Loose Meat Sandwiches

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Packed with seasonings like brown sugar, soy sauce, garlic powder, and apple cider vinegar, these loose meat sandwiches with tender onion pieces are full of flavor and so easy to make for supper. Take them to the next level by serving them on Hawaiian sweet rolls.

Two things I love: economical ground beef recipes and easy weeknight suppers. Well, this easy loose meat sandwich recipe ticks both boxes! Also called a tavern sandwich, it’s a Midwestern specialty that originated at Maid-Rite in Iowa. They’re THE sandwich to try in Iowa (and the most popular item on the Maid-Rite menu), so today we’re making homemade loose meat sandwiches.

When I say this recipe is quick and easy, I mean it. All we have to do is cook the ground beef, onion, and seasonings in a large skillet until the meat is cooked and the sauce has thickened. They’ll be ready to serve in under 30 minutes. 

Now, let’s take a moment to talk about the seasonings because they make ground beef so deliciously tasty and full of flavor. They include garlic powder, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, a combination of chicken and beef stock, seasoned salt, and pepper. As the sauce cooks down, all of these different flavors soak into the ground beef for the tastiest loose meat sandwiches ever!

Meat sandwiches are always a hit in my house if you love this one make sure you try Easy Sloppy Joes, Pimento Cheese Sandwich, Steak Sandwiches, Club Sandwich or Italian Beef Sandwiches

A lil’ housekeeping

Before we dive in, a couple of housekeeping notes. Firstly, it’s very important you use lean ground beef as you will regret using regular beef when you realize how greasy it makes these puppies in the end. Secondly, this recipe isn’t complete without a packet of Hawaiian sweet rolls. They’re the absolute perfect vessel for our loose meat sandwiches. Trust me, it is very important that you use Hawaiian sweet rolls for this. If you use a regular hamburger bun, it’s going to fall to pieces and be a big old mess. Plus it won’t have that flavor in the bun that these rolls have.

Keep reading for lots of topping and serving suggestions.

Labeled ingredients for loose meat sandwiches.

Recipe Ingredients

  • Garlic powder
  • Brown sugar
  • Onion
  • Worcestershire sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • LEAN ground beef
  • Apple cider vinegar
  • Seasoned salt
  • Black pepper
  • Chicken and beef bouillon cubes (or a cup of beef or chicken broth instead) 
  • Hawaiian sweet rolls

Helpful Kitchen Tools

How To Make Loose Meat Sandwiches

Add chopped onions and beef to skillet.

I know, my onions are not chopped fine but this is about as far as I get before my brain is ready to move on to the next step. Finely chopped is a relative phrase.

Then add onions and beef to a large skillet.

Add water or broth to skillet.

Pour in water or if you are using chicken broth and beef broth, pour that in here now.

Start combining ground beef and water in skillet.

Now start mixing up the ground beef with the water.

You’ll notice that with the added water the ground beef gets really, really fine. That is what we want.

This is how we make hot dog chili and it is perfect for this meat as well. You’re going to end up with very fine granules of tender beef and the water cooks out.

Continue cooking until beef no longer pink.

You want to put that over medium-high heat and cook it until the meat is done and there is no more pinkness.

It will get done pretty quickly in this case because all of that water is cooking it at the same time the heat is.

Add remaining ingredients to skillet.

Now add everything else.

Cooked loose meat ready for sandwiches.

Return this to the stovetop and stir it really, really well.

Cook over medium to medium-high heat, stirring often until the liquid cooks down as pictured below. This part may take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes.

Just find something to read and hang out around the stove. Or even better, let your kids do this part while you go put your feet up.

Cooked loose meat.

This is our finished loose meat, all ready for sandwiches.

Strain loose meat and place on roll.

Assemble your loose meat sandwich

Using a slotted spoon, strain out some of the meat and press it into a pile on top of the center of a cut Hawaiian sweet roll.

Add salt and pepper to taste.

Add condiments like mustard to loose meat sandwiches.

Add the toppings of your choice (lots of options below). I’m opting for mustard…

Loose meat sandwiches surrounded by pickle slices.

But they also taste so good with pickles.

Loose meat sandwiches on plate with potato chips.

Then I say you should serve them with a side of potato chips.

