Update Your Sloppy Joe

Tempted by Tempeh

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

You likely have a memory of eating Sloppy Joes from your childhood. It might even be a fave comfort food. Like it or not, the dish has survived for decades – versions of Sloppy Joe “loose meat sandwiches” have been around since at least the 1930s.

This recipe updates the Sloppy Joe for 2024 with a combination of tempeh, beans, and nuts to make it “meaty” along with classic tangy flavors. You won’t miss the beef. Make it even better by serving it in homemade Potato-Onion Burger buns, a recipe I recently updated.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Need an intro to tempeh? An article, “Tempeh is More than a Versatile Superfood, It’s Also a Way of Life,” drew me in to the temptations of tempeh. Author Lara Lee writes that it’s a go-to protein source in Indonesia, where it was first made, around the 1800s, and is consumed to the tune of 7 kilograms per person per year (1).

Tempeh didn’t come to the United States until the 1940s and didn’t gain mainstream popularity until the plant-based eating trend took off. The number of American companies making tempeh grew from 13 to 53 between 1979 and 1984 (2) and the market is predicted to grow (4). 

The process of making tempeh calls for fermenting cooked soybeans with the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus. It’s usually made with soybeans, but other beans may be used along with rice, other grains and flavorings (1,2).

Fermentation gives tempeh a stronger taste than tofu, sometimes called earthy or nutty, but it accepts other flavors well and, lends a substantial meaty texture to dishes. It can be softened by steaming, cubed for stir-frying, mixed into veggie burgers, tacos, and meatloaves, or cut into planks, pan-fried, and topped with a sauce such as barbecue sauce or chimichurri (3). You’ll even find recipes for tempeh “bacon”.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

Considered a nutritional powerhouse, tempeh’s nutrient value of tempeh varies slightly with the ingredients used to make it. This product, made with organic soybeans, brown rice, barley, and millet supplies (per 3 ounce serving): 19 grams of protein, 10 grams of dietary fiber, 0 sodium and 8 grams of fat. It is an excellent source of fiber and iron and a good source of calcium and potassium.

Some tout tempeh’s B12 content which is produced during fermentation, but a B12 handout from the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group or the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics say that it is not a biologically active form of B12 for humans(5).

Look for tempeh in refrigerated section of the grocery store with tofu. Many brands are pasteurized and ready-to-eat or cook. If you buy unpasteurized tempeh, it must be cooked before eating.

I got curious about how this “loose meat” comfort food got the name Sloppy Joe and found a few versions of the story.  

One comes from the Sloppy Joe Bar in Key West, Florida (6) which opened in 1933 when Prohibition was repealed. It underwent a couple of name changes before patron Ernest Hemmingway suggested a name that stuck, Sloppy Joe’s.

Hemmingway borrowed the name from a place he had frequented in Havana, Cuba that sold booze and seafood. That bar got the name Sloppy Joe’s because the floor was always wet and sloppy from melting ice. The owner, José, served a Sloppy Joe-like loose meat sandwich with beef and tomatoes, perhaps an interpretation of Cuban picadillo or ropa vieja.

A different origin story says that the Sloppy Joe was created by an Iowan cook named Joe in the 1930s. It became a Midwestern specialty prized to stretch ground meat by adding other ingredients and serving it in a bun or sandwich (7).

Making Sloppy Joe’s got easier in 1969 when ConAgra Foods and Hunt’s started selling canned Sloppy Joe sauce and promoted it’s use as a hearty ”Manwich.” (7). The Sloppy Joe became even more familiar to Americans when it became a school cafeteria lunch entree, probably because kids would eat it, it was considered nutritious and easy to make in large batches.

Take a fresh approach to the Sloppy Joe of your past. Start with tempeh, hearty beans, nuts, and add zesty seasonings.

Sloppy Joes (Plant-Based)

Serves 4

8 ounces tempeh, coarsely chopped

1 cup chopped, toasted walnuts (See Tips)

1 cup cooked red kidney or cranberry beans

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, divided

1 ½ teaspoons dried thyme

½ teaspoon smoked paprika

1 teaspoon ground black pepper, more to taste

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped


2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 tablespoon sweet paprika

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 can (15-ounce) tomato sauce

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1 ½ tablespoons packed brown sugar

4 Potato-Onion or other burger buns or 8 thick slices of rustic bread


Arugula, shredded cabbage, or other greens (See Tips)

  1. In bowl of food processor combine tempeh, nuts, beans, 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, thyme, smoked paprika and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Pulse until chopped to small pieces that resemble crumbled meat. Set aside.
  2. Swirl 2 tablespoons oil into a large, deep nonstick skillet and place over medium heat. Add onion and sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring often, until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, sweet paprika and crushed red pepper.  Add another tablespoon of oil and tempeh mixture. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes to brown. Add tomato sauce, vinegar, 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar.
  3. Cover, bring to a gentle simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes for flavors to blend. Adjust seasoning to your taste. If needed, add a few tablespoons of water to loosen consistency. Remove from the heat and set aside, partially covered, to stay warm.
  4. While mixture simmers warm buns in a moderate oven or toast bread. Split buns in half. Brush buns or bread slices with 1 tablespoon olive oil. 
  5. Serve warm sloppy joe mixture on buns and top with arugula or other greens.


  • To toast walnuts, spread on a baking sheet and roast in a 350°F oven for 5-8 minutes or until toasted.
  • If you like, toss arugula or other greens with a splash of vinegar, olive oil and a pinch of salt before serving on Sloppy Joe sandwiches.


  1. Tempeh is More than a Versatile Superfood, It’s Also a Way of Life. Lara Lee. June 4, 2021. Bon Appetit.
  2. What Is Tempeh? Tempeh Nutrition and Benefits. Lisa Humphreys. December 4, 2023. United Soybean Board .
  3. What is Tempeh? America’s Test Kitchen.
  4. Persistence Market Research. Tempeh Market.
  5. Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. B12.
  6. History of Sloppy Joe’s. sloppyjoes.com. https://sloppyjoes.com/history/
  7. Sloppy Joe History: The Origins of this Iconic Comfort Food October 26, 2021. Blueapron.com. 

© Lorelle Del Matto 2024

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


  1. If only we grew up with school lunches like this!
    Fantastic Lorelle
    Thank you

Speak Your Mind