Hearty, handheld, and loaded with protein, the sloppy joe should be one of the greatest culinary creations in all of American history. It’s too bad the typical home cook doesn’t treat it as such. When the prep work starts with a can opener, the final product tends to look like something you’d plop into Fido’s dog bowl and taste like the BPA-lined can it came in. So we enlisted Francis Derby, executive chef of The Cannibal in New York City, to help us craft a joe that includes rich, meaty beef short ribs, plus ketchup, Coca-Cola, and beer. First step: Buy more napkins.

1. BEFRIEND A BUTCHER

 

Ground beef is fine. But beef short ribs are better, says Derby. “They add a texture that offsets the softness of the bun—almost like pulled pork.” Start with 2 1/2 pounds of bone-in short ribs, enough for about 14 joes. And remember: Marbled meat provides maximum flavor.

2. SIZZLE THE MEAT

Season the beef with salt and pepper. In a Dutch oven or large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 1 Tbsp vegetable oil on medium high. When the oil is hot, add the beef, working in batches if necessary, and brown on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the seared meat to a paper-towel-lined plate. Preheat the oven to 325°F.

Quick tip: Pick up all the pieces.
Before adding the spices, scrape up the bits of browned meat sticking to the pot. They’ll add deep, savory flavor to the joes.

3. LAY A FLAVOR FOUNDATION

Think of sloppy joes as chili: They should be earthy but also bright and spicy—not palate-scorching. For the best flavor, you’ll need heat, sweet, spice, and smoke. So in the vessel you used to cook the beef, add 2 thinly sliced medium Spanish onions and 5 minced garlic cloves. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are translucent, 3 to 5 minutes. Add 1 1/2 Tbsp smoked paprika, 1 1/2 tsp chili powder, and 1/2 tsp each of cumin and coriander. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of tomato paste and stir until slightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.

4. LEVERAGE LIQUID

Slow, moist heat helps break down connective tissues, resulting in supremely tender beef. And a tangy base infuses the ribs with even more flavor. Add the following to the pot: 1/2 cup Coca-Cola (for sweetness), 1/2 cup brown ale (for nutty bitterness), 1/2 cup ketchup (for tanginess and a hint of acidity), and 1/4 cup soy sauce (for that salty, savory quality). Cook till thickened, 3 to 4 minutes, and then add the beef back to the pot, followed by 2 cups of chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, put a lid on the pot, and transfer it all to the oven. Cook until the meat falls off the bone, about 3 hours.

Superior side: Stir up a slaw. 
As the meat cooks, whip up some coleslaw. Combine 1 head shredded cabbage, 1 cup mayo, 1/2 cup whole grain mustard, 2 Tbsp Dijon, 1 1/2 Tbsp cider vinegar, and 1 Tbsp each of sugar, salt, pepper, and celery seed; toss. Let the slaw rest 30 minutes. Makes 9 cups.

5. START SHREDDING

Using tongs, transfer your short ribs to a cutting board. Shred the meat with two forks and throw away the bones. Then skim and discard any fat from the cooking liquid. Add the meat back to the pot and simmer until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

6. SERVE THE SLOP

Derby’s sloppy joe buns of choice are Martin’s potato rolls. For extra chew, toast the buns open-faced on a sheet pan under a broiler for about a minute, or until golden brown. Then scoop 1/2 cup of the meat mixture onto each bun. Serve with coleslaw. And hey, grab yourself a beer. You deserve one.