. While more Worcestershire sauce is almost always better for flavor, too much could make your sandwiches soggy. Start with a teaspoon, see how thin the sauce is, and then add more until you find a good balance of flavor and consistency.

Red pepper flakes bring the heat

red pepper flakes in bowl

Jiri Hera/Shutterstock

Sure, canned Sloppy Joe sauce contains a bit of chili pepper, but that’s hardly enough heat for spice enthusiasts out there. While you could drown your sandwich in hot sauce or just settle for a lackluster meal, consider experimenting with red pepper flakes as a flavorful addition to store-bought sauce.

What makes these tiny flakes so appealing is their versatility. For one, they allow you to adjust the spice level to your liking without making an overly messy meal. Plus, like other spicy add-ins, they help counterbalance the sauce’s sweetness, resulting in a more well-rounded flavor profile. Speaking of flavor, cayenne pepper is the predominant component of most red pepper flake blends. It has subtle fruity and earthy notes that add an intriguing twist not typically found in canned Sloppy Joe sauce. To maximize the depth of flavor and aroma offered by red pepper flakes, we recommend lightly toasting them in oil before incorporating them into the sauce. 

Miso provides the umami your Sloppy Joe sauce is missing

miso paste in white cup

Just like how gochujang imparts a uniquely Korean twist to conventional canned Sloppy Joe sauce, miso introduces a touch of Japanese essence into this quintessentially American ingredient. If you’re not familiar, miso is a paste made by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji, a beneficial mold commonly used in Japanese cooking. Since miso is fermented, it’s packed with umami notes, which enhances the natural umami of tomatoes, a key ingredient in canned Sloppy Joe sauce.

Beyond enriching the umami depth of your sauce, miso also brings a good amount of saltiness to the mix. It’s too salty to eat on its own, but when mixed with another sauce, it harmonizes to deliver a gratifying salty note. Moreover, it effectively balances out the sweetness of canned Sloppy Joe sauce. When choosing which miso to use, white miso (also known as shiro) is the way to go. It’s the mildest of the types of miso, with an accessible flavor profile and less intense saltiness. To avoid going overboard on the salt, start with ½ tablespoon of miso paste and add more if needed.

Liquid smoke enhances the meat’s flavor

bottles of sauce on shelf

colgin_liquid_smoke_/Instagram

Liquid smoke might sound like a paradox, but trust us, it’s the real deal. Essentially, it’s a light brown liquid crafted by gathering particles from the smoke of burning wood chips, and then condensing and filtering them. The outcome is an effortlessly usable sauce that imparts the aroma and flavor of smoke-cured food, sparing you the hours typically spent grilling or smoking meat.

Whether it’s elevating store-bought hot dogs with that just-off-the-grill flavor or giving homemade chili some extra oomph, the utility of liquid smoke knows no bounds. Given its versatility, canned Sloppy Joe sauce is a natural next step. Not only will liquid smoke add complexity to the sauce, but it’ll also enhance the sometimes lackluster taste of ground beef. A little goes a long way, so start with a few drops and gauge the flavor. 

As if that weren’t tempting enough, liquid smoke also leaves room for experimentation. With varieties like hickory or mesquite, you can customize your Sloppy Joe experience with just a few shakes from different bottles.

Balance sweet notes with apple cider vinegar

bottles of apple cider vinegar

Don’t get us wrong — we have a soft spot for sweet treats just like everyone else. But there’s a time and place for everything, and canned Sloppy Joe sauce is just a bit too cloying on its own when eating a massive sandwich. Instead of casting off this convenient mix-in entirely, consider giving it a culinary makeover. How, you may ask? Well, it’s as easy as incorporating a splash of apple cider vinegar to upgrade the savory Sloppy Joe flavors.

By adding apple cider vinegar, you introduce a tangy acidity to sugary Sloppy Joe sauce, effectively balancing its sweetness and enhancing its overall flavor profile. While other types of vinegar could achieve similar results, apple cider vinegar’s subtle sweetness harmonizes beautifully with canned Sloppy Joe sauce. Moreover, the combination caramelizes when heated, imparting an additional layer of sweetness without going overboard. 

