You can banish all childhood memories of overly sweet, suspiciously gloppy sloppy joes. These bourbon sloppy joes take on a sophisticated edge with the addition of smooth bourbon, tangy pickled onions, and creamy Cheddar. Yet they retain all the classic messiness that makes them so completely irresistible.Angie Zoobkoff

Two bourbon sloppy joes on sesame buns, topped with shredded Cheddar cheese, and pickled red onion.

Bourbon Sloppy Joes

5 / 6 votes
These bourbon sloppy joes are made with ground beef in a tomato and bourbon sauce and topped with tangy pickled red onions and Cheddar. A gussied-up riff on an American classic.
David Leite
Servings4 to 6 servings
Calories895 kcal
Prep Time45 minutes
Cook Time30 minutes
Total Time1 hour 15 minutes


For the pickled red onions

  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 cup rice vinegar or white wine vinegar
  • 1/4 teaspoon black peppercorns
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
  • 1 medium red onion, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch (6-mm) rings

For the sloppy joes

  • 1 1/2 pounds 85 to 90% lean ground beef
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/2 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1/4 cup bourbon, plus more to taste
  • One (14-oz) can tomato sauce
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 4 to 6 store-bought or homemade hamburger buns, lightly toasted
  • 1 1/2 to 2 cups shredded extra-sharp Cheddar cheese


Make the pickled red onions

  • Bring a small pot of water to a boil.
  • In a 1-quart (946-ml) jar, combine the sugar, salt, vinegar, peppercorns, coriander, and mustard seeds, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  • To a heatproof glass bowl, add the onions and pour enough boiling water over them to cover completely. Let the onions sit for 30 seconds and then drain the onions through a sieve.
  • Add the softened onions to the jar. Add cold water, if needed, so the liquid covers the top of the onions.
  • Seal the top of the jar and shake to distribute the flavorings. Let rest for at least 30 minutes and, preferably, a few hours. Use or stash in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

Make the sloppy joes

  • Add the beef to a medium bowl and sprinkle with the baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Using your hands or a wooden spoon, work the mixture until well combined.
  • Let the beef mixture rest on the counter for 20 minutes to let the baking soda works its tenderizing magic.
  • In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onions are softened but not browned, 4 to 6 minutes.
  • Add the garlic and paprika and cook for 1 minute more.
  • Add the beef to the skillet and cook, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until it’s mostly brown, 5 to 10 minutes.
  • Add 1/4 cup of the bourbon, the tomato sauce, tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, and mustard. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce has thickened, 15 to 25 minutes.
  • Taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly with salt, pepper, and up to a tablespoon or so more bourbon, if desired.
  • Spoon the sloppy joes onto the buns and top each with shredded Cheddar and pickled onions.
  • Serve hot. Don’t forget napkins aplenty.
Cork and Knife Cookbook

Adapted From

Cork and Knife

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Serving: 1 sloppy joeCalories: 895 kcalCarbohydrates: 49 gProtein: 47 gFat: 52 gSaturated Fat: 23 gMonounsaturated Fat: 21 gTrans Fat: 2 gCholesterol: 165 mgSodium: 3145 mgFiber: 4 gSugar: 23 g

Nutrition information is automatically calculated, so should only be used as an approximation.

Tried this recipe?Mention @leitesculinaria or tag #leitesculinaria!
Recipe © 2019 Matt | Emily Clifton. Photo © 2019 Emily Clifton. All rights reserved.

Recipe Testers’ Reviews

This is a more sophisticated take on a comfort food classic, sloppy joes, that was easy to put together. My husband immediately commented on the “rich” and “buttery” texture of the sauce. This sloppy joes recipe lacked the typical vinegar punch of a ketchup-based recipe but the pickled onions supplied some of that flavor. The Cheddar is a bit of extra richness that isn’t quite necessary but nice.

I had never used baking soda on ground meat before to tenderize it and it was an interesting technique that I think was effective. I’m not sure that the bourbon flavor was distinct, but I think I could sense it in the background and 1/4 cup with a splash at the end seemed like an appropriate amount. I served these on some nice buttery brioche-style buns and it was extremely delish!

I had to add 2 1/2 cups of water to cover the onions. The onions actually sat for about 3 hours before we used them and the flavor was great.

