Loose Meat Sandwiches

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!

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

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’ve been trying to recreate a childhood favorite, the Beef-n-Burger as sold at the Peoples Drug Store lunch counter in the Washington, DC, area. Someone suggested it was a form of loose meat sandwich. I followed your recipe and added some tomato paste and lots of Mt. Olive Dill relish. This was quite delicious and not a bad imitation Beef-n-Burger.


  2. What is the tool called that you use to break up the ground beef? And where can I buy one? I’ve looked in several stores with no luck.

  3. I am SO HAPPY I found your page! My grandmother made something so similar she called “Juicy Lucy”, I have been looking for the recipe for years. This is as close as I have ever found and felt like I had a little part of her back as I was eating these. Thank you 🙂

    Hers were *slightly* sweeter, I think the next time I will add another tablespoon of brown sugar or a splash of molasses. Over all this was the comfort food of my childhood.

  4. I made these for supper tonight and they were really good. I had regular kaiser rolls to put them on. I put the ketchup and mustard out on the table but we didn’t put anything on them. They were great all on their own. Looking forward to the leftovers! Hopefully it’ll be like chili, it gets even better as it sits and the flavors meld together!

  5. I grew up in Northern Missouri and I’ve eaten Maid-Rites many times and I’ve made yours three times. In terms of comparisons, the Hawaiian rolls alone win the contest, then add your ingrediates and yours are hands down the best…..love these little suckers. I froze the last batch and thawed it out, cooked it up tonight and they were fantastic. In someways I think the flavor is better after a month or so of freezing.

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