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On top of that, the vinegar’s subtle apple flavor adds a delightful twist to the typically monotone taste of a Sloppy Joe. If you find yourself without apple cider vinegar at dinnertime, white wine or rice wine vinegar can serve as suitable alternatives. Both have a mild, slightly sweet flavor profile, making them adequate substitutes.

Smoked paprika enhances smoky notes

bowl filled with red powder

If your inner carnivore is craving the smoky allure of slow-cooked meat from a smoker, but time (or a smoker) is not on your side, fear not. Smoked paprika is here to save the day. Crafted from peppers slow-roasted over an oak fire, smoked paprika offers the same rich, smoky essence you desire without the need for lengthy cooking or specialized equipment.

Canned Sloppy Joe sauce, with its simple flavor profile, is an ideal candidate for a smoked paprika upgrade. Indeed, the unassuming ingredients serve as a perfect canvas for the transformative powers of smoked paprika. Not only does the smoked paprika enhance the sauce, but it also infuses the ground beef with a delicious grilled flavor, even if it’s cooked in a pan. 

Additionally, the bold red-orange color of the spice adds visual appeal to the sauce, making your sandwich masterpiece even more enticing at first glance. And for anyone who prefers a plant-based sandwich, smoked paprika will give lentil Sloppy Joes a bold, meaty flavor.

Cornstarch thickens the sauce

bowl filled with cornstarch

The Sloppy Joe has controversial origins, which is apropos for a sandwich meant to be delightfully messy … but when the sauce is too runny, it can ruin the experience. If the meat keeps sliding off your bun in all directions, blame it on an overly liquified sauce. Fortunately, there’s a simple fix to thicken canned Sloppy Joe sauce if it’s lacking the consistency you want.

A cornstarch and water slurry is the solution. Cornstarch, like other starches, functions as a spongey material, absorbing water and swelling to create a thicker, less watery sauce. To make the slurry, mix equal parts cornstarch and water. Start with a tablespoon of each, adjusting as needed. Incorporate the slurry into the simmering meat-and-sauce mixture. Bring it to a boil, then let it simmer until the starchy taste dissipates. Be sure to remove it from the heat promptly to prevent the starch from breaking down and the sauce from returning to its watery state. If you accidentally over-thicken the sauce, simply thin it out with a bit of water or stock until you reach the perfect consistency once again. 

Peanut butter is an unconventional thickener

bowl of peanut butter

While we often enjoy the messy delight of Sloppy Joes, there are times when we crave a less chaotic meal. For those occasions, it’s handy to explore different sauce-thickening techniques. Cornstarch, potato starch, and flour are all reliable options, but they lack excitement and aren’t always available.

So, whether you’re looking for a unique solution or simply haven’t had a chance to restock your supplies, consider using peanut butter to enhance your canned Sloppy Joe sauce. Surprisingly, this beloved breakfast staple also doubles as an effective thickening agent. Here’s how to do it: add a few tablespoons of peanut butter to the sauce and meat mixture, then let it simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. As the peanut butter melts and blends into the sauce, it naturally thickens. Remarkably, the strong peanut flavor fades away, leaving you with a wonderfully thick sauce that still tastes just like you’d expect it to (or maybe even a bit better).

Barbecue sauce provides fresh-off-the-grill flavor

bowl filled with barbecue sauce

Chili enhancer, salad topper, meatball mix-in — there are all kinds of unexpected ways to use barbecue sauce. However, one application you might not have considered is using a few dashes of barbecue sauce to elevate canned Sloppy Joe sauce. Similar to liquid smoke and smoked paprika, barbecue sauce introduces smoky undertones that wonderfully enhance the flavor of the ground beef.

But that’s just the start of what this classic cookout sauce adds. With its vinegar base, barbecue sauce delivers a distinctive tanginess that not only adds a kick but also helps balance out the sweetness commonly found in canned Sloppy Joe sauce. We should mention that thanks to its sugar and molasses, barbecue sauce is fairly sweet on its own. While incorporating another sugary sauce might seem counterintuitive, the smoky caramel notes from the molasses, combined with the diverse flavors of the other ingredients, ensure a perfect blend of flavors.