Lots of loose meat sandwiches.



  • If you happen to not eat all your meat, simply store it in the fridge for up to three days. Then when you would like some, heat it up in the microwave or add it to a skillet with a splash of water. This will warm it up and prevent the meat from burning.
  • Go right ahead and freeze any of the ground beef you don’t eat right away. It will freeze for up to three months in the freezer. You can freeze the meat in a freezer bag or airtight container that is freezer-friendly.

Recipe Notes

  • I have gotten away from using bouillion cubes to keep salt levels low and substituted them with beef and chicken broth. I find these give the meat even more flavor. But use whatever you feel comfortable with.   
  • Feel free to use yellow onion, white onion, or even green onion.

Recipe FAQs

A loose meat sandwich or tavern sandwich includes seasoned ground beef sauteed with onions served on a bun and topped with condiments such as dill pickles, ketchup, mustard, and cheese.

A loose meat sandwich can be called a variety of names, depending on where in the Midwest you are. This includes the aforementioned tavern sandwich, a Maid-Rite after its birthplace, a Nu-Way, a Steamer, a Big T, or a loose hamburger sandwich. 

Does this recipe double?

Grab a larger pan and go right ahead and double, triple, or even quadruple the recipe. This is a great ground beef recipe to serve up for birthday parties, family gatherings, and more.

What do you eat with loose meat sandwiches?

Okay, there are endless ways to serve your loose meat sandwich, so here are just some serving suggestions:

  • These loose meat burgers are absolutely sublime when topped with ketchup, mustard, and pickles.
  • But use your favorite condiment, whether that’s ketchup, barbecue sauce, hot sauce, or mayonnaise.
  • My husband insists that purity is best and has them as they are, nothing added, just on the roll.
  • Add your favorite burger toppings: red onion, tomato slices, lettuce, crispy bacon, and American cheese. 
  • Serve them as a main dish with a side, like mac and cheese, roasted sweet potato wedges, onion rings, or parmesan oven fries.
  • Add a side salad. They’d also taste great with my burger slaw or coleslaw on the side.

Can I use ground turkey to replace ground beef?

If you want a leaner loose meat sandwich recipe, opt for ground chicken or turkey. It will of course change the flavor a bit, but it will still be just as delicious as the beef.

What is the difference between a loose meat sandwich and a sloppy joe?

The biggest difference between these two sandwiches is that the latter is known for its tomato-based sauce. Loose meat sandwiches are meat without sauce. But both recipes are just as messy as each other!

This loose meat sandwich recipe is one of those recipes you just have to try.

Lots of loose meat sandwiches.

Loose Meat Sandwiches

Packed with seasonings, these easy loose meat sandwiches with onion are full of flavor. Don't forget to serve them on Hawaiian sweet rolls.
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 25 minutes
Course: Snack
Cuisine: American
Keyword: beef, groundbeef, sandwich
Servings: 24 little sandwiches
Calories: 1196kcal


  • 3 pounds lean ground beef
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 whole onion, finely chopped
  • 1.5 tsp seasoned salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon pepper
  • 2 teaspoons garlic powder
  • 3 to 4 cups water eliminate this step if you are using broth
  • 2 beef bouillon cubes or two cups of broth
  • 2 chicken bouillon cubes or two cups of broth


  • Put beef and onion in a large skillet along with water. Chop up beef really really fine while bringing it to a low boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring and chopping often, until no longer pink.
    3 pounds lean ground beef, 3 to 4 cups water, 1 whole onion, finely chopped
  • Add everything else and continue lightly boiling, stirring often, until water is cooked down and the ground beef mixture gets thick.
    2 tablespoons cider vinegar, 2 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 1.5 tsp seasoned salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, 2 teaspoons garlic powder, 2 beef bouillon cubes, 2 chicken bouillon cubes
  • Strain beef out and press small mounds of beef onto cut Hawaiian sweet rolls. Top with your choice of condiments. Mustard is highly recommended.


Now we use a lot of beef here for 4 servings but consider that one serving is two sandwiches like we have pictured. The amount of beef and serving size has caused a lot of ruckus in the comments so I wanted to clear it up here!