This recipe was super easy to put together and the results were outstanding. I’ve never been a sloppy joes fan—too sweet, too messy. But I’d eat these any day of the week.

Mixing the baking soda and salt with the ground beef and letting it sit for 20 minutes really did make the beef brown up nicely. Quickly, too.

It was true that the pickled red onions, which also couldn’t have been easier to prep, made a perfect foil for the saucy beef. I think the bourbon was the secret because it added a wonderful flavor. I might use a dash more smoked paprika next time because that’s always a great addition and I can see how it would work well here.

When I tasted the meat before serving, I found that the smoked paprika, which smelled so wonderful when I dropped it in, had gotten lost. As always, the test of a recipe is how long the dish lasts. This one disappeared right away.

This is indeed, one sloppy, sloppy joe. You could taste the bourbon’s presence, however, it wasn’t overpowering. I tasted the mixture after the sauce had reduced and decided to add an additional 1/2 tablespoon bourbon. All of the sauce’s ingredients meld together to give you a full-flavored, extremely rich sauce. The pickled onions, in addition to being delicious, are necessary to cut through that richness.

I had never heard of adding baking soda and salt to ground meat. My meat did brown beautifully. It was also very tender.

A tip for getting all of the sauce out of the can of tomato sauce. Pour the bourbon into the can and swirl to get all of the goodness.

One would think you couldn’t “gussy up” a sloppy joe and still be true to its weeknight, family meal roots—especially by using bourbon as its signature flourish—but this recipe delivers deepened flavor and a pleasurable mess! We had no leftovers. My 3 eaters ate 2 sandwiches a piece.

In the past, my previous go-to Sloppy Joe recipe used a store-bought barbecue sauce as a shortcut. This recipe has some extra steps and ingredients that aren’t fussy and totally worth the time investment.

As directed, I prepared the pickled red onions a couple hours early. I was pleased to deglaze the meat with only 1/4 cup bourbon. This was enough of the bourbon flavor without overpowering everything else. I skipped the final addition bourbon

The resulting sandwich with the pickled red onions is a fully developed and balanced sandwich, bite after bite. Grated Cheddar is a yummy topping. Personally, I would prefer sliced avocado to cheese.

This is one of those meals that you have to encourage your eager eaters to slow down and savor because before you know it, its gone!

These “adult” sloppy Joes were sooooo good. The bourbon adds a nice kick and adding the pickled onions and Cheddar really pushes this recipe over the edge.

Don’t leave off the pickled onions—they’re a breeze to make and really elevate this recipe. I served these on slider buns with sweet potato fries. Don’t forget to put out forks! Even though this is an adult recipe, they are still “sloppy” Joes!

I don’t remember having sloppy joes as a child more than a couple of times, but what I do remember is commercials for Manwich. I am not so refined as to turn up my nose at canned meat, but I am positive this recipe for bourbon sloppy joes is better and worth the effort. I was pleasantly surprised by how flavorful it was. The added bourbon made it feel slightly more adult, while adding a sweetness to the rich sauce.

I was expecting the sandwich to fall apart halfway through eating it and being reduced to finish the rest with a fork, but I was able to eat the sandwich with only a few drips here and there.

My boyfriend tried one lightly toasted and one untoasted bun and determined the toasting was an essential step to contain the drippy sandwich. Further research found that a more heavily toasted bun added even more structural integrity

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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Recipe Rating


  1. 5 stars
    Pinned this as soon as I saw it. I used white sharp cheddar and already had some onions pickled in the fridge. This summer I decided I needed to have onions ready all the time.
    Toasted buns add crunch, so good, husband very happy. Thanks

  2. 5 stars
    OMG, awesome! this brings sloppy joes to a whole new (sophisticated) level! Absolutely love this recipe. I had to make some substitutions based on my Pandemic Pantry stock—whiskey instead of bourbon; coriander ground spice instead of seeds; dry mustard powder instead of mustard seeds; and yellow onions instead of red. The recipe was flexible and forgiving enough that it still came out amazing even with my needing to punt on some of the ingredients. Thanks so much for another incredible LC recipe.

  3. 5 stars
    This is excellent! The flavors are just different enough so you know you aren’t eating the usual sloppy joes.