Try mustard for a bit of zing

mustard in varied forms

When you sink your teeth into a Sloppy Joe, you anticipate the familiar flavors: tomato-based, tangy, and sweet. While there’s nothing wrong with enjoying classic comfort foods, why not add a surprising twist to canned Sloppy Joe sauce to keep your dinner guests guessing? That’s where mustard comes into play. 

We’re big fans of mustard for a couple of reasons. First, its sharp, tangy, and slightly bitter taste adds a bold burst of flavor that wakes up the ground beef and sauce. Second, mustard offers versatility. You can adjust the amount of mustard used and pick the flavor profile that suits your taste buds. 

Stick with traditional yellow mustard for a mellow, creamy addition, or opt for brown mustard for a kick that features hints of cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. With a plethora of popular types of mustard available, one thing’s for sure — mustard is the secret weapon to turning canned Sloppy Joe sauce into a gourmet sensation.

Maple syrup gives nuance to the sweet notes

maple syrup beside maple leaf

You may have grown up accustomed to using maple syrup solely on pancakes. However, in today’s culinary landscape, there are countless unconventional ways to use maple syrup in the kitchen. Use it to sweeten your coffee or tea, glaze meats, or enhance the flavor of baked beans. The versatility of maple syrup in the kitchen knows no bounds, and we’re always eager to experiment with it. Enter maple syrup-infused Sloppy Joe sauce.

Now, we anticipate the skepticism: How could adding a super sweet syrup to a sauce that’s already made with sugar and high fructose corn syrup actually improve the flavor? Wouldn’t it just result in an overly sweet, tooth-aching mess? These are valid concerns, and we acknowledge that combining sweetness with more sweetness might seem counterintuitive. 

However, this combination works precisely because each liquid contributes a unique type of sweetness. The canned sauce often tastes of manufactured sugar, while maple syrup boasts a complex flavor profile ranging from toffee and caramel to vanilla and floral notes. As a result, maple syrup elevates the mundane industrial sweetness of canned Sloppy Joe sauce into a distinctive flavor experience. With that said, use maple syrup sparingly. Start with about ½ tablespoon to avoid overwhelming sweetness.

A pinch of cinnamon brings instant warmth

cinnamon powder and sticks

Here’s one of those out-in-the-open secrets everyone should know about: You can upgrade tomato sauce with cinnamon. This pantry staple adds just a touch of sweetness to tomato sauce by balancing out the acidity from the tomatoes and deepening the overall flavor. Although canned Sloppy Joe sauce is different from your favorite marinara, tomato puree is the main ingredient, so adding a touch of cinnamon isn’t too much of a stretch if upgrading the sauce is your objective.

When incorporating cinnamon into the mix, moderation is key. Just a pinch is enough to elevate the flavor profile without overwhelming it with excessive sweetness or wintery associations. Timing is crucial as well — add the cinnamon shortly after the sauce and meat begin to simmer, to allow the flavors to meld. Not only does cinnamon enhance the sauce, but it also infuses the ground beef with a smoky, jerk-like essence, leaving even the most discerning palates pleasantly surprised.

Onions enhance the sauce’s flavor and texture

chopped onions on cutting board

Amarita/Getty Images

Even if you’re a novice in the kitchen, you’re likely aware of the indispensable role onions play in cooking. Whether finely chopped, diced, or sliced, onions possess a remarkable ability to effortlessly elevate the flavor of any dish — and that’s in their raw form. As they simmer, they undergo a flavorful transformation, developing sweet and savory notes that enhance a diverse range of recipes. 

In the domain of canned Sloppy Joe sauce, onions once again demonstrate their culinary prowess. Their flavor seamlessly integrates with the tomato base, balancing out its acidity with a subtle hint of sweetness. Beyond mere flavor enhancement, diced onions add a pleasing texture to Sloppy Joes, imparting a satisfying crunch with every bite. 

For optimal flavor infusion, we recommend sautéing the onions before incorporating them into the sauce. When choosing onions, opt for the classic yellow variety. Their balanced sweetness and robust flavor profile harmonize perfectly with the simplicity of Sloppy Joes, ensuring a delicious outcome every time.

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