Calories: 1196kcal
Tried this recipe?Mention @southernplate or tag #southernplate!



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  1. I saw a food show where they went to a restaurant in Iowa and had one of these sandwiches. Made me want to get in the car and drive there that minute. Now I don’t have to! This is going on my grocery list today!

    1. Original loose meat burger diner is in Ottumwa, Iowa, in an alley, got there thru a parking garage, was sure we were in the wrong place. We were doing some shopping for antiques in What Cheer, Iowa, staying in Ottumwa and visiting surrounding area, went on line to find a place to eat and followed directions to this wonderful canteen in the alley. Walking in front door, horse-shaped counter with stools, seats about 12 – 14 people, cooking burger meat right there in front of you, served in a sandwich paper (no plate) did provide a spoon, served on a bun, loose meat (no additives), catsup, mustard, melted cheddar cheese spread and dill pickles. There were four of us and we were expecting a restaurant, but was enjoying the best burger we had ever had within 5 minutes of stepping in the door!! This little place opened in about 1924 or 34, was on Food Network in about 2008 (?) Has been wrote up by every major paper, visitors from all over the place. I came home and have made this several times. Use 94% lean beef, use velveeta. My 7 year old grand daughter loves slopping joes, but has decided looe meat is just as good!

  2. Hmm…I’m usually not a fan of “loose meat” but I AM a fan of Krystal!!! So I may just have to give these a try 🙂

    I’ll take mine with mustard and pickles 🙂

  3. I am SO excited to try this! And I love reading your posts….it is just like having a conversation with a real person. Does that even make sense??
    I will have to look for Accent (I have bouillon).
    Excited to share!

  4. What about cheese? would you put cheese on them…. if so what kind? (american, cheddar, swiss …. you get the idea.)

      1. As a child, this was the all-time favorite meal in the cafeteria. We called them School Boys! I know weird name, not my invention. With so many children not caring for onions, they were chopped, put in water with beef boullion, cooked, then added onion-fused water back to the meat. A cafeteria worker shared recipe, long after her retirement. I eat one with more meat on the side. Love these need to make some now!

        1. I had these on my school lunch tray in the school cafeteria in elementary school. It was everyone’s favorite including mine. In Md.(Vs.& D.C.) it would be called “The BEEF Burger” nd came with corn and Taylor tots. Delicious. I don’t remember onion being cooked in it cuz alot of kids wouldn’t of ate it .

          1. For a class reunion, we decided to duplicate foods from the school cafeteria’s for hour first night. Almost every recipe I found for school boy sandwiches had ground bread in it.

      2. Original Maid-Rite also used 1/2 cup of root beer. Later on some other locations started using Coke in place of root beer. Fred Angell, the inventor, would never allow ketchup on his burgers. Just mustard and pickle.
        The root beer could be used with the Worcestershire to soak overnight or used in the cooking process.

          1. Original sandwiches were made of only bull meat because it was cheaper and was the most lean. The leaner the better to make the good ones! Right now 93/7 makes the best today.

        1. My daughter worked in a Maid-Rite in the early 1990’s, I helped her open several times. There are NO spices in a Maid-Rite, Just hamburger and water that is on a steam table and cooks slowly for hours. The hamburger meat is moved around until it is of a finer consistency.
          I, too, heard that root beer was originally used.

    1. 5 stars
      I was born and raised in NW Missouri on the Iowa line. Our big treat was Maid-Rite. They were really good, but not nearly as good as these. I’ve made this a half dozen times and followed the Recipe as written. Hawaiian rolls make them even better…I make a 3lb batch we have a meal on them then freeze the rest and I swear they are better after being frozen for a few weeks.

    2. I live in Greenville, Ohio….our Maid-Rite sandwich shop is famous and it’s not unusual to wait in a LONG LINE at the drive through. It’s nothing like this recipe. They are made with very lean ground meat – meat is steamed with water and seasonings on a hot grill. Often imitated, never perfected. Served on a steamed bun with chopped onion, pickle and mustard if you get it with everything. Add a slice of deli ham to this and you have a Big Jim. If you visit, feel free to put your chewed gum on the outside wall, the building is covered with chewed gum and famous for it! Google or Youtube it.

      Your recipe sounds interesting and Im going to try it.

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